Writing (and) the History of Art

Article excerpt

Writing Art History

Paul Barolsky

Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.

-Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Art-historical writing is for the most part clotted with jargon and larded with cliche, impenetrable in its density, analytic and contentious to a fault, and, worst of all, utterly predictable. Too often lugubrious, the industrialized prose of professional art history is a sorry affair. This fact is well known to some art historians and even one editor of this journal recently asked, if somewhat perfunctorily, where had "the poetry" gone from such writing? There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization of which we all have our favorite examples, but these do not provide much solace.

To be sure, writing art history is not the same thing as creating poetry or fiction, but one wonders why art history cannot share some of the qualities of imaginative literature, why such prose should not be beautiful, playful, witty, and inspiring-in short, a pleasure to read. Why, one wonders, cannot art history tell a good story and tell it well, that is, with drama, excitement, and, above all, with a lively, indeed vibrant language? Many art historians are, like poets and novelists, passionate about art, about its theory and circumstances, but their language, often neutralized to the point of desiccation, does not reveal the passion that drives their scholarship, that reflects their-dare I say it?-love of art. I know art historians who read Proust and James, masters of language, but who themselves write in leaden prose, as if they had nothing to learn from our great writers. I know art historians whose eyes sparkle with life when they talk about art but whose prose is stillborn on the page when they write about it. Why cannot art historians learn to write in artful forms worthy of the art they interpret?

I think the answer to these questions is relatively simple. Most art historians who write do not think of themselves as writers, even though, paradoxically enough, that is what they are-by definition. If art historians thought of themselves as writers, most of them would have to face the fact that they are indeed bad writers, uninspired and uninspiring. Even many art historians who are good writers by art-historical standards, to the extent that there are standards in the field, are at best ordinary by higher criteria of prose style. Professional art historians do not conceive of themselves as writers because they are not trained to think in such terms. They are rigorously schooled in theory, methods, historiography, and scholarly techniques (stylistic analysis, iconography, patronage, and so on), but writing is something to which only lip service is paid in graduate training. If anything, professional art historians are encouraged to distrust writing that is enthusiastic or rich in metaphor. I have a friend, an art historian of international distinction, who often says that if she reads a scholarly work that is entertaining, she is immediately suspicious. Many art historians are fearful that, aspiring to write an entertaining prose, they will give the impression of unseriousness, even of frivolousness, that their prose will be mistaken for mere "belletrism" or "appreciation"-as if graceful prose and seriousness of purpose were incompatible.

Neither the "old" art history nor the self-styled "new" art history has a monopoly on bad or even dull writing. Traditional art history has been written in the form of the scholarly monograph or article, types of writing that often, but not always, have tended to abstract art from life by reducing it to formulas-sequences of forms, symbols, and conventions, like so many flavorless linked sausages. The more recent art history has been less concerned with art than with the circumstances in which it was made, especially with patronage and with the social, economic, political, and institutional factors that shape art. …