Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

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ART HISTORY AND MODERNISM

Elizabeth Mansfield

Art history stands apart from other humanistic disciplines. Galvanized into a professional, academic field during the nineteenth century, the discipline took shape in response to distinct and often novel institutional pressures. Humanistic inquiry in the West had, until the appearance of art history, largely traced its methods and goals to classical or medieval models. The fields of history, literature, and philosophy, for example, inherited institutional traditions and legitimacy from the academies of ancient Greece and the universities fostered by Scholasticism. Art history does not share this genealogy. Though its academic practices resemble those of the traditional humanities, art history maintains a distinctive disciplinary character. In practice, art history combines the authenticating and valuating mission of the connoisseur, the hagiographic indulgences of the biographer, the cataloguing impulse of the botanist, the alternately reflective and reflexive tendencies of the historian, and the philosopher's willingness to calibrate aesthetic transcendence. During the nineteenth century, these ambitious and contradictory pursuits were conjoined - by no means seamlessly - to form a new profession. Confidently secular, apologetically commercial, and ambivalently poised between scientific and philosophic aims, art history is a liberal discipline born of modernism.

Art history's unusual status complicates its institutional history. The institutions most often associated with art history's professionalization are the museum and the academy. Indeed, one could convincingly argue that the vocational history of art history begins with Jean-Dominique Vivant Denon's appointment as director of the Musée Napoléon in 1803 or Gustav Waagen's 1844 installation as professor of art history at the University of Berlin. As the most prominent and plentiful employers of professional art historians in the nineteenth century as today, the museum and the academy enjoy a justifiably high profile in histories of the discipline. They are not, however, the only institutions to guide art history's disciplinary formation. A much broader institutional history informs the field.

At this point, I wish to clarify my understanding of institutional history. By “institution, ” I refer generally to any organization or matrix capable of the sustained production and dissemination of social beliefs or customs.

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