Examining humanity through an original mix of scholarship

Kaja Silverman’s home is in Penn’s Department of the History of Art, but through her career, her wide breadth of scholarship has included film, photography, art, psychoanalysis, literature and feminist theory.

Kaja Silverman research

Kaja Silverman’s home is in Penn’s Department of the History of Art, but through her career, her wide breadth of scholarship has included film, photography, art, psychoanalysis, literature and feminist theory.

For her significant contributions to the study of the humanities, Silverman, the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Professor of Art History, was recently awarded the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award. The $1.5 million prize will be used over six years in support of Silverman’s scholarship as a visual theorist. The prize is given to an individual whose past scholarship has had a creative effect on their chosen discipline and on students. It also recognizes work that has affected the thinking of scholars in other fields and work that promises to make significant new contributions to teaching and research.

Silverman is the author of eight books, including “World Spectators,” “Male Subjectivity at the Margins” and “Flesh of My Flesh,” published in 2009. She is currently working on a book about photography, titled “The Miracle of Analogy.”

“My work has never been interdisciplinary in the sense that I never had a discipline, but that I felt as if I could think within many disciplines and between them,” Silverman says. 

Many have noted that Silverman has made an enormous contribution to various fields. The art historian George Baker wrote in a February 2010 issue of Artforum, “It is a recurring experience: I am doing a studio visit, and there on the artist’s shelf is a book by Kaja Silverman.” And, on the announcement of the Mellon Award, Penn President Amy Gutmann echoed those sentiments by stating: “Kaja Silverman is one of the most influential humanists of our day, whose work in the history of art, and film and visual studies has contributed greatly to our nation’s intellectual life.”

Silverman, who came to Penn in June of 2010 from the University of California, Berkeley, has had an interest in photography for about a decade. In “The Miracle of Analogy,” she argues that the move to digital photography from analog is just another development of the form.

Silverman also says that new innovations that offered a sense of “promise and possibility” took hold in other disciplines like literature, philosophy and painting. When the innovations reemerged in photography over the last 20 or 30 years, they did so in the guise of photo-paintings. This new form—what Silverman calls pictorial photography—is a re-imagination of photography, she says.

“Certain assumptions were put in place after the industrialization of photography that I don’t think had anything to do with what photography really is,” Silverman says, “and they’re all being contested or overthrown by this new kind of photography, which is destined for the walls of museums in a way that earlier kinds of photography never were.”

Silverman says the German philosopher Walter Benjamin created many of these assumptions about photography—that photos are copies without an original, that they defy the singularity and authenticity of traditional art and that photography is not a museum practice. Benjamin, who fled from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, despaired about the way in which Hitler used photography and film as the vehicle for politicization. His essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” was hugely influential on the rhetoric about photography.

Some new work, she notes, contests that notion.“[These photographs are] actually creating a space for the conditions for a different viewing, a different kind of viewing.”

Starting next year, Silverman will organize a series of major conferences. The first, in 2012, will be in conjunction with an exhibition of work at the Institute of Contemporary Art from the abstract painter Charline Von Heyl. Silverman will hold a public conversation with Von Heyl (who will also be an artist-in-residence, funded by part of the Mellon Award), as well as a conference on painting. In 2013, Silverman will be organizing a conference with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s show “Dancing With Duchamp.”

“Everyone is very excited about this new chapter that we’re entering by virtue of the Mellon program,” Silverman says.

Originally published on May 19, 2011