Friday, December 17, 2010

Critical Theory: Long in the Tooth

The extremely instructive Art Seminar series record discussions on the state of art history as a discipline.  Pick up any one of the seven volumes, and you'll immediately read in the uniform preface that theory lives!
People who would rather avoid problems of interpretation, at least in their more difficult forms, have sometimes hoped that 'theory' would prove to be a passing fad.  A simple test shows that is not the case. 
After a few handy graphs, it's proven.  Theory is forever.  I guess it really is simple:  If you think rigorously about interpretation, you must be into theory.  If not, you must be Roger Kimball. 

But - and this is very important - be sure not to continue reading past the preface.  On page ten of Volume 5, one encounters this from Rebecca Zorach (who gave a very fine lecture here last year).
It might also look like approaches driven by social and political issues - social history, feminism, postcolonial studies - are themselves getting a bit long in the tooth.  And I sense a certain impatience of late - not only in Renaissance art history but in other academic areas as well  - with the political.  We might feel irritated by what seems to be an austere moralism in feminist or postcolonial approaches; they might seem to threaten the pleasures we take in art. Or, on the other hand, we might feel exhausted by our own failures to use a politicized art history as a tool for substantive change.
But hasn't she seen the handy graphs?  Seriously though, good for the Art Seminar for permitting the questioning of its own premises. 

Advocates of critical theory continue to believe that those dissatisfied with it are necessarily "traditional" or "conservative."  But perhaps we're just bored (which is my interpretation of the empty chairs on the covers), and searching for new paradigms to help explain material that theory can't illuminate.  Aren't labels such as "traditional" and "conservative," furthermore, better applied to those defending the status quo?   From my vantage point, everyone is wondering what's next.  Maybe the place where the Art Seminar series ended up - a volume on religion (which I ransacked here) - provides a clue.