Heinrich, I Want a Divorce

What idiot thought up the idea of putting studio art and art history together in one university art department? It seems unlikely that it was either an art historian or an artist. Neither would merge voluntarily. It must have been a dean trying to save some money.

Art history departments came first, of course, because they were “paper and pencil” entities that fit readily into academe. Studio art didn’t take off as part of university curricula until relatively late, in the 1920s. And after World War II, when returning soldiers were treated to college educations via the GI Bill, many of them decided what the hell, they’d study painting and sculpture. Studio art boomed. But well into the ’60s, many colleges and universities that allowed students to dabble in painting or drawing as part of the “serious” academic endeavor of art history, still wouldn’t countenance an actual major in studio art. A few places, such as Princeton, finesse the matter by awarding a Visual Arts Certificate to art history majors who take enough studio classes.

Studio art is, of course, the horse that comes before the cart. Artists make art, and art historians come along afterwards to fret over it. Moreover, long before art history was even born — when Heinrich Wölfflin put the words “art” and “history” together and said, “Yo! I have a discipline!” — Leonardo had established that painting was a noble activity that belonged in the liberal arts. Leonardo’s words laid the foundation for the fine-arts academies that sprung up in all the capitals of Europe in the wake of the Renaissance. Fast forward a few hundred years, and you have studio art majors in American colleges and universities.

An art historian of my acquaintance likes to say, “The only good artist is a dead artist.” He thinks he’s being sardonically witty, but there’s a painful truth spake in his jest. It’s what, down deep, most art historians actually believe. They do scholarly research on old art that’s already been established as great art. It’s only natural that they prefer old art, with its dead artists, to new art, where they’re more likely to encounter living artists. Those artists can talk back, defend themselves, and speak — if they care to — with considerably more authority about their work than an art historian can.

Art historians busily invent and then solve scholarly puzzles (e.g., study the “crucial role of the physical body in memorial strategies”) about this non-verbal thing we call “art.” Art history is a rational and verbal endeavor; making art is non-rational (although not necessarily irrational) and visual. The art historian gathers, preserves and orders, for history, the “data” about art and artists; the artist is unmindful of data. The art historian analyzes completed forms; the artist invents them. The art historian thrives on stylistic comparison; the artist lives by pursuing a singular vision. In short, the art historian and the artist are about as similar as a cellphone and a poinsettia plant.

In the good-artist = dead-artist equation, “good” artist implies “great” artist. Many art historians suffer from what might be called the “greatness fallacy.” In cloaking themselves in the mantle of the illustrious subjects of their research — e.g., Raphael, Michelangelo or Cézanne — they apparently can’t help feeling that not a little of that “greatness” pixie dust somehow rubs off on them. It’s the academic equivalent of the Vegas hanger-on saying, “Wayne Newton is a close personal friend of mine.”

I’ve taught painting and drawing at several colleges and universities, and it’s been my experience that this attitude of art historians, proudly on display, makes their studio colleagues feel undeservedly unworthy because their work hangs on the walls of the local gallery instead of the Uffizi. Meanwhile, a lot of artists, in considering their colleagues in art history, can’t help but subscribe to Nietzsche’s contemptuous remark that it’s a case of eunuchs guarding the harem.

Yes, there are some great, generous, contemporary-art-or-artist-loving art historians walking the halls of many a combined university art department. They’re a genuine pleasure for professors of studio art to be around. Alas, there aren’t enough of them to make the pedagogical marriage work. Their field, moreover, has steadily become more and more about matters putatively broader than “art”: politics, sociology, theory, and epistemology. In short, art history these days is more about “history” than “art.” So I say to all you great and honorable history departments out there: “Take our art historians … please.”

Return to Top