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Sabeth Buchmann und Karin Gludovatz, Tom Holert, Miwon Kwon, Pamela Lee, Gregor Stemmrich, Blake Stimson, Beate Söntgen and Eric de Bruyn

The State Of Art History Survey

The articles that were published in the last "art history" issue of "Texte zur Kunst" - as far back as 1994 - tried to provide and to propose a panorama of methodologically attractive approaches then almost unknown in the context of German-speaking art history - including the work of Georges Didi-Huberman, Christopher Wood, Whitney Davis, Mieke Bal, Thomas Crow and others. Almost twelve years later, the necessities and complexities in the vast field of development related to art history (and art theory) have probably become much too demanding to choose a similar approach. This is especially true with regard to the still not universally accepted status of research concerned with modern and contemporary art. There is also reason to claim that already a plain description of the "state of the art" may cause one to refrain from descriptive simplicity: Art history, art theory, critical studies, curatorial studies, visual studies, cultural studies, and their respective agendas and neighboring "studies" - each of these formations holds its own set of interdisciplinarity and claims of genuine competence. The very notion of career in all these sectors is undergoing changes that go beyond previous "liberal" connotations of "working in the cultural field". Cross-overs are being institutionalized. Studying "fine arts" or "applied arts" can lead to a doctoral thesis and to an academic career. Studying art history can lead to a professional occupation as a cultural manager, a curator, as a gallerist, as an art critic.

For quite some time, this magazine has made an attempt to situate itself in between academic modes of thinking and writing about art - and the (not only "inspirational", but crucial) contributions that artists' thinking and writing have offered in the course of the last decades. We have always been particularly interested in the theoretical and historical relevance of what today would almost certainly be labeled "artistic research" - the practice of theory as an extended mode of artistic production and its validity within academic discourses.

The introduction of varied new forms of academic constitutions in a European context is not easily compared to long-running processes within, for example, the generally still more interdisciplinary structure of academia in the United States. But diverse new forms of legitimation are being copied back and forth between disciplinary contexts (e.g. in "visual studies", "Bildwissenschaft", "media studies"), a legitimation that is also thought to provide long-term security and prosperous existence for art history and art theory. It does not seem necessary to speak of a "spectacularization" of formerly remote fields of study. It may suffice to observe that the institutional protagonists are seeking a controlled form of visibility for their respective brand of interdisciplinarity, and to examine the efforts that are being made to "open up", to "connect" disciplines whose scientific character had been contested for quite some time - in order to discern a set of groundbreaking and fundraising strategies under the form that tends to become a unified rhetoric of exchange and mutual inspiration between previously separate disciplines and institutions.

On a methodological level, this institutional development raises the question in how far notions of "social art history", "Institutional Critique", postcolonial and "feminist"/"queer" approaches are being integrated or leveled within those new modes of research and teaching. Even more so as the critique and revision of traditional and modernist definitions of art history once associated with those paradigms have, at least on the surface of things, become a widely accepted standard. Yet it remains open to debate in how far these ideas, that once where constitutive in the formulation of the so-called "New Art History", can claim an ongoing validity within the current reshaping of the field.

Does this description correspond to your own professional experiences? In how far do you see your institutional work as influenced by current re-formations of art history as a discipline? And how does this affect your own decisions concerning specific methods and theoretical models?

Eric De Bruyn

The State Of Art History - Eric De Bruyn

There can be no doubt that, as the editors of "Texte zur Kunst" state, "cross-overs are being institutionalized". But, of course, cross-overs have been institutionalized since the sixities, if not before. So, allow me to begin these few modest remarks on the ‘state of art history’ with a brief glimpse in the rear-view mirror.

During the fifties and sixties a sense of confidence emerged within the interdisciplinary fields of structuralism and general system theory that an integrative function could be located within the field of the social sciences. According to the self-appointed dean of systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, it should be possible to establish "a correspondence or isomorphy of laws and conceptual schemes in different fields, granting the Unity of Science"1.. Systems theory would guide the humanities across the threshold towards scientificity. The prevalent dream of interdisciplinarity was thus that of a universal mathesis of the social sciences based on a logical modality of thought; that is to say, the invention of a kind of algorithmic model of the social, which demonstrated the underlying laws and rules of symbolic exchange.

But then, of course, during the sixties a countervailing position on the strategic value of interdisciplinary studies emerged as well. This position departed from the same premise of society as a relational system, but it had a completely different end game in mind: not a unitary conception of the world, but a diffractive one. For me the "locus classicus" of such an agonistic conception of interdisciplinarity remains Roland Barthes' essay "From Work to Text". For Barthes, the text undermines all hierarchies from within by unfolding a disseminatory field of clashing, discordant voices. All of this is well-known; it has become part of the history we teach. Lesser known, but an equally important model for me, is the a-logical type of game that was played within the contemporary field of post-minimal practice. Various ploys and subterfuges were undertaken by artists such as Dan Graham, Robert Smithson or Mel Bochner, within the spaces of information in an attempt to disrupt the seemingly transparent transmission and reception of signals. The informational games of Graham and others, like those of Roland Barthes, did not lend themselves to adjudication by a higher authority. Instead, their practice was immanent to the intervals that separate the various "techniques of knowledge and procedures of discourse" as Michel Foucault would say. And it is in the gaps and disequilibriums between the different discursive formations or disciplines of knowledge that the dynamic relationships of power and resistance come into full play. A critical history of contemporary art needs to be sensitive to the dynamic topologies of power; not the orderly grids of discursive or institutional formations, but the shifting, strategic fields of "in-formation" constitute its primary space of analysis.

It is easy to complain that our disciplines and institutions of research and education tend to foster principles of uniformity and homogenization. The vast academic market for text books, readers and anthologies thrives on such principles and, naturally, like everyone else I am quite happy to employ such time-saving devices in my own teaching. Is it, therefore, inevitable that a "leveling" occurs of the post-structural, social historical, post-colonial or feminist approaches that made up the former, fractious terrain of the "new art history"? I'm not so disheartened. No doubt it is a shame that we often find ourselves engaged in a kind of rearguard battle by coming to the defense of the methodological advances of the past three decades. It's a challenging task to provide a younger generation of students with a clear grasp of what was at stake in the former debates surrounding the "politics of theory" while living through a period that foolishly prides itself on having established a post-ideological order. New problems come into focus, Gilles Deleuze reminds us, when we inquire how a social "diagram of forces" differs from the stratified disciplinary formations: "no doubt the diagram communicates with the stratified formation stabilizing or fixing it", he writes in "Foucault", "but following another axis it also communicates with (...) other unstable diagrammatic states."2. Already in the eighties, if not earlier, Deleuze proposed that the former "carbon circuits" of power were being destabilized through the establishment of a kind of feedback loop with the new "silicon circuits" of the cybernetic human-machine. In this lapidary statement we may find an alternate view of contemporary art history, which cannot be easily captured with the existent array of art historical methods and approaches. But does this mean that I am advocating that art history merge with media studies? No, not at all. What I contend is that we consider the disciplinary field of art history, like Deleuze's diagram, to be open to an ‘outside’; that is, as a metastable system that internally restructures itself through constructing a strategic connection or, if you will, feedback loop with other disciplines. It is possible, for instance, to redefine the changing status of the museum in terms of an informatic or mediatized worldview. The pervasive influence of a corporate model of business management and the increasingly spectacular nature of its exhibition space can be regarded as the two prominent features of the contemporary museum. It is also clear that contemporary artistic practice maintains a conflicted relationship to this transformation of the museum, particularly in its frequent deployment of large-scale projections. Cinema, for instance, has now fully entered the discourse of both art history and the museum. While art history long blinded itself to the correlations between filmic practices - both mainstream and experimental - and modern art, the notion of a "cinema of exhibition" is no longer a stranger to us. In short, the re-inscription of film within the field of the visual arts is long overdue, but it also proves that the former divide between the apparatuses of cinema and the museum has lost much of its critical relevance for the present. Indeed, the dominant paradigm of cinema that operates within the current field of artistic production is that of the archive (think, for instance, of the work of Pierre Huyghe or Mathias Poledna). It follows that today's museum should be defined less in terms of a so-called post-medium condition than in terms of a logic of re-mediation, which strives to assimilate all formal, technical, and narrative effects of the "old" media.

We should not be too quick to conflate the structures and processes that go by the name of "information" with the dematerialized, simulacral world of advanced capitalism: they are not synonymous with a transcoding of material things and bodies into the virtual chains of sign-exchange value. A genealogy of information is not the same as a history of the information society, nor will it only administer to such new disciplines as ‘digital art ’. The pathways, circuits and machines of communication are not only located in the latest computer technology; furthermore, these informational networks are lived in specific, embodied ways, which are not always compliant with the dominant protocols of control.

In short, art history doesn't need to consider itself in competition with media studies: both fields have a lot to offer each other as long as we do not identify media studies with a utopian celebration of cyberspace or similar expressions of technological optimism. In Alexander Galloway's recent book, "Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization", a plea is made for a materialist turn in media studies - "no more vapor theory"3., he exclaims in approval with Geert Lovink. It is on such ground that art history and media studies can have a productive dialogue, without there being any question of copying another's research agenda or seeking another's legitimation. The present workings of a (bio-)politics of information and control is the concern of both disciplines. So there "is" a clarity to our moment and we select our weapons accordingly. There is, however, a final, more sour note that deserves to be sounded. I must agree with what "Texte zur Kunst" states about the rampant professionalization that has overrun the art world. The educational system, for instance, has not simply become more spectacular, it has become informatized. By this, I do not only mean the (sometimes enforced) introduction of software and information technology within the classroom. Even more problematic is the increasing impact of managerial modes of control on the academic curriculum. The current fixation in Dutch universities on the regimented instruction of "competences" and "skills", and the implementation of elaborate procedures of continuous evaluation, tend to make more exploratory modes of teaching difficult, if not impossible. Within this new managerial order, the slogan of interdisciplinarity has become a means towards the economization and streamlining of the curriculum, with an eye turned towards the demands of an ever more ‘flexible’ labor market.

It is apparent that interdisciplinarity has more than one guise in the present and that it is susceptible to more than one ‘diagram’ of capture. A journal, such as "Texte zur Kunst" that seeks, against the grain of the times, "to situate itself between academic modes of thinking and writing about art", certainly wins my support. And as long as art history itself can maintain the type of schizoid, playful attitude that I admire in the above mentioned artists and writers, the discipline will remain in good health. I, for one, would never want to see art history speak in name of the "Unity of Science". Rigorous, yet inexact, as Deleuze would say, such are the criteria we should strive for.


[1]Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory, New York 1968, p. 87.
[2]Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, Minneapolis 1986, p85.
[3]Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, Cambridge, Mass./London 2004.

Pamela M. Lee

The State Of Art History - Pamela M. Lee

"The New Art History". After a decade or more since this expression became part of the field's "lingua franca", we need revisit its disciplinary implications relative to the state of the humanities more generally. Indeed your survey calls for thoughts on whether or not a range of theoretical approaches linked with the generalizing rubric of "the new art history" might still "claim an ongoing validity within the current reshaping of the field". I'm tempted to consider this question by means of "externalizing" the issue of validity or relevance; that is, to look at forces outside art history, rather than within it, as playing a formative role in our discipline's changing constitution. For all the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity to which art history has long grown accustomed, there seems to be little reflection on how institutions (that is, universities) promote and configure these relationships and what potentially deleterious effects this may have on the field itself. For as much as art history has internalized the questions and approaches of other disciplines, so too have its methods and materials been instrumentalized from the outside. We can no longer afford to look at these gestures as intellectually innocent - as finding their impetus exclusively through epistemological self-analysis. University politics, rather, have had an undue influence on both our research methods and the bureaucratic vehicles that would support them. As the American university becomes progressively subjected to the demands of the service economy, perhaps its high time we apply the lessons of institutional criticism to the very institutions that manage the history of art.

The tone of these opening remarks (admittedly cautionary bordering on paranoid) are at some remove from the "promesse de bonheur" associated with "The New Art History". There's no doubt that when the expression "The New Art History" began circulating in the early nineties, it announced a decisive break with the "formalist" methods long employed for the study of modernism in particular. (I use scare quotes around the term "formalist" to suggest that the formalism that came under attack in these arenas was often something of a caricature - a methodological straw man.) For the most part, that shift was welcome. At long last the canon was breaking open and new perspectives were brought to bear on the way art history was taught, mostly because - in the most sophisticated accounts at least - the terms of history were placed under some erasure. For this reason it's more than a little strange that, to present day ears, the phrase "New Art History" has a paradoxically quaint ring to it, much as the expression "New Criticism" invites retrograde associations for the study of literature. To be sure comparisons between the two approaches might seem to stop at the level of consonance: The "new" art history entails an opening onto other disciplinary tools and questions whereas, in stark contrast, the "new" criticism undertook textual analysis as a closed system of sorts. Even still the comparison is oddly instructive for the purposes of your survey. That both approaches advance claims for novelty in terms of what we might call their "discipline-specificity" underscores the shifting (because historical) values accorded the notion of disciplines themselves.

I was recently reminded that the notion of both the scientific and humanistic disciplines finds its roots in the feudal language of trade guilds: guilds were meant to protect and advance the interests of a given métier and the constitution of academic disciplines follows a comparable logic. When we revisit the "New Art History" with this in mind, the matter of interdisciplinarity takes on a different resonance, with the university acting as the master arbiter in these relations. At Stanford, where I teach, a number of my art history colleagues have detected a growing sense of "visual envy" within other departments, so much so that classes that very much look like art history appear across the disciplinary spectrum. I'm of several minds about these developments. On the one hand, there's nothing more pleasurable than, say, reading a philosopher or literary critic grapple with a work of art in a way that honors each discipline's respective vernaculars while simultaneously advancing a polemic specific to their own. But I also worry that the impulse to interdisciplinarity is a little too welcome on the part of university administrators: that the models invoked by the "New Art History" might inadvertently dovetail with the kind of institutional streamlining that has seen the elimination of smaller academic departments over the last decade. I've heard colleagues from other institutions likewise express the fear that the history of art acts more and more like an elective to other departments. In this regard, it's worth remembering that, from the perch of university politics, interdisciplinarity does not always translate into relations of reciprocity.

Blake Stimson

The State Of Art History - Blake Stimson

My own sense is that the tenor of your query is exactly right. Our enterprise has indeed seen a period of unprecedented professionalization in the wake of the New Art History’s rough-and-tumble upheaval. This is evident in assorted predictable trends, including the mix of increasing specialization on the one hand with increasing homogenization on the other - specialization into the various field designations you list and more (such as the existing "Technocultural Studies" and future "Modernist Studies" programs here at UCDavis that I have contributed to, for example), and homogenization into a governing tone of strained institutional civility that suggests that any differences between fields, positions and methods are a matter of turf or "academic politics" rather than of politics proper. Such bureaucratization is not all bad, of course: among other things it shores up the apparatus of Art History (and its cognates) and thereby ensures the necessary institutional conditions for our work to be done, regardless of whether that work is good, bad or indifferent. So too it reduces the squandering of energies on infighting that could otherwise be spent on research. That this bureaucratization which rises out of our own internal professional dynamics fits hand-in-glove with larger institutional mandates for downsizing, upsizing or otherwise reallocating of ressources is neither here nor there either as these are largely beyond our control and themselves have mixed results. In my view the real worry lies instead only in the new complacency, in the ease with which the myriad new field designations sometimes carry on as if they have their own coherent and isolatable objects of study - media, say, or film, or technoculture - that are rightfully their special preserve. Such complacency, in the end, is no different from that art history held now long ago for its own cloistered preserve of high Art. The enduring measure of the New Art History that is threatened, thus, is that sense of vitality, purpose and significance it sometimes heralded with the catchphrase "the contest of meaning".

There is another perspective that can be brought to bear on this question, one that I take largely from Cultural Studies denizen Michael Denning (particularly his incisive 2004 "Culture in the Age of Three Worlds"). At issue for this perspective is the meaning of culture for the residual Cold War university, on the one hand, and for its emergent neoliberal replacement on the other. The broad outline of this change is a familiar story for art historians: where culture research found its governmental and societal sanction as an ideological demonstration of diversity and autonomy during the Cold War, culture research in the neoliberal university has found its justification in the name of "visual literacy" and training in other skill sets suitable for the global knowledge industries. (It might be said that the tension we are considering here surrounding the quest for new forms of interdisciplinarity arises generally from this cross of older and newer purposes.) What may be less familiar to art historians, however, is Denning’ s insider’s account of the institutionalization of Cultural Studies at precisely the moment when culture as a value lost its geopolitical reason for being to culture as a skill. From this perspective, the search for new methods and new objects both evidenced in the proliferation of "studies" areas is moot. Just as the notion of culture shifted long ago for Art History (as for everyone else) from a singular universal Culture to plural variegated cultures, from the humanist’s pursuit of being cultured to the anthropologist’s study of one’s own or someone else’s individual culture (thereby giving rise to the possibility of Cultural Studies and related fields), so too now the concept of culture may need to change dramatically again. Indeed what we may need now is not the study of culture at all, at least not in its usual Cold War ruse as a kind of middle ground between the individual and the social, but instead to reconsider the meeting of individual experience and social participation in new ways. One way to do that may be to begin with a rethinking our own roles as mediators for a knowledge-based economy along the lines that sociologist Beverly J. Silver has given in her expansive 2003 study "Forces of Labor": "Like textile workers in the nineteenth century and automobile workers in the twentieth century, education workers (teachers) are central to processes of capital accumulation in the twenty-first century."

Miwon Kwon

The State Of Art History - Miwon Kwon

I was not trained as an art historian although I am professionally identified as one now and have been teaching it (contemporary/post-1945) since 1998 at UCLA. The fact that someone of my unorthodox trajectory - formal education in studio practices of architectural design and photography (B.A. and M.A.), later in architectural history and theory (Ph.D.), with initiation into critical theory during a fellowship year at the Whitney Independent Study Program, and then on-the-job initiation into contemporary art with curatorial and editorial work at the Whitney Museum - found an institutional home in an art history department in the late 1990s, favored over other qualified candidates trained more substantially in the discipline of art history proper, speaks to one way in which "New Art History" found institutional expression in the United States at this time. That is, in addition to the kind of writing I was producing (seeking to make links between art and other disciplines and to the field of culture at large), my educational, professional, and biographical profile (Asian woman) in its very "unlikeness" with the dominant model of the art historian was an advantage. In fact, I think my very being represented a challenge to the system to some degree (at least at the sociological level), inspiring in my employers a certain expectation that my contribution in the art history department would inevitably yield a transformation of the academic field in some way.

I do not know the extent to which I have fulfilled this expectation as the bearer of new standards and values for the future of the field. Although I continue to encourage art history students to think expansively about their studies - to engage other relevant disciplines and practices including geography, literature, history, political science, film, architecture, art, design, etc. - my ambivalence about interdisciplinarity as an institutionally promoted practice increases a little every year. For one thing, this expansion is often at the cost of depth of knowledge, so much so that the relevance of moving beyond art history loses all meaning. Secondly, this tendency often renders interdisciplinarity into an automatic value that can be assessed in quantifiable rather than qualitative terms, i.e., more outside disciplines engaged is considered better no matter the nature of the engagement. But these are old complaints about institutionally sanctioned interdisciplinarity. I think true interdisciplinary work is simultaneously familiar and unrecognizable in relation to existing bodies of knowledge. Since true interdisciplinary work moves against synthesis, reveals the impossibility of synthesis, it is hard to achieve and harder to teach. This is perhaps why various visual culture and cultural studies programs that developed over the past three decades or so in the United States to challenge art history's narrowness and conservatism (in choice of objects of inquiry as well as methodologies) no longer have the critical traction that they once did. For the majority of those trained in such interdisciplinary programs do not have adequate intellectual grounding in any one discipline to contribute to its transformation. In my view, the more pressing questions confronting the discipline today are methodological. On the one hand, there is the problem of models or theories of interpretation developed through semiotics, psychoanalysis, structuralism, poststructuralism, Marxism, feminism, postcolonial studies and queer studies becoming new categories of professional specialization. (Recently, I heard a professor from another school say that they were hoping to hire not simply a modernist but a psychoanalytically-oriented modernist.) I do not know if this is a good thing or not. On the other hand, there is the backlash against theory in general (which is often conflated with the problems of interdisciplinarity mentioned above), with the call for a return to order, a return to a less mediated (i.e., less theoretically informed) engagement with the art object. I think this is a bad thing. But beyond these two conditions, the central question about methodologies that I am interested in highlighting here is the way in which those methods listed earlier, developed in relation to modern and contemporary art for the most part, are trumping older methods to the extent that they are viewed as relevant for the analysis of works other than modern or contemporary. Furthermore, since modern and contemporary art usually means Euro-American art, methodologies developed in the West (in relation to Western art) are implicitly posed as superior, too. Which is to say, a methodological hierarchy is currently developing that organizes art historical work in such a way that disturbingly repeats the older hierarchy concerning modernism's artistic production (the West comes first, it is the site of modern art's origination, the rest of the world follows). There is a tendency to lose sight of the historicity and geopolitical specificity of methods, that methodologies are themselves historical objects. We have to be especially vigilant, even skeptical, about those deemed the most advanced and thus transposable to objects and productions of different cultures and different eras.