Does Art History Matter?
Throughout our BA Fine Art at St Martins we were taught how to speak about, relate to, reason around, (and tbh make) art using a very specific set of references & yardsticks. I remember distinctly being in a lecture theatre and the head of our course told us we’d get used to ‘art speak’ eventually, but in the meantime, until that fluency came, it was important we try to use it as often and as best we could. Before art school, my experience of that language was BBC 4 documentaries my teacher told me to catch up on so I’d fit in at art school. U kno, Alistair Sooke welling up looking at a stained glass window made by Matisse (lol), getting emotional about something so insular, I had no idea what was going on; Andrew Graham-Dixon saying something unintelligible bc I cannot for the life of me understand his posh accent. That and the enormous coffee table books in the store cupboard of the A-Level art room. We’d pull them out at the beginning of every new sketchbook term & use them to inform our research, and the most contemporary reference I had within the context of Art History until I was 19 was Jenny Saville. The rest were floaters, irreconcilable in their lineage. Wild, out of pocket encounters, staccato. I felt that these instances weren’t as weighted without the tether of context; they felt more ethereal or irrelevant. Art History is a lens through which we are supposed to be able to grapple and place things, a consistent framework that allows us all room to breathe, a map to chart our course. So, why is it so often a tool through which we exclude & abstract?
A small group of white men living in Paris in the 1900s, one or two men in New York, some across Germany. It is trite, but not incorrect, for me to declare that ART HISTORY as it stands is a visual history of the West. It is singular, linear, immutable to change or overhaul, revision or rereading. Like Ed Milliband’s campaign promises, carved into the enormous & unmoveable EdStones, Art History feels equally as enduring and perpetual. It exists as it is, hard & unbending to the forces that push up against it. It is barrier & blockade, a party line held by its vessels: the critics. Ruskin, Greenberg, Saltz, Jonathan Jones & Adrian Searle (the Ant & Dec of the darkest timeline) - - - these men embody cultural authority. But it is the authority of the default, they have the AUTHORITY to presume that their experience, their subjectivity, predicts yours. They have the authority to speak in definicies;- objektivo. These authorities hold the canon in their hands, they write for this canon: be it the canon of history or the canon of the market. It is pliable, but only to them.
I have a hot take for u: Does anyone acckcchually care? I fuckin don’t. I think actually, NO ONEE REALLY CARES about the exact kind of egg tempura Da Vinci used (b that a Japanese frying technique or not), Caravaggio could be dead for all I know, and Picasso should stand trial tbh I don’t give a single flying fuck about the man. I cannot even remember one single Titian. Mariah Carey holding the I don’t know her sign. Let’s be honest, how much of ur life rn is affected by Marcel Duchamp? It’s not that much. How often do you really reference like… Walter Benjamin? These references mean something to someone, but honestly in my life, I am more affected by Game of Thrones, Diljit Dosanjh or Sidhu Moosewala’s newest single, the whole Marvel franchise, Ariana Grande & when Love Island is back on. So whose history is it? If this matters to someone who is that person? Since we are taught to only talk about art, write about art, understand art in one specific singular way; why is this specific set of obscure references a requirement that’s seen as a barrier to entry? What does that mean for people like me when we look that in the face and say that we don’t care? If that requirement is there, what do the people that meet that requirement look like?
Contemporary art is lowkey a cult and art history’s got something to do with it. I’m just gone lift this entire paragraph from a book; Death of an Art Critic by Annika Bender (a pseudonym). Donnerstag is the name of a German blog that published art criticism, and was operational up until 2014. Annika Bender was the fictional pen-name under which a number of writers published - many of these writers were men fairly well established in their local scene, but unwilling to use their given names bc of the fear of backlash against their harsher critical words and subsequent damage to their reputation within the art world (cowards, can’t relate).
‘Not long after I started, someone sent a list over to the Donnerstag mailing list. Criteria experts use to define a community as a cult. Could it be that the art world had isolated itself socially to the point that it bore all the trappings of a cult?
Criterion 1: Elite consciousness - check. I already talked about that. The same thing goes for the second criterion: isolation from the outside world. [I feel like I don’t really have to go back and patch together quotes for this bit. We all can recognise that the art world largely believes it’s able to pursue a higher truth, that it’s enlightened beyond the realm of mere mortals. Much like many other cult communities, the art world is elitist, it claims a special & exalted status for itself, its leaders, figureheads and participants. It is also a notoriously tight-knit community, access to which is difficult (near on impossible) if you exist outside of the pipeline of the academy & formal education.]
Criterion 3: development of a specific artificial language. Sociologist Alix Rule and artist David Levine analysed the language of the global art world, “International Art English,” and traced its syntactical and terminological genealogy from French post-structuralist literature in a study a few years ago. They conclude that the specific, characteristic use of language, as is the rule in catalogues, press texts, academic art periodicals, and symposia to this day, had the highly selective effect on discourse from the beginning. Whoever knew how to use the language could “signal the assimilation of a powerful kind of critical sensibility, one that was rigorous, politically conscious, probably university trained.” That signalling effect worked so well that it had less and less to match up with actual content - the proof of belonging conveyed by linguistic panache sufficed….
Cults don’t need logic, they stand above logic, like art does. Every banality is for them inspired proof of the truthfulness of their own esotericism. Since it is a discursive omnivore with a question for every answer, you could maybe even understand contemporary art as an absolutist theory of salvation. Another one of those characteristic attributes of a cult, the fourth.
Criterion 5: peer pressure. Artists are lone warriors by definition, they’re not defending any system but their own - the body of work. But to get that work in place, most of them operate in an all-or-nothing social mode, particularly at the beginning. You gratefully accept any invitation to take part in any group show, no matter how paltry its concept turns out to be. And the same thing goes for your own work. The maxim: show everything, always - there’s no time to lose! Every invitation is an opportunity! And they’re right, all those young artists and curators: Nobody is going to use that against them. None of them can lay claim to anything, aside from a place in the network…
The bigger and weightier problem stems from the last criterion on the list of characteristics of a cult community: the discrepancy between internal and external views. That discrepancy is the result of a growing internal deficit of standards and critique. And I get the impression that, in this respect, the art work differs conspicuously from literature and theatre, branches where fights do still break out over a piece’s artistic quality.’
Art history as a singular narrative and a mandatory requirement for engagement only tightens this grip of the cult. Art history as a sole monotone inscription, from the invention of perspective in Medieval Europe until now, as a canon of events only occurring in the West, only funnels the cult deeper into its hidey-hole. If we place this much weight on the value of one canon, it makes the goalposts smaller. I find myself getting caught on the last sentence of that vvvv extended quote about quality. I am not entirely sure quality~ as a classification is actually ever properly interrogated within the space of the art world, what it does, how it functions, and ESPECIALLY how it exists & circulates historically. (i’ll speak more about energy & quality >> below).
Contemporary art is purposefully closely bound. Much like how like.,,,, ok, so the London housing crisis is a housing crisis bc loads of landlords & property tycoons are basically just participating in this mad late capitalist end-game where capital is just moving from one point of wealth to another, with no jobs created, no trickle down, no actual dispersion of value like the neoliberals told us there would be,,, wealth j accumulates more wealth n the housing crisis is j a massive exercise in ‘the rich get richer,’ it’s j how their affluence manifests n accumulates around them - making a rly compelling case for us all to hit the streets n fetch the guillotine? Right. Like that, but with art & power. Power j shifts from one point of authority to another and we r all j standing around like NOT REALISING that none of it actually EXISTS as a THING, that critics are often WRONG, that MOST OF UR ART HISTORICAL FAVES were PROBLEMATIC TRASH BAGS and we should all be ASHAMED of ourselves for letting it go on this long tbh.
This is all well and good, I make a compelling case (yeessss well done), but I feel like I’ve got to prepare the ground for a reactionary backlash against my hot take. I am aware I’m being flippant, rude, dismissive & facetious. I think that is fineeeee. I wish we were all a bit more fuckin relaxed when it comes to talking about art! Fwiw I am by nO MEANS saying we should burn all the books, trash the libraries, spit on Foucault’s dead body (idek if he is dead I’ve got no clue). By all means, read ur Baudrillard in peace, go awff if that’s what gets u awff. This is not an anti-intellectual stand, nor is it a veiled conservative position. I am not on a Germaine Greer soapbox here telling you all that we shouldn’t bother teaching Art History in schools, that it belongs firmly as a hobby or individual pursuit. Because, obviously, that will only drive the references and requirements into further obscurity & abstraction, out of reach to everyone BUT the elite 1% of ultra-rich twats. It would only batten down the hatches, keep power where it is already preserved. I am just making the case that it’s a BIT SUSPISH that there’s somewhat of a didactic line of requirement from art in its historical canon & the way we are able to publicly & professionally talk about it. These requirements of what constitutes an essential art historical canon need to be pluralised and expanded, to become softer, to give when touched. Maybe if it was, we’d be more able to defend it as necessary in the face of austerity & Tory cuts. Maybe it’d be protected with more urgency & compelling widespread agreement of its necessity? Maybe there is a case here to be made for utility, and if it’s useful for art history & writing/speaking around art to be so narrow…
It is (imo) trite, perhaps, for me to sit here and preach about the importance of diversity in art history; to make the case for historIES plural, rather than a singular canon that serves only a narrow percentage of all creative labourers historically. Idgaf. There’s a rly good quote from either Stuart Hall or James Baldwin, I cannot for the LYFE of me remember which, nor can I remember the full quote itself, butttt; ““a part of white supremacy’s end project is to erase & whitewash the contributions and histories of people of colour. We, who do not see ourselves reflected in national heritage, are excluded from it. And that lack of remembrance, that systematic forgetting shapes not only our attitude to national culture, but also to the way we approach culture as a practice. We are defined by a lack, the absence is noted, we feel we are constantly arriving.”” Art history as a subject/practice has the potential to act as an archive, and be a powerful tool with which to fight white supremacy’s end goal of annihilation & restate our claim to equity & agency. It contains the potential to uncover lost work by artists of colour whose contributions to global culture have been forgotten; remember strategies of resistance & radical care purposefully erased by white supremacy’s violence; reframe works we are already familiar with to unlock new ecologies of meaning & knowledge in contemporary contexts. Artists of colour in the uk wouldn’t be wrong to feel like we are trapped in the limbo of constantly arriving, not wrong to feel like we are a powerless minority, without representation, means or roots. Art history has long forgotten us in the service of Western hegemony and it is time now for us to keep the archives for ourselves and remember.
I want to be careful with that though. The power of remembrance and intergenerational learning cannot and will not ever be a useful tool if it is deployed on its own. We need to accompany this and use our critical/analytical & strategic minds & look closer at how we can best reform/repurpose/destroy the institutions that currently stand as symbols of inequity. Remembering alone doesn’t work as a fix, bc all too often it is utilised as a performative gesture that reduces the end goal of emancipatory action to the false-promise of representation. I think a really good example of this is the Basquiat show that was on @ the Barbican in ~2017? Curated by white curators, marketed by a white press team, led by white staff, this show was lowkey a mess; with widespread complaints that the show whitewashed his work by largely ignoring the importance of the way he depicted and engaged with blackness in his paintings. Representational goals can never be the end point of our demands for inclusion. We must also hold together demands that will allow us agency or ownership within these structures. Bc the institution will otherwise co-opt gestures of radical/emancipatory action that are extended naively or unaccompanied by rigorous understanding of institutional philosophy & operational practices n the lengths to which they will go to to avoid sincere change. A good example of that is Soul of a Nation @ the Tate Modern (i think in 2017?); the Tate got an unprecedented amount of black and poc visitors through their doors into a PAID exhibition that summer. This is a group that they claim to want to reach with their ~more inclusive~ programming efforts, that they r aiming to bridge the gap between audiences of colour n their concrete floors. But honestly, what have they done to maintain and hold on to the momentary engagement with this new audience they think they won over? What has been done to make this feel like anything but a fleeting exercise in diversity for the sake of it? Honestly, Soul of a Nation was important, not just because of what it dragged by force into Tate’s galleries, but in how it showed the Institution up through its very own actions.
I cannot eat representation. Representation will not help me gain a footing n equitable means in this industry that wants to reject me while it consumes me. Attempts to decolonise institutions by changing visible or representational surface interactions are doomed to fail bc they misunderstand the institutions’ own deep entrenchment in colonial values & its willingness to obfuscate attempts at change/reform. Attempts to decolonise are almost always co-opted by the institution itself, as it heads towards more neoliberal value systems. We cannot decolonise institutions that were built off the backs of our very oppression. Wallah I will see the Tate demolished in my lifetime, inshallahhhhhh. Just throw the whole thing in the bin, start again, do better, do more. An Art Historical rebrand sounds great, my type on paper, but even that alone can’t fix the gaping sore in the art world’s middle. These institutions are meant to belong to us too.
What might be helpful to introduce into the mix of art history & its practical concerns, is the concept of Energy, and think about what happens when we are physically in the gallery / what words we use, how confident we even feel to speak. Using the words ‘quality’ and ‘energy’ instead might be genuinely useful tools in that setting. The words were described to us by Thomas Hirschhorn in one of the group crits he held regularly as part of Kochi Biennale in India. He explained quality as like, the thing art in museums inherently has because it’s been given an importance by cultural gatekeepers: curators, collectors, critics, art historians, and even the market, all colluding for this thing to be there. But Hirschhorn explained that there’s a problem in how we connect with the art based on its level of quality alone, because quality is always about exclusion. It’s about what’s not in the museum. this is in but that one’s out. He proposed that instead of talking about art in terms of quality, we think about its ‘energy’ instead, because we can use ‘energy’ to talk about things both in and out of the museum. We can use it to talk about a painting, but a tv show too. A meal, a date. The way Hirschhorn saw it, every thing in a museum has quality but for you it might not have energy, like you might not connect with it. Art made by your mate in their bedroom might not have quality because it hasn’t been validated by the powers that be, but it could hold great energy for you in particular - could make u cry or laugh, it could ~move~ you. Since we went to the workshop, we’ve been walking around exhibitions pointing at things going ‘ENERGY YES, ENERGY NO’ newly empowered / tho we are already powerful. And this bodily reaction to the art we see can give or take the art history tidbits we know about, depending on what we want. As in, if I look at a painting of a boat and feel nothing because I don’t like the colours or subject and I’m bored, then that’s fine. But if my nerd John starts crying because he knows that painting was one that sunk and people dIED or something, then fair enough. John needed that art history to unlock the energy, but I never minded 2 know - I was just in it for brushstrokes and drama. Both experiences should be valid imo and we shouldn’t be looking down on one another for getting what we want from art in the way we wanna get it.
In conclusion, very quickly now, bc this is very long. Was this clickbait?: yes probably. Does art history matter?: no & yes, it depends how u look at it my guy.
The way it exists now is shit. The whole culture of how we remember and historicise art and engage with it through that (& how art engages with other art through that history) needs to change! Or become less singular! We need to be less elitist, more open & accepting, caring & empathetic! We need to expect more than the appearance of openness! We need to expect actual acceptance and change! Insist on a more rigorous engagement with our demands and open up new ecologies of knowledges.
This text was originally delivered as a lecture @ the Whitworth by the invitation of the University of Manchester.