The Practice of Art History
‘As an art historian, writing is my practice’ (Michaela Zöschg, The Courtauld Institute of Art, May 30, 2013).
When I first attended art school in the late 1970s, students and tutors habitually regarded art history as a subsidiary discourse contingent upon the primary discourse of the art object. More scathingly, art historians were maligned as parasites that fed upon, infected, and, at worst, threatened the life of the host. At best, they were considered to be failed artists who lacked sufficient vigour, originality of thought, and drive to (as Clement Greenberg would say). Instead, they sought solace in writing, reading, and speaking (which were regarded as polite and pejoratively feminized modes of exchange).
It’s hard to convey a sense of the prevailing institutionalized supremacism that privileged the one who ‘does’ above the ‘one who [merely, it was supposed] looks’ (Fr: voyeur). The critical distinction was founded upon the perception that historians of art did not engage in a creative practice. Begrudgingly, some artists conceded that art history was a meta-practice that, like a motorcycle sidecar, derives its power and momentum from the vehicle to which it is coupled, and that alone. Accordingly, the discipline could be analytical, interpretive, exegetical (when it turned upon its own texts), evaluative, methodological, and even illuminating, but never independent of the object of its inquiry; never fully an art in its own right. Which is rather like saying that the creative integrity of still-life painting (and every other representational genre for that matter) is mitigated by its status as simulacrum and dependence upon an external reality. (Admittedly, some hard-nosed abstractionists still take this line.)
I have studied and endeavour to practice and teach art history and fine art throughout my career. Physically, my study and my studio at home are divided by a thin, stud partition. Mentally, they occupy the same space. Technologically, my practices converge on a computer monitor as the windows of image-, sound-, and text-based programs open-upon one another. The practice of art history and of fine art make the same demands on my creative energy, intellect, and skill, and are equally fulfilling. Furthermore, they are both distressingly difficult to do well, and the creative processes that govern them are undifferentiable. The artefact, whether written, visualized, or realized in sound, too often begins hesitantly (unable to see beyond its next step), quickly falters, proceeds in a clumsy and fumbling manner, becomes weighed and slowed down by an excess of substance, recedes into obvious or oblique observation, gets mired in clichés, repetitions, and inelegancies, retreats into mannerism, leans on well-worn formulae, loses track, structure, and rigour, fails to engage the imagination and with ambition, and ends, vapid and shallow. But this desultory and humiliating farce is necessary; out of it, the vaguest sense of something valuable and coherent may emerge.
The art historian’s practice can be a mode of academically informed creative writing (and, increasingly, of performative-speaking and reading too). The artefacts of this practice preserve existing and generate new ideas, encode observations, organize thoughts, as well as resolve ambiguities, so as to better define problems and propose hypotheses and solutions. They also embody a considerable perceptual intelligence (writing and reading are also visual skills and articulations), one that is allied to an integrated cultural and historical knowledge that is filtered through the personality and lived experience of the writer … which is all one can reasonably expect of any artwork.
Photograph by Jacqueline Harvey (2007).