Essential Reading| The Art of Art History

The new 2009 edition of the book with an aptly chosen
picture of the Louvre Pyramid on the cover 
Art History is arguably one of the most disciplined of all the academic disciplines. This is an idea that was introduced to me very early in my graduate training and one that reflects the self-conscious nature and high stakes involved with how histories of art have evolved and become institutionalized within academia. To be sure, it is difficult to ignore the great degree of order and progression built into the “story” of art that unfolds within a typical undergraduate art history program. Students are still routinely faced with survey courses that attempt to seamlessly connect decades of historical development through engagements with significant art movements and, by extension, a limited range of art producers. And even while there are survey textbooks that have attempted to disrupt the progressive and modernist approach to the history of art and its many consequences (see my discussion on the Art Since 1900 series), art historians are often left with the job of intervening in their own teaching of art’s history to bring awareness to its highly constructed nature and the many embedded discourses within the written histories of art that can be sidelined.

I kind of miss the 1998 edition with a
section of Hans Holbein's Renaissance painting
The Ambassadors (1553) on the cover
As the next installment of my Essential Readings series, Donald Preziosi’s The Art of Art History attempts to bridge many of these concerns with an anthology of key texts that positions art history as firmly part of a broader intellectual historiography.  Beginning from the premise that art history has been written and rewritten since classical antiquity, Preziosi contextualizes the anthology with an important discussion about how the foundation of modern art history was part of a larger project to reposition and establish a particular understanding of art’s function in the late eighteenth century. Critically, Preziosi opens the anthology’s introduction “Art History: Making the Visible Legible” with a key assertion: “Art history is one of a network of interrelated institutions and professions whose overall function has been to fabricate a historical past that could be placed under systematic observation for use in the present.” Preziosi (an important and influential art historian in his own right) establishes and broadens this thesis through the 35+ key texts assembled for the book which read like an unfolding examination of the mechanisms of art history’s various networks and the kinds of themes and subjects that have most captivated and interested the discipline as a whole. Authors range from Immanuel Kant, Alois Riegl, and Michel Foucault to Mieke Bal, Rosalind Krauss, and Jacques Derrida.

I was first introduced to this text as part of a third year undergraduate methods and art theory seminar-- and yes, it is challenging. The thematically based chapters and readings could easily constitute their own separate courses. Still, I find myself returning to the book again and again as both a reference tool and as a point of departure to other key texts cited in the anthology’s extensive notes.  The first edition of this anthology appeared in 1998 and I still recommend checking it out for its comprehensive scope and cornerstone texts, but you can also purchase the most recent 2009 edition which has updated themes and includes an entirely new section on Globalization and a new concluding essay by Preziosi. While challenging-- the history of any history tends to be--I still believe the book essential to anyone interested in probing how art’s history has been (and continues to be) shaped.