Siraganian’s Sound Defense

Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life

While Associate Professor Lisa Siraganian’s first book, Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life, is receiving rave reviews, she isn’t certain what to think of this editorial comment on Amazon: “Siraganian writes like the best prosecuting attorney you could hope for–or fear.” Siraganian laughs while saying the comment makes clear that “readers are always making a ‘case’ about the meaning of a text.” She says that the case she is making in her book relies upon evidence that is just as strongly valued, judged, and debated as in any discipline.

Siraganian sees her work as a humanities scholar and teacher as attending to cultural phenomena that, for reasons of critical fashion, current paradigms, or cultural framework, are hard to see at the moment. Modernism’s Other Work reexamines “aesthetic autonomy,” the misunderstood 20th century modernist idea that an art object is detached from the messy social sphere, economic context, and politics of the world.

Her aim is to sway the jury to see modernism as a debate about the relevance of spectators or readers to a text’s meaning. “My point,” says Siraganian, “is that the question of an art object’s relation to the reader or viewer was developed in a very sophisticated way by certain American writers long before it appears in its most explicit form in debates about Minimalist, Performance, and Earthworks art in the 1960s and 70s, and these debates resonate in Queer, literary, and cultural studies to this day.

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