Art History's Anxiety Attack

By Hernandez, Eloy J. | Afterimage, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Art History's Anxiety Attack


Hernandez, Eloy J., Afterimage


In its Summer 1996 issue (no. 77) the editors of October, led by Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster, published responses to a"Questionnaire on Visual Culture" that was sent to an unspecified "range" of scholars, critics and artists during the previous winter. This issue occasioned two articles by reporter Scott Heller: "Visual Images Replace Text as Focal Point for Many Scholars" in The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 19, 1996) and "What Are They Doing To Art History?" in ARTnews (January 1997). Heller's articles, among other things, emphasized the apprehensions of the October editors, surveyed the diverse opinions of the survey's respondents and displayed the reactions of many "disciplinarians" of art history.

The October editors and many of the respondents to the questionnaire appear threatened by a loose grouping of presumably misguided scholars, whom they never explicitly name, that has rejected the tried and true rigors of academic art history for the so-called trendy and gullible field of visual and cultural studies. This disciplinary policing is at times analogous to U.S. conservatives' fixation on the national borders, imagined to be under siege by various "outsiders," and the Christian Coalition's cultural offensive to buttress the malignant traditions that have historically regulated boundaries between cultures, genders and sexualities. October's characterization of the relationship between art history and visual studies resonates with the sound-bytes of cultural and political conservatives - this is quite evident in the severe language that detractors use to discount visual studies' critical commitments.

Consider the example of Bruce Cole, Professor of Art History at Indiana University and founding member of the Association for Art History, an organization that was founded in protest of the broadening purview of the national College Art Association (CAA) and as a supposed ideology-free alternative to what some consider to be the increasing politicization of CAA. As Heller quotes Cole: "We don't see art solely as social illustration or ideological fodder. . . There has to be a basis on which one builds, a factual basis that uses evidence and standards. Art historians can do things sociologists can't." Equally akin to the discourse of cultural reactionaries is the following complaint from Krauss, now Professor of Art History at Columbia University. She told Heller that: "Students in art history graduate programs don't know how to read a work of art. . . They're getting visual studies instead - a lot of paranoid scenarios about what happens under patriarchy or under imperialism."

In all fairness, the academic media attention paid to the October questionnaire also uncovered opposing voices that were equally reactionary in their dismissal of art history as a legitimate and vital discipline. Heller quotes Anne Higgonet from Wellesley College as saying: "I see a defunct and useless field collapsing, and a much stronger, much more important field emerging." Within the media frame that the October questionnaire generated, nevertheless, the supposed shortcomings of scholarship in visual studies were emphasized, while the institutionally privileged activities of the discipline of art history were posited as irreproachable. Foster, another longtime editor of October, who now teaches in the art history department at Princeton University, is quoted as saying: "Cultural studies doesn't have much philosophically to offer. It sneaks in a loose, anthropological notion of culture, and a loose, psychoanalytic notion of the image . . . Visual culture is a passport that can lead to fairly touristic travel from discipline to discipline." Foster's attacks on visual and cultural studies do not even make gestures toward acknowledging the problematic philosophical, cultural and theoretical frameworks that the discipline of art history "sneaks" into analyses of visual objects. The result of such partisanship is the construction of an unnecessary competition: visual studies vs. …

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