Recently, a colleague alerted me that there was a crisis in art history. As she reminded me, art history is always in a crisis, and I was unsurprised but sufficiently interested to dig a little deeper. That’s when I found out that not only was a crisis brewing, but that the crisis was not just “a” crisis, but “the” crisis. A session of the venerable CAA annual conference was devoted to this in 2011 and the papers eventually were collected in Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation. If you have not read the papers, I encourage you to do so as they are available online here. These papers self-admittedly form a “rough draft of [the authors’] comprehension of the situation confronting art history professionals today,” but now that some time has passed and we’ve all had a chance to digest this material, I’d like to add my two cents. I’m not entirely convinced that there’s a crisis in all of art history, as much as there is a crisis in some art historians. If pushed, I’d have to admit that I believe the crisis is not in art history, the crisis is art history.
The main crisis (and one which unpacked into separate, smaller crises) identified by the authors is the interest in contemporary art and its effect on the employment landscape for art historians whose interests lie outside this field. It is a crisis, but perhaps not in the way that this panel suggested. Providing a very narrow training for jobs that are increasingly rare does suggest fundamentally that the training art history programs provide to graduate students is in desperate need of retooling. Yet, rather than address the limits of the educational experience that the advanced study of art history often provides (and look for ways to change this even), the panel demonized the popularity of contemporary art, the art market in general, and offered little in the way of meaningful solutions. Ironically, although the popularity of the panel (even to the inclusion of a photograph of a standing room only audience) was used to validate the self-evident nature of its importance, the same courtesy was not shown to contemporary art, whose popularity was presented as intellectual vapidity and a general decline of the profession.
One of the themes linking the papers together was the pernicious influence of the market and the subsequent rise of contemporary and modern art in academia and museums as a result. As Pat Mainardi stated in her introduction, “The problem, as I see it, is that art history has become part of the global economy, but not all art history can participate in this economy: only contemporary art offers the kinds of economic benefits that can be reaped by these international emporia.” For Mainardi, this is another indication of what she termed the new generation’s “presentism,” an approach she defines as largely ahistorical and one that threatens to undermine the field with the “risk of producing one-dimensional and shallow intellectuals whose area of expertise is already irrelevant by the time they complete their degrees, whether MA or PhD.” Although a thoughtful person might politely ask “irrelevant to whom?” (because certainly different audiences may have differing ideas of relevance), this is not a question the panel addresses.
To me, this signals that the crisis within art history is but a straw man, a convenient fiction that hides the fundamental fact that many art historians have no sense of who or what their audiences are or have become. Schooled in the notion that a priori “art history matters” (and more over that historical art matters) they fail to understand their place in history: art history and historical art meant specific things at a specific time to the audience they engaged. To emerging audiences, art, art history, and historical art may mean radically different things; if you want to connect with these new audiences, it will undoubtedly be on their terms, and these are not necessarily consonant with ones previously learned in graduate school. Many of the papers lamented what Mainardi defined as “presentism,” the attention that contemporary art and contemporary art history is receiving by an emerging generation. Missing from the dialog was the fact that art history often engages in this “presentism,” and as a practice has been defined historically by the influence of markets, contemporary concerns (which only recently have aligned with contemporary art), and perceptions of cultural cachet.
Indeed, to maintain that the influence of markets is perverting a purer type of art history is naïve on a number of fronts, the most obvious of which might well be the notion of pure art history. It also requires that we ignore the vast history of markets and collections in order to maintain—as many do—that the academic study of art exists separately from the marketplace. The idea sounds nice, but is it true? Are the works of the Renaissance that many venerate not the result of wealthy private and state patrons consuming the work of contemporary artists? Is Fragonard’s oeuvre less important because he refused state patronage and thought he could do better for himself engaging private patrons? Are the modern paintings in the Metropolitan Museum given by the Havermeyers somehow less important / useful / desirable because they were collected by wealthy patrons? And what about Albert C. Barnes? I think if we look closely throughout history we will find not only that markets have always been integral to art, but—because of the influence of the wealthy in establishing collections and institutions—art history too.
This phenomenon is not confined to the primary market—interactions between artist and patron—but exists as a result of the secondary market too. Scholarship tracks closely with market forces and this is neither bad nor new. How many books on 19th century American Art history existed before Maxim Karolik’s donation to the MFA in Boston? Without Karolik’s money, and the subsequent interest generated in the market—through exhibitions and research—would John I H Baur, Barbara Novak, William Gerdts, Ted Stebbins, or John Wilmerding have had the same opportunities in this field? Would there be any sustained study of the American Arts and Crafts had the market for these objects not picked up in the 1960s? Would the American Wing at the Met have existed without pioneer collectors and record prices being paid by collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? It seems doubtful, since from the founding of the Met in 1870 all the way up to 1908, the Museum had no Colonial American decorative arts collection. It wasn’t until the Hudson Fulton exhibition (made up entirely of loans from private collectors) that the Met began a sustained interest in American Colonial Furniture. The first major collection to enter the museum was that of H. Eugene Bolles who sold his collection to Mrs. Russell Sage for the unheard of sum of $100,000.
With a little perspective, Patricia Rubin’s belief that “Invoking crisis in 2011 is a call to attend to the precarious situation of art history as a commodity in a market of wildly fluctuating values” is no truer now that it has been in the past. The main difference is that for the first time in a long time there is a substantial number of art historians whose interests are not necessarily attuned with those of contemporary collectors. Never having considered how their own research and employment was in line with market values and the cultural cachet of their generations, they operated on the assumption that the interests of their generation were universal facts, rather than a temporary condition. Instead of viewing these changes as a natural part of the human process to which we are all vulnerable, it has become a “crisis.”
Please feel free to comment as you wish, knowing that I have chosen to moderate comments after receiving numerous commercial posts and one rather unprofessional post directed at a student and her work. Provided you are not selling something, I am happy to approve your comments whether you agree with my review or not. I'd even welcome some healthy debate on this topic.