Past Activities


In 2007, the collective members of CAAS sponsored a year-long speakers series at the University of Tennessee. Funded by $15,000 in grants from the UT Haines Morris Endowment fund, the Hodges Better English Fund, the Department of English’s Literature Speakers Series, and the School of Art’s Speakers Series, CAAS hosted senior-level and junior-level speakers throughout the academic year.


For its 2006-8 academic years, CAAS organized all of its meetings around one central investigative question that served as the basis of a year-long, working-group project: “Arts in Dialogue: Relational Aesthetics.” In his influential theoretical work Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du réel, 2002), Nicolas Bourriaud writes, “The possibility of a relational art (an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space), points to a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art” (14). Contemporary art within all arts disciplines worries the divide between art and audience, artist and viewer, active writer and passive reader. The post-1960s arts, and the theories that sometimes drive them, often seek to overcome alienation of both author and audience and create new forms of art that are active, interactive, populist, and politically charged. They explore the notion of dialogue rather than mastery: dialogue between artist and audience, between form and content, between arts and other arts. Doing so, they raise important questions about the ethics of artistic creation and how (and if) the arts can create new horizons of perception for their audiences. “Arts in Dialogue” thus encompasses interactivity within digital arts, “distributive aesthetics” of public performance art, gallery art that transgresses boundaries between viewer and artwork, interactive theater, spoken word art and poetry that incorporates vernacular forms, and hypertext forms of narrative—as well as the dialogue inherent in mixed-media art forms. During the two academic years 2006-8, CAAS explored new trends, movements, aesthetics, and debates in various arts fields that address this approach to “Arts in Dialogue.” Referencing the logic of “relational aesthetics,” we explored how interrelationality, dialogue, and multimodality is configured as a central concern of contemporary arts.

Readings for 2007-8:

  • Nicolas Bourriaud, from Relational Aesthetics
  • Lisa Gye, Anna Munster, and Ingrid Richardson, “Distributed Aesthetics”
  • Darren Tofts, “& beyond: anticipating distributed aesthetics”
  • Gary Saul Morson, “Essential Narrative: Tempics and the Return of Process”
  • Essays by Melissa C. Nash; Rosemary Garland Thomson; Carrie Sandhal and Philip Auslander in Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance
  • Christopher Nealon, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism” and sample poems by Joshua Clover
  • Karl F. Morrison, selections from “I am You”: The Hermeneutics of Empathy in Western Literature, Theology, and Art
  • Jill Bennett, selection from Empathetic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art
  • ArtForum Special issue on Jacques Ranciere, with article by Ranciere

Readings for 2006-2007:

  • Eve Sedgwick, from Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity
  • John Guillory, “Literary Study and the Modern System of the Disciplines”
  • Michael Carter, from Where Writing Begins: A Postmodern Reconstruction
  • Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, from The Production of Presence
  • Jed Perl, “Formalism and Its Discontents: A Theory of How the Art World Went to Hell”
  • Marianne Hirsch, “What’s Wrong with These Terms? A Conversation with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Diana Taylor”
  • Joy Williams, “The Last Generation”
  • John Barth, “The Literature of Exhaustion”
  • James Wood, from The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel
  • R.M. Berry, “The Avant-garde and the Question of Literature”
  • Roundtable discussion, “The Predicament of ContemporaryArt,” from Art Since 1900
  • Geoff King, from American Independent Cinema
  • Thomas Schatz, from Film Theory Goes to the Movies
  • Alexander G. Weheliye, from Phonograpies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity


During the 2005-6 academic year, CAAS investigated the question “Periodizing the Contemporary: Challenges and Opportunities.”

At mid-twentieth century, a central question preoccupying literary and cultural criticism was “What is postmodernism?” For nearly twenty years, this question produced heated debate, but at the turn of the century–with the end of the Cold War, the dismantling of British colonialism, the rise of digital technologies, and the change in the nature of capitalist economies—the question of “postmodernism” became more and more academic in the mundane sense. At the same time, contemporary arts studies fractured into myriad subgroups and affiliations. A quick review of monographs and articles published in the most prominent journals of contemporary studies reveals this fracturing of interests: while study of the contemporary arts seems to be mushrooming into a majoritarian concern of the academy, publication about the contemporary arts is increasingly splintered into ever-more-focused academic specializations with their own journals, their own conferences, and their own aesthetic criteria and canons. It is time for those in contemporary studies to ask global questions about what the field comprises in the twenty-first century. Some questions we need to ask include the following:

  • What do we mean by “contemporary” in contemporary studies? What do we gain by periodizing the present in arts studies?
  • How can one do a history of the present with any validity? Why is study of the present so appealing to academics across disciplines? What draws us to the contemporary as a subject?
  • What arts are unique to the contemporary period, and why? What would an aesthetics of the contemporary—on a par with the aesthetics of modernism–look like?
  • How do the aesthetics of contemporary arts in different disciplinary contexts overlap and correspond? (The relation between written and plastic arts and digital arts? rhetoric and art? Aesthetics and art?)
  • What is the relation between art and the world in the twenty-first century?
  • What is the relation between “the contemporary” and the modern, or the post-modern, or the pre-modern, as periodizing concepts? Are the older categories obsolete, and if so, why?
  • Are older political and aesthetic categories of artistic production—e.g., “avant-garde”—relevant to the contemporary period, and if not, why?
  • What unique (ideological, social, philosophical, aesthetic) paradigms construct the contemporary against those of previous periods?
  • Do the splintered factions within contemporary arts studies have things in common? Is the fracturing of the contemporary field real, or an effect produced by market forces? What discourses overlap, perhaps in ways unknown to the different constituencies involved? Who is reinventing the wheel and why? In what ways is separation and specialization good, and in what ways does it prevent the contemporary from assuming a presence such as that now occupied by modernism?
  • Is there any specialized training needed to teach the contemporary arts, in the way that specialized knowledge is needed to teach pre-twentieth-century periods? What constitutes disciplinary knowledge and expertise in the field of contemporary studies?

These questions need to be asked and debated, as we are increasingly asked to justify, or at least cogitate upon, why as humanities scholars we do what we do. In addition, the historical moment is right to reopen meta-critical questions of this type: with the “death of theory,” an opening has been created for a re-evaluation of all aspects of arts study. This, combined with the relative absence in journals and monographs of meta-critical perspectives on studying “the contemporary,” indicates that the time is ripe for such questions.