Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 9, 2012
Margaret Iversen and Stephen Melville Writing Art History: Disciplinary Departures Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 296 pp.; 45 ills. Paper $30.00 (9780226388267)

In Writing Art History, Margaret Iversen and Stephen Melville have produced a timely book. It is neatly paradoxical. It worries about the “professionalization” of art history in research universities. Its principal readership, however, will be professional art historians in research universities. It protests pedagogical methodologism in art history—the reduction of theory to teachable methods, or “methodology.” But its own method of deconstructive close reading and rhetorical analysis is conspicuous. It has been widely legitimated as one way—maybe the best—to read good writing in the history and criticism of art, “theory” or not. These tensions are not fatal, however. They are productive, and they could spark the thinking that the authors hope for.

This thinking would involve “disciplinary departures”—passages and partings in-and-out of fore-given frames of art history. Of course, scholars of art worried about this matter in 1900, and in 1940 and 1980. But Iversen and Melville set forth this perennial topic as a juxtaposition in their last chapter between (on the one side) interpretations of one of Van Gogh’s Shoes by Martin Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro, and Jacques Derrida (writings that exemplify complex rhetorics of parting) and (on the other side) the question of art-history curriculum in the university today. Given these rhetorics of interdisciplinarity, one departure for art historians might be a (re)commitment to real curriculum in art history. “Disciplinary departures,” in other words, could be starting-points of discipline as well as leave-takings.

Writing Art History is not a call for greater “self-consciousness.” Rather, Iversen and Melville defend a kind of unconsciousness identified with thinking, writing, and reading art history, and in no way inimical to its work of theory. They commit themselves to a roster of authors and texts—curriculum?—they take to be worth reading in this light. Indeed, one particular writer emerges as a paragon of practice in writing art history, of just “doing it” as it were, in very virtue of his relative unconsciousness and theory-less-ness—namely, Michael Baxandall. Many will be sympathetic to this result. But because it is so predictable—and likely to be applauded as the best possible outcome of any reflections on writing art history today—the question of departings from Baxandall acquires new force. For me it became the main question in reading this book. For under what conditions in art history today, however “methodologized,” could one really not approve Baxandall’s inimitable “lucidity” and “subtlety” in writing art history?

Writing Art History makes its case in two registers. First, it offers readings of writers of “theory” in aesthetics and the study of art, whether or not they were art historians: readings of G. W. F. Hegel, Heinrich Wölfflin, Alois Riegl, Aby Warburg, Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, Erwin Panofsky, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Schapiro, Roland Barthes, Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and others. In part this selection reflects Iversen and Melville’s expertise in Hegelian and post-Hegelian philosophy and aesthetics. And in part it flows from their resistance to “methodology.” Unlike “theory” associated, say, with structural linguistics or ethological behaviorism, the philosophies in question often do not provide or entrain replicable or scientific methods, unless they are the methods of thought itself—of imagination, self-criticism, uncertainty, and relativity.

Iversen and Melville are well aware that their canon is Eurocentric. Aware—but not especially apologetic. Fair enough, I think. James Elkins has recently suggested that “world art studies” might “experiment with avoiding Benjamin, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, and the rest” as a way to resist the globalization of Western philosophies of mind, art, and history. His healthy experiment will, I hope, be taken up. But in relation to it, Iversen and Melville encourage rereading European philosophical resources for art writing that were largely in place by 1980. Again, fair enough. Writing Art History is partly about denormalizing and defamiliarizing “theory” that arguably could be said to have had its chance.

The tactic—the method—is to read said theory so as to protect it from “methodology.” The aim is to (re)enable (the reading of) writing in art history that has been fairly successful in this regard—that remains maximally inimitable or self-resistant to scientization. This art writing may have transferential contexts. But it is not “transferable,” a package of “abstract methods and skills” (8). Its canon (distinct from the canon of “theory”) includes “such figures as Svetlana Alpers, Tim Clark, Hubert Damisch, Michael Fried, Joseph Koerner, Rosalind Krauss, Leo Steinberg, and others” (x; cf., p. 191; the “others” aren’t named). In Writing Art History, some of these writers are “read” in set-pieces of critical interpretation—Baxandall, Steinberg, and Damisch. Others are not, really: Clark a tiny bit, Koerner and Alpers not at all. And there is no systematic relation set out between the canon of “theory” and the canon of art writing—any single such calibration would be impossible and undesirable—beyond the general thought that some of the art writers read some of the theorists (and vice versa) and some of the theory helps a reading of some of the art writers (and vice versa).

A short review is not the place to address the individual readings in detail. They are incisive, literate, and illuminating, often in the most academic matters of philology, translation, and hermeneutics. Often they are quite original relative to—well, to what? Well, relative to handbooks of theories and methods in art history that deal at similar length with the same texts. Iversen and Melville are circumspect about these. They never name the names of any writers who reify “methodology” as teachable. It seems that they would not blame that vice on the hardworking advocates or conscientious communicators of art history—on, say, the two fair-minded authors of Art History: A Critical Introduction to Its Methods, Michael Hatt and Charlotte Klonk (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006). Rather, the blame falls abstractly on “the university” in its technological-bureaucratic and corporate “excellence”—the “university in ruins” in the phrase adopted by the authors from Bill Readings. But are Hatt and Klonk tools of the university in ruins? It’s not quite clear.

This takes me to the second level of Writing Art History. Its readings are animated, as I’ve noted, by a wish to preserve strong writing (both the canon of “theory” and the canon of admired art writing) from “methodology.” But not any methodology. Writing Art History is practically a textbook of deconstructive criticism, of reading (writing) against itself and in close attendance on its aporias and unspokens and on such extra-methodical conjunctions—such apparitions—as the congruence of its verbal rhetoric with the figural or formal order of its visual object. In this regard, like some of the art writing it canonizes it (re)invests in a theory of essential difference between verbal and visual, even though alternate accounts of imaging—verbal and visual—might be available. Indeed, its critique of “methodology” is somewhat skewed by this theory. As Iversen and Melville imply, it might well be incoherent to try to set up methods to transfer “visual” into “verbal” if they are essentially different. But if they are not, we would not need “method” for very different reasons than the authors’. Or alternately, we would need it to model kinds of transfer the authors’ theory would categorically foreclose.

Iversen and Melville know that it is not enough to try to disentangle theory, writing, and thinking from moments of “methodology,” though it is always a valid objection that methodology—like theory, writing, and thinking—can be entangled with “technology” in Heidegger’s sense. Still, if methodology simply is the moment of technology in art history, as some passages of Writing Art History could be taken to imply, then the book implodes. Surely reading and writing about art are sometimes methods of thinking against technology, or without it. Indeed, if Writing Art History is right they can methodically be shown to be such. In other words, Iversen and Melville’s abstract critique of “methodology,” however well taken, layers over a dispute about particular methods in thinking against technology in art history, that is, in keeping it open to transference with its objects even as it is constituted in differentiating itself from them. Unlike the critique of methodology as such, this dispute is not abstract. Names are named.

“Erwin Panofsky” is the name of a network of methods and theories that supposedly reify “historical distance” as the ideal of art history—of “objectivity” and “detachment” attained in framing and unframing aesthetic experience, whether past or present. If its “primary intellectual activity” is interpretation, its error, readers are told, is to present interpretation as a “stance toward the world” (thus method) instead of the “actual lived shape of its inhabitation, thus bottomless and not conformable to the strictures of method,” as “Heidegger’s picture of interpretation” would have it (25). A good part of Writing Art History consists in reconstructing variants of the Heideggerian picture in and for art writing.

I will not dwell on the complexities of this topic: Panofsky’s argument with Heidegger, for example, or refigurations of his models in his own work, or ways in which his neo-Kantian phenomenology of knowledge can be read as an interpretation—a writing—of “interpretation’s necessary circularity” (23). Iversen and Melville respect them, and have careful things to say about them. Instead, I want to remark their contrast not between Panofsky and Heidegger but between Panofsky and Baxandall. For “Baxandall” is their name for a “complex refusal of ‘method’” that would rescue or redeem art history, and its activities of interpretation and explanation, from the supposed Panofskyan splitting. A Baxandall would avoid the kind of “stolidly rectangular synoptic table” that summed Panofsky’s methodological circle of iconological analysis, and his “extraordinary rhetorical alertness” and “pronounced writerly artifice” would be more subtle than Panofsky’s “much more workmanlike prose” (26). Its literal self-image would be the “conceptual game on the triangle” in which Baxandall set out the mutual inflections (in art writing as he saw it) of a cultural situation in the past, the terms of artistic intention therein, and descriptions of the (art) objects then projected as visible now—what Iversen and Melville call his allegory of “the historical explanation of pictures” as “bridging” past and present, even “spanning” them (not distancing) (34). What counts for Iversen and Melville is not only the elegance and resilience of Baxandall’s inferential criticism. It is also that it “models not method but art’s actual history” (ibid.), the dynamic self-criticism of art suspended in history. As a “complex refusal of ‘method,’” it does not seem to model Panofsky’s methods, even if it does seem to model the authors’: for them, “Baxandall’s diagram of the triangle of reenactment [can be seen] as a radical revision of and alternative to Panofsky’s synoptic table” (ibid.).

This absolute division of a Panofskyan methodologism and its Baxandallian “refusal” is a bit dubious. Any differences between the methodological circle and the triangle of reenactment become harder to see when both circle and triangle are used—as thinking and for writing—in critical art history; both must become more and more like “Hegel’s dialectical image of the spiral shape assumed by knowledge” (23) on the move, though both are susceptible to routinization and reduction. Indeed, in “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline” (1938) Panofsky himself described the process in which the “real objects of the humanities come into being” as an activity of reenactment, which he parsed in intricate relation to “recreation,” “reactivation,” “reconstruction,” and “relativity.” In Patterns of Intention (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), Baxandall did not cite any of this. He credited R. G. Collingwood for the “concept of reenactment.” But Collingwood’s conclusions were more radical and unsettling; they imply that sometimes there need be no distance at all between cognition in the past, the present, and the future. In fact, Baxandall had to modify Collingwood in a crucial respect: Collingwood’s “reenactment” cannot begin to work unless the object reenacted is a thought, not feelings or sensations, as in the arts. Panofsky’s phenomenology of objects constituted by viewers as art had no such restriction. Baxandall’s understanding of artistic intention as “situated volition” is close to it. If anything, it was even more Kantian: artistic thought transpires in intuition (as art itself), not in discourse about art (let alone the concepts that Collingwood claimed can be cognitively reenacted). For this reason the “dialectic of process” in the history of style was just as important to Baxandall as to Panofsky—probably more so.

I would see less parting, then, between “Panofsky” and “Baxandall”—postures vis-à-vis method in writing art history—than Iversen and Melville. (And I would also see different partings: Baxandall derived his theory of art-as-thought in part from reading the historiography of classical Chinese painting—not on Panofsky’s horizon at all, nor included in the canon of art writing nominated in this book.) This takes nothing away from the strength and relevance of their readings. Anyway my reservations may be a bit irrelevant. By their own lights, the authors could not be happy to see their book become “a reading” assigned in classes in “theory and method” in art history, as it surely will. Driven and riven by the irony of its situation, their cri de coeur might end up being just as distant from its objects—art, writing, and theory—as the methodologies it deplores.

Whitney Davis
George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of History of Art, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley

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