Writing (and) Art History: Against Writing

By Gaskell, Ivan | The Art Bulletin, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Writing (and) Art History: Against Writing


Gaskell, Ivan, The Art Bulletin


Do we need to write or speak about art in order to express coherent ideas about it? No. Philosophers, as well as critical and psychoanalytical theorists, have long discussed the linguistic articulation of visual and other sensory apprehension.1 Although I would follow Wittgenstein and Heidegger in acknowledging that linguistic structure as a mode of ordering constitutes the depth structure of experience, here I shall suggest that interesting demonstration need not necessarily be predominantly linguistic in the iterative or textual sense. I shall discuss a way of dealing with art that minimizes speaking and writing. While ordering is necessary to this practice, speaking and writing are not. Further, I shall argue that this practice is critical as distinct from arthistorical, and is properly conducted in art museums.

The consideration of practical criticism in art museums is part of a wider discussion of interpretation. In an earlier essay I distinguished between history and art history, even when both are concerned with visual material. Both historians and art historians can use visual material for their respective disciplinary ends, though those ends, and the means of achieving them, may differ.2 Here I intend to distinguish between art history and a specific form of criticism. I wish in particular to draw a distinction between the proper concerns of academic art historians (mostly teachers in tertiary education) and art-museum scholars. The latter are practical critics who put critical judgments into predominantly physical, rather than written, form (and are thereby to be distinguished from critical essayists and theorists).

There is bound to be some overlap in the practice of academic art historians and art-museum scholars, some considerable sharing of concerns and procedures. They are members of the same family. University art history is the grandchild of four eighteenth- and nineteenth-century forebears: amateur scholarship, commercial scholarship, Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics and history, and museum scholarship.3 We might now credibly imagine museum scholarship, having engendered university art history, standing ready to detach itself from its grandchild in order to develop further as a quite distinct intellectual and scholarly practice.4 That practice is in essence critical (in a more direct sense than that in which art history is critical) and interdisciplinary. Academic art history is also obviously amenable to interdisciplinary practice (as witness the discussion in these pages by Carlo Ginzburg and others),5 but the ingredients differ from the interdiscipline of museum scholarship. When addressing visual material museum scholarship need give no more weight to art-historical concerns than to anthropological, psychoanalytical, sociological, or philosophical concerns (to name but four). Indeed, there are occasions when art history, however constituted, is an irrelevance to museum scholarship, and its intrusion is actually obfuscatory or worse (a claim I substantiate with an example below). That is, museums can legitimately treat objects of visual interest as having no pasts, and as occupying no field other than the immediate circumstances of those museums themselves. (I would not argue, however, that to do so exclusively would be responsible museum practice: I merely seek to demonstrate that the constitutions of art history and museum scholarship as interdisciplines differ.)

Although many other responsibilities are equally legitimate for museum scholars (such as the acquisition of objects, the conservation of objects in consultation with conservators and scientists, advising members of the public about objects in their possession, and deaccessioning, if permitted), I believe that the public presentation of visual material itself must be their core concern. Further, I suggest that this is the case not for reasons of social responsibility or social expectations, but rather as an implicit condition of the nature of museum scholarship itself: that is, it would be so even if museum scholars were the only viewers of the displays they contrive.

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