July 3, 2006
I've just read a rather nice essay by art historian Thomas Crow (director of the Getty Research Institute) from the Spring 2006 edition of Dædalus. Entitled, simply, The practice of art history in America, it is a broad piece (meandering early on), but eminently readable.
Crow begins by tracing the history of the discipline of art history in America from its inception under medievalists such as Charles Rufus Morey and Arthur Kingsley Porter, through the the influx of Jewish, German and other European émigrés during WWII (such as Panofsky, Wittkower and Focillon) and the post-war explosion in the domains of both museums and higher education that offered the discipline so much room to grow.
However, the special circumstances of this mid-century American millieu, while providing for an impressive field of opportunity, also tended to encourage a relatively limited scope of inquiry (all typos mine):
But this climate of postwar optimism and opportunity did not at first alter the conservative tendencies of the American discipline. The first wave of European professors, as they stepped in to meet the demand for trained personnel, found their new American charges lacking the level of erudition they would have assumed in their European counterparts... Thus they tended to prune away many of the more complex and speculative elements of art history in favor of conceptually simple and often mechanical tasks: decoding iconography, tracing fragments of dispersed ensembles, identifying hands, dating. Ascertaining points of fact that European scholars—and other humanists in America—would regard as just the starting point for interpretation became sufficient justification for a successful research career...
...This pedagogically reduced version of European art history largely set the limits for the entire discipline in its postwar American translation. An inherited social conservatism thereby joined itself to a structurally generated intellectual conservatism, both reinforced by material rewards that could go well beyond comfortable salaries and tenure. (77)
It was only the eventual integration of the two primary models of research that allowed for renewal and advancement into a more richly interpretive domain:
The principal compensation for the paucity of explicit theorizing in art history had been an obsession with empirical discovery—of unknown drawings, variants, contracts, recorded iconographic programs, original locations of objects—that had inculcated in generations of art historians a strong set of skills in archival research. And a further latent strength lay in the equally undertheorized activity of connoisseurship, that is, the concentrated attention to objects in search of telltale clues to condition, authorship, and quality. What came to be called, in misleadingly reductive shorthand, 'the social history of art' succeeded to a significant extent by tapping this unique and underexploited combination of pursuits. the two halves of established art history—the mania for documentation and the cult of fine discrimination—had both represented a silencing of the demand for interpretation. But when these categories of analysis were put back together, they were to spark a collective release of pent-up energy and a recovery of lost time. (80)
Stepping back a few years, enter into Crow's tale the dashing figure of Meyer Schapiro—medievalist, modernist and Marxist—who did more than anyone, in this telling, to lay the groundwork for the Americans' expanded purview, relying on the interplay of the traditional archive-oriented deep research with the new sensibilities made available through modern art and the New Criticism-influenced approach to it championed by the likes of Alfred Barr:
The dominant approaches in the American art history of his time tended toward the amassing and cataloguing of ever more examples in a given category of object with the aim of establishing something like a statistical norm for the type... Projects of this kind were for all intents and purposes boundless, endlessly postponing the interpretative challenge posed by any single work.
Schapiro [in his studies of Romanesque art] adopted a diametrically opposed method, advancing the hypothesis that the most productive cases for art-historical inquiry will involve objects that constitute disruptive exceptions against the matrix of related works that surround them... instead of proceeding from the preponderance of examples that are most alike and defining everything else as peripheral or exceptional, he began by analyzing what happens when the reassuring regularities of form break down, so as to posit the operations of a larger signifying system from virtually a single instance.
In this wager, everything rested on what the most searching internal analysis of that chosen object could yield: bringing to light the fissures, discrepancies, and contradictions on which the exceptional artist had to impose some resolution, all without repressing the fractious heterogeneity of the concepts and techniques with which he was enjoined to work A viewing intelligence schooled in the intricacies of Picasso and Braque's Cubism could come to the task with the requisite acumen. Schapiro's articles of the late 1930s advanced the art history of the Middle Ages by more than a generation—it remains an open question whether the discipline has yet caught up with his example.
When he turned to the genesis of modernism, Schapiro reversed this maneuver, bringing to bear the medievalist's preoccupation with decoding obscure symbolic subject matter—what art historians designate as iconography in a technical sense. To the degree that the realists and impressionists of mid-nineteeth-century Paris set aside overt literary and mythological content, modernism had been assumed by both its admirers and detractors to lack significant subject matter: its motifs were deemed to be little more than pretexts for experiments in optical vividness or emancipated color, line, shape, and physical gesture. Schapiro's contrary contention was that the artistic avant-garde was advancing another systematic account of subjectivity to replace the outmoded 'official beliefs' of established religion and state power. (81–2)
Schapiro's challenge to business as usual wasn't to blossom until decades later, though, when French structuralism and semiotics, along with British cultural studies and neo-Marxist social history, began to be synthesized States-side with the native faculties of the local discipline. (Crow highlights T. J. Clark and Michael Baxandall in particular as examples of recent art historians who have carried Schapiro's banner forward.) When this revitalization did come to fruition, it provided for an newly ambitious art history, characterized by "an engagement with the material intricacies of its physical objects of study that surpassed anything that the postwar establishment had ever contemplated" (85).
The history laid out thus far offers something of an object lesson in the manner in which new tools and sensitivities, forged in the present, are capable of being redeployed in the service of amplifying the voices of objects from the past ("survivors" he calls them, or "time travelers"—Meyer Schapiro may be the hero of Crow's tale, but George Kubler is his spirit guide). And it is precisely these tools and sensitivities, developed in the crucible of the history of the field and often enough unique to it, that form the backbone of the enterprise:
Attention to these strong forces of renewal within the discipline can serve to disqualify a common assumption that helpful outsiders from other disciplines, observing the weakness of postwar art history, have stepped in to give the field its new energy and place at the broad humanities table. Any palpable benefits have largely accrued to the career profiles of these outsiders, not to the positive gains for art history as a discipline. Among historians, lack of experience—positive or negative—with the protocols of the connoisseur has made for flat and unrevealing descriptions of works of art, which too often amount to the visual equivalent of reading for the plot. Literary critics, for their part, have tended to apply their resources of close reading and armatures of theory without the clarifying resistance generated by sustained work in the archives, which is to say, without equal concern for how works of art come to be made as for the ways in which these works can be consumed. (86)
It is ultimately in the dynamic of novelty and synthesis he sketches out for us that Crow finds hope for a contemporary renewal of what he acknowledges is now a somewhat de-energized and "predictable" field; in a potential crisis of "bifurcation," he sees possibility.
Against the more reductive tendencies of 'visual studies,' and harnessing new sensibilities and modes of thinking fostered by the peculiarities of contemporary art, he envisions an expansion of art historical inquiry into more or less uncharted territories, but one that remains anchored to the discipline's unique and hard-won core competencies.
...[I]t has been a convenient conclusion drawn from 'theory' to say that any intelligible pattern drawn out of historical data represents an inherently spurious metanarrative (even though the original efficacy of the turn to theory had precisely been to identify analyzable structures in the historical record). The component of art history that has required hard graft in the archives then can be set aside—and disparaged in the bargain as a lesser, if not misguided, pursuit...
This metahistorical pursuit has had little time for the recalcitrant physical immediacy and uniqueness of an individual object of art. This distrust of close-range sensory evidence has passed into the broad, ill-defined tendency called 'visual culture.'...
The question remains as to what field of study actually remains once one sacrifices its former core, its point of departure and return, in self-conscious and highly wrought objects of art. The proliferation of potential examples extends to near-infinity, and necessarily results in a reduction of material specificity to the single plane of the image, which is phenomenal rather than actual. And, given that much of the art historian's brief has entailed accounting for processes of conception and manufacture that are not strictly sensible in the final product, emphasis on 'visual' commonalities imposes a drastic narrowing of the aspect through which interpreters can grasp this newly vast field of inquiry.
A further tendency toward disaggregation lies in an unabated push toward the modern... [which is] in danger of shooting past the point where it can find common ground with the legitimate preoccupations of art historians working in earlier periods... The skill required to decipher the messages of those time travelers in their vast and largely unexplored numbers and then to speak on their behalf will reside, it seems, in a shrinking number of scholars.
That bifurcation of the available skills within the discipline may nonetheless carry within itself the potential for a new synthesis at a higher level, much as the paired fetishizing of documentation and connoisseurship did among the immediately postwar generation. One can read the recent preoccupation with ephemeral and time-based works of art as saying something about the larger brief of art history: the sample of objects from which art history fashioned itself constitutes the merest fraction of the universe that an ideal form of the discipline would address, that is, all the artifacts of densely symbolic expression that have ever been made. Forever out of view are all those destroyed by war, vandalism, demolition, renovation, neglect, and natural decay; as well as the colossal if uncountable number that have been lost to time because they were never intended to be preserved in the first place...
Other kinds of documents allow such works to be indirectly retrieved and hypothetically reconstructed, so that the actual survivors from the past can assume their places within a historically comprehensive matrix of technical and expressive possibility...
To the degree that one learns to 'see' ephemeral events, happenings, performances, film, and video under the rubric of Art (which is where their makers have placed them), then a corresponding receptivity to the historical totality of art production should follow. Some confirmation for this proposition exists in the renewed currency of one other art-historical pioneer, the visionary German scholar Aby Warburg, whose deep contributions from the 1890s to the 1920s had remained, until recently, unassimilable within the normative discipline...
Warburg's legacy can, without danger of anachronism, project the artistic recognitions of the present into art history's old heartland of the Italian Renaissance—and by extension into all older bodies of material. Beside the compellingly affective character of surviving art objects, he had been able to discern the equivalent value of their heuristic properties, which distribute networks of meaning over a much wider but more elusive field. These enduring works of painting or sculpture still provide an irreplacable opportunity for instruction in historical interpretation, one all the more needed when even very recent art works have left behind only a litter of residual artifacts, documentary records, and fallible memories. But each was once a physical encounter of palpable order and coherence, however fleeting the moment of its particular Kublerian "commotion" may have been. To recreate that moment in the absence of the work itself requires the trained imagination that comes from the encounter with those objects that render their own long-ago commotions in fixed formations. (87–90)
The entire thing is well worth your time (and I'd love to hear the thoughts of folks who are into this kind of thing).
A PDF is available for download from the MIT Press for $10. Cheapskates and fellow travelers might also be able find full text access online through their local library (e.g., available to Chicago Public Library patrons, I believe, via the ProQuest Research Library) or through someone else's local library. That, or leave the computer behind and find yourself a hard copy.
Update 7/3, 9:43 am: Brian Sholis recommends as well, getting the jump on me by a couple of days.
Two recommendations, then. What are you waiting for?
"Thomas Crow [hearts] Meyer Schapiro"
Posted by Dan at 03:22 AM
Chicago Public Library: Databases
Cool Tool: Digital Library Cards
In Search of the Miraculous: Weekend reading: Thomas Crow on art history in America
MIT Press Journals: Dædalus
MIT Press Journals: Dædalus: The practice of art history in America—Thomas Crow
Research at the Getty: About the Research Institute
Romanesque Art—Meyer Schapiro
The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany—Michael Baxandall
The Painting of Modern Life—Timothy J. Clark
The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity (Texts and Documents Series)—Aby Warburg, David Britt (trans.)
The Shape of Time—George Kubler
USC College: Faculty: Department of Art History: Thomas Crow
Wikipedia: New Criticism