The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones doesn’t have time for contemporary art history. In his latest post, “The trouble with art history? It’s boring,” he explains why:

Perhaps art history is coming to its senses, and learning to tell stories that bring great art to life. If so, it is finally catching up with historians, paleontologists and physicists who in the last 30 years have remade their subjects in the public eye.

At just the same time that Simon Schama was calling on art to help bring social history to life, art historians were disappearing up a dark theoretical hole … The “new art history” is no longer new. But it still seems to result in books that don’t quite work as either history or criticism.

Amen. Can someone put the highly intellectualized/pop psychology hybrid that we have come to know as contemporary art history to sleep so we can start telling stories about art that everyone can relate to? Bring back the passion people!

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

28 replies on “Reviving the Stories of Art”

  1. Me three. If you ask me, PICTURES GENERATION, 1974-1984, by Douglas Eklund, is, considering it’s subject, a surprisingly good example of this sort of art history. It occasionally goes down that “dark theory hole” but, in general, it tells a story that brings the artists and that time period to life. It was a good read.

  2. The problem with art history is that it’s intellectualized? Not enough emotion? Then just you wait for Julian Schnabel’s new Felix Gonzalez-Torres movie. You’ll crap your pants from all the pathos.

    I don’t get how the History Channel’s model of showing “Nostradamus Reveals Hitler’s Sex Life” six times a day is going to work for art history. Maybe they can do something like “Jersey Shore” but in Williamsburg. Or is that Bravo’s domain?

    1. I think anyone who has gone through art history grad school can relate. The emotional relationship with art is yanked out of you. It took me two years after my MA just to be able to attend art shows again. There must be a happy median, no?

      1. I don’t get why your emotional attachment to art has to have anything to do with art history. If the emotional, the irrational and the intuitive are so important, why go to school in the first place?

        I’m partially saying this out of frustration with my current MFA program. Everything bad about art history’s obscurity/irrelevance is doubly harmful when they try to teach it as art practice.

        1. I think that passion is crucial to communicate the power of art to others. In terms of art history, the presence of passion in prose helps others understand the importance of art. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the intellectual study of art, I adore it in fact, but when the pendulum swings to far one way the art suffers. Facts are crucial but in art emotions help you truly understand, at least with great art.

          Oy, MFAs are something I only hear about from others, so I can’t really relate. I did art history, so no art practice for me.

          1. I think you end up with the same problem that you have in film criticism: newspaper film critics talk about whether they enjoyed the movie and film theorists talk about how the movie works, and the two groups are completely segregated. Even super-snooty film critics like Matt Zoller Seitz won’t bring up serious film theory in a review. While it would probably be good for both professions if there were more integration, there’s no market for that. Theorists read theory, and everyone else reads reviews. Mixing them together gets you something too snooty for the snootiest Village Voice reader, and too personally skewed for an academic.

          2. I think there’s a way to marry them but it usually depends on good writing period, not a formula. I think the New Yorker does it well at times, to name a famous example.

          3. Funny you should mention New Yorker! I was going to mention the author Lawrence Weschler in my first comment. “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” is a very informative and entertaining book. But then, I started wondering whether he’s an art historian or merely a journalist… These useless distinctions…

  3. Regarding academia… If you ask me Pamale Lee’s “Chronophobia” is a good example of bad art history writing. Talk about fuzzy and unclear… What a truly annoying book. And contrast Lee’s book with James Meyer’s awesome “Minimalism.”

      1. I’ve been meaning to read that book. I loved Kraus’ “I Love DIck”. It’s not art history though…

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