Chapter 5

The Idea of Exemplary Writing in Art History

It would be delightful to begin with a canonical text, one that everyone agrees is exemplary of the best of writing in art history. But that isn't possible. At some point in the late 1950s in North America, Erwin Panofsky's English-language style seems to have been taken as exemplary, and I have heard the same said about E.H. Gombrich in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the name that came up most in connection with good or admirable writing in art history was probably Michael Baxandall's. (That's him in the photograph—it's almost the only modest-looking photo of any of these historians on the internet.) Even today, Baxandall may be one of the least often criticized of art historians; I only know one mild critique of his work. But his style—a mixture of English academic prose and public-school conversational cadences—is hardly typical of the discipline. It is a significant style, in the sense that his narrative manner allows him the subtleties and intentional ambiguities that are integral to his argument. But his manner wouldn't be a productive starting point.

Another candidate, a half-generation older, is Leo Steinberg, and I contemplated opening this account with him. He is a model for what any of us might achieve if we pay a certain kind of attention to writing: but it is not the kind that most of art historians want to pay. (See the fuller account in chapter 10.) I also could have started with Griselda Pollock or other art historians who experimented with personal authorial voices, in the wake of both feminism and deconstruction; but those texts now seem more of their time, and writing influenced by feminisms—including Pollock's—has moved in different directions. (See also chapter 18.)

When I posted a draft of this chapter on social media in 2013, I got many more suggestions: Sydney Freedberg, Anthony Blunt, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, E.H. Gombrich, Daniel Arasse, Clement Greenberg, John Berger, Svetlana Alpers, Georges Didi-Huberman, Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann, Thierry de Duve, David Summers, Lucy Lippard, Hal Foster, George Kubler, and Frederic Schwartz. For me they conjure disparate ideas of the discipline, and some seem parts of art history's past. Clark, for example, would sigh at the mention of Freedberg and Blunt, and people who admire Didi-Huberman might scratch their heads over the idea that Kaufmann is a writer in that sense. The discussion reminded me that there is another version of this question, which I would put in the past tense: what has counted as good writing in art history? That question belongs to historiography. My interest here is not only in what counts, now and for the next generation, as plausible models of good writing, but also what is actually emulated. Few of the people on this list are being studied by young art historians as models, and that is why I haven't focused on their work.

In short, there were many choices. My decision to open with a text of Rosalind Krauss is partly an attempt to side-step the problem of finding, or needing to characterize, what "good writing" might be, or has been, in art history. I have the feeling that Krauss's writing is as often criticized as it is emulated, and that it is seldom simply praised. But the writing she and others did remains deeply influential—"deeply" in the sense that many art historians trained in North America and Europe practice modes of writing that are indebted, sometimes indirectly and often unintentionally, to the model provided by the first decade of the journal October. This oblique, always qualified, frequently unconscious influence is pervasive in art history. I want to open with texts that are within the discipline's sense of itself, and by that criterion, Krauss is arguably as central as several others.

Speaking about writing in art history…

Before I begin, it may be prudent to say what it means to read for the writing when the writing is done in the name of a discipline like art history, visual studies, or the philosophy of at. There is precious little writing in philosophy on what writing styles mean, and what they do to the philosophy. I like the novel Wittgenstein's Mistress as a way to think about what it means that Wittgenstein's philosophy once existed as notes, even though Wittgenstein scholars write in complete essays. And I learned from Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe something about what it means that Heidegger's prose is so calm, so stentorian. A short but interesting bibliography could be compiled of such books, but nothing of the kind has happened in art history, theory, or criticism, and even in philosophy, those few texts are shouted down by the discipline as a whole.

So the first thing that needs to be said about what it means to talk about writing in art history (or the other fields where writing's purpose is to say something about art) is that the talk is treason. Or more charitably, it's mainly irrelevant. Good writing, in for writers who want to say something about art and also have their work read as art history, theory, or criticism, is simply clear writing. At Williams College in 2011, I got to know Paul Park, a genre novelist in the English Department who was teaching a mandatory course on writing for art history graduate students. His mandate, and his interest, was clear writing: concise, parsimonious, logical prose that said what the students needed to say in the simplest and most forceful manner. In a sense Park was teaching Ciceronian plain style. There's the idea in art history—and in the humanities more broadly—that good writing is fairly unornamented, and then there's the idea that truly good writing is an unexpected bonus, a delightful ornament on scholarship, which can make reading more of a pleasure and help the author convince her readers.

Part of talking about writing in art history, theory, and criticism is therefore indulgence: (1) writing is what people think about when they can, when they have leisure time, but it's not a required subject. Another part of talking about writing is (2) the plain style and its companions in classical rhetoric: direct speech, reasonably free of jargon, which pays attention to its argument. Both of these operate in university seminars, sometimes in succession, sometimes in opposition.

I have in mind both those ways of thinking about art historical writing, and two others. There is also (3) a way of critiquing writing that pays attention the way one pays attention to a novel, a poem, or any other work of serious literature. This is close reading: attending to voice, pace, style, manner, word choice. Being patient and demanding about how the writing becomes expressive, how its message finds its form. Here I would want to apply the full arsenal of literary criticism from Empson to De Man, from Derrida to Perloff. This is an inherently unfair thing to do to writing that hasn't been made for that kind of reading, but my criterion will always be that whatever is said about style, manner, and voice has to be connected to what the scholar meant to communicate. In other words: no carping about writing unless the writer's choices have a nameable effect on what is being argued. In that way close reading, no matter how unusual it is in art history, is pertinent.

And finally there is a sort of reading that is radical, and I will not be doing much of it, but it is presupposed in each of these three strategies. This is (4) reading nonfiction as if it is fiction. It is probably not yet possible to do that with Krauss's texts: they are still close to us in time, and their themes and dramatis personae are still largely our own. But a time will come, as it does for all writers, when Krauss's concerns are more about her than about Picasso or Duchamp, and then her writing will exist as fiction, as expressive memoir. Perhaps it is time to begin thinking about that possibility.

… and the use value of these readings

And so it is also important to say that only some of these readings might be of use to students or practitioners of art history. If you're an art historian, and you feel your writing might be too full of jargon, then you might find it helpful to think about the plain style, and about clarity. Or if you're an art historian interested in what counts, in the discipline, as good writing, then you could possibly find pointers, or directions to avoid, in the writing of Alex Nemerov and others.

The questions for such a reading are: what can art history do to make contact with twenty-first century writing? How, by what means, does disciplinary art history continue to sequester and control writing? What is omitted when art history pays only nominal attention to its own medium?

Most of what I have to say in these pages won't be helpful for any particular future art history, because it is aimed in a different direction. Looking at even the most adventurous art historical writing is like looking back in time. Art history—and, of course, academia in general—isn't the place where writing is finding new voices. And looking at writing means looking past content: in short, it means not caring what might be true about artworks, and that probably isn't a promising starting point for new scholarship.

If this project does have a use value for the discipline, I hope it is something more general: art history—and, I mean to say, humanities and social sciences in general—can only become more interesting, more challenging to itself and to its readers if its own medium becomes an object of full attention.

The potential danger of reading too much of this project

Having taught this material for several years now, I find that it produces an uncanny effect on my ordinary reading. It's not an especially pleasant effect, and it has actually begun to hamper my capacity to take art history as seriously as I once did. It is this: if you read a text, any text, with full attention to the way it is written, you will find yourself thinking about the author's or narrator's voice, tone, and mood. The author of In Search of Lost Time, as he is implied in the narrative, is supernaturally patient—he manages things over the span of 3,600 pages—calm, rational, almost pathologically reflective, and suffused with nostalgia that makes most of our memories simpleminded by comparison. And so on: the mood, the tone, of the writing is one of the things we grow to love in good fiction, even if we know we cannot read through the novel to the novelist, even if reading a biography of the novelist doesn't help, even if the difference between the author and her narrator is impossible to disentangle. These are commonplaces.

But if you read art history, theory, or criticism in this way, what do you find? What I discover is that the author's voice is often unpleasant. What he or she really cares about, what makes the author or narrator passionate, is the desire to demonstrate how knowledgeable she is, and if she has a passion it is to own her subject in such a way that no other author can have interpretive power over her. This isn't true of all art historical writing, and a love of the artworks and artists does sometimes drive the prose. But much more often the writing expresses the author's or narrator's intense concentration on professional prestige.

The feeling of art historical texts is often this sort of ambition, mixed with fear or anxiety about embarrassment or mistakes. Scholars have remarked on Panofsky's calm, Olympian tone, at least in his English-language writings, and it has been said that tone served to project cultural mastery, and that such a style is no longer appropriate or persuasive. Yet contemporary art historians have their own versions: for example the cool hyper-accuracy of writing in the Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, The Burlington Magazine, or The Art Bulletin, or the projection of mastery of theory in some essays in October, Grey Room, or Texte zur Kunst. 

In this way much of art history has been poisoned for me. When I pick up the latest issue of a journal, or leaf through the latest offerings from Yale or California, I am initially interested by the subjects the authors describe, but soon I find myself put off by the unremitting narrowness, the thin emotional range, the frantic construction of complexity, the abject dependence and simultaneous anxiety about authority, and the author's perfect obliviousness to such questions of feeling, tone, voice, mood, and expression--all the things Nietzsche diagnosed in scholars 130 years ago. The principal thing that is expressed in most contemporary art historical writing from Yale, California, Princeton, and the other major presses, is anxiety about colleagues and superiors. These are effectively narratives about authority and control. They're white-knuckled and nervous. I can hardly read contemporary art history these days, because so much of it is actually about these tightrope acts of assertion and defense, even though the authors and their readers agree to read only for what's said about the art.

In the end, when writing is in question, this is what is wrong with art history and other humanities: they produce bad writing, written by people who do not realize that what they write expresses their own lives.


  1. I don't know where you would put someone like Kirk Varnadoe, who was a MoMA curator and an art historian, but I have always admired his writing style, some of which is due to the fact that he was a great lecturer and so his writing style is closely related to his verbal style.

  2. I wish you'd speak more about the impact of feminist writing (Pollock's, among others). In my opinion, feminist art history hasn't been integrated effectively or extensively into the kind of critical reading you are doing of art history or visual culture or visual studies. There is a great deal more to say here.

    1. It's an interesting subject: I'm still trying to decide which examples to look at. I am not studying feminist art history (the movement, the ideas, the claims) but writing, so the example would have to be experimental writing in the name of feminisms. Griselda Pollock's work is among the most interesting in that regard. Ideas?

  3. A bit late in the day, but if you're still looking for examples of experimental writing in feminist art history, you might find Alison Rowley's book on Helen Frankenthaler (I B Tauris, 2007) of interest.