goto Appendx main menu "So much is there . . .
and so much . . .
is lacking" : Eric Rosenberg
text | 1 | 2 | 3 | notes
previous page 

Van Rensselaer had articulated similar interests as early as 1881. Writing about the New York painter William Merritt Chase, she maintained: 
    All works of art have, of course, an intrinsic value; but they have also a relative value greatly dependent upon the time and place of their production [my emphasis]. Merely to settle the rank of any given picture as good or bad painting it is but necessary to know the canvas itself. We are not concerned with the when and how of its creation, or with the nature and circumstances of the man who created it: its pure technics are alone under examination. But this is not half of what we understand by a complete judgment on a picture, still less by a complete estimate of any painter's work as a whole. To form such an estimate we must consider his art as a factor in the local progress of civilization; we must examine what were all his surroundings when he created it, and especially, what was the general state of art at the time. 10
Van Rensselaer's two-pronged conception of value takes into account metonymic explication that assumes and justifies the importance of context, the historical value of inherent, embedded signs particular to the object in question, especially in reference to quality, and the extent to which both avenues of analysis take part in some kind of relativist dialogue that must recognize its own contingent nature. Compare the above with recent attempts to describe the place of context in the practice of the history of art,11  the ways in which the "new" art history has theorized a broadly based notion of meaning making in relation not only to conditions of production but their inherent, systemic, and discursive interests. Similarities will be legion. 

Van Rensselaer's call for a reconsideration or reconfiguration of the materials of history also arguably masks another level in the attempt to loosen the restrictions arising from gender and class privileges. For van Rensselaer, formalism itself must be gendered as male because its language is secured by and for a world of practices from Appendx 3 page break 111  | 112which she is by her own admission excluded (it almost goes without saying then that form itself must be assumed to be male, as opposed to the "lack" or absence of form embodied by woman).12  The writer wants a history whose practice might allow a space for her own contribution. Such personal interests are inseparable from her recognition of their broader social base or framework, are virtually unrecognizable without that framework, without some knowledge of the conditions of production and general history of men. At the same time, almost certainly subconsciously, she wants a history defined as much by lack as by its fulfillment or elision by form. That is the point of believing in a history that is incomplete and fragmentary, incapable of totalization. Such a deconstructive history is precisely the history and critical practice defined by and about lack, its omnipresence and cognizance of the contributions of historical figures other than wealthy, privileged, mobile—upwardly and outwardly—men. 

Discussing a particular example, van Rensselaer spells it out: 

    So much is there in short, and so much else is lacking, that one who reads it and who knows from other evidence how similarly, yet how differently, the author would do the work to-day, cannot but wish with a very earnest longing that the book might to-day again be written. We should then, I feel very sure, have just the book we want. 
The author's belief in history as revisionist is made plain and, as previously stated, dialectical; the fragmentary truth followed by quick denial: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Thus, despite the seeming randomness of a phrase like "in short," this is in fact the key moment in the first sentence. So much is implied, is made pregnant by the practice of history, and yet that material is always "in short." It is this latter quality that ensures for van Rensselaer the inevitability of revision, dialectic, refutation. The constant, identified by the signifier "in short," determines the variable, signified by the term "lacking." 

Should we be reluctant, however, to credit van Rensselaer with a deconstructive turn of mind, we might still allow for the extent to which her assumptions about historical practice, the conditions of production, are born of dialogue or confrontation with a perceived totalizing attitude toward the place of architecture in a national psyche or gestalt: Appendx 3 page break 112  | 113 

    I have never met a European, either face to face or in the pages of a book, who, if he cared enough for architecture to think about it at all, was willing to give up the claims of his own country to the highest place on the list of its creators. (And if, by the way, Mr. Ruskin should be cited as an exception, it will only be because, artistically speaking, he has expatriated himself and transferred to the art of Italy that affection which his fellow countrymen give to the art of England.) 
Recognition of such problems must require a perspective on historical work that can respond critically in appraisal of such situations. Thus 
    when I speak of historical and critical writing, it is not such a confession as this that I expect or wish for—it is merely such breadth of view and catholicity of taste as should acknowledge excellence wherever found and explain its character truly, and should confess defects wherever seen and define their bearing frankly. But even so I have never, either in person or through print, made acquaintance with any European man who seemed to me to be or to have been able to write such a general history or to lay down such a broad and just system of appraisement as we greatly need. 
Of course it would strain credulity and perhaps color as irrational any claims for her gender and expertise to push the above argument too far, so it is followed by a qualification: 
    Saving and excepting only one. Saving and excepting only Professor Freeman. I believe he could do it and do it easily if he chose, for he has every qualification the task demands. He was born with a dual endowment not often given—with the historical instinct and with the aesthetic sense; and moreover with the sympathetic eye which enables him to bring them both to bear together, each for the helping and enlightening of the other. His patriotism, though no one's is stronger, does not militate against his keen interest in other lands or his just appreciation of foreign excellence and home defects. And I need hardly add that he has an encyclopaedic fund of knowledge to draw upon. His fitness for such a task as I refer to has been proved already by numberless detached essays and also by an actual general history of architecture. Appendx 3 page break 113  | 114
Van Rensselaer cites the work of Edward Augustus Freeman, and most particularly his History of Architecture, published in London in 1849.13  It is a youthful work, as she will go on to point out, but one that manifests qualities she deems necessary to the practice: an interest in both historical and aesthetic concerns and how they merge, and elide each other; a check on nationalistic tendencies, and the ability to exploit the extent to which that check allows for some perspective on notions of otherness; an encyclopedic fund of knowledge, with stress perhaps, given her closing encomium, on fund; and of course his standing as a man. Freeman is, however, the exception that proves the rule. He is singular, but as van Rensselaer continues, "though [his general history of architecture] exists, it by no means meets our crying need."14 

"Crying need" is an interesting phrase; a figure of speech certainly, but one that in this context further identifies the extent to which van Rensselaer's desire emerges from an unrequited feminine space. In fact one might argue that van Rensselaer unavoidably reproduces the stereotypical form of the nineteenth-century woman seeking to transcend her normal social expectations, that is, the hysterical woman. In this way she anticipates the reception of a male-dominated world to her prescriptions. They will call her fugitive, hysterical, and irrational, and thus the proximity of the title of her article, its superimposition of criminality on the practice as she writes it from her own forms of desire. 

If the ability of a woman to secure the position of architectural historian is for the moment out of the question—produces an unfulfilled "crying need"—and Europe cannot produce, or has not produced the required historian, then some sense of larger American identity as historian, as new repository of history, as history maker, must obtain and describe an opportunity van Rensselaer might still vicariously partake in: 

    We have already done so much to prove ourselves, as a race, possessed of the historian's instinct, the power of aesthetic appraisement, was not wholly left out of the clay when the mother-of-nations moulded her youngest child. There is no reason to believe that an American hand could not write just such a history of architecture in general and just such special histories of national architectural development as we want; and there is every reason to believe that, if such a hand does not do it, none other will. Is it not a work which might well be taken as his life's work by some one of those who are now devoting themselves to the service of this greatest of the arts? Is it not a work almost, if not quite, as well worth Appendx 3 page break 114  | 115doing as even the production of good structures for our present use— likely to be as helpful to the general course of American architecture through the enlightenment it would give, not only to the nascent generation of its professors, but to that great outer public upon whose taste and knowledge the progress of the art is so vitally dependent? 
The penchant for historical and critical writing desired by van Rensselaer and that she forecast for American historical and critical practice might even constitute in and of itself a marginally feminized state, other to the energies and identities that produce the structures and the unified, closed rationale of excellence expected of the architectural practice itself. The ultimate architectural history could even be written by the empowered woman, given a shift in the conditions of production. 

The project, however, is not without its own tendencies toward nationalism and imperialism. A phrase like "just such special histories of national architectural development as we want" smacks of a penchant for colonialism that van Rensselaer or any American theorist of her class could hardly resist, whatever her simultaneous sense of personal deprivation. It may very well be that the mention of Freeman in and of itself was the result of competing nationalist voices.15 

Van Rensselaer's interests are in conflict; she embodies the dialectic that drives her aspirations for the field. She can see or imagine its needs, but cannot enact their fulfillment. As the endeavor is closed to women, and only described as possible for one particular English historian/critic, it falls back to a male architect,16  in the American version of the project, to produce the work of architectural criticism and history. This is another allegation of the delimitations of the field of historical practice, the extent to which it is in fact hermetically sealed, and the sign we must recognize as signifying the extent to which van Rensselaer's terms are not entirely our own, do not ultimately approximate the current climate of critical theory and historicism, but at the very least instantiate some sense of aspiration and vision for the future. Thus again the irony of the article's title: "Wanted: A History of Architecture." As if the goal had some fugitive quality to it; as if van Rensselaer's own attempt to fulfill the promise of such a call might constitute a criminal act, for the very reasons she cannot in the end participate in a material, dialectical, but also complete and essential form. 
the end Eric Rosenberg  

text | 1 | 2 | 3 | notes
appendx inc.©1997