Writing Art History: Disciplinary Departures

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Faced with an increasingly media-saturated, globalized culture, art historians have begun to ask themselves challenging and provocative questions about the nature of their discipline. Why did the history of art come into being? Is it now in danger of slipping into obsolescence? And, if so, should we care?

In Writing Art History, Margaret Iversen and Stephen Melville address these questions by exploring some assumptions at the discipline’s foundation. Their project is to excavate the lost continuities between philosophical aesthetics, contemporary theory, and art history through close readings of figures as various as Michael Baxandall, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, and Alois Riegl. Ultimately, the authors propose that we might reframe the questions concerning art history by asking what kind of writing might help the discipline to better imagine its actual practices—and its potential futures.

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Editorial Reviews

Lydia Goehr

“Iversen and Melville offer a sophisticated and well-written introduction to the central twentieth-century themes, theories, and methods of art history, and to how this history has been written. Filled with rich and probing accounts of many of art history’s most noted writers, this book shows how, through the writing of art history, deep changes have been encouraged and effected in our modes of contemplation and judgment.”

Michael Ann Holly

“Writing about the writing about writing the history and theory of visual art—this book, coauthored by two speculative and critical art historians, constructs an intriguing hall of mirrors that lures its reader into being inescapably reflective about our too often workaday discipline. Because of the richness, variety, and history of thinkers whom it addresses—from Hegel to Heidegger, to Riegl to Wölfflin, to Warburg to Panofsky, to Merleau-Ponty to Barthes, to Steinberg to Baxandall, to many contemporary theorists as well as practicing artists (and that’s to name only some)—this is a deep and thick study, often phenomenological in inclination, for all who are interested in the intellectual history of the history of art. ‘Theory,’ its authors convincingly assert, should never be a substitute for ‘methodology,’ and in that conviction they conclude with its curricular potential. Directed especially to those who are philosophically-inclined (and why would one not be?), this is a most thoughtful book that many will read and relish.”

Keith Moxey

"Margaret Iversen and Stephen Melville have written a challenging book, one that will attract the attention of all art historians. Offering an insightful account of the discipline's historiography that runs from Warburg to Didi-Huberman and insisting on the relevance of extra-disciplinary writing of philosophers from Heidegger to Nancy, they argue against art historical 'method' and in favor of the type of reflection prompted by a response to works of art themselves. Their phenomenological position emphasizes the active role of art in shaping its own reception and rejects the predetermined structure of knowledge often imposed on it in the name of history. The book asks for no less than a radical rethinking of the art historical enterprise."—Keith Moxey, Barnard College

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226388267
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Iversen is professor of the history of art at the University of Essex and author of Beyond Pleasure: Freud, Lacan, Barthes, among other titles. Stephen Melville is professor emeritus of the history of art at Ohio State University and author of Seams: Art as Philosophical Context and other works.

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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 What’s the Matter with Methodology?
Chapter 2 Historical Distance (Bridging and Spanning)
Chapter 3 On the Limits of Interpretation: Dürer’s Melencolia I
Chapter 4 What the Formalist Knows
Chapter 5 The Spectator: Riegl, Steinberg, and Morris
Chapter 6 The Gaze in Perspective: Merleau-Ponty, Lacan, Damisch
Chapter 7 Seeing and Reading: Lyotard, Barthes, Schapiro
Chapter 8 Plasticity: The Hegelian Writing of Art
Chapter 9 Curriculum

Works Cited

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First Chapter


Disciplinary Departures


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-38826-7

Chapter One

What's the Matter with Methodology?

How does a field like the history of art come into being?

If one looks at the standard art history curriculum in universities, the answer looks easy: there is art; it is widely spread out in time and space; and art history is the study of this object with due attention to its historical and social specificity (thus the discipline's characteristic curricular articulation by period and geographical location). But when we look at this curriculum a little more closely, its shape becomes noticeably blurrier. Some of its primary terms do seem to answer well to the general picture-Northern Renaissance, for example-but others seem to have a rather looser relation to the presumed underlying scheme. "Baroque" does indeed seem to name a chunk of time-some people would say, unhappily, that in the end that's all it does-but the term was intended, and for many people still does function to at least some extent, as a style name above all, and the relation between a style-a difficult enough notion by itself-and a historical period remains obscure. And as we move forward from the Baroque, whatever it is or was, matters become only more obscure as the shape of art's history seems to bend more and more toward particular names offered by particular groups of artists-"Realism," say, or "Impressionism"-many of which amount to interpretations of or at least positions in relation to something we tend to call "Modernism," without our having any very clear sense of what kind of name that is. More recently, we've found ourselves repeatedly tempted to speak of something called "Postmodernism," a label that inherits all that is obscure in its presumed predecessor and is oft en seen to either complicate or dissolve these various questions about art's historical shape by laying claim to a distinctively posthistorical condition.

Within these curricular terms further difficulties tend to surface very quickly: the medieval makers of the objects that art history studies described neither themselves as artists nor the objects they made as art, and students of Asian art will oft en feel that the objects and practices to which they attend are repeatedly falsified or betrayed by the categories of distinctively Western art-historical thought. Classroom-and other-discussions of these issues rapidly become muddy and even bad-tempered: many historians of Asian art do, for all practical purposes, exactly the same kind of interpretive work as most of their Western counterparts while nonetheless feeling that their apparatus and interests require some fundamentally different articulation from that assumed by students of Western art. At times this can feel like an argument about the relevance of the term "art," and at other times it can feel like an argument about "history" as a peculiarly Western shape of or frame for meaning. It's typical of these arguments that this uncertainty about the applicability of either or both of the terms that give the discipline its name to objects fostered outside of their explicit historical or cultural presence will not feel itself resolved by writing those objects off to anthropology or religious history; typically too the institutionalized study of art history has finessed the actual arguments here in favor of an underlying attitude-"a conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitation (fallibility and frailty)"-which orients the discipline to "insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, essential tendencies of the human mind [are] expressed by specific themes and concepts." While one may find oneself driven to such assertions in defending a certain view of the scope and practice of art history, it's notable that the view itself offers no particular reason why such an attitude is best or even appropriately crystallized into the particular shape of the discipline it is called on to justify. That shape remains at once arbitrary and obvious. What else could art history be? What other shape could it have?

QUESTIONS ON THIS order were once the stuff of major art-historical reflection-the substance of implicit and explicit exchanges among such figures as Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Aby Warburg, and Erwin Panofsky. By and large these conversations now strike most art historians as largely matters of prehistory, and so our feel for their shape and stakes tends to be weak. But that sense is itself a consequence of a particular intellectual and institutional settlement of just those conversations, so one aspect of this book is broadly diagnostic, trying to bring into view the terms and possible costs of that settlement. Our claim is that one of the major costs has been the reduction of all forms of theoretical reflection on art history to matters of "method." The larger goal is to renew that order of discussion on the shift ed ground of contemporary art-historical theory and practice.

If the questions we are interested in are already there in the writings that founded the modern discipline of art history, they seem to have gained a certain salience amid a fairly widespread contemporary sense of significant change or crisis within the field-a sense sometimes felt as a significant alteration in art's relation to its own past and sometimes as an alteration in the art historian's relation to his or her object. The first of these is surely related to the recent burgeoning of art-historical interest in recent and contemporary art, while the latter appears variously expressed in the rise of "theory," in a certain historiographic turn within parts of the discipline, and in the emergence of various alternatives or quasi-alternatives to art history mostly clustered under the rubrics of "visual studies" and "visual culture." All of these have been familiar bits of the landscape for a while now, but their familiarity is no indication that they have been made active sense of. Our own feeling is that we don't in fact know what is distinctively new on this terrain and what only appears new while actually continuing to run along in well-established grooves, and it has seemed to us that one way to do that job of making sense is to bring the elements of contemporary theory into much closer contact than they typically have been with the older reflections on the discipline. This is a far from arbitrary coupling: both the modern discipline of art history and broad swathes of contemporary theory emerge in intimate dialogue with Hegelian and post-Hegelian thought, so what has to be shown is, in effect, how and where they are already speaking to one another.

A general motive for the book is a sense that contemporary art history operates for the most part with a distinctly impoverished sense of its own possibilities-and does so despite what might seem the massive enrichment of its methodological apparatus under the impact of contemporary "theory." This is to say that the possibilities in which we are primarily interested are not methodological but bear more directly on the object and objectivity-the shape or shapes-of the discipline itself. Given the recent and continuing emergence of a "visual studies" or "visual culture" variously conceived as subsuming, adjacent to, or competing with art history, such questions seem to us to have a certain urgency. Since "theory"-or a certain grasp of it-has played a significant role in bringing visual culture into being, this is inevitably also a book about "theory," or at least the various ways in which its particular news might be best understood. If literary study by and large received French theory on the ground of what was widely perceived as a debilitating absence of proper theory in the field, art history encounters it-or at any rate should encounter it-from within an already rich set of internal theoretical and philosophical reflections that, in fact, share significant stretches of intellectual history with the bodies of thought now compounded under the general rubric of "theory." In this sense, an exploration of the disciplinary possibilities of art history has a distinctive capacity to address "theory" and to ask questions about the different shapes it might assume for the field. Where it is seen primarily as a matter of methodology, the question of writing, when it emerges, will appear first of all as a question about methodological self-consciousness and so seem to entail a reflexive attention to something like the historian's position or identity. This is an understanding of theory with which we are more or less systematically at odds, taking it as an explicitly skeptical variation on the disciplinary understanding that generates the call for method in the first place.

Our way of taking these things up has, of course, its narrownesses: we are interested in a fairly particular intellectual tradition within art history (the one set in motion primarily by Hegel, and particularly, but not exclusively, as it is taken up and transformed by a body of French thought emergent in the 1950s and aft er), and although we offer no particular narrative of these matters, our sense of how this tradition matters to art history tends to make much of the way various issues and stakes get sorted out in the 1920s and 30s. Implicit in both of these remarks is the further possible narrowness embedded in our assumption that intellectual traditions count-are a good enough way of addressing a discipline's history and of making out or reopening some of its possibilities.

What we are calling "possibilities" in this way are not, presumably, things that lie outside of art history-as if taking them up meant doing something other than what art history does or has done. The question we are trying to ask is about how art history might become itself or how it might discover less baffled views of its own practices. There's a sense in which we aim at a sort of radical provocation-as if we are claiming that art history is yet to be invented (and we are claiming that) and that no one is more responsible for the future of art history than the individual art historian (and we are indeed also claiming that)-but we are also claiming that there is no other place for this invention than art history and that one major means of such invention is just the reading of art history's writing. For this one might imagine a quasi-therapeutic model: ne cedez pas sur ton desir! But one might also explore a view of disciplinarity along the lines of Stanley Cavell's idea about "medium" in a modernist situation-as something to be invented out of itself and without criteria.

The Lectures on Fine Art of G. W. F. Hegel appear to lay the groundwork of a recognizable art history in something like these terms. Certainly they were taken as such a starting point by those we now think of as founders of the modern university discipline. One easily recognizes in Hegel's lectures any number of motifs that continue to haunt, for better or for worse, the field we currently occupy: a strong, essentially European, narrative of art's continuous development up to a problematic present, an active worry about the meaning and possibilities of modern art, coming to a particular point with Hegel's claim that "art is now for us essentially a thing of the past," a particular valorization, characteristic of nineteenth-century German thought and more particularly grounded in Johann Joachim Winckelmann's earlier writings on Greek art, of ancient Classical sculpture as the moment of art's fullest and most valuable achievement, and a continuous recourse to concrete accounts of particular works are among the most salient features of Hegel's two volumes of lectures. Some of this deserves a second, more historically aware look: if Hegel can be said, accurately enough, to marginalize non-Western art, it also is the case that he is among the first to attempt to give a serious and sustained account of it, just as he belongs to the generation that offered the first serious and sustained accounts of Asian thought (tellingly, the Bhagavad Gita is a text Hegel treats not only historically but also directly philosophically), and if we are now unsurprised to see Dutch art in our textbooks, it's probably important that Hegel was among its early champions and was particularly struck by the emergence within it of genre painting.

Hegel began offering his lectures on aesthetics in 1820 and offered versions of the course three more times before his death in 1831 (the English translation is part of a complex compilation of notes now in the process of being unwound into individual courses by German scholars). Those same years saw the construction of what is generally recognized as the first modern art museum, Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum in Berlin. Hegel's lectures were given at the University of Berlin, founded in 1809 and, like Schinkel's museum, commonly recognized as the first of its kind-which is to say, the first of our kind. Hegel, long an active proponent of educational reform in Germany, had joined its faculty in 1818. This institutional confluence is reasonably taken as a part of the conditions that make possible Hegel's offering of what amounts, in retrospect, to the first recognizable course in the history of art. Hegel's own view of this institutional context is an interestingly mixed matter: he was explicitly aware of and heavily invested in the emergence of a new type of university, although it is striking that the institution of such central importance to him finds no explicit place within his philosophy. He was also very aware of the general world of European collections and galleries, including such details as where admission was or wasn't charged and what difference one's status as a university professor made to one's access to such collections; he involved himself actively in efforts to bring one such collection to Berlin; and he made free use of metaphors we now read as relating essentially to the logic of the museum. But at the same time, he does not seem to have seen the modern museum as a new and distinct institution requiring particular thought or justification. The year of the Altes Museum's completion, 1830, was for Hegel very much a political year, consumed both by his assumption of the rectorate at the university and by his active engagement with the consequences of the July Revolution in France and the fate of the Reform Bill in England. He is not known to have ever entered the new museum. Still, Hegel looks very much like our institutional contemporary.

For Hegel, art was a form of thought, and so addressing art called for no particular method beyond that called for by thought itself in its continuous movement and transformation. This is not, Hegel says, a matter of method, because the terms are those generated by thought itself. This subordination of interests in method or epistemology more broadly to a certain way of working through an object gave rise to a distinctive post-Hegelian tradition oriented to questions of ontology and interpretation, writing and reading, one particular outcome of which is the complex body of French thought that has been such a strong influence on art history in recent decades. It's on this general terrain that the various essays in this book unfold.

There is no place within Hegel's lectures for separate remarks on theory or method, and so presumably there would be no place in a "Hegelian" department of art history for the specialized "methods" courses that are now so common in our own departments and that have served as the primary locus for the reception and dissemination of contemporary theory. These courses vary considerably, but they usually consist of a heterogeneous compilation of "approaches," sometimes sufficiently broadly construed as to allow some acquaintance with, say, Wölfflin or Panofsky (fuller acquaintance is most oft en reserved to a separate course in historiography). Such methods courses will likely include a strong showing of alternative, explicitly politically motivated, approaches such as the social history of art or feminist art history, and will include as well an interdisciplinary component that involves psychoanalysis, semiotics, and philosophical aesthetics. This latter grouping is what is most oft en collectively referred to as theory and oft en responds to developments in literary and film studies. In some cases, and more cynically, these courses are driven by the demand of deans or of funding bodies that the humanities conform to the model of the social sciences with their explicit reliance on a body of skills, protocols, and methods to which scholars must adhere. Whatever the original intention, the disciplinary bazaar of the typical art-historical theories and methods course is bound to give the impression that here is where one will be equipped with the necessary tools to do the job of an art historian.


Excerpted from WRITING ART HISTORY by MARGARET IVERSEN STEPHEN MELVILLE Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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