Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction


The Truth in Painting (1987)

In 1905 Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist, Emile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” One can immediately imagine how Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would have seized upon such a statement with its promise of “truth” “in painting,” two dubious precepts. Derrida would be compelled to deconstruct such a proposition. Despite its name, the Deconstruction that is associated with Derrida is not an act of destruction or a breaking up, instead Deconstruction, like Structuralism is an activity or performance. Deconstruction is reading, a textual labor, traversing the body of a text, leaving “a track in the text.” Unlike other forms of critical analysis, deconstruction cannot happen from the outside but, as Derrida stated, “Deconstruction is something that happens and happens from the inside.” As he stated to an audience of academics at Villanova in 1994 (in English),

The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things–texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need–do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they are always more than any mission could impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy..A “meaning” or a “mission” is a way to contain and compact things, like a nutshell, gathering them into a unity, whereas deconstruction bends all its efforts to stretch beyond these boundaries, to transgress these confines, to interrupt and disjoint all such gatherings.Whatever it runs up against a limit, deconstruction presses against. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might say that cracking nutshells is what decontsructrucion is. In a nutshell.

Deconstruction does not appeal to a higher logical principle or superior reason, something which Derrida considered to be metaphysical. His goal was to upsets the system of hidden hierarchies that composed philosophy by producing an exchange of properties. His major target was the hierarchy between speech and writing, in which speech was presumed to have preceded writing, this giving to speech a (false) priority and the (false) presumption of origin. In inverting the hierarchies embedded in paired opposites, Derrida insisted neither element can occupy the position of origin (such as speech over writing) and the origin looses its metaphysical privilege, which is why he insisted on deconstructing the Structuralist system of polarities and oppositions. He pointed out that the pairs, far from being equal or balanced, were, in fact, hierarchized, with one term being preferred (culturally) over the other. If this is the case, if “good” is preferred over “bad”, then the meanings of each/both term/s are interdependent. If the terms are interdependent, then they cannot be separated or polarized. If the terms cannot be separated or opposed in any final way, then their meanings are also interdependent and inseparable. This logical march which deconstructs

Structuralism began with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was concerned with the problem of transcendence, the objectivity of objects, and their existence outside of temporal consciousness. In other words, the object had to be a form of knowledge of the object itself, not the mental acts which cognitively construct it. Phenomenological reflection suspends or “brackets” the question of existence and privileges the experience-of-object, which is the “object to be described” and this privileging means that the identity of the object must be ideal. But Derrida did not believe that Husserl’s transcendental acts of pure perception existed or that such states of purity could exist. Husserl posited an absolute ideal of objectivity, geometry, in order to differentiate between subjective and objective structures. Derrida asserted that Husserl “lodged” objectivity within subjectivity or self-presence, and that if this is the case, then the self must differentiate itself from the object and thus, Husserl introduces the idea of difference.

Derrida charged that Husserl created a structure of alterity or the otherness of the meaning or self. Living presence, according to Derrida, is always inhabited by difference. To express this differently, so to speak, difference creates an endlessly deferred meaning as the self and the object oscillate, unable to fix a position. By deconstructing Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida relocated his philosophy as writing. Without this “fixing” of a position, then a transcendental position is impossible, for if Derrida is correct and Husserl is merely writing, then yet another metaphysical account of the mystical thing in itself is revealed to be a figurative fiction. To the dismay of traditionalists, Postmodernism robs us of the fantasy of certainty. If we can never be certain, we can never know the truth. In contrast, the “close reading” of the Structuralists, that sought to find “unity,” gives way to a new close reading–Deconstruction–that seeks the “uncanny”–a Freudian term–that works against the bounds of the text. “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar…” said Freud, referring to something that is repressed but recurs, responding to deeper laws, which for Deconstruction is that which is hidden in the text.

Deconstruction intervenes in philosophical texts, seeking what is not acknowledged, and intercedes in the field of oppositions and their hierarchies and works within the terms of the system in order to break open the structure and to breach its boundaries to determine what might have been concealed or excluded, or repressed. To deconstruct a discourse is to show it undermines the authority of philosophy and reveals its literary/rhetorical aspects. In identifying the rhetorical oppositions that structure the ground of the argument Deconstruction deconstructs philosophy as language, as writing. In The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida interrogated Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) by introducing the concept of the passé-partout or what Americans refer to as the mat that encircles the painting or print or photograph, i. e. the work of art. He wrote,

Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout. The passe-partout which here creates an event must not pass for a master key.

Using the concepts of inside/outside and the idea of betweenness, Derrida was led to the next obvious question: “What is art? Then: Where does it come from ? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art?” The modern meaning of art must begin with Kant’s third Critique which was then commented upon by Georg Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818-1829), who, in turn was over-writen by Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (written 1935-7, published 1950/60) and Derrida also used Kantian the concept of the “parergon” to question the supposed autonomy of art and its relation to various discourses, such as history and philosophy, which seek to preserve its autonomy. The parergon is the frame, the boundary between the art work (ergon) and its background and context, and in surrounding the painting, the frame guarantee its musical/metaphysical autonomy as “art.” Kant rejected the boundary-conditions and prevented the invasion of art’s privileged domain by assuming a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, or that which is proper to the domain of art and that which is outside the properties of art itself.

Kant introduced the metaphor of framing in an attempt to delimit a proper space of aesthetic representation, but in so doing, Kant perceived a problem, an undecidability in some seemingly marginal details that could not be detached without altering or upsetting the composition. For example, what is intrinsic to a sculpture with drapery? Should the body be considered as autonomous, that is self-sufficient without the drapery, or is the drapery intrinsic to the work of art itself? Decorative outwork was perceived of as part of art’s intrinsic quality, such as clothing on statues, which is not part of the essential form, and architectural details that are purely functional but that cannot be excluded from the overall artistic impression. Therefore for Kant, the parergon is a hybrid of inside and outside, frame, clothing, column, and there is no deciding what is intrinsic to artwork and what belongs to the outside frame. From the standpoint of Deconstruction, this “Framing” discourse is the chief concern of aesthetics which legitimizes its own existence by fixing a boundary between art and other modes of knowledge, including history and theory. “Art” becomes “art” through boundaries that exclude its other. Clearly, this notion of “frame” and the idea of “boundary” are both figural constructs hidden in plain sight within the discourse of aesthetics.

The frame is another variation of the Structure. Rhetorical figures, such as the “frame” in art, exist within discourse for a reason. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What is at stake?” why is the frame/the structure necessary? In asking why it is necessary to place art within s structure, to produce boundaries to validate “art,” he then demystified the notion of aesthetics as disinterested value. Aesthetics in “interested” in the sense that it defines and therefore produces “art” via these framing devices. The frame must be present in order to structure and the purpose of structurality is to both contain art within and exclude all that is deemed non-art. In the case of art, that which is “not art” is excluded in order to shape and form “art” as an entity that is transcendent. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What particular interests are served by aesthetics”? Contrary to the notion of a discourse that assumes art gives access to the realm of timeless and disinterestedness values, any discourse on art is always and inevitably bound up with interests that belong to the outside (of art).

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Edmund Husserl and Philosophy

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859 – 1938)

It is the dead date of Edmund Husserl that is of great interest. The fact that the philosopher died in the year 1938 speaks volumes of, not just his fate, but the history of the reception of his work. Like the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, Husserl was a Jewish scholar in Hitler’s Germany and was all but doomed. Unlike the theoreticians at the Institute for Social Research, Husserl apparently made no attempt to leave his homeland. The fact that Husserl and his wife, the daughter of a renowned Jewish scholar, had converted to Christianity mattered little to the Nazis who were obsessed with “blood.” Exclusionary laws passed between 1933 and 1937 pushed Jews out of public life and Husserl was pushed out of his home university at Freiberg by the very man he had mentored, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazi regime was but part of a general eagerness on the part of German intellectuals to make a “Faustian bargain,” as it were with Der Führer. As Robert P. Ericksen wrote in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany,

the Nazi regime actually found enthusiastic support in German universities during the transition of 1933, from students and faculty alike, and Nazis were effective in weeding out Jews and left-wing critics, thoroughly and without mercy. For the rest of the Nazi period, the atmosphere at German universities seems to have been one of enthusiastic support for the new regime and its politics, rather than resistance or criticism.

For what appear to be historical reasons—the interruption of the free flow of philosophical ideas and writing from Germany during the ten year period of the Third Reich—there was a delay in the reception of the philosophy of Husserl. But one must consider also the fact that the thought of Husserl evolved: from a focus on mathematics to logic to psychology, until after decades of deep and complex meditations on the ontology and then on the epistemology of things, he settled on phenomenology as a means to explicate the foundation of reality. Husserl considered his approach to phenomenon as being akin to the transcendentalism of Kant, with whom he found an affinity, and, in his desire to transcend to a universality for a firmly grounded philosophy, he was also akin to Georg Hegel in his absolutism. Husserl’s longing to construct a philosophy of universality began in earnest after the Great War, a war that killed one son and wounded another. He translated his sentiments into a scientific approach to the problem of who we encounter or perceive objects. By rejecting situational interpretations, Husserl attempted to eliminate relativity. The Nazis also despised relativity, but they interpreted the philosopher as being inclusive, which is somewhat different from universal. In the end it was an epistemological system of the universal that was facing a racist ideology of purity and superiority, and, given that his earlier work was tainted with anti-war sentiments, Husserl was simply could not win such a contest.

As Dermont Moran relates in Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology, although Husserl was forbidden to publish in Germany, the elderly scholar continued an active lecture schedule and he continued to write until he fell ill and died. His former colleagues at his university refrained from attending his funeral, but those who admired his work, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gathered together his unpublished manuscripts, which were salvaged for publication throughout the 1950s. Thus Husserl’s oeuvre gradually became available in English in time to filter into American universities so that by the 1960s, graduate students, even those in the arts, could be come conversant with that aspect of his very varied writings with which the philosopher became most identified: phenomenology. And, in turn, phenomenology provided the language for the artists and critics associated with the Minimalist art movement, who were seeking to provide a philosophical framework for reductive shapes which aspired for “objecthood.” Although there is much in Husserl’s thought that seems to relate to the New York art world, from the materialistic formalism of Clement Greenberg and his followers to the very antithesis of Greenbergian formalism, Minimal Art, it is well to remember that Husserl was not translated into English until the 1960s and 1970s and any art world knowledge of his work would have been second hand.

Husserl’s long search for an unshakable ground for philosophy came to fruition in 1907—the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage—when he gave a series of lectures which were developed later as The Idea of Phenomenology. True to his methodical nature, he was more of a note maker than a manuscript writer, Husserl’s follow up books, Ideen I and Ideen II, evolved slowly during and after the Great War. Although there were treasure troves of unpublished work, these are the seminal works for phenomenology. For Fernand de Saussure and for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the proper study of philosophy was language or Logos, which is fully expressed in speech. However, for Husserl the proper domain of philosophy was a special kind of seeing, called phenomenology or that which is based upon discernible phenomena. Given that this is a philosopher who was trained in mathematics and logic and who swerved towards a neo-Kantian perspective, it is clear that Husserl would examine the relationship between the human subject and the world of material culture or objects in the world.

Phenomenology begins of course, with the dialectical logic of Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and ends with Husserl who, many will argue, is the end point of Western philosophy. Given that Husserl regarded philosophy as a universal science and sought to uncover an absolute foundation of knowledge, phenomenology is the totality of human objectivity that creates a “transcendental subjectivity” or a universal ego. It is the human mind who not only recognizes the Other—objects, other people—but which also structures these experiences. This is where Husserl is in agreement with Kant but Husserl, the mathematician, the logician, must cordon off these experiences in such as a way to purify them so that these phenomena can truly be known.

A “phenomenon” is an entity as it appears to the unconscious. All being is being for consciousness. In other words, objects exist independently of consciousness. Kant insisted that, even if this were so, these objects were inaccessible except through mediation; but Husserl asserted that it was possible to recover lost origin by disclosing the (Kantian) constructive activity of consciousness. Although neither Friedrich Nietzsche nor Wittgenstein were interested in recovering lost origins, Husserl’s quest is for clarity and “complete clearness” in philosophy. He believed that phenomenology was a special kind of seeing that could be cultivated through an operation called “bracketing.” Bracketing in math is simply a way of setting off or aside a grouping of numbers with parentheses or square, curly or angled brackets. Bracketing is separating a set of numbers in order to act upon them in a certain manner. And thus is a phenomena can be set aside or apart or “bracketed” from its cultural surroundings, it can be “seen” in a more rigorous or universal or essential fashion. This “reduction” of surrounding noise is referred to by Husserl as an “eidetic” reduction that is capable of transcending the relativity of that which lies outside the brackets.

Possibly because of his disillusionment towards the War or more possibly due to his foundation in logic, Husserl was suspicious of early Twentieth Century pragmatism and its relativity. Worse than the turn towards relativity, Kantian “disinterest” had become fatally entangled with “naturalism” which extended knowledge of nature to the psychic processes as thought they, too, were natural objects. In other words, the natural attitude or reaction of humans was to impose their personal (relative) understandings or interpretations upon a circumstance or thing. These mis-directions that had been allowed in philosophy had caused a crisis that Husserl saw as solvable by a return to the ideal of rational certainty, pioneered by the Greeks. Like those philosophers of the nineteenth century, Husserl admired the Greeks and considered them the first Moderns because the Greeks, in contrast to the other cultures of their era, were able to disentangle themselves from the “mythico-religious” and to attend to the theoretical or philosophical aspects of life. To be sure that one would achieve clarity and rationality, one must take what Husserl called the Natural Standpoint or the phenomenological stance. What we experience from this stance is the “fact-world.” But we are then instructed to doubt this fact world, that is, we are asked to suspend “belief” and make more pure “judgments” about this world.

We bracket the object in this fact-world in that we take the object “out of action”, we “disconnect” ourselves from our “interest” in or knowledge of this object, and thus we detach ourselves from the object. From this attitude of Husserlian disinterestedness, we now possess a “unique form of consciousness.” We now see differently and what we see are the “essences” of things. Husserl calls the result of this “transcendentally reduced experience” to be the self-appearance, the self-exhibiting, the self-giveness of objects themselves. We are and have become directly aware of objects, not just their appearances but their thing-ness, their very existence. In other words, we have bracketed out that which is extrinsic to the object and become fully into its presence and reflect upon the way in which the object is present for the consciousness. Husserl was not so much concerned with the meaning of the objects as with their existence as evidence. Husserl considered himself as an “archaeologist” like Freud, but he did not excavate for meaning but for an origin–what the object is in existence: the being of the object. Rather than a unity, according to Husserl, consciousness then is a flow of realizations in experience of the object that allow the object to come into being for the subject.

Within this flow through a process of “unfolding” of layers or strata of consciousness, what is sought is the ‘foundedness” of the object . The result of the stance of phenomenology would be a “rigorous disengagement” and ”systemic neutrality” towards phenomenon. Ultimately, Husserl’s influence expanded and the method of bracketing would hopefully achieve the certainty and clarity in philosophy that he desired. The philosopher was part of a larger group of philosophers concerned with the mechanisms of consciousness—not psychology—from Bergson to Merleau-Ponty. Thanks to their continued interest in his work, Husserl’s Ideas: General Introduction in Pure Phenomenology was eventually published in English in 1931 but the only work he considered as complete at his death, Die Krisis der eruopäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenoligie, delivered as lectures in 1935 and 1936, would not be published until 1954. Although, with hindsight, we can see Husserl as part of a larger phenomenon played out in the arts as the “new objectivity,” Husserl’s philosophy was, like the art of the Thirties, caught up in the rising tide of the next war. Like many creators of his generation, Husserl would have to wait for a new generation, emerging after the Second World War, to appreciate his ideas. Until then, the world would be propelled into catastrophe by belief systems and ideology that shaped a destructive force in Nazi Germany, which resulted in one of the greatest brain drains in modern times as scholars fled to America.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Defining Minimal Art, Part One


Part One

“Installation Art” is an all-inclusive term encompassing performance art and public and and art exhibitions in which the objects and the way they are displayed are dependent upon the particular space and the presence of the audience. Installation art is called site specific art, meaning that that site or that place is the only site where the object/s can be shown. Once the object/s is removed from the site, the object ceases to exist. Because it exists only for the viewer and has no life or purpose or meaning without the spectator, installation art raises real questions as to the status of a work of art. Installation art, by Modernist definitions of “art,” cannot be “fine art.”

An installation is a temporary arrangement of objects in a space, usually a museum or gallery room. An installation can also be mounted outside of the domains of the White Cube, in the open environment, far away from the art world. Like performance art, installation art was largely a product of the years following the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and, by extension, painting. A painting is an object that has been designated as “a work of art” and does not change over time and remains “art,” regardless if it is hung on a wall or stored in a warehouse. Installation art may include objects but it is the site itself that is significant, hence the term “site specific art.” These distinctions are profound because the line between object/not object is also the line between art/not art.

Like the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp, installation art subverted previously unquestioned definitions of art and with it the traditional way of writing about art. Modernist art criticism, meaning art writing focused on an object, was the dominant mode of art writing in the 1960s, with Clement Greenberg and his followers having a hegemonic or controlling position in New York. Formalist art writing or a concentration upon line, color, composition, form, texture, surface and so on, is completely dependent upon the autonomous and permanent art object and once this object ceases to exist in a timeless manner, formalism cannot function as a mode of analysis. At the precise peak of formalist art writing and the Modernist point of view, Neo-Dada and Pop Art and then Minimal Art emerged to challenge the previously unchallenged definition of art and of art writing practiced by Greenberg and his acolytes.

The term “Minimalism” was coined by the art writer, Richard Wollheim, and was fleshed out by Donald Judd in “Specific Objects,” 1965, Robert Morris in “Notes on Sculpture, Parts I and II,” 1967, the same year as the famous rebuttal essay by Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood.” A form of Installation Art, Minimal Art was referred to by critics as “ABC Art,” “Primary Structures,” or “Literalist Art.” Eventually the term “Minimal” stuck, referring to the work of several artists, all of whom had their own vision of the response to traditional sculpture and painting. The Minimalist painting is a flat object that hangs on the wall and is covered with paint, but there, any resemblance to Modernist painting ends. The Minimalist object is a three dimensional, existing as free-standing objects in an open space, but there, any resemblance to Modernist sculpture ends.

Emerging within and during the dominance of Modernism and its attendant mode of analysis, Formalism, Minimalism was at once the consummation of Modernism and a distinctive break with historic object-based aesthetic philosophy. Like Neo-Dada, Pop Art, and Fluxus, Minimalism was a direct rejection of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism which proposed the work of art as a sacred special object of a specific form of viewer contemplation made by an equally unique type of human being, the “artist.” Minimalism rejected the concept of the artist as an actor, as a specific personality with a signature touch. Minimalism was a rejection of Modernist aesthetics, stripping the object of any points of reference or meaning or physical attractiveness.

Minimalism was the product of university-educated artists. Unlike previous generations of artists who were largely self-taught or who had limited education, the artists of the late 1960s were products of intellectual institutions. These artists, who thought in terms of ideas rather than actions, were also writers who actively defended and explained their art, attempting to create and control the discourse on Minimalism. In contrast to Modernist art, which progressed from the history and tradition of Modern art, Minimalism emerged from non-art sources and entered into the art world with an oppositional frame of mind. For many Minimal artists, their installations and objects were connected to philosophy, not the aesthetics branch of art for art’s sake, but to the philosophy of phenomenology.

The next posts will go into more detail on the thinking of the leading philosopher, Edmund Husserl of phenomenology, but at this point it can be briefly said that phenomenology is an attempt to locate the grounds of knowledge in the phenomenon of perception: what do I actually see, rather than what do I know about what I am seeing? Pure perception forces the individual to observe the world or reality, stripped of it meaning. The action of “bracketing” knowledge to concentrate on pure vision resulted in the fabrication of a certain kind three dimensional forms—forms that are shorn of definition or history.

Minimalist artists attempted to create what Donald Judd called “Specific Objects.” Compared to a painting which always referred to the tradition of painting, or to sculpture which always referred to an object in the real world, a Minimalist object is a thing unto itself, or specific. In order to stress the stripped down, reductive aspects of seeing, the Minimalist artists created objects that did not refer to anything outside of itself. To further stress the impersonal nature of these objects, the artist’s touch was removed by sending concepts or plans to fabricators who were the actual makers. Donald Judd’s shapes were painted a dull and non-descript gray, as devoid as possible of any symbolic associations.

But why is the specific object also not a formalist object, a product of art of art’s sake? Because when Minimalist objects were presented in an installation format, the objects existed for the brief exhibition period, after which they were simply put in storage. Once in storage, a Minimal object could not be recognized as “art,” for it had been removed from an art context. In contrast, a painting by Helen Frankenthaler is always recognizable as a work of art: the painting carries its own self-contained art context. A Minimalist object (or objects) without its companions is not intended to function as an independent work of art. Ronald Bladen’s X was constructed in 1967 for a specific place, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D. C., but outside the site, the shape would lose its “art context” and would be problematic as “art.”

In contrast to the state of dependency of the Minimalist object, Modernist work of art is always independent of the viewer and of the exhibition context. Likewise the Minimalist installation is always a temporal arrangement, dependent upon the spectator. Installation art, for the Minimalists is always a site specific, a time-based event that, like an presentation in a theater, exists for the audience. The Specific Objects of a Minimalist installation are, like actors on a stage, “presences” which confront the spectator who is required to move among the three-dimensional shapes and encounter the objects. Rather than existing in that rarified mental space, called an “aesthetic experience,” the Minimalist experience is local and time-based, and always changes with the venue.

Theoretically untouched or unmade by the artist, the Minimalist object challenged the idea that “art” was unique, made by an art maker, beautiful and psychologically special, and attractive to look at. Although tethered to the legacy of Duchamp, Minimalism took the extra step suggested by the older artist—art is a language: before art is anything else, it is an idea and this idea can be expressed in words. Duchamp made this point with his elaborate visual-verbal plays but Minimalism based its precepts upon the rigors of analytic philosophy: art is a proposition.

When Minimalism became a known and recognized movement at the Jewish Museum in the Primary Structures exhibition in 1966, the art world perceived a shift had taken place—away from the personal painterliness of Abstract Expressionism and away from the celebration of trivial popular culture of Pop Art and towards a new philosophical seriousness. If the 1960s was anything else in the world of New York art, it was the decade of a very pertinent question: what is art?

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]