Contemporary Art History and Professionalisation

It’s interesting seeing art historians deal with artists who are their contemporaries or near-contemporaries, as this is not what the discipline was designed for and so the meeting highlights how different the professionalisation and subjectification of art historians and artists has been. While artists do gain a sort of structural validation due to their choice of material (ironically, increasingly including art history) the requirement to “do something” with that material (i.e. enable a kind of affective truth) is far higher than for the art historian, whose ultimate validation comes from a genre of truth as the avoidance of being proven false, quite a different enterprise. [This is all changing as contemporary art history becomes an archive that both artists and art historians mine to their advantage through the shared tools of computing, adopting referencing as a style, but still I think in different ways.]

Perhaps peer reviewing of contemporary art historians could occur more through the tools of art criticism, evaluating the work of art historians according to their formal strategies within specific institutional settings and within the context of an overall project that will be tied (always badly) to their creative “identity”. If that kind of evaluation were more prominent, the survival strategies of art historians would perhaps need to go through the kinds of critical pressure that those of artists have, to become less clearly institutionally predictable. Contests between art historians who were involved in various kinds of critique of their own institutional conditions and forming independent alliances to escape them versus those who benefit from business as usual might become more interesting to artists even as those contests made art history less useful.

The most enduring feature of the modernist legacy to me was not to think of disciplinarity as seeking purity but for every disciplinary form to court its own institutional decomposition. It’s now over 20 years since Bal and Bryson noted that “art history seems hard pressed to renounce its positivistic basis, as if it feared to lose its scholarly status altogether in the bargain.” If we consider that the humanities have now become a financialised enterprise subject to many of the same kinds of pressures as any other industry (gaining market share, impact, growth, profitability), perhaps this diagnosis still holds, but the location of the “positivity” has changed from academic declarations of fact to more behind-the-scenes structures of professionalisation. “Theory” and a critical community would then still be among the few available tools to open up these naturalised engines of professional force.