Theory in art history

This is a lecture on the history of theories and methods in art history, with some remarks on the current place of theories in the discipline.

Why art historians should learn to draw and paint

Download the essay. This is a perennially unfinished essay—or rather, it’s been completed and given as a lecture many times, but I still can’t see how to frame it in such a way that art historians will see its pertinence. The discipline has become very distant from the actual experience of making, and mistrustful of […]

Why are our pictures puzzles?

The entire book is available online. This is a book about the curious fact that it’s only been about fifty years since it has seemed reasonable to write an entire book about an individual work of art. One of the longest texts about an artwork written before the late 20th century is Giorgio Vasari’s descirption […]

Visual Worlds

Co-authored with Erna Fiorentini Buy on Amazon. Visual Worlds is a large textbook on the visual world. It’s co-authored with the historian of art and science Erna Fiorentini, and it was published (after nearly six long years of work!) by Oxford University Press in 2020. It’s a full-on North American style textbook, with marginal cross-references, glossary, and online […]

Project for a book to answer Art Since 1900

    The book Art Since 1900 is the de facto textbook of modernism and post-modernism for the next generation. It is being translated into Chinese and Farsi, among other languages. Many art historians would like to see a textbook that is less centered on the North Atlantic, less faithful to North American practices of […]

Against the Sublime

The English version. The German version. This paper explores the uses of the sublime in recent art theory, philosophy, and literary criticism. I propose that the concept of the sublime, and the postmodern sublime in particular, are over-used tropes in critical writing. They sometimes serve a covert religious purpose, as a way of smuggling theological […]

On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 4 Chapters 5-7 There is also a video interview. Can contemporary art say anything about spirituality? John Updike calls modern art “a religion assembled from the fragments of our daily life,” but does that mean that contemporary art is spiritual? Why is art that represents major religions, and isn’t critical […]

Pictures and Tears

The entire book. Essay in the Huffington Post. This is a book about people who have had strong emotional reactions to artworks. It tells a history of times and places when strong passions were expected, and contrasts them with the habits of the last hundred years. The book also has letters from people who have […]

From Original to Copy and Back Again

Download the essay. A brief philosophic and art historical essay on theories of the difference between copies and originals. It was originally published as  “From Copy to Forgery and Back Again,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 33 no. 2 (1993): 113–20. This essay is about the conceptual side of the issue: what counts as “original” […]

Art History and Computer-Generated Images

Download the essay. This was published in Leonardo 27 no. 4 (1994): 335–42 and color plate. It’s dated: computer graphics has come a long way since 1994! Yet the basic argument remains pertinent: art history can contribute to the understanding of computer graphics, because the software that makes graphics possible is influenced by the history […]

On the Impossibility of Close Reading

Download the essay in English. Read the German version. This is a study of the idea of close reading, which is fundamental to modernist literary criticism and art history. The case study is the archaeological reading of tiny marks on Neolithic bones proposed by Alexander Marshack, but the general subject is the coherence of the […]

The Art Seminar series

Download the Series Preface Download the Series Afterword The book Photography Theory The book State of Art Criticism The book Landscape Theory The Art Seminar is a series of seven books, involving hundreds of scholars from around the word. All the titles are available online. The idea of the series was to be conversational and open-ended, producing […]

Art Criticism (encyclopedia entry)

Download the essay. This is the original version of the essay published in The Grove Dictionary of Art (New York, Grove Dictionaries, 1996), now Oxford Art Online. I was asked to write the entry on “Art Criticism” for the (then) Grove Dictionary of Art; the version I submitted (uploaded here) contained the observation that, according […]

Anthologies in Russian, Spanish, German

Download the full text of the Russian anthology. Three anthologies, with different selections of work and different introductions, were underway around 2008-10. 1. RussianThe Visual World: A Collection of Writing by James Elkins, edited by Almira Ousmanova  and Anastassiya Denishchik (Vilnius, Lithuania: European Humanities University, 2009). Джеймс Элкинс Исследуя визуальный мир (под ред. Альмиры Усмановой […]

Art History versus Aesthetics

  Download the excerpt, “Why Don’t Art Historians Attend Aesthetics Conferences?”   This book is vol. 1 of the Art Seminar series (see the series page for more information). The relation between aesthetics and art history is partly institutional (the two are divided in Western universities, although they have often been mingled in east Asian universities) […]

Emil Nolde’s Ruleless Color

The essay is here. This is a long essay, full of historical detail about the exact colors Nolde used and the places he lived. I was trying to understand how he thought of color. It’s an old essay, but it has a number of details that are still not in the literature: I tracked down […]

What Does Peirce’s Sign System Have to Say to Art History?

The essay is here. Peirce’s sign theory is in a strange position: it is much discussed by specialists, widely influential in cultural studies and anthropology, and often cited in art history and art criticism. At the same time there is an enormous disparity between the brief and schematic allusions to Peirce that are common in […]

What Does it Mean to be An Average Artist?

The essay is here. This is about the idea of being average. In art classes, art schools, and art departments, it’s not usual to feel average. But out in the real world, there are almost no critiques. It is entirely common to go years without any special attention being paid to your work. Many artists […]

Ten Reasons Why E.H. Gombrich Was Not an Art Historian

The essay is here. When Gombrich died in 2001 it was widely assumed that there would be a memorial volume, and several were mooted. This essay was requested by the College Art Association for their website; it was intended to collect responses that would form the basis of conferences or publications. Those plans were suspended […]

There is No Such Thing as Outsider Art

The essay is here.   The argument here is that “outsider art” and similar concepts (“naive art,” “primitive art,” etc.) are constructions of modernism, and only exist as ideals understood as contrasts to normative practice. It doesn’t mean there aren’t artists outside of the traditions of modernism and postmodernism, or outside of academic art—rather that […]

Is Art History Global?

The Introduction The transcribed seminar The essay on globalization This is vol. 3 of the Art Seminar series. In it, about thirty scholars discuss the question of the worldwide dissemination of the discipline of art history, including Shelly Errington, Friedrich Teja Bach, Cao Yiqiang, Shigemi Inaga, Craig Clunas, Suman Gupta, David Carrier, Matthew Rampley, Keith Moxey, Andrea […]

What Painting Is

The Introduction Chapter 1, “A Short Course in Forgetting Chemistry” Chapter 4, “How To Count in Oil and Stone” Chapter 6, “The Studio as a Kind of Psychosis” The Envoi, “Last Words” This is not a book about paintings, but about the act of painting, and the kinds of thought that are taken to be embedded […]

Master Narratives and Their Discontents

The Introduction. Chapter 3 on stories of modernism that turn on politics. Chapter 4 on the idea of skill. The concluding seminar. The entire book is on Amazon. This is a look at the major accounts of visual art, and especially painting, in the last hundred years. The idea is to collect and compare the […]

Science and art

I have a number of texts and lectures on this topic. On this site, see especially: (1) The book Visual Worlds (2) The book Visual Practices Across the University (3) The essay “The Drunken Conversation of Science and Art“ This is an essay about the mutual misunderstandings between chaos theory, fractal dynamics, and painting in the 1990s. […]

Visual Practices Across the University

Introduction Chapters 1-9 Chapters 10-16 Chapters 17-25 Chapters 26 to the end This book was published, in English, by the German press Wilhelm Fink. I am posting it here in its entirety because it is almost entirely unknown outside German-speaking countries. Visual Practices Across the University is a study of the range of image-making and […]

What Heaven Looks Like

  Huffington Post 1 Huffington Post 2 Huffington Post 3 Huffington Post 4 The essay on emblems What Heaven Looks Like is my favorite trade press book. It is a commentary on a mysterious manuscript in Glasgow, an anonymous booklet of small round watercolor paintings with no captions. What Heaven Looks Like is available on […]

Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Figurines

This is a brief response to a really strange suggestion: that the Upper Paleolithic “Venus” figurines are self-portraits. An odd moment in the historiography of feminism, anthropology, and self-portraiture. Only my reply is posted here: if you’re interested you should look up the original article and all the other replies. Here’s the entire essay, originally […]

How Close Can We Come to Admitting We Are Writing Mainly About Ourselves?

  Download the paper. This paper was given at a College Art Association conference in 2000, in a session on the state and future of social art history chaired by Marc Gotlieb. The session was one of the big ones that year–maybe 300 people in attendance — and it was, by several standards, a total […]

Art History in Smaller Countries

  Download the first essay. Download the second essay. This is a pair of essays on the state of art history in Ireland, written when I joined the faculty of University College Cork in 2003. The second essay was a kind of farewell, written when I left that job in 2006. It provoked a number […]

On Iconoclasm

An essay on iconoclasm and the sublime The review of Iconoclash Here are three resources for the concept of iconoclasm: (1) “Iconoclash” was an exhibition in Karlsruhe; the book is still the largest compendium of writing on and around iconoclasms, idolatries, etc. It was also a turning point in art history’s awareness of the potential […]

David Hockney’s Theories

Download the Circa essay. See the Webexhibits version of the talk, part one and part two. I am unconvinced by most of Hockney’s theories, and amazed at the interest they generated in the media. The popular press reaction was overwhelmingly positive: it almost seemed as if it was a relief for some people to discover […]

How to Invite a Speaker

  The essay. This essay was originally intended as an anonymous contribution to the Chronicle of Higher Education, but it was rejected three times. (There was some discussion about whether or not they could publish an essay without the author’s name on it.) Meanwhile I have gotten a number of requests for it, so it’s […]

Two Ways of Looking at Ceramics

  Download the essay. This was the keynote talk to the 2002 NCECA (U.S. ceramics convention). It was originally to be published in their journal, but that never happened. It’s an argument about the marginal place of ceramics in contemporary art history, art criticism, and museum and gallery curation. For several generations ceramists, curators, and critics […]

Farewell to Visual Studies

Farewell to Visual Studies on Amazon The seminars and responses. The final volume in the Stone Art Theory Seminars is an attempt to assess the history and current forms of the field known as visual studies, visual culture, or visual culture studies. The three co-editors (James Elkins, Sunil Manghani, and Gustav Frank) represent different perspectives on the […]

Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic

Beyond the Aesthetic and the Anti-Aesthetic on Amazon The Introduction The Seminars This is vol. 4 of the Stone Art Theory seminars. Since the rise of postmodern, socially engaged art in the 1960s, and especially since the codification of that art in the 1980 book The Anti-Aesthetic, there has been an unresolved tension between art that […]

What do Artists Know?

The Introduction and seminars. What Do Artists Know? on Amazon The books in the Stone Art Theory series are unusually long and complex: they result from a week of seminar conversations, all taped and transcribed, and then given to dozens of people who did not attend the seminars. The result is a cross-section of contemporary ideas […]

What is an Image?

  The Introduction    Selections from the Seminars   What is an Image?  on Amazon The books in the Stone Art Theory series are unusually long and complex: they result from a week of seminar conversations, all taped and transcribed, and then given to dozens of people who did not attend the seminars. The result is a […]

Art and Globalization

Art and Globalization on Amazon The Introduction The Afterword Each book in the Stone Art Theory series is unusually long and complex: they result from a week of seminar conversations, all taped and transcribed, and then given to dozens of people who did not attend the seminars. The result is a cross-section of contemporary ideas on a given […]

The Stone Art Theory Institutes

  This is a series of five large volumes, each involving over fifty scholars. Each book has a separate page on this site. Links below go to pages on this site for more information. 1 Art and Globalization: a study of the ways art is written about, around the world. (On Amazon: Art and Globalization) […]

Artists with PhDs

  Read five chapters, and leave comments, here. Or buy the book from Amazon. This book is intended as a comprehensive introduction to the subject. Part 1 includes definitive essays by specialists and observers of the PhD, including the first list of PhD programs around the world. Part 2 presents extracts from PhD dissertations in […]

Pictures and the Words That Fail Them

  Chapter 3, on figure and ground Chapter 6, on non-Western concepts of the image Buy the book This book is about the nature of images. It begins with a theory about how semiotics is more or less ruined by images, even though parts of it can be recovered in an historically specific fashion. The […]

Lectures

This interactive calendar lists public lectures and travels. If you click on the links you can get more information about venues and schedules of events. If you’d like to invite me to lecture or for a reading, please check availability, and then send an email (email addresses are on the vita). Readings Readings of fiction […]

Novel writing schedule

These days I am concentrating on a work in progress—an experimental novel with images. It’s long and complex: it has images, footnotes, graphs and charts. It’s in four freestanding volumes. Volume 2, Joachim’s Mind, is complete, and I’m searching for agents. You can read the opening pages here. I have been working the novel, on more […]

Vita

James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer. He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the […]

Why Art Cannot be Taught

  Chapter 1, Histories Chapter 2, Conversations Chapter 3, Theories Conclusions Buy the book on Amazon. This book got me in some trouble when I first wrote it. There was a public event where I teach, at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago: the Dean and a couple of faculty, including me, were to […]

How to Use Your Eyes

  Download the book. Or buy a copy. A nicely designed large-format book with color pictures of common objects that are often overlooked: sand, a twig, the night sky, the inside of your own eye, the sunset, moths’ wings, sand, cracks in the pavement, hieroglyphs, ice halos, fingerprints, crystals, the lines in a face, the […]

Visual Literacy

  See the Keynote slides given at the event. Read the Introduction. Or buy on Amazon. Visual Literacy surveys the meanings of the expression of the title. Some contributors are interested in the theory of literacy when it pertains to the visual; others in its rhetoric; and others in its implementation at college and secondary school […]

What Photography Is

  Read the first third of the book Buy the book on Amazon. What Photography Is was written, in the first instance, against Roland Barthes’s book. I was concerned that even after thirty years, Camera Lucida is still the central (most often cited) source in photography theory. Part of the reason for the longevity of Barthes’s […]

Why Nothing Can be Accomplished in Painting

  Read this as a pdf. This is a paper invited for the Irish art magazine Circa, which had a special issue on the state of painting in 2004. It argues that painting’s supposed dead ends, such as the eternal return of the monochrome and the end of the medium and of medium-specificity, are tropes […]

Problems in the Representation of Landscape

Read the published German version. Read the unpublished English version. Or see the Keynote slides of the English version. This is a talk given in Freiburg in 2007. I’ve also uploaded the German version, and the Keynote (Powerpoint) slides I used for the talk. The talk concerns the book Landscape Theory, which is listed separately on this […]

Stories of Art

  Read chapter 1 in pdf format Or buy on Amazon. This short text is an answer to E.H. Gombrich’s worldwide bestseller Story of Art. (The single best-selling art book in any genre.) Stories of Art tells many stories of art, while Gombrich’s tells only one. His story, which has become influential around the world, is […]