Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Art History and Its Machines

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Art History and Its Machines

Article excerpt

Daidalos, perhaps related to (ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.), "to work artfully; to work up."1

In honor of Donald Preziosi's 75th year, I offer this small contribution in the spirit of a toast. I do so by thinking about (and maybe a bit beyond) his book, Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science, which was published just as I was finishing my studies at UCLA.2

First things first

When I think about Donald as professor, a seminar conducted at the bitter end of the 1980s comes most often to mind. Catalog copy advertised the course as an appraisal of art historical research inflected by archaeology. And Donald did indeed coax our small group into thinking about the epistemic and ethical implications of artifact-based history. This was back in the day when studying art history meant reckoning with the relationship of Marxism to what academic humanists then called 'theory.' Yet what struck me then, and again now, so many decades later, was the range of machine and machinic metaphors and phrases that Donald engaged. Not surprisingly there was Foucault on Bentham, but we also heard locutions of this sort: machinery of, ancillary devices, disciplinary apparatus, discursive frameworks, servo-mechanisms, and exegetical filters; there was even a 'mainframe of aesthetic praxis.' Since Donald's rhetorical figures were never decorative, these phrases gave me pause-especially as a student of ancient Roman sculpture.

Archaeology might well take pride in its machines and the interpretive projects they have enabled. The principal machines art history commanded in those days, however, were wheezy slide projectors, ill-tempered word processors, indexand photo-files and, for my part of the discipline, a few building hoists, pointing, and mythic wonder-machines of Greek and Roman antiquity. Given the palsy that seemed to have struck art history's sensus communis in the late 1980s, it was not hard to grasp why Donald thought we should re-invent and re-equip ourselves.3 Yet as I remember the affect of the seminar, Donald's technological rhetoric often darkened our souls, conjuring (at least for some of us) an unwelcome premonition about where art history was headed. By and large, we were an earnest group but we weren't quite clear why ancient art history might benefit from servo-motors.

Donald could be reticent, although he was never shy when it came to confounding the Enlightenment verities annealed in art history as it was customarily practiced. Even so, 'the way forward'-which is what I thought we graduate students were carrying a lantern for in those days-remained more than a little obscure. He (and we) understood why one might want to reverse engineer deterministic conceptual mechanisms like 'context.' We also understood that people we knew and admired were reading both Karl Marx and Michel Foucault's postmarxist remediations. This latter project nevertheless seemed treacherous for those of us studying why pre-moderns made and offered cult to the paintings, effigies, and buildings nestled into the hillsides of Roman Italy, the ancient Aegean, and the Levant.4 In those days, especially for ancient art history, positivist empiricism still reigned with a steely hand (indeed, for more than a few working scholars, I'm pretty certain it still does).

It would be easy to say-as some folks have-that Donald's anxietyinducing memos arrived late in the humanities game. To be sure, much of what we were rehearsing in the seminar had begun exerting its sway twenty years earlier in the wake of the political and intellectual dissent unleashed in Paris in 1968, and other urbane places not long after. It seems rather quaint now, but those of us steeped in the quest for pre-modernity, and the 'best' exegesis of its history, still had a lot to learn late in the 80s.

If Donald unsettled us, he was also generous and, often, inspiring. On more than one occasion he chided me to read more broadly. For him (and consequently, for me) the 'great masters of rigor' in Roman art history-and especially the philologically obsessive Germans-were not the only ones whose work I should study; theirs was not the only dialect, or dialectic, in which to be conversant. …

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