The Map of Art History

By Nelson, Robert S | The Art Bulletin, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The Map of Art History


Nelson, Robert S, The Art Bulletin


From the nineteenth century, History was to deploy, in a temporal series, the analogies that connect distinct organic structures to one another.... History gives place to analogical organic structures.... This event, probably because we are still caught inside it, is largely beyond our comprehension.-Michel Foucault1

This is an essay about knowledges of space and time that aspire to be global but remain local, and about their inscription in the discipline of art history. It proceeds from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from particular points on the spatial surface of art history to its broad, totalizing plane, and thence to an awareness of the jagged, gerrymandered divisions of art history itself. It wends its way from moments in the present and the lived past to distant pasts dimly remembered in a discipline that typically studies the histories of everything but itself, conveniently forgetting that it, too, has a history and is History. The intent is to examine notions that exist, as Foucault suggests, at the level of a disciplinary unconsciousness and to argue that Order, History, Space, and Time do matter. Through them, art history is constituted and, in turn, constitutes objects, narratives, and peoples. Yet what is made can be unmade or re-sited, re-structured, and re(-)formed, and what has become tangible and reified can revert to mere heuristic category, if first consciously addressed.

The argument takes for granted that contemporary art history, like any other academic subject or learned profession, is a practice, a discipline, a narrative, and a rhetoric with its own history, protocols, and institutional structures. In the admittedly small but growing body of literature about the history of art history, investigations of individual art historians have dominated heretofore. There is, however, more than a little need for studies of the poetics of art history2 and of the means and consequences of its rise to the status of a discipline over the past two centuries.3 As discipline, art history acquired and has been accorded the ability and power to control and judge its borders, to admit or reject people and objects, and to teach and thus transmit values to others.

If these structures are seldom noticed, much less studied, they are always present. They are revived and replicated whenever a student attends an introductory class, reads a survey book, or follows a prescribed curriculum, whenever a colleague retires, a chair justifies and a dean endorses a replacement position, and a recent Ph.D. is hired, and whenever the discipline or a subfield, such as Renaissance or medieval art, convenes its members or publishes its journalacts of scholarship but also of ritual, with their attendant consequences for the production of social meanings and identities. And they are in operation whenever someone looks for a book on a library shelf, or when a visitor to an art museum walks through its symbolically charged spaces, thereby enacting and embodying a narrative of art, as Carol Duncan has recently explained.4

In this essay, the space and time created by the disciplinary gaze are at issue and the issue. They can be encountered in a multitude of sites and performances. I choose three: a grid of fields into which new Ph.D. dissertations are set, a library classification of art history, and the structure of basic survey books. Because I seek to explore the typical, ordinary, or commonplace of disciplinary order, I have deliberately avoided its most public and visual manifestation, the museum. A topic of sustained interest these days, the art museum, both as a model of and model for art historical classification, is certainly relevant to the inquiry, but that investigation is being ably pursued by others.5

In using the word "map" in the title of this essay, I am aware that I risk its being swept up into that torrent of recent scholarship about maps and mapping, taken literally and allegorically. …

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