Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

History and the Historian of Classical Art

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

History and the Historian of Classical Art

Article excerpt

The study of classical art offers an interesting example of exclusions in the practice of art history.1 While the focus of this essay is the art of ancient Greece and Rome, those who deal with ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern art face many of the same institutional and disciplinary exclusions. Although the subjects are represented in a range of departments and programs and in professional organizations and journals with broad audiences, that representation is often marginal.

Historians of classical art occupy a no-man' s-land that exists uneasily among the fields of art history, classics, and archaeology. The borders are established both by disciplinary definitions and by institutional structures. Classical art is frequently excluded from departments of art history on the grounds that, by virtue of chronology or cultural specificity, it is better handled by classics or archaeology. Many departments of classics exclude the study of art on the grounds that the proper focus of classics is texts, that is to say, language, and that classical art belongs instead in the realm of art history or archaeology. A not uncommon assumption, for example, is that students in classics deal with texts and can therefore not be expected to take courses in ancient art or archaeology. In turn, many departments and practitioners of archaeology exclude the study of classical art and, with it, even the general field of 'classical archaeology' because the scientific analysis of human behaviour based on the contextual analysis of excavated remains has no place for a field that remains focussed on monuments and art and relies on texts for its interpretations - in other words, for a subject that belongs either to art history or to classics. Where do these circular exclusions leave historians of classical art? The archaeologists have an answer ready to hand: the study of ancient art is, in reality, no more than antiquarianism, that is to say, a pre-scientific and dilettantish interest in objects from the past, an ancestral and decidedly outmoded stage in the development of thought and practice in modem, professional archaeology.2 This assessment of the current state of the discipline is accepted even for 'classical archaeology', which, as Ingo Herklotz observed, has 'found its way back from the history of style to the analysis of ancient material culture'.3

But should students of ancient art not accept the label of antiquarian and wear it proudly? For recent years have seen a rehabilitation of antiquarianism that would place its practices at the very forefront of current approaches to the study of culture. Such an evaluation is the premise, for example, of the volume of essays published in 2007 with the title of Momigliano and Antiquarianism. Foundations of the Modern Cultural SciencesA For it is, of course, to the great historian Amaldo Momigliano (1908-87) that is owed this positive evaluation of the methods of antiquarianism and its contributions to history. What greater vindication could be desired by the historian of classical art? It is possible to offer an ungrateful answer to that question. Momigliano's classic analysis of historical method, in which he traces the relationship between antiquarianism and history, has the surprising effect of excluding the study of classical art from the realm of history. His characterization of antiquarianism and history - terms that in his formulation exist in a comfortable polarity that breaks down in the face of demands for precise definitions - and his conception of the relationship between them are more deeply flawed than any of his critics has yet recognized. Examination of his argumentation calls into question the authority of his formulation as the justification for some of the disciplinary exclusions that follow from it. It must be emphasized that disagreement with this part of his work in no way signals any lack of respect for his immense contributions to scholarship. The criticism reflects, rather, a particular set of questions and evidence. …

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