Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 2, 2020
Theoretically Speaking . . .: David Carrier, Michael Ann Holly, and Andrei Pop in Dialogue

Scenario: The three former field editors for theory and historiography reflect on the state of the field(s) and try to place reviewing in the theoretical life of art history as it has been practiced historically—and as it is practiced today.

Andrei Pop: To start us off: theory and historiography strike some people, especially working art historians, as disembodied. Is there a vivid memory you have from your stint editing for, one that jumps out at you? Passionate exchanges with a reviewer or author? Or with a reader or book?

David Carrier: In general, the biggest problem was getting reviewers. The young are afraid of offending elders; the seniors are too busy. And of course in smallish fields, avoiding conflicts is damned difficult. (I wrote also for Artforum, and only when I went to China did they show me the “conflict of interest” statement.) I am not so concerned about conflicts, if only because many areas are balkanized and because conflicts are inevitable in any intellectually lively field. It you don’t like T.J. Clark, what can you say about his pupils’ work? There are certain fields that (for reasons I don’t fully understand) inspire endless back-and-forth discussion. At Leonardo we had to adapt a rule: no more comments on the comments on the comments about essays on perspective. That said, there’s no reason reviews shouldn’t count as much as any other scholarly publication.

Michael Ann Holly: The disembodiment of theory and historiography is, perhaps, inevitable—but only because some scholars like to claim that they do history, not theory, as though the two can be neatly separated with their own sharp scalpel. The discipline, they often claim, is called “art history,” not “art theory” or “art criticism.” After the heyday of theory in the 1980s (an attempt to reform a “backwater” humanities discipline somewhat dully dedicated to the artist as genius, connoisseurship, and the catalogue raisonné through recourse to poststructuralist theories then enlivening other disciplines) and then the 1990s (a decade of “moral urgency,” with feminism, race, and queer studies leading the charge), I began my editorship. Perhaps I was nostalgic, but I wanted to see reviews of books that continued this momentum by not returning to business as usual. Today I sense that what art historians write has often turned these interests inside out: they often rightly claim that theory and historiography (not the same thing of course) have become submerged in our field, become part of the fabric of art history. Is this invisibility a good thing or not?

AP: In 2018, celebrated twenty years of publication, and it strikes me that three editors in twenty-one years is not that many. (It is now four, with Jenny Anger!) Does this speak to a sense that theory is timeless, or just for the few? Did you feel a sense of historical change in what you were editing between the inception and conclusion of your work?

MAH: Really? I can’t remember how long I did this, but I guess time flies when you are having fun. If there was a change, I guess I could detect it most easily in the significant expansion of interest in global art history and postcolonial theory in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism [Pantheon, 1978]. I like to think that the changes were mirrored at the same time in the grounding of the Research and Academic Program at the Clark. We began engagements with research institutes and university departments in Central and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and South Africa in order to remind ourselves, as well as [practitioners of] well-established historiographic traditions, of the need to take the non-Western world into consideration. We also highlighted topics ranging from object histories to studies in historiography and intellectual history, to institutional examinations, to questions in aesthetics—asking not only the “who, what, when, and where” questions that a serious scholarly commitment to the study of the past can yield but also the “why"s as they relate to the studies of the humanities in the contemporary moment. A heavy order for a new and small research institute in the visual arts.

AP: Certainly I couldn’t help noticing that monographs on the Vienna School, which once viewed their heroes in largely philosophical terms, now tend to approach them through postcolonial lenses, as scholars try to negotiate the patrimony of a multinational empire (the Habsburgs). That brings me to my next question: do art historians in fact need to know, or put more strongly, to do the history of their field, even in young regional subfields, or the methods taking off from those Michael just mentioned, like decolonial or eco-art history? In other words, do all ideas have histories?

MAH: But of course. As an avowed historiographer, would you expect me to say anything else? I love digging around in the intellectual history of the history of art. To do art history of today, it is imperative to know where that commitment and practice comes from. Nothing arrives on the scene fully formed from Zeus’s brow; any idea that sticks, however momentarily, has an origin story as well as a developmental history, however brief.

DC: I agree totally. When I moved from philosophy into art history, I was much influenced by Hayden White, whose accounts of the rhetoric of history writing were a revelation to me. Is he still read?

AP: I think so; perhaps not as much. Recently I heard Martin Jay lecture about White’s debate with Carlo Ginzburg in the nineties on historical truth claims in light of the Holocaust. Jay thought that radical claims about the rhetorical or fictional nature of history had not stood up in the face of renewed ethical and political stakes of history writing. No doubt White thought that exposing history’s literariness also had such stakes. I was never too impressed by his argument, in part because he thought it applied even to physics, in part because I thought it had been stated, more sensibly and moderately, by Peter Gay. But for you, David, it was the gateway to theory?

DC: One gateway, yes. Another, ultimately more important for me, was Paul Barolsky’s accounts of Vasari’s rhetoric. But about theory: I can only tell a story that shows how naive I was. My first Penn State book, Principles of Art History Writing (1991), sold well (for an academic book) and thus made it possible for them to do some other books that didn’t sell. Why? Because I rode the then new interest in theory! But I didn’t have any such plan.

AP: I want to come back to just what we mean by “doing theory.” Is theory—whether this be sui generis art theorizing, perhaps partly by artists, or a branch of Continental “critical theory” or philosophical aesthetics (among other options)—continuous with historiography or with art history “proper”? Should it be a kind of meta–art history?

DC: I honestly don’t know what to say about theory in art history. Speaking as a philosopher, I can only say: the various French poststructuralists were never taken seriously in the mainline departments but were, of course, embraced in literature departments. I imagine that there was a felt desire for art history also to have a theory. This is a way to understand the role of Norman Bryson, with whose writing I was modestly involved in the 1980s—why, we even wrote an essay together! I know that circa 1900 German art history was involved with theory; Michael has taught me something about that. But my sense is that right now it’s hard to use those theoretical materials, just because the whole discipline’s changed. You have to do two things: explain Erwin Panofsky, Alois Riegl, and Aby Warburg, and relate them to art. To the extent that the whole philosophical world has changed, this is a very hard task.

MAH: Critical theory is critical theory in whatever disciplinary appearance it makes or shape it comes in. If it is “imported” from another discipline, as it was from literary criticism into art history during the eighties and nineties, it still works its magic on and through the history of art. Had it not had that disruptive effect, I honestly believe that the discipline would have gradually turned to dust and blown away. From being a poor sister to literature, philosophy, and history departments in the academy, it became the place where everybody wanted to relocate. I say that from experience. As chair of the art history department at the University of Rochester for fourteen years, I even had to develop a capacious title—Visual and Cultural Studiesto accommodate all the theoretical persuasions and disciplinary “metahistorians” who wanted to join our ranks.

DC: Here is a philosophical argument for study of method. If you don’t do that in art history, then the obvious danger is that you will take for granted, as “natural,” the inherited ways of thinking, even though they of course are also philosophical. Once an art historian joked to me—he was from Scotland—that his colleagues from Oxford thought that they didn’t have an accent. Well, everyone has an accent, and everyone has a method. 

AP: You have both made original contributions to art theory and historiography, to say nothing of editorial and other interventions. By contrast,, with exceptions like this project, is an organ for reviewing “rather than” for doing original work. Do reviews matter theoretically—perhaps as rational wrangling over methods or to articulate the self-understanding of the discipline?

MAH: Yes, I suppose so. But something has always bothered me about the genre of review writing. The reviewer so frequently has to adopt the archly overarching stance of seeming to know more than the author, who has spent years thinking, researching, composing, and then publishing the project. The best reviewers don’t do this prancing about. Instead they offer trenchant descriptive summaries braided around the author’s as well as their own theoretical angle on the substance of the book.

DC: Again, I agree entirely. The problem, as I see it now, is that because most books attract few if any reviews, inevitably a single review can have a disproportionate effect. Which I regret. It’s like the situation in art criticism, where the (very good!) New York Times reviewers matter in part because the Times is the only canonical national paper for reviews.

When young, I was a heartless reviewer. That I regret. What’s needed is both taking a book seriously on its own terms and also having a critical perspective. A tricky ideal. Were I editor now, I would tell writers: you can be very critical, but you need also to be very sympathetic. Do a balancing act—act confident, but be modest about your own limitations.

MAH: I agree with David: a review should be generous even as it might be critical. Nevertheless, it is always important to respect the work enough to engage it seriously and question how it actively matters to the ever-changing art historical horizon. 

AP: A follow-up question: I often hear, “I cannot review X because he is an important senior figure in my field,” or “I cannot review this book because it is deeply flawed,” or “Reviews are a lot of work and cut no ice with my tenure committee [or British REF].” Should reviewing, and debate generally, count for more?

MAH: Considering the time put into them, of course they should “count” for more. It all depends on who is doing the counting. While it is important for young scholars to engage seriously with new books, especially outside their comfort zones, I sympathize with their reluctance for all the customary reasons. If only we all could start over again and regard reviewing as one of the most significant activities of a scholar’s intellectual life, precisely because the health of the discipline is at stake, and they have a role in its future beyond commitments to their own subfields. As far as senior scholars go, I find it most perplexing that they would turn against another generation by asking them to do what they consider somewhat petty work at the same time that they dismiss (say, in tenure committees) the work they have de facto “assigned” to this younger group. A temporary solution? Ask ten or so senior scholars to choose a book that has meant the most to them in their long career and write a contemporary review of it, even if it is decades old—thus wedding historiography and reviewing. 

DC: Agreed, again. Why not ask CAA to do this?

The biggest problem: a few books get much reviewed, while many get no reviews. This is very unfortunate, for reviews provide publicity and a good perspective for the author. But I have no idea how to change this situation.

It’s the same, alas, with reviewing art exhibitions. A few shows get most of the attention, and many attract no response in print. Here, again, economic pressures, which need discussion, matter. I live in Pittsburgh, which is about to become the largest American city without a daily printed newspaper.

AP: Since we’re on the topic of the indispensability of theory and the corresponding indispensability of reviewing—are there reviews you edited for the journal that stick out? My own favorite editing experience was Monica Blackmun Visonà’s review of Hans Belting’s An Anthropology of Images [trans. Thomas Dunlap; Princeton University Press, 2011]. To estrange the universalizing assumptions of that book, Visonà compared the experience of reading Belting with her fieldwork in West Africa, treating the text as a kind of religious ceremony. The effect is witty and critical, but also, perhaps surprisingly, sympathetic.

Of course, here changes in the art discourse and the journal’s history become pertinent. The young journal covered the philosophical rediscovery of beauty in Arthur Danto’s Abuse of Beauty [Open Court, 2003] and Alexander Nehamas’s Only a Promise of Happiness [Princeton University Press, 2007], which got little coverage in art history journals. And David, you yourself reviewed widely, from Los Angeles to Beijing, from the French baroque to video art. It was a freewheeling period: field editors no longer submit reviews.

MAH: Mitch Merback’s review of Amy Knight Powell’s Depositions [Zone Books, 2012] and Jim Elkins’s review of Whitney Davis’s A General Theory of Visual Culture [Princeton University Press, 2011] go beyond being mere (and very exacting) specialist readings of the book’s detail and arguments: they craft debates about the nature of art history, its historicism and systematic ambitions, by drawing on the book under review and drawing that book into dialogue.

AP: The blurb on Chris Wood’s new book, A History of Art History [Princeton University Press, 2019], asserts that classic art historians, the kinds we read in methods classes, from Jacob Burckhardt to Meyer Schapiro and George Kubler, “struggled to adapt their work to the rupture of artistic modernism.” Is this important, and is it still true, if we replace “modernism” with “the art of our time”?

MAH: Replacing “modernism” with "the art of our time” wouldn’t work either, for two reasons: (1) these august writers were principally concerned with studying past art and doing history, even if grounded in serious philosophical thinking; and (2) Wood stops his own most impressive story with thinkers of the early to mid-twentieth century.

DC: Concerns with method probably are linked to the movement of art history toward a focus on the present (and maybe also on looking at other visual cultures—the Islamic world and China, for example). Because the entrenched methods that work for the Renaissance probably don’t apply to Cindy Sherman. The interesting transition was when Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried (and some others) tried to create a method for contemporary art. Speaking as a critic, I think that failed, as least for practicing critics, though it is true that when the New York Times speaks of “the male gaze,” something has happened. 

AP: That happened gradually, I think. British punk rockers were ranting about the gaze and simulacra forty years ago. But I take your point that art history is especially unsettled by new art: which is perhaps why Krauss and Fried distinguish between their work as historians and critics. But why should tried and valuable methods not work on recent or even future stuff? Does new art not make sense? Is an “audience” of real living people not amenable to the schematization to which we subject the dead? All this seems to point up weaknesses in our methods, not epochal breaks. Unless you like the idea of a disenchanted Weberian art history, able to ply its iconography and social history only insofar as we no longer believe the cosmologies or political ideas we study. Then art would indeed be a thing of the past, as G.F.W. Hegel says it is “for us.” I rather think it is all up for grabs interpretively, past and present.

When calls for theory and methodology became loud in the 1980s, they often implied political claims associated with a “new art history,” one more concerned with capitalism and current social conditions than individual artists or works. Does theory or historiography have political or moral urgency now?

MAH: I do regard the “new art history” of the eighties and nineties as about more than Marxism or social history. The “new” of that time swung open theoretical gates to any number of poststructural possibilities, spurred on as it was by political developments first in France and later in Germany. And now? Critical theory always has political and moral urgency, does it not, even though much of it goes unrecognized as such today—issues of identity and inclusion and global awareness, for example. As far as historiography goes, perhaps not so much urgency, since it is about the past, although a review of where art history originated, how it evolved, and where it is tending to come to rest is quietly shadowed by a certain political and moral urgency. And since critical theory instigated the crucial need for it in the first place, historiography has some of both in its DNA.

AP: I myself have commissioned more specialist books of theoretical interest than explicit theoretical treatises or monographs on art historians. And we do want individual working art historians to be philosophically sophisticated, aware of immediate and classic sources, and engaged with what social scientists and other humanists do with their objects. In addition, I’ve noticed that from Alfred Gell to Arjun Appadurai (to stick with the letter A), a great many of the books art historians have been excited about in the last two decades are from outside the field—not from “Theory” with a capital T but from other academic disciplines. None of which is to say that what Whitney Davis calls systematic or constructive work is off the table. Unless you get the sense that it is looked on askance in art history departments? This may well be happening, in an era obsessed with the shrinking of the humanities and “tangible results.”

David, your own formation is in philosophy rather than art history: do you see the fields as capable of rapprochement? There have been recent efforts, under Thierry de Duve at a recent CAA Conference, for instance [“Does Art History Need Aesthetics?,” session at the 107th CAA Annual Conference, New York, February 15, 2019], to incorporate philosophical aesthetics. Does art history need this? Does philosophy need art history?

DC: I fear that younger faculty have enough pressures learning to teach and get published. And so asking them to undertake expansive reading is difficult. It would be great if philosophers looked at art history or vice versa! Richard Brettell’s book On Modern Beauty [J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019] offers a marvelous homespun theory, but without reference to, say, the recent Nehamas book, which actually is relevant. De Duve, whom I have also reviewed, doesn’t really tackle the philosophical literature, but then again the philosophers who do Immanuel Kant don’t look at art history. You can’t do everything!

We should mention, at least here in passing, the sad economic pressures on publishing. I am an experienced author, and so if I had to go to the forty-first publisher for one recent book, then it must be hard for young writers, especially if their concerns are not fashionable. And look at the prices of books. I’m just reviewing a good Canadian book; it’s well done but costs more than one hundred dollars. I wouldn’t know about it were I not reviewing.

MAH: Without a doubt, art history needs philosophical aesthetics. To their credit, its principal founders recognized this inevitable intertwining in all that they wrote. Sometimes the emphasis swings one way, sometimes another—even today. Advanced historical research and broader philosophical insight in the visual arts cannot help but have something to do with each other in any serious study that dares to look beyond its defined borders. And, Andrei, that’s why I use the capacious term “critical theory” to signal the range of directions arguments can take.

AP: Michael, you have in your own work made historiography a live option for art historians. (I speak from personal experience, having audited your theory class with Keith Moxey at MIT.) You have also had a front-seat view of the most exciting developments as director of the Clark Institute. Is theoretical and historiographic work flourishing institutionally?

MAH: As a reader of countless successful fellowship applications (at least 75 percent seem to be about contemporary topics) over the past decade and a half between the Clark, the Getty, and ACLS, I would say that empirical studies are enjoying something of a comeback, with materiality leading the way. Yet, as soon as I say that, I think of all the exciting work in thing theory, agency, animism, et cetera. It just seems as though sometimes very focused analyses grounded in historical positivism, or else straightforward paeans to the contemporary, reveal a tendency to squash this kind of theory even though its practitioners could gain much by paying attention to these “side,” or underside, issues. On the other hand, in the wake of postcolonial theory and the decentering of modernism, the breadth and reach of global art shows no sign of slowing down. Such queries have made us all sensitive to the relations of power that once structured the art historical canon. Traditional hierarchies of space and time have been called into question even if there is currently nothing to replace them. At least historiography has emerged as a favored “critical theory” for its ability to debunk national agendas in the history of art.

At the Clark, with its founding critical commitment to inquiry in the theory, history, and interpretation of visual art, we always hope that any art historical study we sponsor will indirectly address some of these metaquestions: What is the relation between past and present? Do written texts render visual objects more accessible or more opaque? How do works of art either possess or become invested with special significance? What is the magic of art? How does art help form a cultural moment or shape history—our own and that of the past? What are the social and political functions of art historical interpretation?

DC: The best argument for reviewing: it forces you to think critically, to not just read but reread and apply pressure. You learn how to write by reviewing.

AP: What outstanding theoretical question (or unsolved problem) is closest to your heart?

DC: I couldn’t patent the word “artwriting” when I published my book Artwriting [University of Massachusetts Press, 1987]; it was already too late: the word had been much used. But it’s useful because it emphasizes the commonality of art history, art criticism, and even the descriptions of art in fiction. At this point in history we need all of the sense of community that we can get.

MAH: Not a question so much as a wish: more attention to the rhetoric, the writing, of art history.

David Carrier
Champney Family Professor, Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Institute of Art (2001–11)

Michael Ann Holly
Starr Director Emeritus, Academic and Research Program, Clark Art Institute

Andrei O. Pop
Committee on Social Thought and Department of Art History, University of Chicago