Interpretive Approaches in Art History

4 May

If social sciences have been sprinting breathlessly towards positivism, art history has been running, equally fast, away from it. Art history’s subjectivist turn can be traced back to postmodernism, and particularly hermeneutics and phenomenology, which pretty much gave immunity to virtually all kinds of interpretations–as long as they were not blatantly wrong in hard facts or flimsy with inconsistency and incoherence.

Art history concerns itself not only with intentions of art-making, but also acceptance and reception of artworks — audience’s reaction and understanding of artworks, which can veer far away from original intentions (if any) of the artist. When audience’s interpretations are sanctioned as legitimate, art historians argue what they feel might as well be what others perceive from the artworks they’re looking at, relaying the legitimacy to at times highly personal feelings.

Ruing the loss of the historical perspective in Art History

Richard Meyer is an engaging and impassioned speaker. While presenting, he regularly stops to regale the audience with one of his many endlessly entertaining stories based on astute observation. Meyer has been recently touring the lecture circuit giving his well-rehearsed lecture on “What was Contemporary Art?” His lecture is about many things — it is about the history of Contemporary Art, a lament against increasing ahistoricism in Art History, and how ahistoricism helps commercial expropriation of Contemporary Art by the culture industry.

Meyer’s historical argument, which is just based on three ‘events’: Alfred Barr’s art course in Wellesley College in the early 20th century, a Harvard dissertation by Roselyn Krause on David Smith in 1969, and the 2001 (pre 9/11) advertisement campaign for Museum of Contemporary Art in LA led by Chiat Dey – also ironically provides an unwitting expose’ of the rich but particularistic accounts that pass off as history in Art History. Meyer, arguing for historicism in art history, is quite oblivious to ethical norms for practicing history. Art historians look at history as a way they look at art – they look at it to interpret and find hidden tapestries. By doing this, they can always convey a point – though never a historically accurate one.

Perspectives from the End

Contemporary art is obsessed with making ‘clever clever’ comments, says Donald Kuspit in The End of Art. He argues that it is the loss of aesthetics, and Contemporary Art’s singular obsession with sham intellectualism, that is behind the decay. Art, according to Kuspit, should be like a religion. It should brook no dissent. It shouldn’t be a cultural tome over which the philistine poseurs negotiate their cultural identity and status.

Art’s Hubris and Art’s End

Only ethical practices can escape being subsumed from the oncoming onslaught of commercialism. Art History and criticism, which pride themselves in providing subjectivist approaches open to all distortions and all arguments, are fighting a losing battle. Artists have tried to fight by burrowing themselves in the anti-commercial ethic, but they have found repeatedly to their chagrin that commercialism and culture industries have made them cultural items. It is a losing battle because artists rely on the same cultural industries that they fight against. It doesn’t mean that ‘good’ art has nothing to say – it just means it will never have an impact beyond dinner table conversations.

Solutions Solutions
There are two ways to fight it — make Art a religion by bringing back focus on non-negotiable aesthetics (Kuspit), or spend time creating a normative framework for art, art history, and criticism.