THE STATE OF ART HISTORY
- BLAKE STIMSON
My own sense is that the tenor of your query is exactly right. Our enterprise has indeed seen a period of unprecedented professionalization in the wake of the New Art History’s rough-and-tumble upheaval. This is evident in assorted predictable trends, including the mix of increasing specialization on the one hand with increasing homogenization on the other - specialization into the various field designations you list and more (such as the existing "Technocultural Studies" and future "Modernist Studies" programs here at UCDavis that I have contributed to, for example), and homogenization into a governing tone of strained institutional civility that suggests that any differences between fields, positions and methods are a matter of turf or "academic politics" rather than of politics proper. Such bureaucratization is not all bad, of course: among other things it shores up the apparatus of Art History (and its cognates) and thereby ensures the necessary institutional conditions for our work to be done, regardless of whether that work is good, bad or indifferent. So too it reduces the squandering of energies on infighting that could otherwise be spent on research. That this bureaucratization which rises out of our own internal professional dynamics fits hand-in-glove with larger institutional mandates for downsizing, upsizing or otherwise reallocating of ressources is neither here nor there either as these are largely beyond our control and themselves have mixed results. In my view the real worry lies instead only in the new complacency, in the ease with which the myriad new field designations sometimes carry on as if they have their own coherent and isolatable objects of study - media, say, or film, or technoculture - that are rightfully their special preserve. Such complacency, in the end, is no different from that art history held now long ago for its own cloistered preserve of high Art. The enduring measure of the New Art History that is threatened, thus, is that sense of vitality, purpose and significance it sometimes heralded with the catchphrase "the contest of meaning".
There is another perspective that can be brought to bear on this question, one that I take largely from Cultural Studies denizen Michael Denning (particularly his incisive 2004 "Culture in the Age of Three Worlds"). At issue for this perspective is the meaning of culture for the residual Cold War university, on the one hand, and for its emergent neoliberal replacement on the other. The broad outline of this change is a familiar story for art historians: where culture research found its governmental and societal sanction as an ideological demonstration of diversity and autonomy during the Cold War, culture research in the neoliberal university has found its justification in the name of "visual literacy" and training in other skill sets suitable for the global knowledge industries. (It might be said that the tension we are considering here surrounding the quest for new forms of interdisciplinarity arises generally from this cross of older and newer purposes.) What may be less familiar to art historians, however, is Denning’ s insider’s account of the institutionalization of Cultural Studies at precisely the moment when culture as a value lost its geopolitical reason for being to culture as a skill. From this perspective, the search for new methods and new objects both evidenced in the proliferation of "studies" areas is moot. Just as the notion of culture shifted long ago for Art History (as for everyone else) from a singular universal Culture to plural variegated cultures, from the humanist’s pursuit of being cultured to the anthropologist’s study of one’s own or someone else’s individual culture (thereby giving rise to the possibility of Cultural Studies and related fields), so too now the concept of culture may need to change dramatically again. Indeed what we may need now is not the study of culture at all, at least not in its usual Cold War ruse as a kind of middle ground between the individual and the social, but instead to reconsider the meeting of individual experience and social participation in new ways. One way to do that may be to begin with a rethinking our own roles as mediators for a knowledge-based economy along the lines that sociologist Beverly J. Silver has given in her expansive 2003 study "Forces of Labor": "Like textile workers in the nineteenth century and automobile workers in the twentieth century, education workers (teachers) are central to processes of capital accumulation in the twenty-first century."