Rescuing Art from Modern Oblivion

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Is art history any longer relevant to contemporary American culture? Though reports of its demise are exaggerated, the discipline is certainly in crisis and has been under attack for years, from within the profession and without. In Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (1989), Donald Preziosi characterizes the tenor of these attacks in suitably apocalyptic terms: "What art historians do is changing - certainly too slowly for some and far too precipitously for others. . . . All the old road signs seem to have been effaced by adolescent graffitists or rewritten in extraterrestrial hieroglyphs by ivory-tower academicians whose heads swirl about in a starry semiological firmament."

Disciplinary boundaries - the divisions of intellectual labor into discrete fields - are being rejected in favor of new theoretical methods that range across disciplines. Defenders of the old borders are characterized as recalcitrant relics. "The art historian," writes Preziosi, "is as much an artifact of the discipline as are its ostensible objects of study." The new generation of art historians is directed to look at advances in other interpretive fields as painful reminders of the inadequacies of its own discipline. In his structuralist treatment of art history, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (1983), Norman Bryson observes:

It is a sad fact: art history lags behind the study of the other arts. . . . While the last three or so decades have witnessed extraordinary and fertile change in the study of literature, of history, of anthropology, in the discipline of art history there has reigned a stagnant peace; a peace in which - certainly - a profession of art history has continued to exist, in which monographs have been written, and more and more catalogues produced: but produced at an increasingly remote margin of the humanities, and almost in the leisure sector of intellectual life.

Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors (1550) is often called the foundation stone of art history. It established the idea that art progresses through identifiable stages of development toward classic perfection. This myth of progress in art has proven hard to shake, no matter how much contrary evidence accumulates around it. Even today, when a close look at the 30,000-year-old paintings recently discovered in the Chauvet cave should be enough to put the myth of linear progress to rest forever, it persists in art history. And along with this belief in progress in art comes a reluctance to rethink established hierarchies and judgments. Art history is a fundamentally conservative institution, and Renaissance art history is the most conservative of all.

Academic art history arose in the 20th century, built on the work of historians such as Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the father of the modern objective historical school, who brought scientific method to historical analysis and believed it possible for history to present the past "as it really was," free of complicating subjectivity. Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945) developed a critical framework for evaluating, dating, and authenticating works of art based on formalist analysis in his Principles of Art History (1915), and the Englishmen Roger Fry and Clive Bell would later promote postimpressionism on mostly formalist grounds. But it was really in the 1930s, when the great refugee-scholars Fritz Saxl, Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich fled Germany and Austria to end up in England and the United States, that the discipline became popular as an academic subject.

At this point and for a while after, it was still possible to conceive of the history of art as a more-or-less orderly procession of masterpieces, based on a more-or-less reliable consensus about which art works should be included in this history and even about how they should be seen. Objectivity was the attainable goal. As long as this unified theory of culture held, the influence of the relative position of the viewer was not seen as a significant factor. …