Brainstorm for Take-Home Exam

"Art history graduates can bore you rigid with talk about Derrida, Lacan,
Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, but few can tell you about the carpentry employed
in a 14th century Sienese altarpiece... Fewer still are trained to produce a
catalogue raisonne, the basic compilation of an artist's work and
history... They're incapable of even recognizing what they're looking at."

Discuss Frank Whitford's polemical reading of current art historical
scholarship, building your argument by citing material from your course notes
and readings.

Whitford’s reading of current art historical scholarship criticizes that art history graduates do not possess the very basic skills once essential to membership in the art historical community – they cannot recognize the carpentry in a Sienese altarpiece and are incapable of producing a catalogue raisonne. However, Whitford claims they can talk extensively about recent theorists and can ‘bore you rigid with talk about Derrida, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty and Foucault’. Whitford is critical of new art historical scholarship and its departure from a practical to a theoretical foundation.

Nature of critical theory of the new art history
Questions everything – takes away legitimacy of traditional art history
Questions the structure so doesn’t want to adhere to structure (to create a catalogue raisonne)
Very ideological, rather than practical perhaps, cognitive rather than material
Cant just accept a piece of art ‘for arts sake’ – must psychoanalyze or deconstruct… because we are no longer ‘innocent’ – cant be ignorant of the innocent eye anymore, but are forced to take responsibility and reconcile it

The twentieth century saw the questioning of the very nature of art when artists like Picasso, Duchamp, and Sherrie Levine challenged established art historical discourse, ultimately resulting in the redefinition of art itself. Traditional notions of ‘art’ are just that – traditional, and a thing of the past. Critical theory has opened up art historical scholarship, giving birth to a new type of art history which promotes an interdisciplinary approach and relies highly on thoery - it is intertwined with philosophy, anthropology, politics, and social theory etc.

The term 'art' is transitory and unstable, shifting meanings as it manouevers through time and space, from place to place. So 'art' was once 'art as craft' (to serve a practical purpose, ancient times Cyclades), 'art as a trade', (guilds, technique a conditioned skill [like woodwork], to get paid by a patron, middle ages and renaissance), 'art of the individual' (art for arts sake, expression, modern age). I propose the 21st century has again seen a shift and redefinition of this transitory term – 'art as life'. It’s sooo tied to everything else – postmodern thinking does champion complexity and interdependency! We are in a climate of postmodernity. In vis120 we were given a sequence of slides and were to categorize them as ‘art’ or ‘not art’. Catherine Heard deemed those ‘art’ that were ‘art of the individual’.
Shows the shift of the discipline – it is one of the few disciplines that critiques itself (like anthro).
Talk about post modernism for this q
Art history as this new hybrid critical approach
We must be of our times – it would be against our times to go back to the way it was before and pretend that all this crazy thinking didn’t affect us and our approach to art. Would be against our times to obsess about the carpentry of a Sienese altarpiece – traditional.

Traditional AH

- gives us a handle to judge what is in the canon (masterpieces, genius, value)
- helps us grasp a body of ideas (art history)
- auras and essences of artworks
- transcendental, timeless, truth

The canon
- superstructure that relies on discourse and hierarchy

- Foucault defined as “A language that functions to control the order of things via a collective. It is a will to truth creating the effect of transparency”
- Relies on repetition (what is important is repeated), rarefication (forming of a discrete community), selection, exclusivity (not everyone can be included), coherence (through rule of the author certain claims gain coherence (determines who we’ll study - the name Shakespeare connotes value because of the author function)

Artist as genius
- a visionary – gives him authority

- art critic
- supposes you’ll never understand the art work without a Berger, the critic is in charge of what’s important – Bryson ‘Vision and Painting’ (reveals the story of art is a fiction)

- assumes they are present in culture and art works

Innocent eye
- Titian’s ‘The Venus of..’ we are asked to overlook fact we are looking at a naked woman, children will see the nakedness, but passed off in art world as the ‘nude’
- asked to suspend disbelief

Reflection theory
- believe what others pronounce to be important, because they have more authority, retinal sensation, and knowledge
- promotes a passive viewer

- craft objects are pumped out in masses
- a singular art piece has special status
- like Antiques Road Show and connoisseurship

- traditional art history vs. new critical art history

The object is a thing through which meanings and intentions of the artist pass

Traditional AH assumptions:
- knowledge is linear
- developmental progression
- differential articulations over time, space, biography – establishing a common space of beliefs is the formation of myth
- willingness to accept myths of culture as part of the natural order (Bryan Wolf)
- situates the past relevant to the present so it sees style as evolving from an earlier one
- locates works within a set time so it defines them as belonging to the ‘spirit of the times’ and creates a chronological order
- looks at a painting as if it’s an extension of our own world (Alberti) and not a cultural construct > I think I just understood the gaze! The gaze is linked with this idea of paintings as extensions of 3-dimensional reality – Ah Ha! Gazing into 3D space, a ‘window’. Then summons the innocent eye to suspend the disbelief and walk into illusory space.

What we consider is dependent on what we see as culturally important and what will be legitimized by those around us (what people perceive to be meaningful and relative)

Formalist theory – Greenberg… art in vacuum

Texts as historical objects – belong to time and place in history


Week 10, Deconstruction

➢ Language Vs. Language - One is attached to a mode of communication to the point of critiquing a language using that same language. Critiquing a culture being attached to that same culture and its elements.
Example: Yinka Shonibare Victorian Couple

➢ Cultural Constructs - Structures are not deep truths waiting to be discovered, they are cultural constructs. There is no objective universal truth. Subjects do not communicate consistent, intentional, and rational views, and unified meanings that mirror the reality outside them. Binary opposites are the main tools in human constructions of meaning, they are not essential truths. They serve as pieces of an argument for a particular truth. We must question why these constructs are applied, and why they are accepted.
Example: T.S Eliot The Wasteland

➢ Differance - Signifiers and signifieds are not identical they differ from each other and point to other signs to gain meaning. No ultimate truth exists because all truths are based on difference and comparison, not unity.
Example: WWII Propaganda Poster

➢ Meaning & Non-Meaning - Language can simultaneously convey the presence and absence of meaning. What a statement doesn’t say may be as important for interpretation as what it does say. Reading a work means looking at what the artist intends to convey with his language and what his language conveys to us without his intention. A piece gains meaning by how we read the constructs as well as by how they are written.
Example: Fred Wilson Mining the Museum

➢ Irreducibility of Art - Art is the ultimate deconstructor in culture. The variety/differences in art means that it resists totalitarian interpretation and categorization, transcending the concept of sameness and therefore the idea of an underlying presence and of an ultimate truth.
Example: Greg Curnoe View of Victoria Hospital

➢ Ownership - The competition between interpretations of truth in a work brings up the question: to whom does art belong. Does it belong to the subject it represents, the artist who made it, or the viewer?
Example: Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa

➢ Importance of Reception - The effects or meanings of works of art are ultimately in how they relate to those who read them, and not in any innate essence.
Example: Tracy Emin My Bed

Week 6, Study Notes and Thoughts for Midterm

The canon cherry-picks history
- Selective
- To support a unilinear, progressive Enlightenment story

Universality – I’m confused about this
Immutable = unchanging through time, ageless, constant
- So the idea that artworks make statements that are unchanging through time
- Relies on a fixed scale to judge works and relies on academics who make their beliefs common knowledge
*So basically critics and art historians make their beliefs seem like obvious common ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’ even though its their own opinions, supported by a criteria to judge artworks that they made up – that’s ridiculous!
- Universality then cretes a criteria which helps to determine what works are masterpieces, which artists are geniuses and then we can slap a value on it
- So is universality saying ‘this artwork is a masterpiece because it transcends time and space’ ? > I think so

Transparent = clear, easy to understand, obvious
Opacity = hard to understand
*Makes us think! So that we must make sense of it for ourselves
Subjective = subject, the person’s thoughts and emotions
Like someone’s opinions, their own perspective which varies from person to person
Objective = reaching ‘truth’ through formal facts
Like science claiming it can 'prove' anything, ‘knowledge’

Art critics made up a myth that masterpiees should be easily recognized by their aura of worth. They constructed stories and ideologies like universality and objectivity which support their claims. Really seems to be a big conspiracy and art critics have hidden agendas > power and money
-Like Greenberg telling Pollock what was good and what was not. By promoting something specific he can have be the ultimate authority on the subject.

Traditional art history seems very selective and manipulative to prove a point, or fulfill other hidden needs – the ‘mastering gaze’

Relative = in relation to other things, not absolute

In traditional AH, audience is not doing enough active thinking! Not questioning what they are told – they are told what works have value, knowledge as ready to absorb, consensus of opinions about works and what is meaningful
Traditional AH seems fishy… too easy. May be easy for me to say in retrospect from a contemporary eye, but traditional AH was very particular, very constructed to something specific

Traditional AH informed by Enlightenment ideals, just like traditional anthropology
- Categorized, classified, unilinear evolution with the aim to communicate universal meaning that defies time and space
- So, the old AH was informed by concepts of order, development/progress, and rationality

Transcendental = goes beyond, mystical, goes above
dualism? > mind and body division, like Descartes and Cartesians
Bryson – scrutinized art history as a discipline
Artifice = artificial, not real
Telos = moving towards an end, traditional, linear AH

Seems like with new AH we are now aware of how old art history made us think. It gave us the easy way out – reception theory and passivity. Were we just ignorant of the power of discourse and its massive construction of the AH community? Were we just ignorant and unaware we were seeing art as ‘reading texts’ rather than thinking for ourselves and ‘writing text’? looking back on this, seems we should now know better, that we should’ve learned a lesson from this with our new awareness. We should be thinking about art and images and making sense of them for ourselves.
- Or is this new thinking just another construct from a new generation of art
people; making us think this way to fit into their plans?
BUT, as Marshall McLuhan said, MTV culture and fast images condition us to lose our ability to look and think about images and art – ‘image saturation’
- So is our emancipation short lived? Have we now been conditioned to take images for granted? Have we become lazy from image consumption?
- I feel like for the most part we aren’t doing any more thinking than before – maybe we like the easy way out!

Role of theory as a creative force in relation to images
- Theory is a realm of ideas or opinions, a type of approach
- So, it can influence our experience of an artwork by directing our attention to certain aspects of the work – it guides our thinking and experience of images

We used to be passive, forced into an inactive role by the system of AH. Looking back we recognize this and now accept a more active role, asking questions and trying to create meanings - critical theory
- But is the new AH just constructing this view of the old AH to serve its own purpose? It seems like it always comes down to this!
- Are we always selecting and manipulating to support our current views?

People make a bunch of crap up. Then they make up a bunch more crap to prove the crap they made up. Then through a carefully crafted system and community they can perpetuate the crap and legitimize it, eventually convincing the average person this is common knowledge
- I need to make up a new discipline and then a bunch of crap to support it – I could be rich!

Reproductions and information age, MTV culture and fast flashing images condition us to be desensitized to images. Our Western culture privileges images so much the saturation of images is making us not think, puts us in that low, passive position again, or so it seems to me!
- Maybe we are always choosing the easy way out or perhaps we are ignorant or
lazy. However you want to put it, it seems like the submissive role, on the back, thighs spread
Privileging sight as medium – ‘if it work its obsolete’
- Like what Rachel was saying about the quote from McLuhan, as soon as the medium works and you understand it, someone else already has too and moved on, so you’re behind the times

It seems like the structure uses force to put us in a subordinate position. The old AH system promoted a passive viewer, reception theory. The new AH seems to promote an active, questioning viewer. But I feel like the culture the new AH exists in is dominated by advertising, TV, computers, and info using lots of fast images and reproductions that promote a non-thinking, lazy viewer.
- So then how does all this line up? ‘History’ has not taken its toll for ‘truth’ to come out about new AH and its culture. But then what is history but a selected, narrative of past events used to serve some purpose?
- Its all about using information to serve a purpose

Why would theories make art history into nonsense?
- Because everything is a subjective idea that uses cherry picked info to support it and there are no ‘truths’ and art history can’t be one coherent thing. Everything is people’s ideas about things and peoples ideas about peoples ideas about things. AH seems so far removed from art at all it seems more about people. The history of people thinking about peoples ideas about something called art, whatever that might be.

Theory can shape our thinking by focusing around specific questions to understand specific things
Transparency was promoted by traditional AH, the ‘easy’ approach
It is mumbo jumbo cause everything constructed to promoted certain thinking. Now, new AH takes a critical approach by using critical theory to scrutinize traditional AH. Its creative because of its interdisciplinary approach – anthropology, psychology, gender, and social roles provokes an active viewer, reflection theory, writerly text, opacity, complexity

Week 5, Antiques Road Show

- HMS Victory Ship, in the Battle of Trafulgar
- Ostrich eggs with pictures of ship - 2000 each
- 400 year old cup – only worth 100 pounds:
  • Antiquarium thinks it should be worth 1000 because it’s so old and exquisite, and in good condition, but it has no ‘special status’
  • So then, what gives something value? Maybe this ‘special status,’ an event, its ability to survive time, or how high it is in demand
    • Reminds me of Cycladic figurines - became very popular for a time with the interest in ideas of the ‘primitive’ and ‘pureness’
- Sword from Napoleonic wars (1796):
  • Officer’s name is inscribed; this is attractive to collectors. A name and a face to be associated with, not just an object in itself
  • Used for crowd control by people on horses
  • Exceptional condition
  • Since there’s popular interest in the Napoleonic wars, its attributed a value of 3000-4000 pounds!
- Bishop’s ring
  • An extraordinary thing to find in a marketplace, usually retained by the church
  • 19th century, scenes of the crucifixion
  • Purple colour stone – purity
  • Its rareness gives it a value of 1000 pounds
    • So maybe rareness creates value
*How do they know so much about the objects? They would need such a vast knowledge base about everything. Do they examine the objects beforehand, like with a team? Or do they get the objects and then call in experts in that area to come in and tell the object’s story and report its value?

Emerald brooch – jungle green
  • Synthetic emeralds worth nothing, God’s emeralds worth lots!
  • 10,000 – 15,000 pounds! Again, rareness creates value
- Cast bronze figurine (humorous – cats in a boat)
  • Turned out being worth 500 pounds. After finding out its value, owner declared “I will look at it in a totally different way”
- A cult of all things to do with Nelson
  • Raises the issue of fakes (again reminding me of Cycladic and Cypriot figurines)
  • Box > worth 10 – 20 pounds, but if it’s associated with Nelson it’s worth around 800 pounds!
*So it seems the story is important to attributing value, its history and associations
- Woman’s skull collection: dolphin, human skull, mouse – no commercial value

Relevant class notes:

- Value based on consensus and quality
- Revelation, only the antiquarium could discover
- Just like the art critic and his authority! Sounds like art historical discourse again
- Pedigree, trying to establish provenance
- Looking for hallmarks of authenticity
- Aspect of education as well

- Relate to the domain of objects
- Decipher images
- Polish up totems of ancestry
- By means of the canon of quality and more precisely pedigree or provenance
- Tells us about symbolic capital (social value) – the individual who possesses these objects, especially when its on TV
-This symbolic capital is as important as the economic one – you are elevated in the community because you possess it
- Works acquire value as they fit into a marketplace