Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

7

DEEP INNOVATION AND MERE ECCENTRICITY

Six case studies of innovation in art history

David Carrier

Being known is essential - your texts, your actions - something - has to appear. Otherwise you haven't made a difference.

Alexander Nehamas, Interview with
David Carrier, Bomb, 1998, no. 65

To be taken seriously and responded to by your colleagues, you must accept the standards of the community to which they belong. Like all professional groups of any size, the academic world contains various communities, each with its own standards. We all know which submissions are more likely to be accepted in October and which in The New Criterion. However, there are ideas that lie beyond the pale of any existing academic community. If you express such ideas you will be considered an eccentric. But if standards change, you may not remain an eccentric forever.

Galileo was eccentric when he said that the earth moves, and John Stuart Mill when he argued that women are not inferior intellectually to men. Several twentieth-century art writers made claims, initially considered eccentric, which now are generally accepted. Panofsky's reading of the van Eyck Arnolfini Marriage as an allegory was eccentric when it was first advanced. So was Leo Steinberg's argument that Caravaggio was not a simple naturalist and Clement Greenberg's assertion that Pollock was a great painter. Within a short time, these unorthodox opinions came to be taken seriously by most scholars. Even critics and historians who reject these claims find them worth discussing. Panofsky, Steinberg and Greenberg are exceptional. Most eccentric interpretation is not taken seriously. Nevertheless, the fact that radical innovation is sometimes successful gives some reason to take eccentric arguments seriously.

My book Principles of Art History Writing examines the changing styles of argumentation within art history. 1 I seek to identify the implicit assumptions defining reasonable discussion within art history. The book deals only with art historians of established reputation - with insider art history. This chapter supplements that analysis by looking at outsider art history. I look at the work of some scholars who are eccentric. And I compare successful and failed

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