Materialist Art History and Its Points of Difficulty

By Clayson, Hollis | The Art Bulletin, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Materialist Art History and Its Points of Difficulty


Clayson, Hollis, The Art Bulletin


Art is perforce embedded in history; texts are always and everywhere conditioned by forces that are outside their own articulation. There are two responsibilities for the materialist art historian as a result: (1) imaginatively reconstruct the past, and (2) reenact the lost connections. (Ideally the two are linked insofar as the self-conscious performance will temper the historical work of the imagination.) To promote and problematize the execution of those two tricks, especially in the classroom, I have assembled a "Materialist's Primer." I intend it to be useful to beginners but suitable for certain veterans as well. Like a checklist cum conscience, it might guide and prod but without imposing limits or dictating any particular outcome.

The materialist always works two shifts. She goes in search of the elusive connections between "art" and "history" in the archives and the library, trying to pinpoint and recuperate through research the specific conditions of art's existence in social relations and institutions. And then she performs the affinities in writing or speech for her constituency. (Tall orders!) In my examination of what underlies the materialist two-step, I advocate the (old-fashioned) reclamation and explanatory use of historical data as the centerpieces of a critical "historical" art history, while I assess some of the philosophical and social obstacles in the path of its uncomplicated realization, both on the printed page and embodied in the lecture hall.

My fundamental premise is that a visual artifact must be interpreted or explained in terms of factors external to it, in view of the hors texte of history (the exploration of which will never, of course, be exhaustive). It follows that the "history" I evoke is pertinent but extrinsic to the "not-history" of the visual text. Cautions have been issued against the innocent scrutiny of nonart materials, of what is often dubbed "context." Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson warn, for example, that "it cannot be taken for granted that the evidence that makes up 'context' is going to be any simpler or more legible than the visual text upon which such evidence is to operate."(1) This caveat schematizes the complex connections between artistic and social practices and tends to homogenize the latter, but their point remains nonetheless valid. It is clear that what functions for the interpretation of the aesthetic does not simply translate unmodified to the explication of the sociohistorical. But the structural incommensurability and frequent temporal discontinuity between art and nonart does not tempt me to abandon a sincere attempt to struggle with recalcitrant "contextual" materials by trying to build linkages, in Thomas Crow's words, "between art objects and contiguous, intermediate zones of social practice that are not integral to the artist's professional culture."(2) And, indeed, contextualization (miserable mechanical term) need not be naive or mechanical; contextualizing an artwork also involves an account of the ways artworks resist contextualization. In any case, the potential costs of abandoning "context" are just too high: formalism, cynical solipsism, or the imposition of pure ideology (when knowledge is needed instead).(3)

But my idealist "historicist" avowals prompt numerous ticklish questions. For example: Do I conceptualize "art" and "history" as separate entities, as completed products? What is the status of the real in my system? Of representation? Is the visual image an effect of the real, or constituent of it? To what degree are objective or subjective procedures foreseen? I struggle to address these and other vexing questions by flagging seven points of extreme difficulty and perplexity for materialists as we try to adjudicate the relations between art and history, to maneuver between the cultural and the material.

Part One: Difficulties for a Historical Discipline

Point 1: Faith in the facts?

Relativism leads directly to a questioning of the ideal of objectivity, because it undermines the belief that people can get outside of themselves in order to get at the truth.

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