The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History

The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History

The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History

The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics, and Art History

Synopsis

Many art historians regard poststructuralist theory with suspicion; some even see its focus on the political dimension of language as hostile to an authentic study of the past. Keith Moxey bridges the gap between historical and theoretical approaches with the provocative argument that we cannot have one without the other. "If art history is to take part in the processes of cultural transformation that characterize our society," he writes, "then its historical narratives must come to terms with the most powerful and influential theories that currently determine the way in which we conceive of ourselves." After exploring how the insights offered by deconstruction and semiotics change our understanding of representation, ideology, and authorship, Moxey himself puts theory into practice. In a series of engaging essays accompanied by twenty-eight illustrations, he first examines the impact of cultural values on Erwin Panofsky's writings. Taking a fresh look at work by artists from Albrecht D rer and Erhard Sch n to Barbara Kruger and Julian Schnabel, he then examines the process by which he generic boundaries between "high" and "low" art have helped to sustain class and gender differences. Making particular reference to the literature on Martin Schongauer, Moxey also considers the value of art history when it is reduced to artist's biography. Moxey's interpretation of the work of Hieronymus Bosch not only reassesses its intelligence and imagination, but also brings to light its pragmatic conformity to elite definitions of artistic "genius." With his compelling analysis of the politics of interpretation, Moxey draws attention to a vital aspect of the cultural importance of history.

Excerpt

The title of this book requires some explanation. "The Practice of Theory" is not meant to suggest that theory and practice constitute a binary opposition, an antithetical polarity. "The practice of theory" is not just another way of saying that theory must be put into practice. It is meant to suggest that these apparently incompatible concepts are symbiotically related, that the historian cannot have one without the other. "The Practice of Theory" claims that just as any cultural practice, say, the writing of history, cannot be undertaken without reference to theory, so theory cannot be formulated outside of historical circumstances. Rather than invoke the traditional metaphors of surface and depth, according to which theory is said to lie at a deeper, more foundational level than practice, I would argue that both types of cultural activity lie in the same intellectual plane.

Such ideas are hardly new. In fact they have become something of a commonplace in other fields of the humanities and have already had enormous effects on art history. I believe, however, that their full implications for art historical practice have not yet been fully articulated. Far from constituting an assault on previous conventions of art history writing, for which the assembling and interpretation of empirical evidence remains a crucial concern, this book is intended to promote a theoretical awareness that will enable such traditions to locate themselves within the broader intellectual landscape offered by the humanities as a whole. Far from suggesting that what has come to be known as "traditional" art history is untheorized, I believe that it is important to denaturalize its theoretical assumptions so that they can be evaluated in the context of the intellectual concerns of our own time. This book is meant to challenge the claim that there is no place in art history for theory and that our discipline's success depends upon its capacity to assume that the theories on which it bases its results cannot be called into question. James Elkins, for example, has maintained that art history's refusal of self- refiexivity, its deliberate avoidance of theoretical speculation, is a characteristic of its identity as a discipline. He suggests that this lack of theoretical . . .

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