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PRINT Summer 2000

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David Joselit talks with Thomas Crow

THIS SUMMER THOMAS CROW will become the director of what is undoubtedly the most influential and best-funded art-historical think tank in the United States: the Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles. Crow, who is relinquishing his chairmanship of Yale’s distinguished art history department to lead the GRI, is one of the most prominent scholars in the field today. His work has addressed the entire span of modern art, from its origins in eighteenth-century France to its supposed demise in Conceptual art of the 1960s and ’70s. As a social historian of art, Crow has made important theoretical contributions to questions such as the role of art in the public sphere, and the often vexed relation between mass culture and modernism. In Crow, then, the Getty is getting an extremely respected academic who is outspoken in his assessments of art-historical methodologies and their relationship to other disciplines in the humanities. Given the high institutional profile of the GRI, Crow stands to make a significant impact on the practice of art history and its relationship to museum culture. I spoke with him by phone in his office at Yale about the state of art and art history, and how the Getty may play a role in their future.

DAVID JOSELIT: At the recent meeting of the College Art Association you had occasion to consider the legacy of the social history of art. What do you think of the state of the discipline now?

THOMAS CROW: After having made extraordinary gains in the last fifteen or twenty years in the sophistication and the range of material that it covers, it strikes me that American art history has reached a certain plateau, or even impasse, and this might be something that the Getty Research Institute can address as a long-term project. This impasse centers on the status of the singular art object, those products of the cultivated art tradition that used to be called “fine art.” The baggage that came with the term “fine art,” its connotations of taste and exclusivity, has rightly been thrown aside. But these challenges have made people less confident in talking about the singularity or distinction of individual works of art. So we’re seeing a divide between the realm of artmaking, where artists still feel very much that they have a vocation and that what they make is significant and belongs to their own particular intelligence and sensibility, and a discipline of art history that is less and less conceptually able to deal with this kind of practice.

DJ: How does that situation relate to the growing interest among artists and art historians in a broader visual culture, one beyond the precincts of fine art?

TC: I think the history of art has been damaged in the past by people being incurious about what’s going on in the vernacular worlds of popular music, film, and street fashion. These worlds should be more a part of our common conversation. But within the discipline of art history many people are seizing on the idea of visual culture, hoping to undermine traditional notions of the aesthetic without fully developing new critical competencies. In short, they’re not deep and obsessive fans of any of those vernacular forms. I think a certain naïveté is at the heart of the wish to use popular culture as a means of challenging the singularity of masterpieces or seminal works of art. If you go deeply into a realm like popular music, you’re going to find great masterpieces that are widely revered among its practitioners. There will be strong qualitative distinctions and invidious comparisons between the great and the merely competent. You’ll never get away from hierarchy, and to imagine that it is possible to do so by moving into the realm of popular culture makes me think that these people don’t know very much about popular culture.

DJ: You have been outspoken about what some have called the literary turn in art history. Would you say a word about this?

TC: That was where I myself started as a graduate student, as an assiduous reader of Barthes, Lacan, and Foucault. Later on, when the competence of art historians in relation to literary theorists seemed at a low point, many in art history came to lack confidence that their methodologies had the general import for the humanities as a whole that literary models possessed. I don’t think this ever needed to be the case, and in fact I think it represented a distortion of the actual record of work in the field. Art historians didn’t know how to take credit for what art-historical practice had been capable of in the past, as if they’d forgotten the achievement on which their own work was built. They were ready to set those accomplishments aside and to be very meek and accepting when new vocabularies of interpretation were proposed for visual works which were not, in fact, generated from the particular difficulties of understanding the visual arts. That’s what my recent book, The Intelligence of Art [University of North Carolina, 1999], is about. It’s about reaching back for examples of people trying to make sense of nonlinear, nontextual, synthetic, iconic works of art.

DJ: Could you describe the Getty Research Institute and its program of activities?

TC: The Getty Research Institute has a number of different branches. It includes a major collection of original documents and archives, encompassing almost every area of evidence in the study of the visual arts: treatises; prints; handbooks; artists’ scrapbooks of drawings and other kinds of material; teaching materials; artists’ letters; and notebooks. In addition, of course, we’ve got an extensive reference library that is as good as any in the country. These resources are housed in one building, where various functions are clearly related to one another. Such institutional “transparency” echoes the literal transparency—the many walls of glass—in Richard Meier’s design for the GRI building.

We also have functions that are carried on for the field as a whole, like our Bibliography of the History of Art, where everything that comes out in the periodical literature is catalogued, summarized, and put into digital form so that the developing knowledge of art history can be taken in and comprehended. The Getty Provenance Index, which documents where physical works of art have been kept in the course of their existences, is, of course, a related and complementary service that also bears on the study of collecting and reception. Then we have the visiting scholars, two dozen every year, who come to use these materials, work, talk to each other, and participate in seminars that address the theoretical conundra that the field is facing. These are midcareer to senior figures, including artists, curators, and less definable intellectuals. In addition, there are also half a dozen fellowships for young scholars just completing their doctoral degrees. All this makes for a fascinating community of people—both the visitors and the permanent staff working with the archives and indexes and organizing Getty events.

Art history remains a historical discipline: You look at primary materials wherever possible. One of the things I most want to happen at the GRI is to have all of the elements that go into the production of a successful interpretation or narrative account of a work of art in the same place. That way, everybody can begin to see how these things work together, and the dialogue can grow in depth and productivity. My feeling is that with its archival resources, library, and rotating community of scholars, the GRI is well positioned to bring together history and theory. I want it to be a place of common goodwill and agreeable disagreement.

DJ: How do you feel about leaving the university and working in a different institutional setting? Does the GRI represent a new way of pursuing art-historical understanding?

TC: Leaving the university, especially leaving a place like Yale with its great art history department and traditions, was hard. But I wouldn’t have done it unless I thought that the enterprise of higher education would take place at the Getty and, moreover, that the GRI could address aspects of the traditional graduate department I have been dissatisfied with. I think there’s an unfortunate tendency in graduate education for students to over-identify with a particular program, faculty, or institutional outlook. This occurs at the expense of a sense of freedom and independence that young scholars should be encouraged to develop. Southern California has many interesting and significant visual-arts faculties and departments—they appear to be more open than their counterparts in the Northeast to a fluid form of interchange and cross-fertilization. I feel that the Getty can and should help facilitate that kind of interchange by bringing together faculty and students from different departments so that they can get to know one another and have a chance to learn from one another. Such programs would build a wider sense of community early on in graduate students’ training, which I think will have real intellectual benefits. They will also make the GRI itself a more lively place, with a greater age range and increased heterogeneity and just more of a general effervescence. It will help us accomplish a sort of balancing act between the local, the national, and the international, keeping the local and the young involved in everything we do.