- The Shaping of Art History: Meditations on a Discipline
I first learned about art history in Paul Arnold's Introduction to Design class at Oberlin College almost a half century ago. A history major, I quickly decided that art offered me a more immediate entrée into the past than had political documents. It turned out that I was good at "analyzing" works in "compare and contrast" essays and at identifying "unknowns," and I could write a quick paragraph summarizing "historical content" that pleased my professors. On this rather thin basis, I decided to go to graduate school in art history.
Now, decades later, I seem to have survived the battles that raged in the discipline. At times I felt caught in the crossfire, or even that I was the target. These were difficult and sometimes puzzling decades for me, when scholars and whole departments asserted that only one approach was valid and that earlier art historical scholarship should be ignored. Articles and books were written that used difficult [End Page 1332] terminology, some of it drawn from other disciplines, to establish the authors' claims to the field. Writers of book reviews could be unsparing in their disdain, and some topics and papers at College Art and other conferences were inscrutable, at least to me. On occasion, narrow-mindedness and vindictiveness seemed to have taken over the ivory tower. I've sensed recently, however, that the wars are waning and that there is a new spirit of tolerance. Patricia Emison's slim book could be seen as heralding this new dawn, for after thoughtfully summarizing the development of Western art history, she states what she thinks art history must become if it is to survive.
Her thinking has been inspired at least in part by her experience teaching an undergraduate course in what is commonly called methodology and her desire that students examine the history of art history, analyze its current state, and confront a future in which they might want to own a stake. She follows a similar trajectory in her book, and her conclusion is straightforward: we need to take seriously what the earliest writers said about each work and we must avoid a narrow theoretical approach and be more inclusive. Whatever we have to say, we need to say it clearly and engagingly, a charge she fulfills admirably in this clear and well-written text. If these goals are met, she concludes, "we can have a more comprehensive and a more comprehensible history of art than any previous people has had" (96).
Emison proposes that we examine historical-cultural settings with every tool available: in studying history, she admonishes, we need to be "genuinely curious to find whatever can be found" (9). I think she would argue that an approach restricted to a single theory is flawed because no narrow methodology can withstand the changes that are inevitable in the future. She encourages the broadest possible contextual approach: "It is not a bad project to try to assemble the entirety of a historical culture as a framework for some works of art," and "nothing short of universal knowledge of a particular culture will do to equip the art historian" (89-90). She defines one important gap when she points out that art historians "still tend to ignore . . . the role of money in the making and preserving of art" (79). In the chapter entitled "Rated XX" she discusses the limitations she senses in multicultural, feminist, and queer-minded approaches to art history.
"The history of art," she writes, "ought to be an intellectual playing field where people who have different ideas about gender or about taxation or about God or about the current war can nevertheless engage one another —and not about trivialities either, but about matters worthy of great respect and farranging curiosity" (64). She urges us to be bold: "We need an art history that isn't determined by fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of giving offense...