U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Interview With Richard Cándida Smith

On the heels of my April review of Richard Cándida Smith’s The Modern Moves West, I wrote him with a few questions about the book—and beyond. Here goes:

1. Lacy: At first I thought this book might be derived from your dissertation. And the overlap of topics got me thinking about your friendship with Noah Purifoy. But then I noticed that your dissertation abstract makes no mention of Purifoy. What can you tell me about how the story for this book developed?

Cándida Smith: My dissertation was published in 1995 as Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California. That book had a quite different focus from the latest one The Modern Moves West: California Artists and Democratic Culture in the Twentieth Century. In the earlier book, I was concerned about how the development of aesthetic theory and practice in California provided an important resource (or repertory) for the discussion of broader social issues such as the cold war, the Vietnam War, racism, capital punishment, abortion, etc. The gist of the argument was that the ability of modernist aesthetics in California to bleed into broader social and political thinking grew out of the provincial nature of cultural life in the state, was a result of the weaknesses of the cultural scenes in California. That’s the argument in brief, and the book, which is 500 pages long (only 50 pages of the diss. were cut) develops the argument in a complex way along with presenting lots and lots of detailed empirical evidence needed to sustain the argument and present my own theories of how modernism arrived in California and how local innovation worked. None of the material in the new book is reproduced from the dissertation. Utopia and Dissent contains a discussion of the abstract painter Jay DeFeo. Working on those pages actually sparked my interest in studying her more deeply, which then led to three published articles and the sections of this new book dealing in much greater depth with her education and the development of her approach to the use of paint, which was simultaneously sculptural and philosophical.

In the drafts I developed for my dissertation, I had two chapters dealing with the African American arts and literary scenes in California during mid-century. I cut them out, along with a chapter on communist writers, for a variety of reasons,. Keeping the dissertation at a reasonable length was central. But also I came to the conclusion that the larger argument I was making in Utopia and Dissent was consistent with the experience of African American artists. I did not want to become repetitious. I removed that material for development later that would allow fuller exploration of particular careers. Some of this, but not much, resurfaced in the new book, and what did resurface was so completely rethought as to be effectively new. While I was working on my dissertation, I was directing an oral history project on African American artists in Los Angeles,. Fairly long interviews were conducted with maybe 20 artists. That was how I got to know Purifoy. I was pleased after Utopia and Dissentthat the artists I had met during that project pretty much to a man and woman felt that the book spoke to “their experience.” I did intend to return to this material but wasn’t sure exactly how.

The strands I had left behind for further investigation, after completing Utopia and Dissent, took shape as I became increasingly concerned with the tension between professionalism and access. Increasing institutionalization and professionalization was one of the end points for Utopia and Dissent. As artists and writers confronted the controversies exacted as their works being became socially relevant, a way to escape arrests, beatings, and lengthy court trials was to invoke professional autonomy, which as the first book argued increasingly became the first line of defense. The foundations of professional autonomy as a basis for a modern critical culture was one of the core topics of my second book, Mallarmé’s Children: Symbolism and the Renewal of Experience, which took as its starting point interactions between U.S. pragmatism and French symbolism, roughly 1880-1920. The new book continued the investigations of the previous two books while returning to California because it allowed for a close examination of core-periphery issues from what I hoped would be a fresh angle, eccentric only if one insists on mapping the questions along simple-minded political terms.

2. Lacy: The title of The Modern Moves West is mildly misleading. It seems to me that indigenous forms of modern art ~arose~ in California (Rodia, DeFeo, Purifoy), with some knowledge of history/contemporary trends, rather than any movement of NY/European/East Coast modern art to California. Would you agree? It seems that the California Modern is its own animal—or at least your work has done an excellent job of convincing me this is so.

Cándida Smith: As for the title, it is largely was intended as a play on words. To the degree that modern culture is an ideological structure with a set of epistemological assumptions, it can move from one place to another and in the process establishes core-periphery relationships with lasting consequences. So go the arguments of chapters one and two. Even if truly a fallacious idea, it has consequences, some positive for some people who discovered motivation to overcome isolation grounded in other factors besides ideology. However, if we have never, per Bruno Latour, been modern, or perhaps saying the same thing, we are always modern, then the impetus to establish institutional structures that can provide its members with predictable, replicable activities would be associated with the accumulation of surplus wealth (and not only capitalist accumulation), add to this an ideology of republican democracy, and you have a tension at the very center of California as a new society emerging out of the U.S. conquest of northern Mexico. Such are the arguments of the following chapters.

Inherent contradictions interest me because they spark innovation, though not necessarily of the kind that local boosters past and present imagine. I considered focusing primarily on institutional development, but that was less interesting, less human, less pertinent that focusing on people who literally had to claw their way to recognition, and what the different paths had to say about the relationship of professional and democratic values in California at different times. I focused on California not because it’s a particularly wonderful or uniquely special society, but because I had access to the sources, I knew the back stories, and the balance of contending forces struck me as close to ideal types, hence generalizations would have some, varying degree of overlap with other places.

In terms of your specific question, yes, knowledge of local work was more direct, more immediate, always more impactful than knowledge of work done elsewhere before roughly 1970. However, the sources I think are very clear that a very large number of the artists in the state worked with an eye towards the heritage that they wanted to join. Contemporary work produced elsewhere was seen very sporadically, usually in reproductions, occasionally in small exhibitions that did not necessarily represent well what was going on elsewhere. It is very difficult to say that artists after 1945 were responding to, much less in active dialogue with, say the New York School, that is say “abstract expressionism.” What is much clearer from the archival and other evidence, is that artists and their local critics saw each other’s work frequently and they believed that they were making an independent contribution to some putative western (trans-Atlantic), national, or even global civilization. The leading entrepreneurial figures, such as Lorser Feitelson, Grace McCann Morley, or Walter Hopps, staked their authority on having connections with the cultural center, which was more likely to be Paris than New York until 1960. Even Sam Rodia, the builder of the Watts Towers, uneducated as he was, described his work in terms of being part of the big picture of western civilization, which is part of what removes him from the folk art traditions found in several contemporaries in California who also turned their homes into environmental folies, like Romano Gabriel in Eureka or Grandma Prisbey in Simi Valley. I wanted to explore the subjective expressions of defining oneself as “peripheral.” Clearly, a thematized relationship to a putative center is needed to begin to express a peripheral identity, whether one thinks of being far from the center as a hidden strength or as a form of exile.

3. Lacy: I was surprised to see that, although Berkeley has a History of Art Department, your interaction with them on this project seems minimal. Is this a disciplinary issue (e.g. they don’t think a lot about intellectual history, or the history of philosophies of aesthetics)? Or is it something else?

Cándida Smith: When I was at the University of Michigan, I had a close relationship with the art history program there, indeed to the point of directing a dissertation that a student did on Betye Saar. At Berkeley, I have relatively frequent interaction with Margaretta Lovell, the Americanist in the history of art department., through our shared participation in Berkeley’s American studies program—where we both teach. Margaretta and I also participated in a material culture study group, and I learned a lot from her as I have tried to think through how objects articulate subjectivity. However, my deepest engagement with art history, one might say my training in art history, developed through oral history projects. While at UCLA, I worked in the oral history program and was responsible for the interviews done in art, literature, performance, etc. I did not do all the interviews myself, but I directed the interviewers in shaping interviews so they could add something new to the historical record and the conversation of scholars. That work led to a ten-year oral history project I did with Thomas Reese and Claire Lyons at the Getty Research Institute. We wanted to study the impact of the German immigration after the rise of Hitler on art history and museum practice in the United States and Britain. We interviewed around 75 people, all prominent art historians in the America, Britain, Germany, and Italy. We traced lineages of scholars based on descent from dissertation committee chairs in order to see how epistemological assumptions and methodologies changed over generations. The topics branched out somewhat, as they can, so at a certain point, archaeology replaced more painting and sculpture as a focus, as questions about how feminism and identity politics reshaped work done in the 1970s and after took on greater importance than the initial questions about competing national approaches to scholarship.

While I was writing the new book, I directed an oral history project on the history of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which turned 75 years old at the beginning of 2010. We interviewed 55 or so people for that project. I interviewed the curators myself, and my interviews were focused on art historical questions. That said, museum curators, while viewing themselves as art historians, seem to have radically different notions of what an art historian is than my academic colleagues do, or from what I had come to expect from interviewing four generations of academic art historians for the Getty project. The themes and the findings of the SFMOMA project, while not directly related to the new book, overlapped in many important ways. I found I could test assumptions I was forming while working on the book by exploring particular lines of questioning and relating them to other sources I found in the archives or in print. What I was hearing in the interviews encouraged me to strengthen some of the more tendentious arguments in The Modern Moves West. The interviews on SFMOMA are now accessible at this link. I wish the Getty interviews were on line too, but they can be read in the library of the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

I would not say there is an inherent tension between art history and intellectual history. As an intellectual historian, I am aware that we approach the history of a field differently than the practitioners of those fields do, but they are more likely to study and publish the history of their disciplines. And for very good reasons, they need to know where they came from and how that shapes what they do. Art historians have done considerable work on the history of their field and this undoubtedly shapes discussion of art itself, while those of us coming from intellectual or cultural history have different questions that we are asking. Parallel issues arise in the history of science, where historians of science and scientists exploring the history of their practice can bring dramatically divergent approaches to the history of a scientific field, which then leads to disagreements over the history of the basic science discussed. No doubt, I have disagreements with how the histories of both modern and contemporary art have been written—disagreements that I express directly in this book.

Nonetheless, those disagreements are secondary to the concerns that motivated me most deeply, which is how the relationship between democracy and expertise has developed, and how that affects how interpretations of our lives together and the problems we face are created and by whom and then disseminated and debated, and again by whom. The disciplinary questions are clearly a subset of that larger problematic and thus need to be treated as by products of larger structures of social relationships, as a means rather than a motivator.

Oral history has been a central part of how I’ve come to define my work. I entered intellectual history interested in the history of subjectivity, and oral history seemed to provide a necessary but strangely underused approach for getting at how conceptions of self, community, and alterity have developed over time in distinct communities. I’ve discussed oral culture as a distinct historical resource in several essays. I don’t want to do “oral history” books as it is a method, and there are already many excellent books on oral history methodology. I want to write books exploring problems that appear to me as important. What I’ve learned about the contrasting ways people express their complex relationships with each other in different communicative media has helped me arrive at more complex approaches to the subjects that interest me.

4. Lacy: How would you characterize your relationship to intellectual history, particularly its U.S. variety?

Cándida Smith: There are different ways of answering this. One way has to do with my involvement, which is more than casual, in oral history. A second part of the answer has to do with my early interest in history of subjectivity—that is discursive frameworks that communities provide their members for mapping relationships in and with the world. That has developed into concern for understanding institutions as the most important historical framework for the development of discursive communities. Institutional frameworks, which are not quite the same thing as disciplinary organizations, strike me as central to how all intellectual and cultural life operates, yet remain underexplored historically. A third part of the answer lies in my training at UCLA, particularly with Deborah Silverman. European intellectual history that focused on cultural and artistic movements was where I started as a historian, and certainly my first book was an effort to apply lessons I had learned from Silverman’s work on French fin-de-siècle aesthetic practices, as well as from Carl Schorske, Gerald Seigel, Peter Paret, Peter Stansky, and from many others who are well known in European intellectual history to a distinctively U.S. situation. My work has continued from there as I framed and reframed my questions. I continue to read a lot in European and Latin American literatures, as well as work done in the United States. Since my projects have been regional or trans-national, the nation as such strikes me as the best way to approach cultural and intellectual questions only in some cases. Every book requires its own framing, and part of the challenge of writing a book is to discover what the frame needs to be. The way I think about intellectual history must be running along a track that does not lead easily to national frames. A lot of work has been done on national cultures, so there should be plenty of room for work that focuses on regional experiences, as well as institutions that cross national boundaries.


I want to send a hearty thank you to Professor Richard Cándida Smith for indulging my questions. – TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You should feel free to delete the evidence now. 😉

    In any case, your interview has prodded me to go read the book. The one point where I have some specific knowledge to engage RCS’s comments here is on Jay DeFeo; it hadn’t occurred to me to read her arm’s-length relationship to the art establishment as specifically Californian, but I can see there’s a case to be made.

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