The Art of Art History

It occurred to me, driving home from Sainsbury’s with the weekly shop, that it could be said we’re not interested in art per se. All we’re dealing with is Art History, and talking about it as the Art of Art History1. Which strikes me as a paradoxical: we’re learning about these historians and how they viewed the progress of art but not looking at the art itself. Hegel theories get illustrated as an aside with examples of Art, when shouldn’t we look at the art to show how they generate Hegel’s theories? Perhaps the latter is easier, as—although the theories usually originate from artworks—they often become tenuous when applied back onto them. The theories by necessity deal with an ideal that rarely finds adequate expression in the world.

It’s tacitly understood, I think, that they (the tutors) are expecting us to take it to a next stage and apply what we’ve learned to art works and also to recognise these theories in other contexts, see how they’ve progressed and informed other theorists or artists. We are being taught Art History as a strictly historical sequence. Every theorist has their place in the sequence. With writings it’s perhaps much easier to deal with moves towards or away from previous writers. The matter of influence.

However, in the same way that Art History has found it hard to get away from the impression of a progression in art works (à la Hegel, Winckelmann) is it mistaken/distracting to judge Art History itself as progressing? If we are to talk of an “Art of Art History”, if it’s an Art then the same principles and developments that it theorizes can equally be applied back onto it. Indeed, if Art History is to be seen as another branch of Art then will the study of it take Art into new areas which will then become fodder for Art Historians.

Maybe Art History will be the revitalization of Art.

Of course, artists themselves have already started questioning art historical institutions. Andrea Fraser, Mark Dion, anyone who has been invited to curate an exhibition of works from an art institution’s collection have all rewritten the histories of these works in relation to each other. Is this different from if an Art Historian were to do something similar? Or would an Art Historian do something else with a similar effect/intention in mind? I think these days it’s an artificial distinction to make between Artists and Art Historians, the roles are interchangeable. This probably has some effect on the argument itself.

  1. Taken from Donald Preziosi ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, OUP, Oxford, 1998, but also used to describe the course by the tutor, Astrid Schmetterling.

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