Psychiatry`s Global Challenge

What Are They Doing To Art History?
By: Scott Heller
From: ARTnews, January, 1997
A decade after the raucous war of approaches within art history, the field
is calm. The once insurgent methods – Marxism, Feminism, Gay and
Lesbian theory, Semiotics and now “Visual Culture” – are firmly part of
the academic mainstream.
Somewhere outside, the culture wars may rage, but here in a cramped lecture
hall in the basement of Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum, there’s
work to do. Harvard’s version of the introductory art-history course is just beginning.
Students need to be placed in discussion sections, the slide carousel double-checked,
and the speaker system tested. Inside the projection booth, Professor Norman Bryson
combs his hair. You wouldn’t know from this typical back-to-school tumult that
Harvard has struggled even to offer this class, a staple of the humanities on nearly
every college campus. Between 1990 and 1993, Harvard gave up on the idea of an arthistory survey at all – in large part, Bryson explains, because professors no longer
believed it could be taught. The field had grown too large, having come to embrace
non-Western work and arts once seen as unworthy of study. The standard twosemester race from ancient to medieval, Renaissance to modern art just wouldn’t do
anymore. The course’s unwieldiness, combined with the students’ tendency to doze
off to the whir of the slide projector, had given the class its nickname: “Darkness at
Only when Professor Henri Zerner drew up plans for a scaled-down, onesemester-long version that abandons chronology did Harvard again offer the course,
now called Art and Visual Culture: Introduction to the Historical Study of Art and
Architecture. These days, students are literally sitting in the aisles, balancing
notebooks and photocopied handouts on their laps. Team-taught this semester by
Bryson and Zerner, the course concentrates on introducing students to the history of
methods and debates in the field, rather than asking them to memorize names, dates,
and works of art.
Today the topic is architecture. Instead of tracing a detailed history, Bryson has
a simpler goal in mind: explaining that buildings have meaning, that they’re built to
convey messages about their societies. “It’s not that radical really, but in a way it is
for us,” says Bryson. “We wanted to introduce architecture, not in terms of form but
in terms of social use.”
To make his point, Bryson analyzes two structures, the fifth-century B.C.
Parthenon in Athens and a 20th-century mud home common among the Batammaliba
people of Togo, West Africa. With a slide of the Parthenon on the screen behind him,
What Are They Doing to Art History / 2
Bryson describes the building’s history, especially its elaborate sculptural program of
friezes and relief sculptures, touching on the way in which Greeks depicted male and
female nudity. But instead of analyzing the sculpture in terms of style and technique,
he lectures on how the arrangement of the figure spells out a “civic ideology” that
values Greek over Asian culture, marriage over unregulated sexuality.
He then shifts gears, putting up two slides of the Batammaliba home. Though it
is vastly different from the Parthenon, Bryson wants to draw out similarities” that the
house serves as a kind of temple in Togo’s egalitarian village communities, its various
components echoing parts of the body; that, like the Parthenon, it provides a ritualized
way for a community to pass on its values. “Their house becomes a dramatization of
the history of its inhabitants,” says Bryson.
Not everyone in the fine-arts department buys the new approach; Bryson has a
ready list of faculty members who want no part of Art and Visual Culture. Yet the
course has achieved a kind of success: a set of professors has agreed to teach it, and
undergraduates seem to like it. Since the course began, there has been an increase in
students selecting fine arts as their major.
Like other disciplines in the humanities – history and literary studies, for
example –art history is not what it used to be. Founded in the United States by a small
coterie of immigrant scholars, among them Erwin Panofsky, who came to this country
in the 1930s, it was grounded in connoisseurship, the practice of making distinctions
of quality based on a close scrutiny of artistic styles.
With the passing of the leading lights and their students, and the social and
political upheavals of the 1960s, art history has branched out to include a variety of
approaches, all of which compete with connoisseurship. And once-revised “low” or
popular culture is now considered appropriate for study alongside “high” or fine-art
culture. The watershed moment in the ascendance of this “new art history” came in
1980 with the appointment of the Marxist art historian T.J. Clark to a position in the
fine-arts department at Harvard, until then known as a bastion of connoisseurship.
Always a small and relatively conservative field, art history has proven
surprisingly elastic, stretching to accommodate the new without breaking – so far. As
the century draws to a close, relative calm prevails, with self-examination and
consolidation the order of the day. Today, rather than waging a war of approaches, art
historians seem willing to let a thousand flowers bloom. Marxism, feminism, gay and
lesbian theory, semiotics – all have their advocates. There’s even a renewed interest in
esthetic theory. People are rereading Kant and thinking again about why a work of art
brings with it certain pleasures.
10. A book like 12 Views of Manet’s ‘Bar’ (Princeton University Press, 1996)
epitomizes today’s agree-to-disagree spirit. In it, Bradford R. Collins, professor of art
history at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, asks a dozen prominent
scholars to weigh in on A Bar at the Folies Bergère. “People are very cautious now to
try to make it clear that this is only one reading, there are others,” explains Collins.
What Are They Doing to Art History / 3
Cambridge University Press is coming out with its own one-work-many-approaches
series, devoted to artists like Raphael and Rembrandt.
11. This shift in emphasis is too timid for Anne Higonnet, an associate professor of
art history at Wellesley College and a biographer of Berthe Morisot. Higonnet wrote
an essay for the Manet collection that was rejected. She’s frankly not surprised, since
her piece was entitled “On Not Writing About Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.”
12. The point of my essay was that I no longer worked on that kind of a subject –
one painting by one canonical painter,” she says. “For me it’s not the starting point for
inquiry anymore.”
13. Lately, like many other scholars, Higonnet’s perspective has broadened. She is
increasingly entranced with something called “visual culture.” One of those
everything-and-nothing terms that gets academics excited, visual culture has become
an umbrella for scholars in art history, film studies, social history, literature,
philosophy – and even optical science. They are interested in how ways of seeing
predominated at certain periods of time and among certain groups of people.
14. For example, the explosion of images in the late 20th century – not merely on
gallery and museum walls but also in advertising, the media, and popular culture – has
affected the way in which people perceive their physical, social, and cultural
environment. But consider the turn-of-the-century city: how might the streetcar,
which first moved bodies through space mechanically, have affected people’s ways of
seeing? Scholars look for evidence across the field, instead of focusing on a single
object or type of object.
15. In several recent books, Bryson and others have argued for visual-culture
studies. At the University of Rochester in the late 1980s, he helped establish a Ph.D.
program in visual-and-cultural studies, the only one of its kind in the nation. Not for
long – the University of California at Irvine has similar plans. Meanwhile, a number
of universities, such as Northwestern, Stanford, and the University of Texas, introduce
undergraduates to art as one among several media, peppering their courses with the
study of film, illustration, and photography.
16. Renaissance sculpture and Impressionist painting still figure at the College Art
Association’s annual meetings. But visual culture’s impact can be felt there, too. This
year’s conference in New York next month will have a session on Walt Disney and
American visual culture. Last semester Harvard offered courses in Chinese and
French visual culture. More and more books at being published on the subject. There
are some 50 current and forthcoming volumes. A book on visual culture, W.J.T.
Mitchell’s Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, received the
association’s Charles Rufus Morey award for the best book of 1995. “Visual culture
pursued to its logical conclusion is not a tweaking of art history,” says Higonnet. “It’s
a fundamental disruption.”
17. To those who side with her, this is a wonderfully liberating time. “Beautiful
stuff is still beautiful,” says Janet A. Kaplan, a professor at Moore College of Art and
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Design in Philadelphia and the new editor of the College Art Association’s magazine
Art Journal. She cites the 1995 Cézanne retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of
Art. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about O.J. [Simpson], to talk about
the media. I have a set of skills and I want to apply them.” And so she will, in an
upcoming article on the print media’s portrayal of black men during the Simpson
murder trial and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings.
18. That’s fine for Art Journal, which despite its academic-sounding name is a
glossy magazine that appeals as much to artists as to art historians. But the appearance
of Norman Rockwell in the association’s flagship quarterly, The Art Bulletin, last
month (in an article on images of white masculinity in the artist’s Saturday Evening
Post illustrations) may well change the reputation of a publication known for its
19. That essay appeared near the end of Nancy J. Troy’s three-year term as The Art
Bulletin’s editor, during which time the journal gave over the front of the book to
lively roundtables on the history and politics of the discipline. Her successor, John T.
Paoletti of Wesleyan University, promises more in the way of change. Though his
first issue won’t appear until later this year, he has begun to review manuscripts and
wants articles that are shorter, more provisional, more “cage-rattling.” Art historians
need to produce work that is of interest beyond the narrow province of a particular
period or genre, he says. “I know it’ll make people jump up and scream bloody
murder,” says Paoletti of the Rockwell piece. “But you know what? I’ve started
teaching Norman Rockwell in my 20th-century class. A hell of a lot more people saw
Norman Rockwell than saw Jackson Pollock.”
20. Not that the new art histories have gone down smoothly with the public at large.
Professors who’ve thrown out the survey courses, at campuses like Harvard,
Swarthmore College, and the University of California at Santa Barbara, say that
students often don’t like the change, especially at first. They still want to hear the
story of art from beginning to end. Perhaps it’s comforting in a world that seems
fragmented, dissonant, inexplicable. “The fact that there’s no clear sequence – it
doesn’t have to be chronological – is problematic to them,” admits Laurie Monahan,
the chief teaching fellow for Harvard’s Art and Visual Culture course. “The course
works as an introduction to looking for them,” she adds. “I don’t know if it’s giving
them a good image base that they can hang on to.”
21. Other criticism of the new methods comes from an unlikely source. The editors
of the journal October are frankly suspicious of art history’s flirtation with visual
culture. Founding editor and Columbia University professor of art history Rosalind
Krauss contends that in the name of visual culture, students are not being trained in
the skills necessary to interpret works made in different media. “Students in art
history graduate programs don’t know how to read a work of art,” she laments.
“They’re getting visual studies instead – a lot of paranoid scenarios about what
happens under patriarchy or under imperialism.”
What Are They Doing to Art History / 5
22. If any journal considers itself on the cutting edge of critical discourse, it is
October. Yet Krauss sounds very much like scholars on the other side of the political
spectrum in her worries about visual culture. “We don’t see art solely as social
illustration or as ideological fodder,” says Bruce Cole, a professor of fine arts at
Indiana University. “There has to be a basis on which one builds, a factual basis that
uses evidence and standards. Art historians can do things that sociologists can’t.”
23. He and other professors interested in traditional approaches to art history are
banding together to form an alternative to the 14,000-member College Art
Association. The Association for Art History, as it is called, will make room for this
group of traditionalists at its own scholarly conferences. After a year of discussions,
the group has little to show for itself except a name, but Cole isn’t deterred. “I think
that statistical evidence doesn’t bear out this seismic shift in the way art history is
done, despite the impression otherwise,” says Cole.
24. Numbers can’t capture where art history is heading. But they do tell one story –
that of cutbacks in programs and resources as the culture of corporate downsizing
reaches higher education. “We may be on the verge of another fundamental reorganization of how a university does business,” says James D. Herbert, associate
professor of art history at the University of California at Irvine. “The days [when a]
university can be imagined without limits are over.” Now is the time for departments
to specialize in kinds of art or aspects of visual culture, rather than believe they can
cover the waterfront, he argues. “If art history isn’t asking these questions, we may be
the same as classics departments were after the 19th century – still there, but shunted
aside,” says Herbert.
25. Indeed, the Rochester program pioneered by Bryson and his colleagues has used
such reasoning successfully, gaining more support from the university at a time when
other graduate programs have been shrunk or cut entirely.
26. Wellesley’s Higgonet welcomes the change, whatever the cause. “I see a
defunct and useless field collapsing” she says, “and a much stronger, much more
important field emerging.”
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