How art ‘history’ can take us ‘forward’ is like going back to the future!
In summary, art history transcends the boundaries of philosophy, politics and psychology.
The intellectual debate continues to revolve around the art historian’s object of study; whether it be paintings, sculpture, or even the advertisement of hair style!
Courbet for instance, spells the Marxist viewpoint whether you are a Marxist or not, thus it is essential to interpret his paintings using politics, philosophy and class structure.
There are interrelationships between other disciplines with art history which work both ways; history of art is used by others in the same way it borrows ideas for itself!
Riegl and Wolfflin were formalists and acknowledged change in perception anyway; they noted art being the medium providing the best example to illustrate these shifts in human thought.
Methodological guidance has been borrowed from art history on visual representation in science and other areas of normal history; no longer can a single method be used with research!
Feminism has managed to generate debates from a range of other theories, while medieval-art historians may adopt insights from social art history on the one hand, and connoisseur identification methods to date works on the other hand.
Some methods are more compatible with each other though, that is clear. Social art history for instance, represents an interplay of a wide range of social forces; connoisseur mainly takes just the individual. Is it possible to use both without contradiction though, and does a small amount of contradiction matter anyway? With different levels, an artwork may be accurately dated and no underlying theory may be required but if two methods are mutually exclusive a choice needs to be made.
Flexibility is a good thing but switching between theories does have its dangers so a good art historian like any workman will use a range of tools from the toolbox to do the best job and select the correct one at the correct time rather than any old one for the hell of it!
Feminists like using psychoanalysis, but there are many sexist assumptions in psychoanalysis which are often at odds with feminism; Pollock dipped in to Freudian fetishism, without endorsing other aspects of his theory.
There will always be the need for theory to link art to society and identify how it changes over time because art’s evolution is definitely not random.
An artist’s catalogue raisonné might be seen as compiling data. Yet the significance of an artwork clearly has to be understood in light of all the artist’s work; something we call the metaphysics of individuality!
Moreover, the so called ‘hermeneutical problem‘ has arisen and that is how we can understand works of art now, that are from a different time, and with different cultural context.
The thing about the ‘hermeneutical problem‘ is it highlights the methods in art history required to attempt to resolve it; it helps us rather than hinders us, because it puts artists in their place in history and allows us to understand them from the present, meaning the problem is really one of how clearly we understand methods in art history. It helps us understand methods which helps us answer the problem.
Many people have sidestepped the ‘hermeneutical problem‘ because history isn’t laid together in a single process of development. The history of methods is a story of losses and gains, thus, new replaces old, and the overcoming of problems invariably means something will always be lost!
Each and every theory in art history has its limitations. Trying to link the present to the past and account for historical changes carries the risk of not being sufficiently attentive to difference. We cannot assume that each theory applies to all cultures at all times, especially one that is remote from us.
But we can identify certain general causes and art history is notoriously diverse.
Riegl and Wolfflin tried to apply new ideas about vision, to the past. They did this without a great deal of supporting historical evidence.
There is the problem of art history communicating with a whole culture when really it is just the paintings which are a small part of it, and this loses some of the distinctiveness. For that reason, many writers have focused on specific features only and rather than looking for continuity they emphasize the difference, when perhaps continuity is where change – at least some of it – happens.
If we give up this idea of a link from one culture to the next it is difficult to give a valid interpretation because the difference is too great for comparison. Thus, it becomes unknowable and awkward to write the history without any interrelations. This means there must be a link or links and makes it a lot of fun trying to find them!
By giving us then this gap between what is specific and different manages to open up a whole new area. However, by tailoring things in our own little way we run the risk of reducing them to our own narrow world of today.
Perhaps identifying that difference is the ‘thing about art history’ in some sort of mathematical equation (3x – x = 2x and the difference is ‘x’ that represents the change in a nut shell) thus, art historians continue to expand the borders of their discipline.
From the belt buckle of a Roman, to the discussion of pornography, there is no reason why art and it’s history should not expand its remit even further: a discussion of the difference between analogue and digital representation of images.
Visual culture as this may now be called does require the same theoretical conundrums as traditional art history and rely on the methods developed by it.
Only can this be seen in an increasing interaction as the evolution of images increases by greater proportions.