“A Critique of What Art Can Do”: Jennifer Nelson on Undoing Mastery

“I want the reader to leave my text feeling like they want to take what I did and run off and do their own thing with it, or alongside it. I want people to be intellectually moved. I think the only way to get there is if you surprise yourself.”

In this episode

In this episode, Sara Houghteling speaks with Jennifer Nelson, a poet and scholar of early modern art at the University of Delaware. Through the lens of their first book on Holbein, and a second, forthcoming, on Cranach, Nelson describes how comparative studies of elite cultural production can allow us to the see the category of art as capacious, and capable of dismantling our concept of mastery. They offer concrete advice on writing—from tone, to endings, clarity, and decisive punctuation—and speak about their own writerly process, in which ideas often manifest first in poetry and later in prose.


An associate professor of early modern art at the University of Delaware and the 2023–2024 Hilles Bush Fellow at Harvard Radcliffe Institute,  JenniferNelson works on the art and cultural production of early modern Europe and its outposts.  Their current book project, Border Arts of Early World Christendom, examines cultural production in Southeast Asia, New Spain, Southeast Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, and the Netherlands in the second half of the sixteenth-century. Nelson is also the author of Lucas Cranach: From German Myth to Reformation (Reaktion Press, 2024), which delivers a new account of a Renaissance master artist as a visual anchor and co-developer of emergent German and Lutheran communities. Their first book, Disharmony of the Spheres: The Europe of Holbein’s Ambassadors (Penn State, 2019), won the Historians of British Art Book Prize for a single-authored book with a subject before 1600. The author of three books of poetry (most recently Harm Eden [Ugly Duckling, 2021]), Nelson received their MFA in Poetry from New York University, while simultaneously completing their PhD in History of Art from Yale University. They also have an MA in History of Art and Visual Culture from the Courtauld Institute of Art and an BA in Literature with a Citation in Ancient Greek from Harvard College.    

This conversation was recorded on October 27, 2023.