Spring 2006

The practice of art history in America

Thomas Crow
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Thomas Crow is director of the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center, Los Angeles, and professor of art history at the University of Southern California. His publications include Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris (1985), Emulation (1995), The Intelligence of Art (1999), and most recently The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent (2005). He has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 2001.

“ . . . the moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made in it.”

–George Kubler, The Shape of Time1

As the name for a discipline, ‘art history’ enacts a syntactical clash every time it is uttered or written. Which is the principal term, which its modifier? The two elements in their coupling confront one another in an undecided hierarchy. The more decorous substitute, ‘history of art,’ puts the weight on the object that history is called upon to serve, but its currency is less – and in the shorthand of everyday speech, virtually nil.

There is, of course, a large measure of convention, common to most European languages, in the particular use of the term ‘art’ to designate painting, sculpture, drawings, prints, and (more distantly) architecture. In any event, it primarily denotes a range of physical objects. Its true, much wider application to any creative practice or product generally requires some explicit indication – an odd reversal of the general and the particular. Is this anomaly a mere accident of usage? Or does it point to some actual eccentricities in the term’s historical formation that bear on the position of art history in the American constellation of humanistic disciplines?

The fact that the visual arts successfully lay claim to a general, honorific designation as Art may lie – and this is speculative – in the physically enduring nature of the artifacts that fall under such a description. Literature can manifest itself in any legible transcription, and the performing arts of music and theater can conjure physical actuality from a score or script, but fidelity to any original enactment can never be secured – dance is even less traceable beyond living routine and memory. By contrast, the intricate physical remains on which art history concentrates its attention are the actual things fashioned and handled by the subjects of history themselves.

Therein lies a rightness in the obdurate pair of nouns that name the discipline. George Kubler (1912–1996), the great specialist in both colonial Spanish architecture and pre-Columbian art, was one of the rare American scholars of his generation to address the theoretical underpinnings of a discipline operating under this designation. He likened the gaze of the art historian to that of the astronomer, “concerned with appearances noted in the present but occurring in the past . . . . However fragmentary its condition, any work of art is actually a portion of an arrested happening, or an emanation of past time.” The “initial commotion” entailed in the making of an art object survives – as does no other creative act – as a unique, physically sensible pattern.2

In comparison, the textual materials relied upon by the profession of history can seem, despite their profusion, thin and remote. The object of art, by contrast, allows its maker to speak in the present with the full vividness of an unforced creative act, one that can preserve a significant, if not absolutely complete, inventory of its particular traits and structural complexity. By this I do not mean to say that artists and craftsmen do not operate under a confining series of stipulations and constraints, but these are the standard conditions of all human activity, within which art production is exceptional in the scope it provides for nuanced emotional expression as part and parcel of its social utility.

The difficulty, it hardly needs stating, lies in interpreting this physical commotion from the past that arrives in our midst like a traveler through time. Kubler observes in The Shape of Time that there is nothing in the cultural record so resistant to analysis and interpretation as the single work of art.3 Hence the necessary recourse to schemes of generalization and comparison around which arise the endless disputes that, in effect, constitute the history of the discipline. But the unique material object also beckons as a place of refuge and safety from any spirit of controversy. It is what it is, an epistemological difficulty readily inviting redescription as a quasi-mystical presence. The curators of museum collections and merchants of the art trade – most of whom underwent the same training as art historians in academia – frequently resort to claims of superior knowledge based largely on physical proximity and familiarity. Beyond the work of description and classification, the work of art is presumed to ‘speak for itself.’

Subtending the mutual suspicion between museum and academy is the patent reality that art history’s objects of study cross over into the category of objects of desire. The rarity, technical distinction, emotional intensity, and formal beauty that variously characterize these survivals of Kubler’s distant “commotions” have made them among the most sought-after possessions in the modern world. (A scholarly interpretation is, in its way, as much a claim on the object of art as any other.) As market prices are continually bid up to levels incommensurable with virtually any other category of human artifact, powerful players in the system – public and private – can impose demands for flattering affirmation that run counter to the requirements of historical and interpretative probity that the discipline shares with its sisters in the humanities at large.

At the same time, the operations of desire that drive the circulation of art objects, along with all the perturbations that their movement sets off in subsequent art practice, constitute a key category of research in modern art history. For example, one cannot set apart the antique fragments incorporated into the basilica of San Marco in Venice, spoils of predation on Constantinople, from any other element of its design history and meaning. And the same spectacular desire for possession has resulted in the reproduction at a reduced scale of the entire Piazza San Marco, with all of its layered accretions of form and symbol, as the facade of the largest hotel in the world, the Venetian in Las Vegas. This gambling and entertainment resort additionally boasts a joint branch of the Guggenheim and Hermitage museums – the latter collection itself the plunder of the monetary raids by the Czarinas Elisabeth and Catherine the Great on the artistic trophies of western Europe.

Such phenomena already lie firmly on the agenda of ‘visual culture’ studies, a hybrid category embraced by a number of art historians to whom the cult of fine aesthetic discrimination appears an unsustainable relic of the past. The global entrepreneurship of the Guggenheim Museum, of which the Las Vegas franchise is just one part, has thrived on the disdain of museum traditionalists, which has only served to enhance its intended aura of postmodern glamour and friendliness toward popular culture. But these latest episodes directly echo the process by which the great exemplars of European fine art came to this country in the first place. Selection and promotion by entrepreneurs like the Duveen brothers placed this legacy in the hands of Gilded Age magnates who had grown staggeringly wealthy on the leading industries of the era – rail, oil, and steel – but were still short of the requisite cultural polishing. The American discipline of art history would be unthinkable without the public collections subsequently endowed by these direct ancestors to a figure like hotelier Steve Wynn of Las Vegas, whose personal museum of art at the Bellagio hotel rivals the institutional weight of the Guggenheim-Hermitage effort.

Both of these new institutions of art strive to present objects of art in a manner that is as deracinated, as divorced from the circumstances under which they arose, as human ingenuity can contrive. Paintings that satisfied the courtly aggrandizement of Russian potentates come to stand in perfectly isolated splendor against the pitted reddish-brown walls of industrial steel stipulated by architect Rem Koolhaas. In no environment could the visitor be less encouraged to probe the internal complications of any one of them, that is, to search out the telltale imprints of the particular past commotion that brought each one into being. The cult that surrounds the displaced objects in all of America’s museums reach a kind of pure extreme in this, their ultimate desert outpost. A layered, intricately worked physical artifact hovers before the eyes as an ‘image,’ that is, a mental event; and its promise points exclusively toward the realm of pleasure – the single-minded purpose of the entire built environment in which they find themselves.

Elucidating fully the sources and wide effects of this phenomenon would require concentration on the anthropology and psychology of the fetish. For the purposes of this essay, taking some measure of its distorting effects is sufficient. Among these are an exaggerated sense of possession and a blindness to the particular and contingent circumstances in which these fascinating works are experienced. Colleagues in the cognitive sciences – lately the most vocal commentators to set their sights on art from outside the field – have tended to adopt the Las Vegas mindset as their idea of a universal human norm in the experience of art objects. Linguistic psychologist Steven Pinker, summing up the lessons of recent research into what he calls “evolutionary aesthetics,” informs us that “art is a pleasure technology, like drugs, erotica, or fine cuisine – a way to purify and concentrate pleasurable stimuli and deliver them to our senses.”4 It follows for him that any form of art that might irritate or confound the viewer’s perceptual faculties must be a perverse and willfully unnatural deviation from the path dictated by our common genetic predisposition.

Foremost among such deviations have been the formal experiments of twentieth- century modernists, who cast aside with startling abruptness “all the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate” in favor of “freakish distortions of shape and color and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes . . . . ” Such behavior Pinker can only comprehend in terms of some imposed, partisan agenda: if art holds a mirror up to nature, then modernism represents a willful campaign to assert that the social world itself had lost all harmony with just human needs and aspirations. 5 But any scholar of art could inform him that artists and their patrons have, over those millenia, just as often sought to elicit somatic and emotional responses that lie far from the loci of pleasure. The entire gamut of human feeling and knowledge has been fair game for artists since the advent of the first “man-made object to which we assign a more than utilitarian value” (citing Erwin Panofsky’s degree-zero definition of art).6 As often as not, the decidedly unpleasant experiences of intimidation, guilt, exclusion, taboo, and dread have been the intended effect of the objects that come under the scrutiny of the art historian. Take the colossal stone block bearing the ferocious likeness of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue/Cihuacoatl, with her monstrous countenance of opposed rattlesnake profiles emerging from her severed neck, which today constitutes one of the artistic glories of the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. Consider the range of emotions likely to have been felt in its presence by any potential victim of the priest’s obsidian knife, and then try to equate that with the hedonist’s menu of sensory gratifications adduced by Pinker.

Surely wiser in this regard is Kubler, who had a profound knowledge of the Mesoamerican traditions from which the Aztec effigy arose. No particular partisan of modern avant-gardism, he describes the same European aesthetic revolution circa 1910 in these terms:

The fabric of society manifested no rupture, and the texture of useful inventions continued step by step in closely linked order, but the system of artistic invention was abruptly transformed, as if large numbers of men had suddenly become aware that the inherited repertory of forms no longer corresponded to the actual meaning of existence . . . . The nature of artistic invention therefore relates more closely to invention by new postulates than to that invention by simple confrontation which characterizes the useful sciences.7

A postulate on the order of the heliocentric planetary orbits, the movement of tectonic plates, or, indeed, natural selection itself can force as abrupt (and to many as freakish) a reordering of cognition as the eruption of a new, antinaturalistic set of criteria for success in painting.

In fact, over the millennia evoked by Pinker, naturalistic depiction has been the exception rather than the rule (though the technical barriers to its achievement are quite low) because it is not, on the whole, what human beings have desired from their art. One key element in any explanation for the drastic artistic transformations of the early twentieth century, as Kubler conceives them, lies in the grafting of tribal and non-Western formal sequences in all their historical concreteness onto an otherwise played-out European line that had lost, by any objective measure, most of its capacity for fresh invention. The new African, Oceanic, and archaic models offered, in addition to an expanded range of expressive intensity, an advanced capacity for rendering volumes into linear patterns transferable to a flat surface, in a way that acknowledged with a new realism the painting as a two-dimensional thing. Any single object in this new sequence captured for the future its concrete moment of active translation between two symbolic technologies.

The task of understanding such a moment necessarily entails a patient unpacking of a process, many layers of which are only partly visible or indeed entirely obscure to the immediate, untutored glance. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, perhaps the prime moment in this process of translation, has enjoyed just such an unpacking by Leo Steinberg, the recondite scholar of Leonardo da Vinci and High Renaissance art.8 The work’s legions of admirers share with art historians like Kubler and Steinberg a fascination with the moment of invention and with the creative act itself, into which this prime modernist work finds ways to draw its spectators – and the same could be said of an equally foundational object for a previous tradition, say, Leonardo’s cartoon for his Virgin, Child, and Saint Anne. This higher order of communication virtually necessitates that the artist confound comfortable habits of viewing, pushing aspects of form toward or beyond the limits of what might be comfortable or even legible at any given historical juncture. The evolution of what is heard as a ‘dissonance’ in European music provides an instructive parallel almost too obvious to mention.

It is not the case, however, that the scholars who established art history in American universities necessarily resisted the temptation to regard the apparent immediacy of visual art as a relief from the more laborious demands of historical interpretation. In an essay of 1929, Charles Rufus Morey, the most influential figure in the development of the field at Princeton, lamented the absence of historical depth in the environment surrounding American students compared to the palpable sense of tradition enjoyed by their European counterparts. To amass a commensurable awareness through the study of languages or history consumed years and, even then, might yield only uncoordinated fragments of knowledge: “the disiecta membra of the history of human action and thought.” In the history of art, however, “the student is conducted to the spirit of an epoch by his most direct sense, the eye . . . [which] provides a history capable of exposition within the narrow limits of time and effort which have been left for such integrating disciplines by the multiplicity of the modern college curriculum.”9

No hint here that the proper unpacking of even one representative object requires no less elaboration of philological and historical knowledge than that required by any cognate discipline – in fact, one could argue that it requires a good deal more. Morey’s own scholarship, in particular his founding and use of the monumental Index of Christian Art as a comprehensive guide to the visualization of doctrine over the entire body of medieval art, belies his own proposition. The achievements of medievalists like Morey and Arthur Kingsley Porter, his equally forceful and accomplished colleague at Harvard, had been impressive enough to elicit the admiration of jealously nationalistic Europeans.10 But both of these founding figures also professed in their teaching and polemics an avowedly conservative social agenda, wherein the perceived hierarchy and dogmatic certainties of the Middle Ages could be held up as an alternative model for Americans, one to be set against the democratizing forces of advancing industrial technology, mass immigration, urban growth, and materialistic consumption. As Morey wrote in 1944: “There is revealed in every work of mediaeval craftsmen, from the macrocosm of the cathedral to the microcosm of the miniature or ivory carving, an element bitterly missed in the modern scene, an element whose restoration would do most to integrate a new and more human civilization, in a new and more reasonable world. And that is unity of faith.”11

A good deal of faith, in fact, underlies this pronouncement, as it sets aside the distinct possibility that the eclectic corpus of medieval objects present in American public collections could themselves appear as so many disiecta membra, cut off from one another and divorced from their inspiring original contexts. Porter simply gave up the struggle, retiring to a castle on a remote Irish coast, there to shut out the modern world amid his pious rural clients. The more practical Morey sought a less drastic solution; he championed the fashioning of an architectural pastiche from the architectural remains of five French monasteries – financed by the devout John D. Rockefeller, Jr. – in order to create the Cloisters museum in New York, where the bulk of the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval objects have come to be housed. The Cloisters, he wrote,

represent the maturity of American museum planning towards the evocation of the mediaeval scene . . . . The rugged height of Fort Tryon park provided a typical monastic site, and the cloisters, halls, and details of five French monasteries furnished the core of the architectural complex, which was brought to consistency by judicious copying of necessary elements from other South French abbeys . . . . In the landscaping, most difficult of all mediaeval aspects to recapture, a great deal of diligent research resulted in a convincing lay-out of monastic orchards, and even included a garden of medicinal herbs conforming to a Carolingian list of the year 812.12

The yearning of fantasy is palpable in this passage. The Cloisters can boast the actual stones of the Middle Ages, and the intervening decades have lent the complex its own patina of age, but the conceptual difference between its re-creations and those of the Las Vegas Venetian have remained more a matter of degree than of kind.

As the Cloisters opened in 1938, the unfolding political catastrophe in Europe was surpassing the worst fears these American medievalists may have harbored for their own culture. Touchstones of European artistic achievement had been arriving in America piecemeal over the previous half-century; in a burst, the cream of Old World scholarly achievement in interpreting those objects followed, as a wave of Jewish art historians sought refuge across the Atlantic. The Institute of Fine Arts, housed within New York University, established itself in a few short years as the peer of any Ivy League program by incorporating the largest number of refugee Europeans. Its director, Walter Cook, likened his initiative to the acquisition of physical objects, frequently declaring (with a somewhat disturbing insouciance): “Hitler is my best friend. He shakes the tree and I collect the apples.”13 That anecdote was reported by Panofsky, one of Cook’s chief recruits, who went on to occupy the first chair in the discipline at the Institute for Advanced Study. Similarly, by gathering in Rudolf Wittkover, a commanding authority on Renaissance architecture and humanism, Columbia lifted the ambition and performance of its already established program. Nor was the exodus limited to Jewish refugees. Yale’s program did not really exist prior to the arrival of Henri Focillon, a polymath with a strong theoretical inclination toward autonomous formal developments in art, who migrated in 1940 from occupied France.

Because the discipline’s traditional core in the study of classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance had remained under recognized German dominance, the one field of conspicuous American investment and prestige to that date had been in early Christian and medieval art. This influx of talent from the German-speaking sphere was bound to undo the medieval idyll of art history in the United States. It further set the stage for a marked expansion of the field in the aftermath of World War II. Within the elite universities, the increasing ease and frequency of overseas travel had begun to stimulate a need for training in the history and meaning of significant European monuments. As more meritocratic admissions made this preoccupation less socially exclusive, art history began to assume its habitual position as a favored elective, and the charismatic survey teacher became a campus staple. For the proportionally smaller number of majors who chose to continue in the field, relatively plentiful opportunities existed in two sectors (double that generally offered in the other humanistic disciplines): there was the continuing higher-education expansion, which was feeding on itself and spreading the discipline into state schools and smaller colleges; at the same time, there was an equally growing museum sector in need of curators and administrators.

But this climate of postwar optimism and opportunity did not at first alter the conservative tendencies of the American discipline. The first wave of European professors, as they stepped in to meet the demand for trained personnel, found their new American charges lacking the level of erudition they would have assumed in their European counterparts (and cultural misunderstandings doubtless led these professors to exaggerate both the norms they had known and the deficiencies they were discovering). Thus they tended to prune away many of the more complex and speculative elements of art history in favor of conceptually simple and often mechanical tasks: decoding iconography, tracing fragments of dispersed ensembles, identifying hands, dating. Ascertaining points of fact that European scholars – and other humanists in America – would regard as just the starting point for interpretation became sufficient justification for a successful research career. Irving Lavin, until recently the long-serving professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study, has been forthright about the pedagogy offered by “those miraculously translated Elijahs bringing the good word from the Old World to the New,” going so far as to celebrate as a lost golden age the times when “Panofsky would hand over to every member of his seminars a specific new idea or discovery of his own, just waiting for the enterprising graduate student to work up into an article.”14

Not to underestimate the difficulty of detective work frequently entailed in these endeavors, but they had in common a fulfillment in some definite conclusion. This pedagogically reduced version of European art history largely set the limits for the entire discipline in its postwar American translation. An inherited social conservatism thereby joined itself to a structurally generated intellectual conservatism, both reinforced by material rewards that could go well beyond comfortable salaries and tenure.

Here, the unanalyzed power of the physical art object worked once again to set the discipline apart from its text-based counterparts in the humanities. Because of the inherent charisma of European masterpieces, generous patrons were willing to provide an exceptional level of financial support for fellowships and study centers abroad. As the center of the field shifted, thanks to the émigré influx, toward the Italian Renaissance and Baroque, Rome and Florence became regular destinations for summers and whole years of leave. What was more, the resulting exclusivity benefited a significant number of art historians who could present themselves to the art market as the sole experts in the attribution of works by a particular artist – fees for this kind of expertise could mount into six figures.

Even if many art historians steered clear of overt dealings in the market, the mindset that naturally followed from this activity, the identification with the interests of wealthy collectors and their manner of living,filtered widely through the field and became internalized as a requirement for professional acceptance. For those who were benefiting so abundantly from this system, the stigma of the soft option, a certain disdain from colleagues outside art history, was a price worth paying. Their first line of defense became the mystification of an intuitive ‘eye’ that allowed the expert to perform feats of connoisseurship that no merely bookish historical scholar could accomplish. Even the close connections to Europe and to foreign scholars, a potential boon in an American academic scene prone to a certain parochialism, fostered the imitation of a high-handed, authoritarian treatment of students out of keeping with the more collegial style of graduate training that characterized the contemporaneous development of other disciplines.

The foregoing picture, despite its largely unflattering character, represents an attempt to describe a system according to what might be called its default functioning. While much sincere and valuable work was accomplished in the 1950s and 1960s, the system nonetheless worked against this collective acumen coming together in such a way that it could take the study of visual art to the next intellectual level. This has in fact happened over the last three decades – and Anglophone art history has in the process come to set the pace for the world. But the system had to change before what was still an immature body of thought and procedures, too long diverted to noncognitive ends, could truly grow up.

The persistence of the old system depended on conditions that could be maintained for only so long. Chief among these was keeping the research agenda of art history close to the centers – both geographical and chronological – that the first postwar generation commanded. Of the many forces that undid that restricted compass was the progressive shift of interest among new entrants to art history toward the modern period, meaning roughly Western art since the mid-nineteenth century. During the same years that John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was financing the medievalists’ dream at the Cloisters, his forward-looking wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, planted the seed of this development. In 1929, with the support of two female friends, she established the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They chose a young art history instructor from Wellesley College, Alfred Barr, as the museum’s founding director. And Barr used his growing collection and landmark special exhibitions to stamp a historical schema on the art of the very recent past where none had existed before.

The early program of the museum included gestures toward native artists and vernacular forms consistent with a philanthropic mission in Depression-era America. But the heart of its activities, like those of the Gilded Age collectors and academic medievalists, lay in the imported culture of Europe. The distinction of Barr’s enterprise resided in the fact that the Europeans themselves were not producing a competing body of scholarship or museology. Writing in the early 1950s, Panofsky acknowledged that a systematic history of modern European art had required the intervention of Americans. On their home ground, he opined, the immediate impact of the European avant-gardes “forced the littérateurs into either defense or attack, and the more intelligent art historians into silence. In the United States such men as Alfred Barr . . . could look upon the contemporary scene with the same mixture of enthusiasm and detachment, and write about it with the same respect for historical method and concern for meticulous documentation, as are required of a study of fourteenth-century ivories or fifteenth-century prints.”15

Those art historians then devoting themselves to such objects did not, in the main, share Panofsky’s sympathy for this development. “Modern art,” Morey declared, “is on the whole an art of disillusionment, struggling to free itself from the ruins of abandoned shibboleths . . . . Hence its emphasis on the material aspects of our civilization, and especially on those more sinister ones of economic stress and social injustice, which stir the modern artist, writer, musician, to conscious or unconscious satire.”16 These words, written during the mid-1940s, appeared in a leading scholarly journal, at a moment when Barr’s prestige had reached something of a peak. Indifference or active resistance on the part of the established academy was such that training in the history of modern art remained distinctly marginal compared to the established subject areas from classical antiquity to around 1700; even the eighteenth century lay near the edge of the discipline’s zone of chronological comfort.

This self-imposed restriction had effects on the study of all periods. The discipline’s principal intellectual tools had evolved from a preoccupation with stable symbolic systems as yet untouched by the secular tumult and corrosion of modernity. There was next to no intellectual equipment available for gauging the impact of conflict, disruption, or even of change itself, the raison d’être of any historian. In the same essay cited above, Morey gave passionate voice to this assumption of stability, implausibly declaring, “The forms in which the concepts of Christianity were cast showed remarkably little variation throughout the Middle Ages and throughout the mediaeval world.”17

In contrast, the increasingly independent, disenchanted, and rapidly changing art of modernity impelled its interpreters to begin comparing an arrangement of pigments in an oily emulsion with rapidly evolving phenomena like the Industrial Revolution or mass urbanization. The two phenomenal orders – aesthetic and historical – could at first be made only tenuously commensurable with one another because few, if any, ready mental maps existed that were adequate to both.

In the face of such a challenge, the first plausible explanatory strategy, adopted from the aesthetics of the Bloomsbury group in England and promoted by Barr, was to steer art history in a direction parallel to that of New Criticism in literary studies, giving pride of place to an artwork’s internal relationships and transformations of acknowledged precedents and prototypes (thereby bracketing historical determination and the consequent need for wide research). The new power of American abstract painting in the postwar period seemed to confirm criteria of value that required no justification outside the formal character of any individual work, and this intensional approach came to have its heyday during the early 1960s under the aegis of New York critic Clement Greenberg and his followers in the academy, chief among them Michael Fried of Harvard and later Johns Hopkins.18

The historiography of art has habitually shadowed the expanding self-consciousness of the advanced art practice contemporaneous to it (which has had far more to contribute than the well-meaning efforts of the aestheticians in departments of philosophy).19 As American artists moved away from formal abstraction toward the context-dependent strategies of Minimalism and Conceptual Art, this narrow set of formal preoccupations largely ceded the field – or, better, found itself incorporated into a more comprehensive brief. The emerging direction in studies of the modern period bore the imprint of those developments in advanced art around 1970 that brought to the fore the determining conditions of art making itself. This new tendency in scholarship likewise sought to align an object’s formal properties with the production of social meaning, turning even the defensive hostility toward theory and speculation on the part of most American art historians into a means to this end.

The principal compensation for the paucity of explicit theorizing in art history had been an obsession with empirical discovery – of unknown drawings, variants, contracts, recorded iconographic programs, original locations of objects – that had inculcated in generations of art historians a strong set of skills in archival research. And a further latent strength lay in the equally under-theorized activity of connoisseurship, that is, the concentrated attention to objects in search of telltale clues to condition, authorship, and quality. What came to be called, in misleadingly reductive shorthand, ‘the social history of art’ succeeded to a significant extent by tapping this unique and underexploited combination of pursuits. The two halves of established art history – the mania for documentation and the cult of fine discrimination – had both represented a silencing of the demand for interpretation. But when these categories of analysis were put back together, they were to spark a collective release of pent-up energy and a recovery of lost time.

Each phase in the development of American art history appears to require a privileged geographical locus. For the first phase, it probably hovered somewhere near the relic-rich cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela, the western hub of the routes followed by medieval pilgrims. For the postwar generation, it was Rome and its Italian tributaries. For the social history of art, it was surely Paris.

Walter Benjamin, in his studies of Baudelaire, had memorably called Paris “the capital of the nineteenth century,” and a new wave of art historians took this aphoristic dictum to heart. In this same moment began the belated process of publishing and translating Benjamin’s own immense, unfinished project on the Parisian arcades, for its time a profoundly idiosyncratic attempt to correlate the most sophisticated art with the states of mind induced by an incipient consumer capitalism. But Benjamin, fortunately for the ultimate reception of his work, had an American counterpart of commensurable foresight and scholarly energy in Meyer Schapiro, the Columbia art historian with whom he shared a brief and poignant meeting in 1939. (Schapiro had sought out Benjamin with the aim of persuading the exiled German scholar to seek safety among his old Frankfurt School colleagues in New York; Benjamin declined and met his death while fleeing toward Spain in the following year.)

Two years before their meeting, Schapiro had broached the connection between habits of consumption, particularly the newly intensified marketing of fashion and organized leisure, with concurrent developments in the artistic avant-garde. Taking Barr to task by name (and by implication his museum), he disputed the assumption that the history of modern art could adequately be “presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists.”20 Addressing the historical moment commonly taken as the founding moment of modernism in painting, he observed:

It is remarkable how many pictures we have in early Impressionism of informal and spontaneous sociability, of breakfasts, picnics, promenades, boating trips, holidays and vacation travel. These urban idylls not only present the objective forms of bourgeois recreation in the 1860’s and 1870’s; they also reflect in the very choice of subjects and in the new aesthetic devices the conception of art as solely a field of individual enjoyment, without reference to ideas and motives, and they presuppose the cultivation of these pleasures as the highest field of freedom for an enlightened bourgeois detached from the official beliefs of his class. In enjoying realistic pictures of his surroundings as a spectacle of traffic and changing atmospheres, the cultivated rentier was experiencing in its phenomenal aspect that mobility of the environment, the market and of industry to which he owed his income and his freedom. And in the new Impressionist techniques which broke things up into finely discriminated points of color, as well as in the “accidental” momentary vision, he found, in a degree hitherto unknown in art, conditions of sensibility closely related to those of the urban promenader and the refined consumer of luxury goods.21

It would be difficult to overestimate the degree to which this single passage anticipated the later development of the discipline. It is a mark of the time in which it was written (1937) that Schapiro was by vocation a young scholar of medieval art. And his ability to envision this schematic but prescient program for the interpretation of early modernism coincided with his single-handed effort within that subfield to counter the certainties of Porter and Morey with an alternative intellectual model.

The Marxist pedigree evident in much of Schapiro’s vocabulary points to his preoccupation with conflict and change in the arts of Romanesque France and Spain, particularly as manifested in the dramatic expansions of trade and town life as countermovements to ecclesiastical hegemony around the turn of the twelfth century. The dominant approaches in the American art history of his time tended toward the amassing and cataloguing of ever more examples in a given category of object with the aim of establishing something like a statistical norm for the type–one in keeping with the stable complex of beliefs assumed to underwrite such a norm. Projects of this kind were for all intents and purposes boundless, endlessly postponing the interpretative challenge posed by any single work.

Schapiro adopted a diametrically opposed method, advancing the hypothesis that the most productive cases for art-historical inquiry will involve objects that constitute disruptive exceptions against the matrix of related works that surround them. And here his command of the modernist critic’s alertness to innovation and internal artistic form came to serve that enterprise: instead of proceeding from the preponderance of examples that are most alike and defining everything else as peripheral or exceptional, he began by analyzing what happens when the reassuring regularities of form break down, so as to posit the operations of a larger signifying system from virtually a single instance.22

In this wager, everything rested on what the most searching internal analysis of that chosen object could yield: bringing to light the fissures, discrepancies, and contradictions on which the exceptional artist had to impose some resolution, all without repressing the fractious heterogeneity of the concepts and techniques with which he was enjoined to work. A viewing intelligence schooled in the intricacies of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism could come to the task with the requisite acumen. Schapiro’s articles of the late 1930s advanced the art history of the Middle Ages by more than a generation–it remains an open question whether the discipline has yet caught up with his example.23

When he turned to the genesis of modernism, Schapiro reversed this maneuver, bringing to bear the medievalist’s preoccupation with decoding obscure symbolic subject matter–what art historians designate as iconography in a technical sense. To the degree that the realists and impressionists of mid-nineteenth-century Paris set aside overt literary and mythological content, modernism had been assumed by both its admirers and detractors to lack significant subject matter: its motifs were deemed to be little more than pretexts for experiments in optical vividness or emancipated color, line, shape, and physical gesture. Schapiro’s contrary contention was that the artistic avant-garde was advancing another systematic account of subjectivity to replace the outmoded ‘official beliefs’ of established religion and state power. He posited that the advanced artist, after 1860 or so, succumbed to the general division of labor as a full-time leisure specialist, an aesthetic technician picturing and prodding the sensual expectations of other, part-time consumers. In the hands of the avant-garde, Schapiro argued, the aesthetic itself became identified with habits of enjoyment and release produced quite concretely within the emerging apparatus of commercial entertainment and tourism–even, and perhaps most of all, when art appeared entirely withdrawn into its own sphere, its own sensibility, its own medium.

But some three decades had to pass after Schapiro’s first interventions before the kinds of resistance adumbrated above could be overcome. Crucial in this success was the building of a systematic iconography for Parisian modernism undertaken by Linda Nochlin, then at Vassar, and by Robert Herbert with several of his students at Yale.24 And, by the late 1960s, new tools of interpretation from beyond art history’s own store of techniques and practices came to hand, a kit that proved particularly useful in rendering analyzable structures out of the scale and fluidity of modern historical experience.

That moment represented a cusp when French structuralism and semiotics had achieved sufficient coherence to be apprehended by a curious student, but still remained a minority interest, even in film and literary studies, let alone in art history. A work like Roland Barthes’s S/Z, his landmark anatomization of Balzac’s novella “Sarrasine,” came close to an ultimate pulling apart of the disparate strands that an artist maneuvers into an effect of unity.25 Adding to the appeal of such an enterprise was a new style of social history based in Britain, within which this same body of French theory took its place alongside equivalent commitments to neo-Marxist social theory and diligence in the archives. At the same time, the incipient British school of cultural studies was turning a similar set of tools toward contemporary society, making possible a new acuity in the dissection of vernacular culture, with an emphasis on the ways that disaffected subcultures were repositioning and creatively redefining mass-produced products.26

The first of these strands had a head start in America, largely through the prescient efforts of Annette Michelson, a scholar of avant-garde cinema who extended her reach to the contemporary visual arts in a way that has made her one of its most formidable intellects.27

Settled at New York University after an extended sojourn in Paris, she would join with Rosalind Krauss (the leading scholar of modernist sculpture, who was then guiding a small, insurgent program at the CUNY Graduate Center) in building on this new foundation and encouraging an impressively sophisticated circle of younger art historians and critics that had gathered around their jointly edited journal October. Accelerating the incorporation of all three currents into a unified project was the arrival of T. J. Clark, a young British art historian who spent an initial period at UCLA during the mid-1970s, moving later to Harvard before settling at UC Berkeley. In his work on impressionism, Clark returned to the territory for which Schapiro had provided a rough map in 1937. Alongside much archival research in the spirit of Benjamin’s notebook citations for the Arcades project, Clark brought to bear a new analytical penetration of the internal workings of individual pictures, one that made concrete and detailed Schapiro’s acute but generalized characterizations of Parisian modern-life painting.

A striking example of this occurs in his discussions of those motifs that most easily lent themselves to comfortably brain-soothing harmonies: scenes of strollers and yachtsmen on the banks of the Seine’s great curves north and west of the city. “[H]ere was a subject,” Clark states, “which lent itself normally to simple rhythms and sharp effects: sails bending in unison, rigging arranged in casual geometries, reflections laid out as counterpoint to the world above.”28 While canvases by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, or Alfred Sisley most obviously fall under this characterization, Clark gives pride of place to a painting like Canotiers à Argenteuil by Édouard Manet, the older artist who had led the way for the larger impressionist group. In the summer of 1874, when Manet fashioned this work, his friend Monet was living in the suburban town of its title, then a transitional settlement of weekend villas, boat basins, and intruding factories in search of available land and river access. And the avant-garde painters who gravitated to such locations formed a marginalized subculture in themselves, one compelled to improvise an identity in the as yet ill-defined spaces of metropolitan pleasure and consumption.

The granular degree of detail in Clark’s extended account of the painting does not permit the succinctly summarizing quotations supplied by Schapiro. The following passage, however, which comes at the end of several pages of analysis, has the virtue of moving rapidly from a set of totalizing propositions to their anchor in the technical fabric of the painting via minutely particularized description devoted to a seemingly insignificant segment of its surface–one that the recreational art lover would in all likelihood overlook:

Signs, things, shapes, and modes of handling do not fit together here. Paint does not make continuities or engineer transitions for the eye; it enforces distinctions and disparities, changing completely across an edge, insisting on the stiffness of a pose or the bluntness of blue against yellow. This is the picture’s overall language– this awkwardness of intersection, this dissonance of colour . . . . For example, the hank of rope which hangs over the orange side of the boat towards the right. No doubt we decipher the flecked rope and the fluffy tassel without too much difficulty, and proceed to examine the more elusive trail of paint which starts down from the gunwale, bends, and seems to peter out into the orange–peter out for no good reason. And in due course the eye makes sense of the situation: we begin to see the wandering line as a shadow, and realize eventually that the orange surface is not–as it first assumed to be–simply flat. It is curved, it is concave; and the curve explains the peculiar shadow and is explained by it–or, rather, is half explained and half explaining: the broken triangle of brushstrokes is not mended quite so easily, and never entirely proves the illusion it plays with. It stays painted, it stays on the edge of a likeness.29

Impressionism is conventionally celebrated for its objectivity in rendering the play of light and color in the world as one sees it, but Clark identifies in the studied ambiguities and discrepancies of Manet’s portrayal of these two awkward urban pleasure seekers a higher order of objectivity about the troubled and uncertain transition of the traditional city to the modern one, an historical watershed experienced by old and new city dwellers as a continual succession of unresolved edges and illegibilities.

This marriage of scholarly object and approach proved particularly fruitful for the discipline’s belated engagement with questions of sexuality in general and the ethical imperatives of the women’s movement in particular. The redoubtable Nochlin, before and after moving to the graduate Institute of Fine Arts at NYU, had for some years been extending the social-historical model in the service of an emergent feminism.30 Younger scholars like Hollis Clayson and Carol Armstrong–now at Northwestern and Princeton respectively– were later able to seize upon the impressionist rhetorics of ambiguity and disguise as preeminently figuring relations between the sexes, where the centrality of these very qualities had defeated the old (male) art historian’s compulsion toward iconographic certainty. 31This level of explanatory ambition presented demands that led art history, at least for a time, to an engagement with the material intricacies of its physical objects of study that surpassed anything that the postwar establishment had ever contemplated.

Nor did this achievement necessarily depend upon the particular set of tools that Clark and others selected for the job–nor indeed on the particular opportunity later nineteenth-century Paris offered as a subject. The early 1980s, during which Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life appeared, proved particularly rich in landmark books by art historians. The book that launched the wave was Michael Baxandall’s The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, which contains next to no acknowledgement that any new climate of theoretical speculation in the humanities even existed.32 Baxandall instead looked toward codified forms of knowledge, all strictly contemporaneous with the objects of his study, in fields as far from the practice of sculpture as the guild-lore of the Meistersingers or the “chiromancy” of the alchemist Paracelsus (which has the salutary effect of demonstrating that interpretative theories are just tools, the sophistication of which does not depend upon their date or upon the particular vocabulary in which they are expressed). His approach yielded a level of analysis applied to the inner workings of form that set a standard for all those who came after, in any period or medium, a standard all the more impressive because he was confronting exceptionally complex ensembles of sculpture, painting, and cabinetwork typically produced by a number of hands.

Baxandall becomes a part of this specifically American story when he began during the 1980s to combine his old position at the Warburg Institute in London with teaching alongside Clark in UC Berkeley’s ascendant graduate program. As such, his account of pre-Reformation piety, with its acute attention to doubt, anxiety, and tension between the sinful appetites excited by wealth and the concomitant capacity of the new affluence to fund extravagant expressions of faith, brought up-to-date Schapiro’s original insight that the greatest religious art arises from just such circumstances.

Attention to these strong forces of renewal within the discipline can serve to disqualify a common assumption that helpful outsiders from other disciplines, observing the weakness of postwar art history, have stepped in to give the field its new energy and place at the broad humanities table. Any palpable benefits have largely accrued to the career profiles of these outsiders, not to positive gains for art history as a discipline. Among historians, lack of experience–positive or negative–with the protocols of the connoisseur has made for flat and unrevealing descriptions of works of art, which too often amount to the visual equivalent of reading for the plot. Literary critics, for their part, have tended to apply their resources of close reading and armatures of theory without the clarifying resistance generated by sustained work in the archives, which is to say, without equal concern for how works of art come to be made as for the ways in which these works can be consumed.

But it is difficult to deny that the energy of that moment has diminished in the intervening couple of decades. From its beginnings as a minority–and immediately embattled–position, the so-called social history of art has grown in the meantime to constitute something of a new default function for the field: virtually every contribution to the Art Bulletin (seen as the scholarly journal of record) represents a variation on this approach, even when these components are not explicitly acknowledged. The expected level of competence is far higher than was the norm a generation ago, as is productivity, whether measured by individual output or by the percentage of actively publishing scholars within the overall population of the field. And an increasingly complete picture of art practices across a wide geographical and chronological territory is consequently taking shape–including territories outside of Europe and North America. Nonetheless, with a certain domesticated version of ideology-critique now the norm, the outcome of many studies has become a fairly predictable affair. In one obvious sense, however, the center has ceased to hold. From the preeminent position that it occupied a generation ago, the study of later nineteenth-century French painting has markedly receded in prominence, ceasing to promise any smooth path of professional success.

Baxandall, in his book on German limewood sculpture, documented the ways in which the fragile synthesis of nearly incompatible components–held together in the art of a Veit Stoss or Tilman Riemenschneider but already on the verge of flying apart under the least added stress–was utterly dispersed by the iconoclastic forces of the Reformation. In the various specialized genres to which sculptors then turned in a climate of diminished expectations, one can identify the distinct elements obscured in their previous intertwining. A similar unraveling has occurred within art history, which has suffered to a certain degree from this conspicuous period of success. While impressive advances have continued in social-historical documentation, elaboration of theory, expansion into vernacular culture, and engagement with modernism, each of these pursuits has become increasingly self-sufficient and consequently less able to inform the others.

Shorn of reflection on the neo-Marxian theories that originally framed the social-historical project, the new mainstream has not discovered any comparable source of conceptual renewal. Later, competing claims to the semiotic and poststructuralist element of ‘theory’ have been lodged on behalf of distinctly different interests. To put it unkindly, these lie in making a metaconversation about the possibility or impossibility of a history of art into a self-sufficient enterprise, one easily leveraged into an aura of interdisciplinary glamour and a comparatively effortless proliferation of talks, papers, and books. To this end, it has been a convenient conclusion drawn from ‘theory’ to say that any intelligible pattern drawn out of historical data represents an inherently spurious metanarrative (even though the original efficacy of the turn to theory had precisely been to identify analyzable structures in the historical record). The component of art history that has required hard graft in the archives then can be set aside– and disparaged in the bargain as a lesser, if not misguided, pursuit.33 Indeed, “the Archive,” in the wake of Michel Foucault, has been isolated as a disciplinary social construction toward which the theorist can freely condescend.

This metahistorical pursuit has had little time for the recalcitrant physical immediacy and uniqueness of an individual object of art. This distrust of close-range sensory evidence has passed into the broad, ill-defined tendency called ‘visual culture.’ From Schapiro to Herbert, Clark, and Baxandall, the conduct of the most sophisticated art historians has entailed a deep curiosity about the varieties of vernacular expression that inevitably enter into the synthetic imagination of the artist. While never denying the independent fascination of that material, all nonetheless retained the perspective that Baxandall framed in intentionally provocative terms: “Only very good works of art, the performances of exceptionally organized men, are complex and co-ordinated enough to register in their forms the kinds of cultural circumstance sought here; second-rate art will be of little use to us.”34 His advised use of the masculine gender in this passage (there were no women known in the relevant trades of the period) matters less than his insistence on the cognitive value of aesthetic distinction, which now runs against a prevailing tide in which no special case can be made for one category of artifact against another.35

The question remains as to what field of study actually remains once one sacrifices its former core, its point of departure and return, in self-conscious and highly wrought objects of art. The proliferation of potential examples extends to near-infinity, and necessarily results in a reduction of material specificity to the single plane of the image, which is phenomenal rather than actual. And, given that much of the art historian’s brief has entailed accounting for processes of conception and manufacture that are not strictly sensible in the final product, emphasis on ‘visual’ commonalities imposes a drastic narrowing of the aspect through which interpreters can grasp this newly vast field of inquiry.

A further tendency toward disaggregation lies in an unabated push toward the modern. A rule of thumb applied to new entrants is that roughly half of them will concentrate in ‘modern art’; what is more, the dividing line between ‘the modern’ and what came before it keeps creeping forward (which has left impressionism and postimpressionism in a growing scholarly limbo, despite their huge popularity with undergraduates and the general public). A good guess would place the current median boundary (half of the graduate students before it, half after) somewhere in the early twentieth century, say 1912 or so. And the change may be more exaggerated than that figure might suggest, since the fastest growing area is better named ‘contemporary,’ meaning art produced from around 1960 forward.

The drive toward the modern, then, is in danger of shooting past the point where it can find common ground with the legitimate preoccupations of art historians working in earlier periods. As often as not, the media favored by younger scholars – film, video, reproduced texts and photographs, assemblage installations – are impermanent, impatient with the layered density of the unique physical objects around which the discipline was built. The skills required to decipher the messages of those time travelers in their vast and largely unexplored numbers and then to speak on their behalf will reside, it seems, in a shrinking number of scholars.

That bifurcation of the available skills within the discipline may nonetheless carry within itself the potential for a new synthesis at a higher level, much as the paired fetishizing of documentation and connoisseurship did among the immediately postwar generation. One can read the recent preoccupation with ephemeral and time-based works of art as saying something about the larger brief of art history: the sample of objects from which art history fashioned itself constitutes the merest fraction of the universe that an ideal form of the discipline would address, that is, all the artifacts of densely symbolic expression that have ever been made. Forever out of view are all those destroyed by war, vandalism, demolition, renovation, neglect, and natural decay; as well as the colossal if uncountable number that have been lost to time because they were never intended to be preserved in the first place (the sculptures of Michelangelo modeled in snow offer just the most spectacular instance of these submerged continents).

Other kinds of documents allow such works to be indirectly retrieved and hypothetically reconstructed, so that the actual survivors from the past can assume their places within a historically comprehensive matrix of technical and expressive possibility. From everything one can tell by such investigations, the divisions observed in our own time between high art and vernacular culture are far more difficult to maintain, such that a properly comprehensive art history obviates to a significant extent the contemporary rationale for a visual-culture alternative to the inherited field. In this regard, it has been the push of younger researchers – out ahead of the preceding generation’s preoccupation with avant-garde painting and sculpture – into the unconventional art practices of the twentieth century that has shown the way.

To the degree that one learns to ‘see’ ephemeral events, happenings, performances, film, and video under the rubric of Art (which is where their makers have placed them), then a corresponding receptivity to the historical totality of art production should follow. Some confirmation for this proposition exists in the renewed currency of one other art-historical pioneer, the visionary German scholar Aby Warburg, whose deep contributions from the 1890s to the 1920s had remained, until recently, unassimilable within the normative discipline. In a compelling series of articles, Warburg had looked to the gesticulating mummers of the Florentine street processions as lying behind some of the most august (to the eyes of posterity) rediscoveries of classical prototypes in art.36 Even when elevated by a Botticelli to the most refined movement and costume of court pageantry, the frozen gesture carried a deeper, unbroken inheritance from the ancient world, one of barely sublimated sexuality, violence, and magical thought, which lay beyond any merely bookish catalogue of mythological stories and aesthetic canons. For him, the figure in motion, derived from the direct experience of performers in the guise of ancient deities, constituted the true subject of advanced Florentine mimesis in the 1480s (and his having discerned living parallels to this history in the festivals and artifacts of the Hopi, whom he sought out during an American sojourn in 1896, provides the strongest early example of the bridge building required to render traditional Western fields of study commensurable with those devoted to the diverse cultures of the wider world).

Warburg’s legacy can, without danger of anachronism, project the artistic recognitions of the present into art history’s old heartland of the Italian Renaissance– and by extension into all older bodies of material. Beside the compellingly affective character of surviving art objects, he had been able to discern the equivalent value of their heuristic properties, which distribute networks of meaning over a much wider but more elusive field. These enduring works of painting or sculpture still provide an irreplaceable opportunity for instruction in historical interpretation, one all the more needed when even very recent art works have left behind only a litter of residual artifacts, documentary records, and fallible memories. But each was once a physical encounter of palpable order and coherence, however fleeting the moment of its particular Kublerian “commotion” may have been. To recreate that moment in the absence of the work itself requires the trained imagination that comes from the encounter with those objects that render their own long-ago commotions in fixed formations.37


1 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962), 79.

2 Ibid., 19–20.

3 Ibid., 36.

4 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking Penguin, 2002), 405.

5 A further weakness in this assertion lies in the fact that many assiduous scholars on the Left, devoutly wishing that Pinker could be correct, have spent at least a generation attempting to demonstrate such conscious political leanings in the practice of exemplary modern artists– and have usually come up empty.

6 Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art,” in The Cultural Migration: The European Scholar in America, ed. W. R. Crawford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1977), 83.

7 Kubler, The Shape of Time, 70.

8 See Leo Steinberg, “The Philosophical Brothel,” pt. 1, Art News 71 (5) (September 1972): 20– 29; Ibid., pt. 2, Art News 71 (6) (October 1972): 38–49.

9 Charles Rufus Morey, “The Value of Art as an Academic Subject,” Parnassus 1 (3) (March 15, 1929): 7.

10 Panofsky, “The History of Art,” 85–88.

11 Charles Rufus Morey, “Mediaeval Art and America,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 7 (1944): 6.

12 Ibid., 2.

13 See Panofsky, “The History of Art,” 95.

14 Irving Lavin, “The Crisis of ‘Art History,’” in Mieke Bal et al., “Art History and Its Theories,” Art Bulletin 78 (1) (March 1996): 14.

15 Panofsky, “The History of Art,” 91.

16 Morey, “Mediaeval Art,” 5.

17 Ibid.

18 Fried’s principal work in this vein has recently been collected in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

19 As Kubler observes (The Shape of Time, 67), “The work of many artists often comes closer to philosophical speculation than most aesthetic writings, which retrace the same ground over and over, sometimes systematically and sometimes historically, but rarely with originality.”

20 Meyer Schapiro, “The Nature of Abstract Art,” Marxist Quarterly 1 (January–March 1937), reprinted in Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Selected Papers (New York: George Braziller, 1978), 188.

21 Ibid., 192–193.

22 Meyer Schapiro, “From Mozarabic to Romanesque in Silos,” Art Bulletin 21 (4) (December 1939): 312–374, reprinted in Meyer Schapiro, Romanesque Art: Selected Papers (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 28–101; Meyer Schapiro, “The Sculptures of Souillac,” in Medieval Studies in Memory of A. Kingsley Porter, ed. W. R. W. Kohler (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939), 2:359–387, reprinted in Schapiro, Romanesque Art, 102– 130; see also Thomas Crow, The Intelligence of Art (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 1–23.

23 Remarkably, a tired and incoherent rehearsal of all the old mainstream resistances to Schapiro’s ideas has recently been published in the journal of the discipline’s principal professional organization: John Williams, “Meyer Schapiro in Silos: Pursuing an Iconography of Style,” Art Bulletin 85 (3) (September 2003): 442–468.

24 Nochlin’s contribution at first centered on the rural and working-class imagery that distinguished the realism of Gustave Courbet in the late 1840s and 1850s and that set the stage for Manet’s more urban set of motifs. Two particularly important articles took up and extended the insights of Meyer Schapiro, “Courbet and Popular Imagery: An Essay on Realism and Naïveté,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 4 (3–4) (April–June 1941): 164–191, reprinted in Schapiro, Modern Art, 47–86. These were Linda Nochlin, “Innovation and Tradition in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans,” in Marsyas Studies in the History of Art, suppl. 2, “Essays in Honor of Walter Friedlaender” (New York: Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1964), 119–126, and Linda Nochlin, “Gustave Courbet’s Meeting: A Portrait of the Artist as a Wandering Jew,” Art Bulletin 49 (3) (September 1967): 209–222. Herbert’s research is represented in Robert Herbert, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988); see also Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet at Argenteuil (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982).

25 Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970). The lesson of Barthes’s project for established literary-critical assumptions follows Kubler’s formula, written a decade before (The Shape of Time, 28), for unpacking the apparently unified work of art: “ . . . the cross-section of the instant taken across the full face of the moment in a given place, resembles a mosaic of pieces in different developmental states, and of different ages, rather than a radial design conferring its meaning on all the pieces.”

26 The founding text was Phil Cohen, “Subcultural Conflict and Working-Class Community,” Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, Working Papers in Cultural Studies 2, Spring 1972, 5–51, reprinted in Phil Cohen, Rethinking the Youth Question: Education, Labour and Cultural Studies (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998).

27 See as an example Annette Michelson, “Robert Morris: An Aesthetics of Transgression,” in Robert Morris (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1969).

28 T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, rev. ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 167.

29 Ibid., 166.

30 For representative collections of her work in this vein, see Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), and Linda Nochlin, Representing Women (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

31 Hollis Clayson, Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991; reprinted Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2003); Hollis Clayson, Paris in Despair: Art and Everyday Life Under Siege, 1870–1871 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Carol Armstrong, Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991; reprinted Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2003); Carol Armstrong, Manet Manette (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002).

32 Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980).

33 For a symptomatic expression of this mode of thought, see Norman Bryson, “Art in Context,” in The Point of Theory: Practices of Cultural Analysis, ed. Mieke Bal and Inge Boer (New York: Continuum, 1994), 66–78.

34 Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors, 10.

35 See, as a representative example, the comments of Keith Moxey, “Motivating History,” Art Bulletin 77 (3) (September 1995): 392–401, reprinted in Keith Moxey, The Practice of Persuasion: Paradox and Power in Art History (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001), 65–79.

36 See Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, trans. David Britt (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1999), 161– 167.

37 I am grateful for the assistance of Alison Locke and Doris Chon in the preparation of this essay.