Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2003
Charles W. Haxthausen, ed. The Two Art Histories: The Museum and the University Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2002. 224 pp.; 53 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (0300097751)

Thumbnail

The goal of the organizers of the first Clark Studies in the Visual Arts conference in 1999, which resulted in this book, was simple enough. It was “to move the discussion [of the curator-academic divide] into a new and, we hope, less contentious phase, to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the respective practices and goals of the two art histories and of how each of them is engaged in the production and dissemination of art historical knowledge” (xii–xiii).

In the introduction, editor and conference co-organizer Charles Haxthausen interprets the large audience and “spirited exchange” as evidence of the subject’s relevance, “although,” he observes, “judging from the constitution of the audience, one of greater importance to museum professionals than to their academic counterparts” (x). This is not an unimportant observation, and one that must be acknowledged in assessing the success of this publication in achieving what the organizers intended. For despite their best attempts, a closer look at their own stated goal suggests why such a rapprochement, presently construed, will never occur. Their assumption is that both museum and university scholarship are concerned with producing art-historical scholarship, that is, research generated according to the norms of academic art history. If academic art history is the norm, then professors will continue to regard curatorial work as irrelevant, and curators, in a desperate attempt to be heard, will persist in using the language of academia at the expense of ignoring the cognitive potential inherent in their own lexis: the exhibition.

The Two Art Histories: The Museum and the University seems not merely to recognize this problem, but to embody it as well. The book is divided into three parts, each presenting a cluster of approaches that focus on a single issue. Part 1, “The Two Art Histories: Perspectives,” offers some general observations on the complex relationship between the art historian and the museum curator through particular case studies. Ivan Gaskell’s contribution, “Magnanimity and Paranoia in the Big Bad Art World,” views this divide from the curator’s perspective. He writes, “I want to expose in my own position the deep paranoia I share with at least some of my fellow museum scholars, thereby revealing something of what we are up against when we try to establish common respect and grounds for collaboration in the art world” (20–21). In this refreshingly blunt paper, Gaskell observes that academics mistakenly refuse to regard themselves and their scholarship as circumscribed by the “art world” and therefore do not recognize the important role that curators play in creating the occasions through which the academics can work: “Curators—no one else—make visible those works of art that alone sanction the status of all the rest” (21). And art historians, especially historians of twentieth-century art, have begun to recognize that exhibition history is an important—even necessary—part of academic research.

Entitled “The Exhibition as Discursive Medium,” part 2 provides the most provocative and productive perspectives in the publication. Here, the exhibition is properly recognized as a particular mode of knowledge that is the curator’s unique contribution to scholarship. A show is not merely an excuse to publish a catalogue that then enters academic discourse. It is curatorial scholarship, that is, visual analysis of works of art through their relationships with other works of art. Sharpening this point are Patricia Mainardi’s essay on the American interest in Impressionist exhibitions and their perpetuation of certain American (re: Abstract Expressionist) myths about artistic originality, and William H. Truettner’s passionate plea for creating and sustaining a more active (i.e., critical) viewing relationship with exhibitions, both of which acknowledge the historical and the visual qualities of works of art. Every essay in this section, in one way or another, explores the particular characteristics of the exhibition as a scholarly medium. Like many of the contributors to this volume, Mark Rosenthal, in “Telling Stories Museum Style,” argues from the perspective of his direct experiences with curatorial work (in this case, his Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline, which was organized for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1996). But his observations, to a greater degree than do others’, transcend the limits of his particular project.

Rosenthal rightly argues that the exhibition cannot be defined by or equated to its catalogue, even though the latter possesses a greater shelf life for curators and academics, while the experience of the exhibition fades away into the psyche of the viewer. (This is where Gaskell sees the curator as so influential, for he or she is able, through the juxtaposition of artifacts, to affect this impact on viewers—even academics—whether or not it is recognized or acknowledged.) And clearly, as these papers reveal, little attention is given to the exhibition since it is so ephemeral and tied so closely to the vicissitudes of the “viewer,” that nebulous species of human being that lurks around every corner of this publication. (I must admit my own bias toward the importance of the exhibition catalogue, as I recall how many times I have been content that a work of art in the permanent collection of my institution was at least reproduced in a book, even though it was not loaned.) But Rosenthal wants to affirm the importance of the exhibition, not just for the “public” but as a mode of scholarship. The exhibition, he argues, “is not an essay. Each genre is approached in a different manner, and the exhibition must make its own kind of narrative sense, discursively and intellectually, through the visual experiences to be had in the galleries of the museum” (75). He continues: “Juxtaposition and installation become essential tools in the curator’s bag of tricks, by which visual dramas are staged and insights generated” (75). It thus behooves curators and art historians to pay more attention to documenting and studying exhibition installations. Needless to say, there is much work to be done on and within the genre of the exhibition. Moreover, the chasm between the exhibition and the catalogue should prompt curators and art historians to explore ways in which the book can better reflect and embody aspects of the show it supposedly documents.

Unfortunately, the impact that an exhibition can have on the production of a catalogue has rarely been explored, for the common assumption is that academics write and read the catalogue (re: serious work) while curators create and the public attends the exhibition (re: playful leisure). I believe that this situation is exacerbated with the hybrid academic-curator (or the so-called guest curator), who is usually an academic whose involvement in the museum profession is limited to the research, selection of objects, and the catalogue, and who is rarely involved other issues related more directly to the exhibition itself. Moreover, the internal and external pressures to have a publication ready before the exhibition is physically installed are greater, rather than to produce a book that documents and explores the exhibition as a tangible entity. In his “Afterword,” art historian Richard Brilliant sums up the reality that exhibitions remain largely unexplored:

Unfortunately, the exhibition as a calculated construct is seldom subjected to a thorough criticism of its agenda, nor are the aesthetics and didactic intentions of display put into question, nor are the experiential factors present in sequential viewing, when work A is seen in the same field of vision as work B (186).

Part 3 focuses on the relationship between the “blockbuster” exhibition and “revisionist” scholarship surrounding Impressionism, a distorted dichotomy that itself is largely responsible for the distance between the two art histories. As provocative as these papers are, I could detect the faint whiff of internicene disputes within the Impressionist industry (academic as well as museum). Gary Tinterow’s defense of his own exhibition, The Origins of Impressionism, which was accused of being a blockbuster, is noteworthy. The show was “a typical empirical exercise … an experiment whose outcome was by no means certain; that is, we did not know in advance what the exhibition would look like, or whether the pictures would set up meaningful comparisons” (145).

While the intentions of the conference organizers and the editor of this volume are laudable and quite ambitious, it appears to me that productive dialogue between such monoliths as the museum and the academy must move out of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, at least, if not into the field of contemporary art. The most provocative essays in this volume are those that focus on twentieth- and twenty-first-century art. I found myself wondering, What if all of the contributors were curators and academics whose areas of expertise included contemporary art? What would the contours of the debate have been like? Would the academy have loomed so heavily? Would the curators have felt like outsiders? I think that the shape of the conversations might have been quite different, given the fact that the roles of curator and academic are structured differently within the field of contemporary art.

Obviously, the study of modern and contemporary art has its own set of challenges and problems, but at least they would be different from those facing older, more traditional art. What insights do artists who are curators of contemporary art have to contribute to the two art histories? What about art criticism—might that legitimately be a third art history? What is the effect of commercial galleries that are developing more ambitious loan shows and that are producing significant publications with essays by critics, curators, and art historians? Could this be a fourth art history?

“Many may conclude,” Haxthausen observes, “that the essays in this volume merely expose the fault lines more clearly” (xxiv). Indeed. Perhaps what is needed is an approach that goes beyond simple diagnosis to develop more productive relationships that acknowledge that scholarship is not just the business of the academic, and that the challenges of audience and the market are not merely the burden of the curator. What would happen if there were as much talk of academics’ lack of concern for their readers and their students as there is of curators catering to multiple audiences? What would happen if there were as much discussion about tenure and the perils of academic publishing and its effect on premature and sloppy scholarship as there is on the pitfalls of the commercial market, self-interested collectors, and audience growth, which only seem to confront the curator? It appears to me that the study of contemporary art implicates and complicates the academic in ways that might extend the discussion between the museum and the academy in more beneficial ways. Then and only then will this dialogue be of as much interest to—and need for—academics as it already has been for museum professionals.

Daniel A. Siedell
Curator, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.