The Study of Art Historiography as an Academic Discipline

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

May 1st, 2019, marks the first time that we as an Open Access medium, devote time to publish articles on the study of art historiography. Our central purpose is to understand why the history of art gets written in a way that it does and how has it taken shape as an academic discipline.

Above all, what are the grounds of its inclusions and exclusions, and what are its modes of writing, how does it relate to and intersect with other disciplines?

One of the major concerns is with the work of seminal thinkers in the development of the discipline, and aim to intend to promote deep critical engagement with their work.

Next month, we will celebrate the anniversary of Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari’s birth, and it would be helpful to do something to celebrate this occasion.

However — and until date — his work is still the subject of considerable controversy, and it is significant that there is no complete English translation of his 1568 ‘Vite’. The only English scholarly book on Winckelmann presents a highly selective view of his Geschichte that needs to be counterbalanced by the more in-depth contextualising study.

Despite arguments to the contrary, the work of the great German art historians still needs to be investigated in much greater depth. Moreover, what of our contemporaries: why is there still no major study of Svetlana Alpers’ work, to name just one prominent figure?

However, historical figures would not be prominent were it not for the problems that they addressed and the new paradigms they established.

To start with the basics: how does one construct a corpus of objects for study? By establishing a biographical connection? By creating a chronology, and if one does, then how does one do it?

Robert Bagley’s recent book, ‘Max Loehr and the study of Chinese bronzes: Style and Classification in the History of Art’, Cornell (2008) could well be missed by historians of Greek art simply because its topic is Chinese bronzes.

The study of art history has become so specialized that much valuable work that has far-reaching implications for the practice of the discipline gets either lost or ignored. How does one identify a class of object?

Students of the “fetish” might like to take a look in the direction of Alice A. Donohue’s Xoana and the origins of Greek sculpture, published by the American Philological Association in 1988. It is a text sadly missing in art historical literature. Why is it that Peter Lasko’s Ars Sacra: 800-1200, Harmondsworth 1972 happily included jewellery and ritual objects while the same is not done for other periods in history and cultures? Why is there no art historical survey that includes carpets? Why is there so little interest in prints? Why there is not a commonplace in which art historians ignore their specialisms in discussions of matters of common interest? The Warburg Institute discussion of ‘Iconography without Texts’, London 2008, reviewed in this issue, is refreshingly novel in the material that it brings together.

This issue of the medium focuses on the two themes of “Viennese art historiography” and “German art history and philosophy” because they are the editor’s projects in hand. They were the subjects of colloquia organised in Glasgow in 2008 and 2009 and will lead to further publications.

In the light of the fact that the medium was only born in October 1st, 2010, its other contributors are to be congratulated for the speed with which they prepared their material. Hopefully, when the medium settles into place, more themes will be born, and the ground covered will widen.

There is the promise of material on Indian and Chinese art, Baltic and Polish art history, classical archaeology and more. There will be a particular project on Colombian art historiography later in 2019. A more regional analysis will be very welcome as well as more work on established topics.

The first issue of the medium related to arts will be dedicated to the memory of Ernst Gombrich, whose centennial anniversary was celebrated in several events. His work emerged naturally out of the problems discussed by members of the so-called Vienna School of art history and engaged with the German practice of Kunstwissenschaft.

Ironically, the substantive content of his work has been missed and trivialized, precisely because he engaged in a debate with German language scholarship.

As Timothy James commented, the questions got lost: “Why are Dvořák, Warburg, even Burckhardt in the role of art historian still locked inside their mother tongue? Because of snobbery and lassitude, I suspect, and understandable fear of the texts in question. […] how did the past disappear? How was it that those questions that paradigm got lost?”

In 2009, the process of rediscovery was underway. Only last year, Julius von Schlosser’s ‘History of Portraiture in Wax’ was published in English for the first time. More translations and commentary are needed.

The two translations of German texts by Karl Johns in this issue are likely to become subject to some debate as he was concerned to protect their original idiom. Until very recently, Gombrich’s work has not attracted the kind of commentary it deserved; the colloquia this year marked a sea change.

With the launch of this new area related to arts, it is hoped that the fundamental problems of the practice of art history will re-enter the arena to become a central, no longer marginal, activity.

Perhaps, as well, art historians will start talking to cultural historians, ethnologists, philologists, archaeologists, museum professionals and other members of the community interested in those artefacts subsumed under the notion of “the history of art”.

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