Search Party

Sarah Thornton at the 2011 College Art Association conference

Left: Art historians Courtney Martin and Linda Nochlin. Right: Art historian David Joselit. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

“MAYBE WE SHOULD DROP the word history from art history, ” declared Patricia Mainardi, a professor from CUNY’s Graduate Center. She was regaling a standing-room-only crowd last Thursday during her opening remarks for “The Crisis in Art History,” a panel she had convened for the annual College Art Association conference, which took place over four days at the Hilton in midtown Manhattan. Mainardi, an art historian recognized for her work on nineteenth-century Europe, deplored the fact that eight out of ten art history grad students are now studying contemporary. Why do they? The global economy, explained Mainardi, is like a “sun whose magnetic attraction pulls other bodies out of alignment.”

From the back of the room, I might have added that contemporary art has become part of a youth culture caught in a perpetual state of rapid technological and social change. Who can blame students for latching onto objects that might make sense of their world? Moreover, you don’t need to have studied the dynamics of hipness to see how American art history departments have become conduits of freewheeling “subcultural capital” rather than purveyors of moribund cultural capital.

Yale professor David Joselit tackled a kindred aspect of the “commodification of knowledge” in his tour-de-force fifteen-minute talk about “image overpopulation.” “I call this diagram the prison house of meaning,” he deadpanned as he pointed at a PowerPoint slide of a turquoise circle shackled to four balls and chains. I wanted to quibble with his implication that certain long-standing conditions were somehow new (haven’t “value” and “content” been “circulatory” and “situational” since the rise of easel painting?), but otherwise I found his argument unassailable. When Joselit concluded that the crisis in art history resulted from the way the discipline “fixes content by assigning a meaning” and “sees images as singular things” rather than searchable populations, I wanted to holler “hear hear,” but CAA etiquette prohibits anything but judicious clapping.

Left: Art historian Jonathan Katz. Right: Art historians Howard Singerman and Katy Siegel.

Indeed, search seemed to be a catchword at the conference. Joselit referred repeatedly to “the epistemology of search,” by which I think he meant that we need to track the mutations and movements of artworks through the world to understand them. The term came up elsewhere too. During a panel on “Re-curating,” Reesa Greenberg, an independent scholar best known for coediting the textbook Thinking About Exhibitions, discussed “installations as search rather than solution.” Focusing on a recent series of shows curated by Charles Esche that aim to “activate” the private collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, she welcomed this challenge to “masterpiece aesthetics and the ideology of stasis.”

Any given route through the three hundred panels and associated meetings that make up the conference is bound to be idiosyncratic. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how I had ended up at one session rather than another one in a bigger ballroom down the hall. Maybe CAA should invest in a software program like Amazon’s that sorts “Recommendations for You in Panels” based on previous participation, page views, and what a nervous job candidate addressing a Harvard hiring committee might call “affective alliances.”

Perhaps as an antidote to external “searching,” narcissism was also in the air. Tirza True Latimer introduced a panel for the Queer Caucus for Art by citing her “perverse desire to rise to the defense of narcissism.” During that session, Jonathan Katz of SUNY Buffalo (recently in the news as the guest curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s censored “Hide/Seek” show) took the podium to present a compelling paper about Yayoi Kusama’s “orgies of polka-dotting.” He argued against the frequent linkage of female creativity to psychosexual pathologies like narcissism. “Rarely has madness spawned such a coherent political program,” he affirmed. “There is no better exemplar of the 1960s than Kusama!”

Left: Art historian Patricia Mainardi. Right: Suzanne Hudson, Alexander Dumbadze, and Joshua Shannon, founders of the Society for Contemporary Art Historians.

But the narcissistic pièce de résistance came unannounced, in the midst of a panel about Lawrence Alloway (the art critic who popularized the term “Pop art”), when NYU prof Nicholas Mirzoeff offered an unexpected display of self-love by repeatedly evoking the late great Alloway’s “affinities to me.” It appeared the scholar wanted to, er, “épater art history,” as he put it, by making himself the subject of visual studies.

The rest of the Alloway panel ran with a wide range of productive “isms” that ultimately jibed with the “search” theme. For example, Richard Kalina of Fordham University saw Alloway as a pluralist who “wouldn’t appreciate being an ism” because he disliked fixed opinions. And Courtney Martin, a Yale PhD currently teaching at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, discussed Alloway’s “networks” by looking at the social constellations around Frank Bowling, an abstract painter who was born in Guyana, trained in London, and befriended by Alloway in New York.

Also on this panel was Linda Nochlin, just back from London where the granddaughters of grande-dame feminists had thrown her an eightieth birthday party (or so I overheard while queuing in the ladies’ restroom). Nochlin may believe in assigning “a meaning,” but she has done it so well for so long that it is impossible not to adore her. She gave a talk about the late Sylvia Sleigh, who was married to Alloway, arguing that her male nudes were “portraits all the way down,” in contrast to the work of painters such as Ingres, whose female faces were so depersonalized that they “could be buttocks.”

Left: Art historians Capri Rosenberg, Thomas Crow, Deborah Silverman, and Ulrich Blanche. Right: Art historian Caroline A. Jones.

On the morning of the third day of the conference, I couldn’t attend a session featuring artists Vija Celmins and Robert Gober, as I was busy moderating a panel on Damien Hirst. Diametrically opposed views sliced up the room, then everything was expertly stitched together into an amicable summation by our “discussant,” Thomas Crow of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Crow defended the British artist known for his pickled sharks against the expectation that artists should be “herbivores,” and he argued that the love/hate encountered by Hirst’s work did not amount to a “tepid averaging out” but was evidence of the “irreconcilable positions accomplished by real works of art.”

As we left the session, I wondered how Professor Mainardi would have taken it had she attended. Deborah Silverman (UCLA) likened Hirst to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Martha Buskirk (Montserrat College) drew parallels between Hirst’s vigilant copyrights and William Hogarth’s eighteenth-century print business, but our work would nevertheless––oh evil of evils––“function economically,” as Mainardi puts it. Yet, for those of us who stick to writing, researching, or teaching contemporary art, the global economy is less a motivator than an object of study. And the fast pace of change means that, like it or not, 2008 is history.

Left: Lawyer Virginia Rutledge and art historian Martha Buskirk. Right: Art historians Mika Yoshitake and Barbara Rose.

Left: Art historians Leigh Markopoulos and Reesa Greenberg with curator Betti-Sue Hertz. Right: Art historian Donald Kuspit.