I have been working hard on my writing lately. I am trying to write the kind of prose that I would want to read myself. I am trying to be more honest with myself in the words I choose and the emotions I bring to the page. It’s been something of a struggle.
For one thing, it makes my prose vulnerable to dismissal. This has in fact happened to me, more than once, though it’s also true that my new commitment to conveying the temper of my encounters with art and design has elicited positive responses as well. More and more often my articles are accepted for publication without revision. Still, there are moments of sheer frustration. For example, while one editor wrote to me to congratulate me on the clarity of my writing in an exhibition review posted to this blog (see the review of Xi Jin’s recent show a few posts back) (Wallace 2021), another editor reading the same review concluded my writing style “would be well suited to a journal of art criticism” but it wasn’t art history. For it to be art history, “we would need very much more of a sense of context, including information about the overall nature of the artist’s practice, what [it]… reveals about his current direction, what artistic precedents there are for the work…, how the work is situated in relation to contemporary artistic developments, etc. Your writing is accomplished and your observations are perceptive but as one of the editors said, ‘its poetry, while evocative, also obfuscates… the meaning/context’” (Senechal 2021).
That back-slash between meaning and context is revealing. For that editor and her colleagues, the context is the meaning. The two are interchangeable. The object slips away. With it, the questions that it poses of us, the histories it embodies and shapes (including its politics), the way it asks us to feel, disappear. Alternative modes of being and seeing through encounter with art or design are cut off. And the anodyne voice of the social historian, much like that anodyne voice of the editor admonishing me for my poetic language, seals the authority of the usual narratives about context, practice, information, developments.
This is very precisely the direction in which I do not want to go.
And yet, isn’t it the case that I teach this kind of art historical practice to my own first-year undergraduate students? Though to be fair, I do understand it as practice only, with the thought that in future students might push beyond drafting template-style social histories of art (insert new dates, new “et ceteras,” and you’re good to go). We talk about ways of seeing and how we see when we encounter an oil painting, an installation, a heavy metal album cover, and so on. And I would never teach them that writing with and through the object is art criticism, and not art history. Ekphrasis comes in many forms. We make it up as we go along. It seems strange to me to have to say that.
It also occurs to me that there is a free-floating misunderstanding of art history to begin with. I have colleagues in visual culture studies who freely admit that they don’t know much about the practices of art history. So perhaps one of the reasons we’re still stuck with having editors demand that we write social histories of art is because they also don’t quite understand the complexities of other art historical approaches to the object. Don’t get me wrong. There are social histories of art that are worth dwelling with. And I read and publish in the arena of visual culture studies as well–I can switch gears, so to speak, I am not grinding an axe here. But I have encountered the thought more than once that the political discourses so critically important to visual culture studies only exist in art history within social art history writing. To my mind this position, while in a way understandable, is tantamount to a dismissal: a dismissal of the work of the work of art or design, of the freedom to seeing objects in our own peculiar ways, and of the possibilities for writing prose that is not yet one more self-indulgent performance of knowing an expert knowledge.
I’ve been told by someone I respect that I should just do what I want, and to hell with everyone else’s expectations. It’s good advice, though of course not always easy to follow. So please bear with me in this blog as I continue to try to find my way forward.
Wallace, Keith (former editor at Yishu). 2021. Email correspondence (July 17).
Senechal, Lora (editor at RACAR). 2021. Email correspondence (July 27).
For a thought-provoking essay about ekphrasis, see Jàs Elsner, “Art History as Ekphrasis,” Art History 33, no. 1 (February 2010): 10-27.
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