Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

1
Coming of Age

Historical Scholarship in American Art

WANDA M. CORN

As stated in the Preface, Wanda Corn's essay on the historiography of American art provides an intellectual frame for the works included in this anthology and the collection itself can be understood as implicit endorsement of the methodological diversification Corn describes. The following article was published originally in The Art Bulletinin a series devoted to the state of scholarship in various fields of art history. The text of the essay is followed by a brief Afterword written by Corn for this anthology.


Introduction

Although others in this series have begun their essays by attending to the upheaval within art history, that is not my first thought in writing about American art. 1 To be sure, not all is well; the same divisiveness marks the study of American art as other fields. But this in itself is remarkable. There are now enough mature scholars of American art to give this once-fledgling field the same diversity, the same "crises;" and the same kind of intellectual ferment to be found in better-established areas of art history. Personally, I champion the unrest in my field. I do so, however, because in the field of American art--so long the impoverished, unwanted stepchild of art history--controversy is a mark of health and accomplishment. Scholars of American art now enjoy the full privileges as well as the intrigues and power plays of the family table.

By any kind of quantitative yardstick, American art has recently come of age. There has been a quantum leap in the number of historians working in the field and in the amount of American art scholarship published annually. There are a goodly number of museum exhibitions dedicated to American art, some of them blockbusters. All of the major museums now have curators of American collections, and several museums are given over exclusively to exhibiting and researching American art. 2 The curators and directors of American collections, many of them under forty years of age, bring with them doctoral degrees from major university art history programs, where, for the first time, American art enjoys some respectability and legitimacy. As evidence of this new status, four art history graduate programs in the past two years have

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