Art, History, and Vision

By Powell, Richard J. | The Art Bulletin, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Art, History, and Vision


Powell, Richard J., The Art Bulletin


Where there is no vision, the people perish.(1)

It is against this double hegemony of a History with a capital H and a Literature consecrated by the absolute power of the written sign that the peoples who until now inhabited the hidden side of the earth fought, at the same time they were fighting for food and freedom.(2)

A lot of these patterns--some of the different designs of these fancy quilts--...I got them out of a quilt book... But lots of them are made-up quilts. See, there's no pattern for those. I just sit down and start sewing them up. I call them make-ups.... And like that wheel [tape-recorder reel] going around there--I can look at that wheel and imagine me a quilt from it. I can take me some paper and cut out a pattern and piece me up a quilt just like that....I guess I'd call it a Tape Recorder quilt. That would be my name of it, since that's its name, ain't it?(3)

Most scholars would agree that what distinguishes today's art history from yesterday's art history is what appears to be an immoderate and, at times, zealous emphasis on redefining the "appropriate" subject matter and methodologies for the discipline. For traditionalists, the introduction of subject areas such as race and gender studies, the media arts, and interdisciplinary and cultural studies signals an assault on such time-honored premises in art history as: the aesthetic superiority of easel painting, monumental sculpture, and architecture; the inherent virtuosity and almost predestined, privileged position of certain nationalities (mostly of Northern European ancestry) and classes of people in world culture; and the intrinsic and insoluble status, historically speaking, of the discipline. When confronted by contemporary methodological approaches to art that incorporate such notions as a professed, cultural relativism, interpretations based on modem economic, political, and semiotic theories, and highly suggestive literary and psychoanalytic critiques of works, artists, and/or cultural settings, traditional art historians decry these current enterprises as antithetical to solid, serious art-historical scholarship, viewing them as subversive and hopelessly political acts.

It is necessary to begin this discussion with a description of the impasse between the traditional approaches to art history and many contemporary approaches because of its relevance beyond art history. While some may prefer to see this jockeying between various schools of art-historical thought as something which concerns only art historians, I prefer to see the debate as something larger: evidence of a general shift in the humanities away from insularity and complacency, and toward an interdisciplinary mind-set and an invigorating interrogation of the humanities itself. For art history, this discourse often appears to be a classic case study of a discipline and its disciples on the verge of a reformation.

Of course, all late twentieth-century changes in focus or theoretical modifications seem inconsequential and minuscule in comparison to the broad foundations that were originally laid for the discipline by scholarly precursors such as Vasari, Winckelmann, and others. Given modern art history's origins during the Renaissance, as well as its institutionalization during the Enlightenment, the discipline's overtures to Western, rationalist, and epistemological traditions are fundamental to its very existence. Still, the current, lively debates about the appropriate subject matter and methodologies for art history suggest that, even within the buttresslike boundaries of the past, new ideas abound which significantly redirect one's eye, mind, and imagination to other visual territories.

For all of the voiced concerns and warnings about the contemporary tendency to expand an already established, time-honored body of important, study-worthy art objects, what is lost in the din and cry of "collapsed standards" is the fact that every generation of art historians introduces new material--both the previously unexamined material and the hardly "glanced-at" material--for contemporary study and investigation.

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