Saturday, July 5, 2014

Dead End: Why Art History is No Longer (and Perhaps Never Was) an Academic Discipline

When I decided to stop my adult life and return to college, I did so for many reasons, including widening my career options and a general desire to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. I chose the history of art and architecture as my undergraduate major and subsequent area of graduate research specifically to answer a number of immediate questions I harbored as a life-long artist. On social media not too long ago, I remarked that I deeply regretted that decision from a professional as well as intellectual standpoint, for, while I had diligently finished what I started and despite having satisfied my intellectual curiosity in regard to particular questions pertaining to art early on, I found the discipline dogmatic, constrained, and for all practical purposes exhausted (art history moreso than architectural history, although for all intents and purposes my dissertation was in urban planning history), and wished that I had taken a more general course of study such as history, urban policy and planning studies, languages and literatures, or philosophy. The grass may not be any greener in those disciplines, but after eleven years of mid-life college, I felt entitled to indulge briefly in a bit of buyer’s remorse (although one of my advisors regarded my remarks as a personal and permanent betrayal); in any case the lawns certainly seem wider. I am of the growing conviction that art history as an academic discipline is a completely exhausted field of study that for all intents and purposes could be hermetically sealed, requiring only a few caretakers to tend to the classified, archived, and salted away extant body of knowledge.

In one interdisciplinary conference I attended just prior to receiving my doctorate, it was claimed that what made art history an indispensable academic discipline was its unique emphasis on “visual analysis,” learning to describe objects verbally, and elicit increasingly probing questions about their facture and purpose, characterized as a vital and necessary skill in our increasingly mediated world. This I thought rather weak tea, a feeble rationale accounting for only a miniscule portion of the skills demanded by the field, and hardly justifying the immense energies expended on grasping theories, styles, and archives of key works (what used to be called canons). Besides, the same skills can be acquired in English 102 by describing a dried leaf, to say nothing of film or media studies. It is analogous to claiming that the study of the history of world religions is justified because after all we all can all use a quiet moment of prayerful meditation now and then in this stressful, frenzied world. In other words, on that score, there is nothing about the study of art history that is not shared by some other academic discipline.

Art history, as I have found it to be practiced, is a narrow and constricted discipline, an academic ghetto. Art history is to history, to paraphrase Mark Twain, what a lightning bug is to lightning. Although there are many histories and manifold interpretations thereof, there is only one art history, dogmatically dispensed and disciplinarily policed. The general narrative proceeds teleologically from the Venus of Willendorf and the caves of Lascaux to the Acropolis and the Sistine ceiling, ending with elephant dung paintings and a shark in a tank of formaldehyde. It is a story that, to say the least, does not have a happy ending.

Donald Simpson (American, b. 1961), Still Life with Bust of Venus de Milo from Pier One Imports, 2007. Charcoal on paper, 18" x 22". Collection of the artist.


Miss Helen Clay Frick, the American art historian and founder of the department in which I earned by BA, MA, and PhD in history of art and architecture, believed art history to have come to an end by the Civil War, or at least that there had been little art produced since that time worth serious study. The mid-nineteenth century date for the end of art history is not far from a general consensus among figures as diverse as Hegel and Hans Sedlmeyer, whom, for different reasons, regarded art as having disappeared some time since the middle ages. But one need not be an avowed anti-modernist like Miss Frick; the consensus even of modernists is that a certain tradition of art came to an end in the nineteenth century with the dawn of modernism. This admittedly loose periodization comports with a general view that in the nineteenth century, with the advent of the public art museum and the formation of the academic discipline of art history, art history itself, paradoxically, had come to an end. Art as it were having become historically conscious of itself by collecting and studying its own past, at the same was inherently incapable of collecting and judging the art of the present, or of adding any of it to art history, at least with the same authority. To claim certain works of living artists as of historical importance without the passage of time as proof of enduring value, it was clear, would have been to pick winners and losers with the imprimatur of history, a de facto illegitimate procedure. Museums and art history therefore created “museums of living artists,” quarantined holding tanks for new art, so that it could be viewed and appreciated by the public but also so that the final verdict of art history (inclusion in the encyclopedic museum) could be postponed at least until an artist’s death. Until then at least, the jury was considered still out. [1]

This self-imposed restriction on including living artists in the newly-forming encyclopedic art museum was short-lived, lasting little more than a generation or two; but it was sufficient time to create a permanent rupture in art history. Paradoxically, anti-modernist collectors such as Henry Clay Frick, his daughter, Samuel P. Huntington, and J. Pierpont Morgan, whose private collections became the founding permanent collections in a network of museums in the United States, essentially starved out a generation of traditional figurative painters by denying them commissions while sinking millions into Old Masters, antiques, and rare manuscripts. This perverse neglect, along with the inexorable conquest of photography, removed any incentive for artists to master such representational skills as perspective and anatomy. John White Alexander, a painter once as famous as Sargent, spent the final 15 years on a mural that, while on public view to this day, languishes in art historical obscurity: The Apotheosis of Pittsburgh, for the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. For this monumental masterpiece, Alexander received $175,000, a large sum for a living artist to be sure, but a mere pittance approximating the amount a Frick or a Morgan could easily spend on an Houdon bust or a Gobelin-manufactured piece of Louis XIV furniture, which they in fact bought by the carload, sometimes from each other.[2] Artists with representational skills and inclinations naturally migrated to where the money was: illustration and other forms of commercial art; galleries that served collectors and the museums they fed were surrendered to the avant-garde. With friends of traditional art like Frick and Morgan, who needed enemies? Anti-modernism produced its opposite, modernism, almost without any help. In any case, academic art history faced a choice: follow classically-trained figurative artists into new media (print) with its alien editorial-advertising model of patronage, or remain with the easel painters and the familiar system of galleries and collectors (and ultimately museum patrons). And the changing stylistic tastes? Progressivism.

By the mid-twentieth century, museums had gotten over their reluctance and began adding works of art from the late nineteenth century to the present into their collections and narratives, only somewhat belatedly incorporating modernism into art history. This work was all of a certain ideological character, namely progressive or avant garde work, and its inclusion was strictly on the basis of adding something to the constructed narrative of art history that had never been seen before, like adding newly discovered atoms to the table of elements. What is significant about this move, as Boris Groys has pointed out, is not so much what was added to the art historical narrative but what was excluded: works that were deemed visually repetitive in that they carried on traditional representational practices and/or were created for a popular audience or commercial purpose. Groys calls this the “museum taboo”: after the mid-nineteenth formation of the museum, new additions to art history cannot look like anything that has come before. A new work must be something apparently different, novel, that in some way expands the meaning of, or our understanding of, art. Art history is thus reduced to a chronology of scientific breakthroughs, or as Gabriel Tarde put it, “history above all is a record of inventions.”[3] But this is to make of art history nothing more than an inventory of neologisms compiled in a dictionary quite for their own sake, regardless of whether or not anyone ever puts these new expressions or idioms to use. Indeed, as Groys formulates it (although he does necessarily endorse this view), the museum taboo virtually prohibits artists from adopting the language or style of another artist.[4] Once it has been done, like the invention of penicillin, it cannot be repeated. But while penicillin is still manufactured and in use, who can possibly drip after Pollock?

If such a taboo of apparent repetition, of art not being allowed to “look” like previous art, were extended back in time, it would eliminate much of the art prior to modernism. The Renaissance, the Baroque, and neoclassicism, to say nothing of the classicizing tendency of later Bauhaus architecture, are all reiterations or reinterpretations of classical antiquity that on some level “look” like ancient art. To eliminate works such as Soufflot’s Ste. Geneviève, a work that consciously tried to “look” Greco-Roman, from the canon of works deemed worthy of art historical study would be to ignore how Soufflot sought to outdo the Greeks and Romans in terms of structural engineering and scale. In other words, there is always more going on in art than meets the eye, and the exclusion of decades of representational work from art history on the grounds that it “looks” like the art of the past is more than an irrational taboo; it is intellectual laziness.

But this is only one instance of the double-standard that pertains to art created since the advent of art history. Another example would be the grounds upon which commercial illustration has traditionally been excluded from the museum: because it was not created with the gallery wall in mind, but rather for reproduction on a printing press, and not for the delectation of an elite audience, but a broad public.[5] This denies the fact that Norman Rockwell, trained as a painter along with legitimate “gallery” artists of his generation and an assiduous museum-goer, certainly was acutely aware of the gallery wall at his easel, whether he was painting a Saturday Evening Post cover or a coffee advertisement, and nursed a barely-concealed ambition that at least some portion of his work would one day grace the gallery wall, while a great many artists of the past, such as icon painters, never had the least intention that their sacred works would ever be exhibited as purely aesthetic objects in a profanely secular space. Indeed, most modern and contemporary work that has been included in art history has the distinction of having been explicitly intended for the gallery wall. If works not so intended were to be expelled from art history, major museums around the world would have to deaccession much of their holdings and sit emptied and bereft of sizeable portions of their permanent collections.

There is no greater divide in art history than that marked by the rise of art history itself. Premodern art, the only kind thought valuable by Miss Frick, is held to an altogether different set of standards than art since the late nineteenth century, the kind of work that is implicitly subject to Groys’ museum taboo. From this view, premodern or what might be termed precritical art forms a sort of primordial unconscious to the more acutely self-conscious modern and contemporary period. Modern and contemporary art is nothing if not conscious (and critical) of itself and previous art history, positioning itself against the past or freely (and usually without a trace of cleverness) appropriating it. Anti-modernists like Frick saw art history coming to an end with the advent of modernism, while modern and contemporary theorists see art history beginning with the same moment of rupture.

For Arthur C. Danto, modernism and contemporaneity are the two eras surrounding “the end of art,” distinguished by their attitude toward the premodern art of the past. For Danto, modernism is characterized by celebrate “a repudiation of the art of the past,” while “Contemporary art, by contrast, has no brief against the art of the past, no sense that the past is something from which liberation must be won, no sense even that it is at all different as art from modern art generally. It is part of what defines contemporary art that the art of the past is available for such use as artists care to give it.”[6] To use a theological metaphor, modernism is the Old Testament and contemporaneity is the New Testament in a new dispensation that has transformed the current art history Master Narrative. Within this dogma slight denominational and doctrinal differences can occur, but no great deviations of dissent or heresy.

To return to the example of commercial illustration, art that persists in “looking” like the art of the past, e.g., representational art, is relegated to Visual Culture Studies, and art historians who chose a topic like the posters of Alphonse Mucha are not so much permitted to pursue such research as encumbered by the additional superfluous methodologies pertaining to visual culture. That art historians cannot simply consider such material as a part of art history with methodologies acquired by the study of premodern art demonstrates how the boundaries of the discipline are so thoroughly ideologically policed.[7]

The problem is not what is included in art history (the elephant dung paintings, the shark in the tank of formaldehyde) so much as what is excluded: mountains of creative visual material that do not suit a preordained set of ideological assumptions and scholarly methodologies. As Raymond Williams writes,

There is great danger in the assumption that art serves only on the frontiers of knowledge. It serves on those frontiers, particularly in disturbed and rapidly changing societies. Yet it serves, also, at the very center of societies. It is often through the art that the society expresses its sense of being a society. The artist, in this case, is not the lonely explorer, but the voice of his community. Even in our own complex society, certain artists seem near the center of common experience while others seem out on the frontiers, and it would be wrong to assume that this difference is the difference between ‘mediocre art’ and ‘great art.’

For Williams, the notion that “ creative’ equals ‘new’ […] is a really disabling idea, in that it forces the exclusion of a large amount of art which it is clearly our business to understand.”[8]

In such a case, as someone once said (I think it was Mark Kingwell), art history becomes little more than a chronological listing of works whose sole interest lies in the fact that at one time they were considered authentically modern. One has to explain to the undergraduate that Duchamps’ urinal or Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs was once cutting edge, and Andrew Loomis was not an “artist” because his work was published in magazines, all of which is dutifully noted without question (other than, “Is this going to be on the test?”).

A substantial survey in the journal Visual Resources entitled “The Crisis in Art History,” paints an even more dire picture. Patricia Mainardi notes, “the skewing of academic art history and museum exhibitions toward contemporary and away from historical art,” and that “The tail of contemporary art is now wagging the dog of art history,” resulting in a neglect of archival research in favor of superficial gallery-hopping. Pepe Karmel reports that “Quietly but rapidly, there has been a broad loss of interest in older art—meaning art made before 1980.” Both Mainardi and Karmel note the huge amounts of money and students gravitating toward the study contemporary art, to the neglect of “historical art” and its methodologies, resulting in the loss of a sense of history as well as tenured positions in pre-contemporary art, and a general  dilution and cheapening, if not dumbing down, of the discipline. Still, Karmel sees little choice but for the discipline to increasingly serve this growing market.

It seems likely that, in years to come, there will be more and more money available for the study of contemporary art, and less and less for the study of everything else,” but if art history does not service this market “another department will.” Still, Karmel argues forcefully that the study of contemporary art should be relegated to a certificate in which “There would be a capstone project requiring research and writing on a particular artist or movement. However, this would not be a doctoral dissertation, and the resulting degree would be a certificate in contemporary art, not a PhD. Such a degree would not qualify graduates to teach at a university level.[9]

But even if the field of art history were to eschew contemporary art for a return to hardcore “historical art,” it begs the question as to how it can be justified as an autonomous academic discipline.

In his early (1939) essay “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,” Erwin Panofsky describes the work of the art historian as a fusion of rational archeology and sensitive connoisseurship. Or as he puts it, “the art historian subjects his ‘material’ to a rational archaeological analysis […] but he constitutes his ‘material’ by means of an intuitive aesthetic re-creation,” rather like “a loquacious connoisseur.” In other words, the art historian “constitutes his object” of art historical study by first recognizing in it its “demand to be experienced aesthetically.”[10] (Panofsky recognized that every art historian may be limited in terms of aesthetic sensitivity by experience and “cultural equipment,” but that this can be broadened by erudition.) As an ideal, this is perfectly plausible—although no example is given to illustrate, one imagines an art historian going out into the world, digging up a find from a tomb or rummaging through an attic, and recognizing a work of art worth that both arrests her aesthetic sensibility and demands further documentary investigation.

However, even in 1939, when Panofsky was writing, it was becoming increasingly unlikely that many hitherto undifferentiated objects awaited in the natural world for art historians, uniquely qualified by virtue of their sensitivity and training, to come along and declare them works of art. This is even moreso in the twenty-first century, especially for the undergraduate student in a typical survey course, in which any objects or works to come under discussion have already been declared works of art by virtue of having hung in museums for decades or having been included in the latest contemporary art texts. The material of art history already comes pre-constituted, as it were, under what Jonathan Culler calls “the hyper-protected cooperative principle.” In simple communication, we assume that our interlocutors are trying to cooperate with us, that is, make sense, even if we don’t immediately understand their vocabulary or idiomatic phrasing. In the case of literary texts, especially obscure or difficult ones, the assumption is that they are worth study, if only by virtue of being on a course reading list.[11] When a work of art comes to us already in an art history textbook, a museum, or other consecrated artworld space such as an art fair, biennial, or remote location (e.g. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or James Turrell’s Roden Crater), Panofsky’s aesthetic recreation never comes into play; indeed, aesthetic sensitivity is not required at all. Art history is merely a form of archival (in the case of historic art) or gallery- or biennial-going (in the case of contemporary art) archeology.

This is crucial particularly in the area of contemporary art, where aesthetic criteria are not even a consideration, and the status of the work of art as such is beyond question. How is one to even know if the object differentiated from the natural word is even a work of art? The answer is one cannot, and the student who studies this area has no recourse but to simply accepting the dogma of their professors and their textbook materials. As Mark Kingwell writes, “Art is simply whatever the art world talks about.”[12] Under such dogma, the study of contemporary art operates not so much under a hyper-protected cooperative principle, but a hyper-protected conformity principle.

Like the evaporation of the American frontier in 1890, art history is a closed book.

[More on "The Crisis in Art History" here.]

[1] For the firewalling of living artists from Old Masters in a kind of farm-club system of museums in Paris in the nineteenth century, see Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (University of Chicago, 2009), pp. 39-40.
[2] On the mania for Old Masters and the formation of collections that served as the basis for several large public museums in the U.S., see Meryle Secrest, Duveen: A Life in Art (University of Chicago Press, 2004).
[3] Quoted in Jean-Philippe Antoine, “The History of the Contemporary is Now!” Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, ed. Alexander Dumbadze and Suzanne Hudson (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 32.
[4] On the “museum taboo,” see Boris Groys, “On the New,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 38 (Autumn 2000), pp. 5-17, reprinted with minor modifications in Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 23-42.
[5] On the unsuccessful campaign to persuade the Metropolitan Museum of Art to collect and exhibit illustration art, see Michele H. Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 43-47.
[6] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 5.
[7] See a previous blog post.
[8] Raymond Williams, “The Creative Mind,” The Long Revolution (Columbia University Press, 1961), pp.
[9] See Patricia Mainardi, “Art History: “Research that ‘Matters’”? (pp. 305-307) and Pepe Karmel, “Just What Is It That Makes Contemporary Art So Different, So Appealing?” (pp. 318-327) in Patricia Mainardi, “The Crisis in Art History,” Visual Resources, vol. 27, no. 4 (December 2011), pp. 303-343; quotes from pp. 305, 306, 320, 323, and 326.
[10] Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,” in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Doubleday Anchor, 1955), pp. 1-25; quotes from pp. 14, 20, 16 and 12, respectively.
[11] See Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 25-26.
[12] Mark Kingwell, “Art Will Eat Itself,” Harper’s (August 2003), pp. 80-85; quote p. 82.

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