A perennially unfinished project: an essay (or a lecture, or a book) giving reason why art historians should practice what they study.

There isn't any reason why art historians should paint well, but the reason they don't need to is itself symptomatic. Art history is historically poor at paying attention to facture, brushstrokes, and marks, except when they are unusual, or when they can be referred to en masse, as entire practices.

And there isn't any reason why art historians should try to make actual artworks -- images that might count as art -- but again the reason is symptomatic. Art history hasn't been good at talking about the processes of creation: it is, often properly, a retrospective discipline.

 

Why Art Historians Should Learn to Draw and Paint

Lecture, essay (1994 - present)

This is a never-ending essay or book project, revised many times and still not in a satisfactory form. It concerns the relation between studio art (and studio art departments) and the history of art. It is a curious and significant fact that most art historians have never tried to make art: curious because a large number of people who teach literature and literary criticism have written fiction or poetry, and a large number of people who teach music theory or music history play an instrument; and significant because that means the experience of making is seldom part of what art historians consider historically significant.



Should art historians learn to draw and paint, even a little? On the one hand, the answer is obviously yes, because the experience might be of interest; but on the other hand, it can be tremendously difficult to say what part of the experience of making might be pertinent to historical inquiries.



This topic matters immensely when it comes to the philosophic, practical, and institutional distance between studio art and art history. Art history would be written differently if most of its practitioners were also practicing artists; and universities would be configured differently if the experiences of the studio were considered essential for the education of art historians.



But it is excruciatingly difficult to make the case. Hence the unfinished nature of this essay.

The essay is unpublished in English. It is in German as “Warum Kunsthistoriker malen lernen sollten—ein Plädoyer für Werkstatterfahrung,” in Subjekt und Medium in der Kunst der Moderne, edited by Michael Lüthy and Christoph Menke (Zurich and Berlin: Diaphanes, 2006), 87-114.

An earlier version is also in French, “Histoire de l’art et pratiques d’atelier,” which is in turn a translation of “Why Art Historians should Draw: The Case for Studio Experience,” Histoire de l’art 29–30 (1995): 103–112; an initial version of some of that material is in the book Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1997), paperback edition, with new preface (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2000) -- mentioned elsewhere on this site.


The two sides of art history's engagement: it is drawn to visual objects because they are visual,
but it produces a literature that does not often notice what it is that makes images visual.
Practice can help that by problematizing the gap.