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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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. […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]