American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10


Peter Conn
Barbara Jeanne Fields
Ernest S. Frerichs
David Hollinger
Sabine MacCormack
Richard Rorty
Catharine R. Stimpson

Contemporary Challenges to Traditional Categories of Analysis in the Humanities:
The Margins and the Centers

Thomas Crow
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

I want to speak about the topic more or less entirely from within the practice and profession of art history, forswearing, for the moment at least, distant and impressionistic pronouncements on other disciplines in the humanities or on their totality. My own seems to me to offer some special perspectives on the subject of creativity and renewal in one subject in relation to the emerging transdisciplinary universe evoked in Speaking for the Humanities, in part because its standing is so uncertain and apt to shift with point of view. In the eyes of its disciplinary neighbors, art history seems both an embarrassing distant relation and a fascinating, charismatic stranger; it is denigrated at one moment, surrounded by an aura the next.

The first aspect is easy to describe: the received image of the discipline is of a genteel, barely intellectual pursuit, untouched by theory or even self-reflection, more about black-tie openings than shirt-sleeved intellectual debate, tainted by snobbery, social climbing, and the art trade, historically the soft option among the humanities. This is a common enough perception among our extra-departmental colleagues, a perception that has been sharpened in recent years by its repetition among art historians themselves. Such a picture has been given currency by, among others with wide influence, the administrators in charge of the new Getty Center for Art History and the Humanities. It would have been interesting to have included them in the writing of Speaking for the Humanities, for, unlike the directors represented there, they explain the mission of their resident center not in terms of the health of its core discipline, but of its decrepitude. The strong implication of their pronouncements has been that only by means of large infusions of money, organization, and intervention from wise outsiders, can this discipline be saved.

I find that this line rings false for a number of reasons. First among them is that the confidence with which the critique of old-fashioned art history is being linked to professional power and visibility obscures the real origins of the critique itself. The most immediate of these were the achievements of a particular, eccentric strand of art-historical research that, as it emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, moved social practices to the center of the explanatory enterprise. The recent appearance of a self-advertised new historicism in literary studies seems to me to involve a rehearsal of a project that emerged some 20 years ago in the margins of the theoretically-moribund discipline of art history—long before support existed in prestigious institutions for any serious critique of orthodox art history.

Now a version of that critique has been prominently empowered as the agenda of  “the new,” but it could not exist today without its having been maintained in fairly lonely opposition for quite a long period before. During that time, in 99% of what went on in the discipline, it was irrelevant, particularly within the established, dominant departments. There was simply no oxygen for it there; it died before it could find a voice.

No overt repression was necessary; the necessary repression had already been successfully concluded. Challenges to the art historian’s accepted routines of attribution, dating, and iconographic categorization had been mounted in the 1930s and 1940s but had since been forgotten, complacently dismissed if anyone bothered to mention them at all. Even the great Meyer Schapiro, who in 1939 had single-handedly laid the Marxian and psychoanalytic foundations for most latter-day new art histories, no longer wished to talk about it—or did so in code, couched in a particularly intricate form of exegetical scholarship.

But his example was there to be excavated, and it was crucial to those of us that belonged to a second generation of the unsocialized—unsocialized because of a number of barriers: we belonged to the wrong region, graduate department, political and theoretical enthusiasms, or all of the above. For me and a small but since-influential cohort of contemporaries, this took place in southern California, a place which was then far from the scrutiny or even awareness of the centers of the discipline in the northeast. By the early 1980s, a number of similar strands of work converged to form what amounted to a new critical mass. And shortly thereafter, it became clear that an ambitious new resident center oriented to art history, one intended to establish a new standard of professional success, could not justify its existence without borrowing the language of antagonistic critique.

An important factor in this has been the exponential growth in glamour and wealth invested in the art world since the end of the 1970s. The stodginess of older art history had been noticed even outside academia and had become an embarrassment to those overseeing that investment. The now-official denigration of the discipline, along with the search for interdisciplinary glamour and refurbishment, answers this dissatisfaction. It ignores, however, the ways in which the achievements of the 1970s were based on a recovery of the discipline’s own buried strengths, strengths that might have looked like its signal weaknesses.

The first such weakness was art history’s notorious hostility to theory and speculation. Its principal compensation for that absence has been an obsession with primary historical research. Traditionally trained art historians had substituted empirical discovery—of unknown drawings, variants, contracts, recorded iconographic programs, original locations of objects—for any activity of interpretative criticism. That sort of work tended to consume months stretching into years in foreign archives and collections; approached with new questions in mind, this became an extraordinarily rich and rigorous kind of discipline. We became our own historians.

The second apparent weakness lay in the sphere of art history that goes under the name of connoisseurship, that is, those modes of concentrated attention to objects which had degenerated since the 19th century from a tool of explanation into a highly imperfect and failure-prone technique of cataloguing. One of the scandals of the newer work was how useful its practitioners found this previously mystified form of expertise, how easily it could be mastered and what else it could be made to do. In general, it became clear that the traditional tasks of connoisseurship could be performed better when they were correlated to a reflective and informed historical interpretation. More than this, connoisseurship techniques provided an ability to talk about form as a marker of historical experience that the social historians from outside art history didn’t possess—and generally haven’t yet acquired. Waiting to be discovered—and the young Meyer Schapiro had known this—was a rich interdisciplinary synthesis embedded in the very repressions that had created the moribund, fragmented state of the post-war discipline. The two halves of established art history—the mania for documentation and the cult of fine discrimination—had both represented a silencing of the demand for interpretation. When these categories of analysis were put back together during the 1970s, they sparked a startlingly productive enterprise of interpretation, a collective release of pent-up energy, a making-up for lost time, that has given art history much of the anomalous prestige it now enjoys.

I want to conclude by speculating on what this might mean for the future development of innovative art history in this new era of considerably enhanced institutional support for non-traditional approaches to the humanities. The stagnation of the discipline has been overcome in large part by a deep immersion on the part of some scholars in the very conditions of its degenerated state, an inescapable engagement, over years, with resistances that outsiders would have belittled or ignored if they had been aware of them. But there was never any going around them; on the contrary, the way to a newer art history had to pass back through the old. The result was certainly interdisciplinary, but our incorporation of non-traditional tools and knowledge was improvised, ad hoc, and unsanctioned. We are now seeing the repetition of an old story: the refurbishment thus lent to a discipline of great social and economic importance is being appropriated from the margins into new forms of institutional empowerment. The project of critique and innovation is becoming subject to institutional habits of shaping, inclusion, and exclusion.

Critique gains legitimacy but at the cost of a certain sequestering and control. Further, there may be little pressure to extend the reach of this intellectual renewal beyond a sophisticated minority; there may in fact be counter-pressure against such extension. To take as an example the increasing prominence of centers for resident scholars, such as Speaking for the Humanities advocates, time spent in them will, of course, be a welcome respite for writing, but it will not be time for much primary research.

Further, the priorities of such centers and the attractions of their culture may divert some of the most able art historians from the frustrating but necessary work of community-building within the profession. Part of the continuing problem for us is that the project of a renewed art history (meaning simply an art history of some vividness, self-awareness, and explanatory drive) is drastically incomplete. With a majority of the field still operating according to unexamined routine, the questionable assumption is that insights gained on high can be passed down to those below without common participation. In its place, for the sophisticated minority, will come greater personal interchange with other humanists and social scientists for whom the past and present resistances of art history have little reality. Though these colleagues will doubtless be stimulating and informative in all kinds of productive ways, they will rarely be in a position to offer fundamental challenges to the way a discipline conducts itself. Official interdisciplinarity can become a substitute for just such challenges.