Profane Illuminations: Social History and the Art of Jeff Wall

Article excerpt

Crossover between the studio and the seminar room has been a conspicuous feature of advanced art over the last fifteen years. The principal medium of exchange has been what is broadly termed "theory," which in practice has meant a narrower set of concepts derived from the translated texts of a few French writers. But what can one say about the other, parallel development in the study of art within the academy: the strong emergence over the same period of (for want of a better term) a social history of art? Here any passage from the classroom to the actual fashioning of art has been much less obvious: the kinds of erudition generated by wide-ranging historical inquiry have been far more resistant to codification in ways that suggested immediate practical applications and rewards. If there was to be any transition between new forms of historical awareness and new moves in art, it would necessarily be more deliberate and complicated. Only a few artists can be said to have bridged the two pursuits, and prominent within this small group has been Jeff Wall. His accumulated work over a decade and a half testifies to the potential of social-historical inquiry to motivate persuasive work in the studio.

Wall has forthrightly declared in a recent interview that "none of my work could have been done without the turmoil within art history."(1) And indeed, he spent a significant part of the '70s away from artmaking, pursuing a postgraduate degree in the discipline at the Courtauld Institute in London. Since then, interviews have shown him to be at ease with learned citations from the art of the past, and he has explicitly likened certain of his works to canonical paintings going back as far as the 17th century. But this kind of general expertise does not point directly to the deeper involvement of his art with an art-historical enterprise. Nor does the subject matter of his thesis research, which ranged from Berlin Dada to Marcel Duchamp. What seems to have mattered most for his return to practice--and the grounds he proposes for a nontrivial return to figuration--was the changed value that social historians were beginning to give to subject matter in the French painting of the immediately preceding period, from Courbet to Post-Impressionism. And it was this newer research into French modern-life painting in particular that was exposing a sharp and unsustainable divide in the intellectual assumptions of the art-historical enterprise--and thus creating the turmoil in question.

As modern art had been admitted to serious attention by academic art historians (especially after World War II), it came already wrapped in Modernist packaging. Indeed, Michael Fried was only sharpening a general assumption when he asserted in 1964 that "the history of painting from Manet through Synthetic Cubism and Matisse may be characterized in terms of the gradual withdrawal of painting from the task of representing reality--or of reality from the power of painting to represent it."(2) This view, implicitly shared by many others in the field who lacked Fried's express commitment to searching out a pedigree for '60s Color Field painting, meant that there could be no systematic iconography for the art of the Modern era. While the formal preoccupations of a Heinrich Wolfflin could be transferred easily enough to the art of the 19th and 20th centuries, this was not the case with Aby Warburg's or Erwin Panofsky's systematic parsing of traditional subject matter. The latter mode of inquiry had been underpinned by centuries-old symbolic systems of religious emblematics, humanistic erudition, or princely allegory. After artists had consciously rejected such governing orders, to what system could the interpreter reasonably appeal beyond contingent personal histories or the technical parameters of art?

The perceived radicality of social art history, then, was paradoxically traditional in its actual challenge to this complacent bifurcation of history; it simply insisted that there was no reason to stop applying iconographic concerns at any juncture. …