Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 8, 1999
Mark Cheetham, Keith Moxey, and Michael Ann Holly, eds. The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspectives Cambridge University Press, 1998. 336 pp.; 47 b/w ills. Cloth (0521454905)

The editors understand this collection of essays to be concerned with “the making of art-historical meaning.” They divide the volume into sections that broadly categorize the subjects which art history has addressed since its origins in the nineteenth century: “Philosophy of History and Historiography,” “The Subjects and Objects of Art History,” and “Places & Spaces for Visual Studies.” The variety of topics and approaches found in the essays themselves, mirrors, so the compilers argue, the diversity, eclecticism and heuristic procedures of present-day art history. In the introduction the editors locate current efforts towards interpreting art in a “postepistemological age,” by which they mean two things central to all historical and literary discourse since poststructuralism intervened in the historicist accounts of culture which had predominated from the early nineteenth century until the late 1970’s. First, the editors insist on the relativity of facts, history, and truth. Here a bit of background is helpful. Historicism itself placed facts in a contingent position through the imposition of chronological time upon the events and material artifacts of the past. Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) and later studies by him and others called into question the narrative construction of events, and by so doing revealed history’s dependence on rhetoric with its emphasis on persuasion in interpretation. The impossibility of a historical truth, therefore, emerged through these critiques. At the same time the “truth” formerly thought to reside in the object of criticism itself (either the literary text or the art object) came to be questioned beginning with Roland Barthes’ essay of 1966, “Criticism and Truth.”

From this brief account of the methods of interpretation of high culture since poststructuralism it can be noted that the polygenetics of the historiography of art history have resulted in what the editors call “a bewildering array of methodological alternatives.” It is one thing to present them as such, which this volume does admirably. It is another to understand how such a collection of approaches could ever be apprehended coherently, never mind employed in the future by the graduate students who are the target audience of this volume. Here again, the editors have at least a partial solution: to understand that “the importance of the historian’s subjectivity is recognized as an essential ingredient in any historical or critical narrative.” With this injunction the second inheritance of poststructuralism found in this volume shows its face. An emphasis on the subjectivity of author and audience or reader makes itself felt in both an explanatory role in the introduction and in each essay.

The authors obviously have been encouraged to make themselves “non-innocent” by engaging with their approaches, whether historicist or poststructuralist. This works to some degree or another in virtually every essay, but most successfully in those essays where the subject of the essay is manifestly some form of subjectivity, such as in the essay by Steven Z. Levine, “Between Art History and Psychoanalysis: I/Eye-ing Monet with Freud and Lacan;” and where the methods used derive from a discourse whose main emphasis is either the subject, e.g., psychoanalysis (as in Levine’s essay), or the receiver of the visual or verbal communication, e.g., linguistics. For example, Whitney Davis explores quite successfully what he calls “homosexualism” in art history using in the main psychoanalytic approaches; Mieke Bal demonstrates how to use semiotics to read paintings; and Wolfgang Kemp attempts to forge an outline or prolegomena to an aesthetics of reception, relying on one of the off-shoots of linguistics, audience-response theory. A major strength of this book resides in the case study of particular works or artists found in every essay and with which the author tests his or her theoretical position in conjunction with material culture. When Kemp explores reception theory he encounters Nicolaes Maes’ “The Eavesdropper.” When Patricia Mathews explores the recent contributions of feminist theory to art history, she presents the case of Suzanne Valadon, constructed as—according to a variety of feminist approaches to the historical material—"the female nude, the working-class nude, the working-class woman, the woman artist, the working-class woman artist."

Of course, whether from the point of view of the interpreter or her audience, subjectivity resists monochromatic modalities of interpretation because it resides in individuals with particular experiences who exist in particular situations. Thus, there remains a certain degree of discomfort for the art historian trained before 1990 in digesting the essays in The Subjects of Art History, because the earlier historicist paradigm with which we were all nurtured both stimulated and satisfied our desires for closure and consistency in the interpretation of the object. Such discomfort must be acknowledged as part of the changes in the discipline to which the editors refer both in the introduction and in their respective essays. As Barthes realized “discourse reflecting upon discourse” requires a “special vigilance,” not only on the part of institutions—where it results in censorship and prohibition—but also on the part of every art historian whose capacity for absorption and change will be tested consistently by the essays found in The Subjects of Art History.

Catherine M. Soussloff
Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, University of British Columbia