Basic Concepts. Of Art History

  • Stephen Melville


For the past decade or more talk of both a ‘crisis in the discipline’1 and a ‘new art history’ has been a standard feature of art historical discussions. The senses assigned both these phrases have been highly various: for some ‘the new art history’ is a new or renewed social history of art;2 for others, the phrase evokes a new semiotic ground for the discipline;3 still others may hear in it a call for a post-structuralist art history, or for an art history that is self-consciously ‘postmodern’, or for an art history that returns to its own historical roots, renewing or transforming them.4 These various versions of ‘the new art history’ have equally various relations to what currently exists as art history: some conceive themselves as interventions in the discipline from its (political) outside, some as integrations of it into a larger field, and some as critical returns into its own conceptual apparatus. Seen from this perspective, the ‘crisis in the discipline’ amounts to a vast uncertainty about the specificity, limits, location and effect of the discipline of art history within the larger field of knowledge and cultural practice. It is not clear that the history of art has foundations it can call in some sense its own, not clear what is inside it and what outside, not clear what terms might best negotiate between any such insides and outsides or to what effect they might do so, and not clear what loyalty or betrayal is owed to such founding figures as Alois Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich.5


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  1. 2.
    See, A.L. Rees and F. Borzello, The New Art History (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: The Humanities Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See, for example, N. Bryson and M. Bal, ‘Semiotics and Art History’, The Art Bulletin, June 1991.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    This last tendency has drawn considerable impetus from M. Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For important instances of renewed negotiations with the discipline’s founders, see M. Iversen, Alois Riegl: Art History and Theory (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993)Google Scholar
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    For an interesting way of taking our interest in these terms, see P. Lacoue-Labarthe, Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989).Google Scholar
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    See E. Panofsky, ‘The First Page of Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Libro’: A Study on the Gothic Style in the Judgment of the Italian Renaissance’ in his Meaning in the Visual Arts (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955). This text appears to belong to a cluster of relatively early writings in which Panofsky forges a determinative relationship between the discipline of art history and the terms of Renaissance art. Other texts in this cluster would include Perspective as Symbolic Form, ‘The History of the Theory of Human Proportions’, and most of his writings on Dürer. One might also note the distance taken from Heidegger on interpretation between the 1932 German essay ‘Zum Problem der Beschreibung und Inhalsdeutung von Werken der bildenden Kunst’, Logos, XXI, and its more famous revision as ‘Iconology and Iconography’ in Studies in Iconology; for a useful discussion, see Didi-Huberman, Devant l’image, pp. 120ff.Google Scholar
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    This intuition has been given strikingly different philosophical forms by Arthur Danto, most notably in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)Google Scholar
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    On the topics of the frame and blindness, see J. Derrida, ‘The Parergon’ in The Truth in Painting, trans. G. Bennington and I. McLeod (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1987), andGoogle Scholar
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    The differences here can be further articulated and complicated by taking account of the various engagements of Heidegger by F. Jameson in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991;Google Scholar
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© Macmillan Publishers Limited 1995

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  • Stephen Melville

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