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Philosophy of New Music

Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and Its Institutions

by Elizabeth C. Mansfield, Editor
Routledge, New York/London, 2007
288 pp. Trade, $140.00; paper, $45.95
ISBN: 978-0-415-37234-3; ISBN:  978-0-415-37235-0.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Making Art History is an all-important selection of essays on the changes that have been taking place in the discipline and in the institutions in which art is exhibited and studied. Mandatory reading in graduate and under-graduate art history classes, the book will be of great interest to anyone interested in art and the ever changing perspectives scholars bring to the analysis of art history. In bringing together this powerful and fascinating collection of chapters in a finely crafted volume (which follows upon a related Routledge volume Art History and Its Institutions, 2001), Elizabeth Mansfield has made a lastingly useful contribution to the field. The introduction “Making art history a profession,” masterful in its brevity and clarity, definitively recalibrates our collective understanding of the discipline.

The book consists of four parts: “Border patrols: art history as identity,” “The subjects of art history,” “Instituting art history: the academy,” and finally “Old masters, new institutions: art history and the museum.”  Each section begins with a cogent introduction. All of the chapters are highly compelling works of scholarship. Focusing on a wide range subjects, a great deal of territory and art history is covered including traditions previously not included when teaching the canon of Western art history. For instance, there are two chapters on Islamic art. The first of these is the wonderful early chapter “From the Prophet to postmodernism? New world order and the end of Islamic art?” by Barry Flood Finbarr, and the second is “Deep innovation and mere eccentricity in Islamic art history” by David Carrier. Read together in the larger framing context of the other chapters on the histories of canons, limits, origins, re-figurations and contestations, they illustrate just how dynamic and interesting the ever expanding field of art history is today.

The first deft chapter is Marlite Halbertsma’s “The call of the canon: why art history cannot do without,” followed by Steven Nelson’s well measured account “Turning green into black, or how I leaned to live with the canon.” At no point do the chapters become obscure, in cases they are polemical. Donald Prezioski’s chapter “Unmaking art history” is true to his established quest. “Remaking art history: working wonder in the university’s ruins” by Claire Farago provides a pessimistic account of otherwise arguably stable institutions. Anna Chave’s chapter “Figuring the origins of the modern at the fin de siecle: the trope of the pathetic male” is the most provocative of all. For the Leonardo audience, in particular, there is an especially interesting and eminently useful chapter on art, science and evolution by Robert Bork. There Bork with caution and rigor gently and persuasively insists on the differences between the work of humanists and scientists and, thus, the necessary autonomy of the arts and sciences.

Claire Farago calls for more open-interdisciplinary programs. She advances the notion that disciplines create and enforce knowledge as part of historical political formations of nation states and asks: “To what extent should we as scholars . . . take responsibility for the effects of the knowledge we produce? (p.166). Taking us back to Socrates and Aristotle and swiftly through aspects of colonialism, fetishism, and Marxism including Kant’s heavenly peregrinations and Zwigli’s theological critique of idolatry, she foregrounds what was formerly in the background. I can think of few such wide ranging yet short discussions of hegemony and art history that are as readable as this. The same goes for all of the chapters in that they never get lost in the excess of theory and abstruse language so typical in art criticism and critical theory, disciplines that often impinge heavily on contemporary art historians’ interpretive work. As such, this is a very fine contribution not only to art history but also to the entire inter-disciplinary project.

Indeed, these wide ranging perspectives, considerations, and critical sentiments speak well of the vitality of the discipline. They return us to canonical foundational figures such as Sir Kenneth Clark, Clement Greenberg, and Steven Freedberg so as to situate the present in relation to ruptures and/or continuities with the past in art historical scholarship. Nowhere is the tension more pronounced and more polemical than in Chave’s feminist interpretation that opens up the final section on the contestations enervating the discipline. In providing such arc and range, this is in a sense a great survey book.

Every art historian will benefit from using it as a basic resource at once complex but eminently readable. It raises searching political, disciplinary, and institutional questions while not throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater though T. J. Clark and Jacques-Louis David, no less Marat and other pathetic males, would not at all agree with Chave’s critique. Steve Nelson, writing rather more on race than gender, describes how for the African-American artists Renee Green and William Pope, “blackness is a discursive tool that is disruptive, constructive, and deconstructive” (pp. 65). Nelson asks: “What would happen if we paid more attention to ambivalence in African-American visual practices?” (ibid.). In answering this question, he proposes that it would allow for an expanded canon including broader more provocative and oppositional methodological frameworks. [1] All the chapters do so in different ways for different art histories.

This book will expose the reader to a wide range of issues currently facing the discipline and how those issues impinge upon all art institutions today. It is the perfect text for a graduate or advanced undergraduate introduction to art history as a discipline. For professionals at large it will broaden our collective appreciation of the field. The only problem with the book is that one keeps wanting to pick it up again. And then, each chapter is so interesting that each time one struggles to choose which chapter to read first – Stephen Melville’s limits or Christopher Bucklow’s shape shifting, Christopher Marshall’s high anxiety or Eric Rosenberg’s critique of Freedberg and Greenberg. Or would you turn first to Connor’s (con)test of the attitudes and behaviors of museum and gallery staff responsible for installations?

Perhaps, however, you might begin again with Janet Kraynak’s discussion of the incorporation of the study of contemporary art into the expanded canon of art history. There Kraynak considers how the present rather than the past is now central to the discipline, whereas traditionally speaking, contemporary art was treated separately and by art critics. And if by chance you have a more classical interest in Flemish art, Gregory Clark’s federalist manifesto calls.  Either way, over and over again, whichever way you read it, Making Art History is an irresistible collection.


1. See for instance, Barbara Pollack’s discussion of the work of Mickalene Thomas in “Rhinestone Odalisques”, Art News, January 2011, pp. 94-99. In terms of modern African women artists worthy of inclusion in the expanding canon, see Martin Kimani “Wangechi Mutu” Juxtapoz November 2008, pp. 70-81 and Simon Njami “Jane Alexander also in Juxtapoz November 2008, pp. 116-125. More broadly, see Bill Anthes Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940-1960 (2006), Patrick Frank, ed. Readings in Latin American Modern Art (2004), Elizabeth Harney In Senghor’s Shadow: Art Politics, and the Avant-Garde in Senegal, 1960-1995 (2004) and Michael Sullivan Modern Chinese Artists: A Biographical Dictionary (2006).

Last Updated 4 June 2011

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