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Art History
In A Post Medium Age


In the year 2000 Bernard Smith published two articles in Art Monthly, In Defence of Art History (I and II), which raised important issues that had been brewing within the discipline for decades. These essays put forward a strong case to preserve the tradition of art history and to resist the push to subsume the discipline within cultural studies.

  • Category
    Art History, Photography
  • Published In
    This article first appeared in Artlink, vol 26, no. 1, March 2006, pp. 41-45
  • Year

Art History
In A Post Medium Age

My initial response, also published in Art Monthly1, was clouded to some extent by the economic squeeze on the humanities within the universities. Pressure was mounting to teach bigger classes to carve out more time for research. Team-teaching, flexible delivery via the Web, and fewer subject offerings were touted as solutions to what was perceived as an economic problem. More students per class, bigger student enrolments and as many full fee-paying students as possible, was the way to ‘ease the squeeze’.

Smith's essays were part of a larger debate between art historians and those aligning themselves with either the new art history, or postmodern methodologies associated with cultural studies or visual culture. This intellectual debate has developed as new disciplinary approaches address the visual arts, while the visual arts themselves have become more interdisciplinary. The pluralisms endorsed by postmodernism have been critiqued since the mid-1990s and more recently we have experienced a call for a return to humanism in the guise of yet another ‘new humanism’.2 What is certain is that we are compelled to live in a culture of perpetual return and as Paul Taylor famously said in the 1980s, Australia is a culture of temporary culture.3 So it is unsurprising that we would now be debating the future of art history. I doubt if the Italians are troubling themselves too much about the disappearance of art history, but in Australia we take these things very seriously because we don t believe that we have a history nor do we have a society that supports its intellectuals and its artists. People here do it tough and the government, apart from its beleaguered departments dedicated to the arts and culture, does very little to encourage anything beyond the stereotype of the  relaxed and comfortable middle classes. Artists may complain about the deals offered by private galleries but in a culture such as ours these commercial galleries contribute an enormous amount to the careers of emerging artists simply by believing that Australia has a dynamic culture. When Bernard Smith was awarded the Visual Arts/Crafts Emeritus Medal in 2005 he explained that he stayed in Australia not because he was a nationalist, but because he believed that Australia had a cultural future.4

Traditional art history needs to embrace the newer discipline of visual culture which is cross-disciplinary and takes into account the social, political context in which art is produced and distributed. Visual culture takes art off its pedestal and makes it do business with a host of other visual media; it puts art in context and makes connections with architecture, film, TV, video, advertising, fashion, design and new media. It asks questions about how and why art is made and defined. Of course artists have been practicing in the wider field of visual culture since the avant-garde movements of the 20th century and well before that if one acknowledges the seepage of ideas and practices across conceptual and national borders, but the academy has been slow to realise this. Not only academic art history but also the art schools have tended to preserve a kind of silo mentality where disciplines are distinct. Any practicing artist who is looking out into the world knows that this essentialist paradigm does not address what actually happens in arts practice. Some art historians are in a state of hysteria about this. Major figures such as Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster defend the silos: Foster's Design and Crime pitches itself against fashion and design at a time when artists are clearly blurring the boundaries between these disciplines. Likewise Krauss critique of post-medium art is a retreat to her genesis in formalism.

The debate between art history and visual culture was first played out in the American journal October5 which ran a substantial survey of opinions from most of the leading American scholars about visual culture as a new discipline. This preceded a steady stream of books drawing together scholarship in art, architecture and film studies. These are not postmodern celebrations of pluralism. On the contrary most of them argue for a more inclusive response to visual culture that considers the visual arts alongside design, theatre, advertising and fashion. One of the concerns about this 3 inter-disciplinary model is that it is fuelled by postmodern theory and that it attests to a convincing relativism that would equalize visual cultures, summoning the demise of the would-be avant-gardes and the end of art as we know it. Thus the debate remains alive and well. Should we defend traditional art history against the infidels who would create an open playing field where Peter Greenaway, David Lynch, Caravaggio, coexist with Lyndal Walker, David Rosetzky and Versaci? Those committed to visual culture will immediately see the synergies between these ideas but those committed to art history may well be appalled.

Late 1990s scholarship in the USA warned against the convergence of art and theory where practice appears to pitch itself to critical discourse or seeks to engage in that discourse.6 For Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster much of postmodern art was a continuation of critical modernism and/or the critical edge of postmodern practice which was quickly absorbed by the capitalist market that acclaimed the plurality of postmodernism as part of a liberal platform.7 For Krauss and Foster the critical, deconstructive edge of what Foster once called a postmodernism of resistance has lost its critical clout and is now used in the service of global capital.8 For Krauss the artist is now compelled to revisit the medium, to analyse the aesthetic conditions of the medium from within. For Foster the artist and the critic need to re-visit history to understand how it is being repeated in the present.

Krauss wants to return to the idea of the medium as a physical support or  recursive structure in order to curb the  international phenomenon of installation art and the problematics of the post-medium age.9 However, the residual essentialism of this idea, which was exploited by Clement Greenberg and critiqued thoroughly by postmodern critics from the 1960s onwards, cannot be evaded. It seems counter productive to insist on such a return to essentials when so much of contemporary art practice is either interdisciplinary or engages with the formal dialogues of several mediums at the same time.

In 2000 Bernard Smith presented a passionate argument against the 'textual turn', the pluralism of postmodernist theory and the dissolution of traditional disciplines. His argument was and still is compelling in Australia because we see the humanities 4 under threat within our universities. However, the model of art history that Bernard Smith tabled for our consideration in 2000 is a very traditional model based on empirical study and harnessed to the museum and its collections. This seems odd from an art historian who claims, rightly, that his book Place Taste and Tradition: A Study of Australian Art since 1788 (1941) “has some claim to being the first Marxist account of the art history of a nation state”.10

It is interesting to note Smith (like Krauss) agrees with Clement Greenberg's formulation of the autonomy of the arts. Greenberg's argument was also a defence of the avant-garde; predicated on the essential qualities of high art painting and sculpture. The essentialism of the disciplines would protect the autonomy of the disciplines. Greenberg's other agenda, one which has generated considerable criticism, was to argue that the avant-garde should be separate from society, not engaged with social issues but only with the essential wetness of the paint and the flatness of the colour field. If artists did this they would avoid the horrors of popular/mass culture: kitsch.

The problem with the idea that art history should maintain the autonomy of its discipline is that it tends to be exclusive and essentialist. Much of the art of the 20th century rallied against this notion as artists blurred the distinction between high and popular culture. Art and everyday life, arte-povera, land art, environmental art, feminist art, pop art, art and language, conceptual art, performance art, grunge art, graffiti art, neo-pop, video art, installation art, new media art etc. all challenge and critique the institutions of the artworld, its taste-makers, its traditions.

Smith's return to the essential tools of art history is a reaction against what has been termed the 'textual turn'. This includes the virus-like affects of psychoanalysis and semiotics, adapted as critical tools by the new art historians and practitioners of visual culture. Although I agree with Smith that many of the secondary critiques that are based on Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault are reductivist and that Louis Althusser and Jean Baudrillard have a lot to answer for because they wrote such catchy phrases, historians, critics and artists alike know that the source material is much better than its secondary interpretation. However, much of the secondary criticism that draws on 5 Foucault, Althusser, Barthes or Lacan has done a great deal to challenge the established discipline of art history. How can the idea of the artist survive if we accept the notion that we are  always, already written by a language over which we have no control?

The good news is that the 'textual turn' was short-lived, as one would expect, and we are now once again in a 'pictorial turn'.11 This is not surprising if we take Foucault, Lacan and the later works of Roland Barthes at all seriously. Their work is based on visual metaphors. Lacan's analysis of the gaze was initially developed from empirical observation. And he states quite emphatically that the subject is always in the picture.12 However, the writer who contributed most to the idea of visual culture is Walter Benjamin who, as Thomas Crow points out, becomes emblematic for many critics and theorists.13 This is because Benjamin engaged with the idea of mechanical reproducibility in the arts (photography and film) and explored the shopping arcades of the late nineteenth century (fashion, design, commodity culture) in the context of an urban/consumer phantasmagoria that in his account is almost proto-televisual. He is equally philosophic and poetic and he used photography as a metaphor for history. Smith singles out Barthes as the semiotician who infected art history the most. However, Barthes' contribution to the field is primarily through his later work. He turned his back on semiotics fairly quickly and after S/Z engaged with a much more phenomenological project which culminates in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, and Camera Lucida which he wrote to fulfill a desire to write a smaller version of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Camera Lucida is a meditation on the life/death paradox within photography, a personalised investigation of the epistemology of photography, not as a sign but as an affect. His last book, published posthumously, Incidents, recorded the author as a kind of late 20th century flaneur cruising the streets of Paris gazing at, and erotically engaging with, men who took his fancy. This is not the work of a semiotician.

Those that defend art history against the emerging concept of visual culture reiterate old debates. The contestation of the canon of Western knowledge has been evident since at least the 1960s: structuralism, post structuralism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, existentialism, feminism, queer and postcolonial theory have 6 influenced several generations of intellectual thought in the Western world and beyond.

In many ways these theorists, philosophers, psychoanalysts are not always as radical as they are assumed to be. The way in which Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Irigaray, and, more recently, Slavoj Zizek contest the canon is, in many ways, from within. They talk and write about it endlessly; they appropriate it, describe it, psychoanalyse it, historicise it. The fear of the  textual turn or of cultural studies or  theory infecting the visual arts is a misplaced energy. Art is always already infected with life and its philosophies and politics, its religions and beliefs. It is within the very substance of art to be trans-institutional and cross-disciplinary. That we now witness artists working in a post-medium environment, using any tool or discipline to make their art, is all the more reason to embrace a visual culture approach to what was once called art history.


1. The Future of Art History: The Discipline in an Expanded Field , Art Monthly, no 133, September 2000, pp. 8-10.

2. Debated in Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol 16 no 3, 2002 and vol 18 no 2, 2004.

3. Paul Tayor,  A Culture of Temporary Culture . Art and Text, no 16, suumer 1984-5, pp94-105.

4. Ashley Crawford,  Mind over matter for statesman of Australian art , Age (Metro Arts section), 18 March 2005, p9. My thanks to Leigh Astbury.

5. October, no 77, Summer 1996.

6. Rosalind Krauss,  A Voyage on the North Sea : Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, Thames and Hudson, London 1991.

7. See Rosalind Krauss,  A Voyage on the North Sea and  Reinventing the Medium , Critical Inquiry, winter 1999, pp. 289-305. Also Hal Foster, Design and Crime and Other Diatribes, Verso, London and New York 2002.

8. Hal Foster, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Seattle and Washington 1983, pxii.

9. Rosalind Krauss,  A Voyage on the North Sea , p6-7.

10. Bernard Smith, 'In Defence of Art History , part II', Art Monthly, August 2000, no. 132, p6.

11. See W.J.T. Mitchell, 'The Pictorial Turn', Artforum, March 1992, pp89-94.

12. Unfortunately Jacques Lacan has been misinterpreted in the English speaking world on this particular point because Alan Sheridan translates Lacan incorrectly. The passage is from 'The Line and the Light' (Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, Penguin, London 1979, p96); in the English version:  No doubt, in the depths of my eye, the picture is painted. The picture, certainly, is in my eye. But I am not in the picture . In the original French:  Mais moi, je suis dans le tableau (Seminar XI, Paris, 1964, p89)   But me, I am in the picture .

13. Thomas Crow tossed off at Benjamin's visual theory in his paper at the Art Association Conference in New Zealand in 1999. Like Bernard Smith he was giving a keynote address. Crow's comments on Benjamin sparked considerable debate after his paper as followers of Benjamin defended his position in relation to visual culture. My thanks to Cameron Logan.

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