- The Art Historical Haven within the GSA
Art history has always been a poor stepchild at the German Studies Association (GSA) conference. This continues to strike me as unusual, particularly since the very roots of US (and, indeed, global) art history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century go back substantially to major German and German-language authors. One need only think of such towering names as Heinrich Wölfflin or Aloïs Riegl. These individuals were followed by an equally impressive list of German-speaking exiles during the Nazi period including Erwin Panofsky and Arnold Hauser, among many others who put an indelible mark on English-language art history. So, where are those art historians who address German art and art historical traditions at the GSA?
If I look at the conference some thirty years ago, a somewhat arbitrary starting date which corresponds to when I was about to enter graduate school, we see some of the causes why art history was absent then. Put bluntly, art historians weren’t really invited. The program directors were appointed in thematic areas that excluded the visual arts. These areas corresponded to the stated mission of the organization to focus on “history, literature, politics, government, and other fields.”1 What was a Dürer specialist to do? Clearly, serious history and political science would dominate, with a secondary interest in German literature and language. Given that these fields were dominated by men, a field like art history with a majority of women was unlikely to make this conference a top priority. Of the fifty-seven sessions, there were only two that featured art historical scholars: a talk on August Sander in a panel on “Textual and Visual Portraits of the Weimar Republic” and one on Conrad Felixmüller on a panel on “Writing and Art in the Expressionist Period.” In contrast, the debates boiling over in art history at the time (such as struggles over developing feminist methodologies) were hardly anywhere in evidence. In this context, why would an art historian be involved?
But there were important points of contact even then, such as Marion Deshmukh, who served on the executive committee. Her research on Kunstvereine helped establish bridges, especially to a strong group of late Wilhelmine and Weimar specialists. Secondly, though, the rising interest in historical studies of the Nazi period evident at the GSA conference in 1985 dovetailed with a subsequent generation of historians [End Page 681] analyzing the culture of that period. These scholars were an important reason for my involvement with the organization: the Nazi era simply wasn’t part of the art historical equation (and, indeed, it is still largely left out of discussions except for studies of exiles or brief excurses on the “Degenerate Art” show). Hence, when I gave my first paper in 1995, it was a breath of fresh air to be in an interdisciplinary environment in which debates on the Nazi period could be actively engaged by the audience, something I could not take for granted in art historical venues. By the 2015 conference, the GSA was welcoming enough to include a Visual Culture network and, with 330 panels, it was also big enough to provide a place for everyone, including any sprinkling of art historians.
Yet one would hardly say that the discipline of art history is well represented here. The majority of art historians in the GSA are, like me, coming out of a social historical tradition (often, although not always, with an explicitly Marxist bent). We are also mostly concentrated in late Wilhelmine and Weimar art, with some of us working in the Nazi period and, more recently, postwar Cold War studies. But the vast number of art historians working on German art is still not to be seen. Part of this must be related to the recent turn toward and dominance of contemporary as a subfield within art history, which has led to a fundamental questioning of the nation-focused project associated rightly or wrongly with area studies conferences. Thus, writing about Ai Weiwei in Berlin today doesn’t necessarily mean an interest in Germany, German language, or even Berlin. This is a brave...