Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Elizabeth Mansfield

Art history possesses its own mythology. Like all social organizations, an intellectual discipline coheres around a community with a shared history, a common language, and seemingly similar beliefs and goals. Fundamental to any social organization is a myth of its origins. Art history, as practiced and theorized in the West, enjoys a particularly active etiological impulse. Perhaps in an effort to minimize differences within the various endeavors described as “Art History, ” historiographers of the discipline are keen to assert and reassert our common intellectual heritage. We have an abundance of fathers. Among the most frequently cited are Giorgio Vasari (often called “the father of art history”); J.J. Winckelmann (busier than Vasari, he is known as “the father of archaeology” as well as “the father of modern art history”); Georg Hegel (Gombrich's “father of art history”); and recently Bernard Smith has been given the appellation “father of art history in Australia.” An orphan discipline, apparently, art history goes motherless.

Genealogy, or rather biography, remains the preferred genre for art historiography. This is not surprising given that art history has long relied upon a biographical model for scholarly as well as popular discussion. That art historiography should similarly privilege the monographic approach testifies to the degree to which the discipline has naturalized and internalized its intellectual conventions. The recent proliferation of book-length studies devoted to the lives and writings of Vasari, Winckelmann, Karel van Mander, Giovanni Bellori, Aloïs Riegl, Bernard Berenson, Aby Warburg, Ernst Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky, and Michael Fried among others points to the predominance of the biographical approach for historiographers.

Hagiography may contribute to a discipline's mythic constitution, but it cannot fulfill the requirements of historiography. Mythology comes from within a culture, defining that culture according to its own terms and values. Historiography, on the other hand, must decipher, analyze, and interpret rather than mythologize a disciplinary culture. This involves examining the culture from within as well as without. Ideally, the historiographer maintains a critical position at once inside and outside a discipline. But this diffuse self-positioning cannot take place independently of institutional critique. As both products and

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