How Out of Date are Books on Art History?

Late last year another book explaining the history of art history – its methods and theories – was published in paperback. Oddly enough, there are in fact very few of these types of books looking at which theories on art prevailed and when, and who the art historians were who helped sew these theoretical seeds. Another one is always a valuable reflection on what art historians have done with their careers. It’s perfectly understandable that most of these books have come out over the last 20 years, in an age where the discipline itself has seen take-over bids from visual culture and media studies, such texts allow art historians working today to reassert themselves and their discipline. Indeed, after the 1970s discovery of the ‘political corruption’ of art history, it has seemed that the one legitimate way of still serving the discipline is to record these political underpinnings.

What completely baffles me however is that none of these books look at the actual practice of the art historian. What I mean by that is they neatly chop the last couple of hundred years into chunks like ‘empiricism’ and ‘feminism’, but they never talk about what tools the art historian uses (other than theory) to make such analyses. The difference between van Gogh’s brush strokes and Pollock’s drizzles is fundamental to shifts in thinking about art. The difference between  an art historian who relied on published books alone to research and disseminate her ideas and one who works in the e-age is equally relevant to our understanding of art history, and yet it’s NEVER discussed in these books.

For starters, this elevation of theory over practice obscures what art historians do with their lives on a day to day basis, making the discipline inaccessible to newcomers, but also avoids the very urgent need to engage with what different technological formats actually do to theory itself! How long can we go on pretending that web 2.0 and doesn’t radically alter the way in which we look, think and write about art?

Posted via email from Charlotte’s posterous

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