Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 10, 2001
Keith Moxey The Practice of Persuasion: Paradox & Power in Art History Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. 146 pp.; 7 b/w ills. Paper $15.95 (0801486750)

In his previous book, The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics and Art History, Keith Moxey called on art historians to abandon their quest for objectivity and instead foreground the precepts of critical theory. Its sequel, The Practice of Persuasion: Paradox & Power in Art History, considers what such an approach means for the discipline of art history. Moxey rejects what he perceives as the nostalgia for order and tradition in the current reaction against the incursion of critical theory because he believes it ignores the most important development of recent times: the demise of grand narratives. The ensuing relativity of knowledge, he argues, inevitably reduces all truth-claims to the art of persuasion; and the sole value and legitimate ground for such rhetorical scholarship is an ethical one.

The Practice of Persuasion consists of six discrete essays. The first four focus on the pervasiveness of Kantian and Hegelian concepts in the reception of Renaissance art by the founding fathers of the discipline (such as Riegl, Wölfflin, Panofsky, and Gombrich). These concepts provide the opportunity for Moxey to demonstrate a paradox at the heart of the discipline. In its apparent claims for objectivity and disinterest, he argues, art history repressed a maelstrom of ideological conflict, a critical theory bursting to get out. The history of style, which Moxey considers to be the backbone of the discipline, is shown in the first essay to be a thinly disguised and ideology-ridden teleology of “the Hegelian unconscious.” For example, in spite of their claims of objective historical analysis, the founders of the discipline resurrected fifteenth-century Netherlandish art through the metaphors of modern nationalism–of the spirit’s coming into being in the form of realism through genius and racial consciousness. In short, the very tradition that many art historians hope might provide a safe haven in the current theory wars is itself exemplary of a rhetorical search for meaning that is ideological through and through.

If the Hegelian and Kantian approaches of traditional art history produce a rhetorical historiography intimately connected with the ideological debates of their day, Moxey believes that their rhetoric of objectivity and ideological neutrality is unethical. In the second essay, he argues for the ethical necessity of scholars to openly articulate rather than repress their ideological commitments. That art should be critically discussed from the perspective of our own values–and not from an appeal to truth or "facts"–emerges as the main theme of the book. Moxey contrasts his ethical approach to a discipline that, from its neo-Kantian beginnings, displaced ethical values into aesthetic ones.

The third essay analyzes the role of Kantian aesthetic value in art history. Moxey identifies both a tautology and category confusion in the very ethos of the discipline. The discipline’s traditional claims of objectivity and historical truth, he says, are underwritten by a canon that, in turn, determines what is historically true; and the historical truths of that canon are derived from an allegiance to a dehistoricized transcendental aesthetic truth that veils its ideological formation. Secondly, he proposes that the discipline is founded on the need to repress the cultural relativism implicit in the German Romantic recognition of local canons and local truths against the academic canon. Kant’s universalism, he argues, provided the key to this repression because it identified “canonical status with the judgement of tradition.” Surprisingly, Moxey does not explore a paradox in this argument; namely that Kant’s philosophy also provided the basis for the Romantic rejection of the academic canon. Kant’s argument on the priority of judgement and his insistence on the discursive and representational nature of thought was the death knell of the traditional academic canon. The championing of cultures over civilization is a neo-Kantian innovation. For Kant, transcendental taste was necessary for the liberation of art from the canon, even if some neo-Kantian art historians and critics used it to cement in place a canonical modernism.

Moxey’s reduction of Kant’s philosophy and its ambivalent role in the discipline to what seems like a Greenbergian universalist taste results in conclusions that sometimes miss their target. For example, Moxey concludes his book with the hopeful premise that “the demise of a wholly rational, autonomous subject [has] led to the proliferation of new voices based on assertions of specific identities which had been previously repressed or occluded by the dominant paradigm.” This development lies behind the writing of his book. Certainly new localized voices have proliferated, but I am not convinced it is because of the demise of the wholly rational autonomous subject and its correlate in the globalized grand narratives of contemporary capitalism. The collapse might have been well and widely theorized, but so-called late capitalism shows no signs of dementia in spite of the wishful thinking of many critics. Arguably, the rationality theorized by Kant has only strengthened, and it is the Kantian autonomous subject that has produced the proliferation of new voices, each with specific and autonomous agendas. An example is the challenge of indigenous art to the former authority of European cultural values in Australia–a challenge that is precisely because of this art being a Western (Kantian) art movement. This is so because, for oppressed voices, Kantian autonomy remains the most effective means of being heard.

For Moxey, the ultimate point of a multiplicity of canons (and voices) is not their respective truth-values (such as the particular assertions of an indigenous or feminist perspective), but the blow they collectively deal to the very idea of a universal truth or grand narrative. This provides an opening for art historians that he is loath to squander. Much like Roland Barthes, Moxey is intent on elevating the reader’s (art historian’s) role in producing meanings in art, and this is what he addresses in the two concluding chapters. One is a well-balanced position paper in an ongoing disciplinary debate about the place of visual and cultural studies (or critical theory). The other is a less convincing attempt to theorize an ethics of writing art history.

Moxey is not in the business of providing an ethical code of conduct for art historians. Rather, he argues that an ethical art history should openly address the author’s own subject position at a time when subjectivity, and especially the Kantian transcendental (free, autonomous) subject, is severely contested. Moxey unconvincingly suggests that this implies a type of autobiography–unconvincing because it surrenders too much to a Kantian-type subject. Aware of this, he also admits that this autobiography is necessarily a “self-fiction” because the discursive and ideological mapping of a subject position is always split, shifting, and fictional. He envisages autobiography as a tactical means of mobilizing the paradoxes of identity and ideology and not as establishing the autonomy of the subject. If Moxey’s argument here is somewhat muddy, as in most chapters, he wheels in the notion of paradox as a way of playing with but not reconciling contradictions.

As the subtitle of his book suggests, paradox is for Moxey the necessary ingredient of an ethical critical discourse. Paradox keeps criticism honest by leaving it open to a plethora of multiple meanings. At times, it seems that Moxey even believes that the essence of critical discourse is paradox. In this respect, the subtitle of the book, “paradox and power,” might seem a deliberate parody of the Foucauldian nexus of knowledge and power. Moxey accepts, however, the historical specificity of knowledge (that is, its nexus with power) as a starting point of his inquiry. Here, knowledge is not necessarily universal or relative, but rather is determined. For Moxey, the ethical burden of art history is to show that determined knowledge is also paradoxical, which means showing that it is subject to the innate heterogeneity of discourse.

Moxey demonstrates this numerous times in his essays. This is also why his real complaint is not with the Kantian transcendentalism and Hegelian teleology of the discipline’s founding texts, but instead with the discipline’s turn in the mid-twentieth century toward positivism and a scholarship of objectivity rather than one of persuasion. Paradoxically, the sort of paradox that Moxey discovers in each of his chapters is Hegelian in that it draws conclusions that are historically haunted by their opposites. While Moxey never attempts to reconcile them–to do so would be unethical–he often does, in an Hegelian fashion, reconcile them to their historical contexts and scholarly origins. In other words, Moxey’s power of persuasion is as an art historian rather than a theorist; it rests on his ability to historicize knowledge and articulate the ideological agendas of other scholars. If his persuasion is to be ethical in his terms, it must also address rather than conceal the paradoxes of his own argument (which it generally does), and, I would suggest, avoid the solipsism of autobiography. If an ethics of writing art history exists, it is one founded on the work of the discipline to continually challenge the assumptions of its and one’s own practices (of which self-fiction is surely one).

Ian McLean
University of Western Australia