PRINT November 2014


Molly Nesbit’s The Pragmatism in the History of Art

Gordon Matta-Clark’s telegram to Vassar College, reproduced in his artist’s statement for the exhibition “26 × 26” at the Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1971.

IN THEIR COMMON SENSE (2000), Molly Nesbit interpreted Cubist lines as “an embrace of the language of industry.” Art was steered into that embrace, she argued, by the French sculptor and arts administrator Eugène Guillaume and minister of fine arts Antonin Proust, who introduced rationalized methods of drawing into the nation’s school curriculum in 1881. Art, when it adopted the technical line, a graphic system “equated with truth” and no longer grounded in ordinary vision, “fell outside itself and produced its own inversion, rupture.” “Art history,” Nesbit continued, “speaks of this rupture as abstraction. But perhaps it is not art history’s business.” She was suggesting that art history—a mode of writing designed to produce continuities—is incapable of grasping Cubism. She was also suggesting that art history may be unable to break its ties to classical aesthetics and therefore cannot participate in what she called the “common sense” of abstraction and other modern realisms. Abstraction—“carry[ing]” reference, relations, and matter—“interrupted old aesthetics.” And so Nesbit proceeded to write her own, most beautiful and original book about Cubism and Marcel Duchamp, a masterpiece in several genres, barely assimilable—as she predicted—by the academic discipline of art history.

What is art history’s business? What does art-historical scholarship still have to say to modernity, and to modernism? Did it ever have anything to say? Nesbit’s answer to these questions in her latest book, The Pragmatism in the History of Art, is rather surprising: Yes, art history, speaking between the 1930s and the ’70s in certain American and French idioms, was able to grasp the relation of modern art to modern time.

The scholarly study of art history as established in German and American universities in the late nineteenth century was slow to adapt to art’s new rhythms. But in the ’30s, according to Nesbit, art history caught up with art, and the scholarship practiced by Meyer Schapiro and Henri Focillon emerged unexpectedly as modernism’s ally. The modern art historian, Nesbit argues, was politically better informed and more alert to current events than the aesthetician, for whom the artwork was becoming ever denser and more self-sufficient. The art historian was also a better guide to modern art than the art critic or curator. “Larger historical forces and other realities, things not-paintings and not-sculptures, things not exhibited, were ushered” by the guardians of orthodoxy, Clement Greenberg and Alfred H. Barr Jr., “away from the big stage.” Art criticism, which pretended to be a mode of writing about the present, was in fact closed to the full range of experience. Nesbit offers a classic example of orthodox formalist analysis: Barr’s diagramming of Whistler’s portrait of his mother, which allowed Frank Stella’s abstract canvas almost a century later to “fall quite naturally into the line of descent.” For Nesbit, a work of art is not a composition but “an event infiltrated by other events.” Art history was suddenly prepared to describe those events.

Schapiro professed himself a follower of the American philosopher John Dewey. He attended Dewey’s lectures at Columbia in 1923. Dewey, in Nesbit’s account, “saw art to be both a tool and a fundamental form of practice in service of the gargantuan, ephemeral experiment that is life.” Schapiro learned from Dewey to see artistic creation as an everyday activity in which, as he put it, “people work through difficulties, experiment, observe, change, destroy, start again, and finally bring their work to a conclusion, which is only the starting point of something new.” Only an art history that seeks the actual has a chance of identifying the possible.

The historian of actuality detects art’s temporal plurality. “It can happen that a present goes forward long-term,” Nesbit writes, “even longer than a lifetime; it can happen to be short. Sometimes a work of art can hold it.” To seize this present, Schapiro developed the in-depth analysis of single works of art. He “spoke to actuality” through the work, “much as an artist would,” Nesbit points out.

Focillon was at Yale University teaching “an art history of the world in real time,” lecturing on the churches of Spain at the height of the Spanish Civil War, or on Manet’s painting in the fall of 1939 as the German army threatened France. (Focillon had labored for years alongside Paul Valéry within the framework of the League of Nations, enlisting Einstein, Freud, Mann, and other nondreamers to bind Europe’s wounds with colloquy, debate, cooperation; in vain. In exile in the US from October 1939, he was commissioned by the French government to rally support for the Allied cause.) Focillon described works of art as experiments that “dig into the future.” History, in Nesbit’s formula, “is nothing less than an eternal, punishing hunt for the present—no matter when it happened.”

Nesbit describes such attitudes as pragmatist. The prelude to her story depicts William James lecturing at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1898; Charles Sanders Peirce quoting the poet Thomas Gray; the pacifist Dewey lecturing in Beijing in 1919. These thinkers broke with the German tradition of thought by turning away from “first things—principles, categories, supposed necessities—and instead train[ing] the mind on last things—fruits, consequences, facts.” Ideas in their hands were tools, instruments. More than half a century later, as Nesbit notes, Gilles Deleuze would invoke American literature as the pathfinder in the “rhizomatic direction,” showing us how to “install a logic of AND, overturn ontology, impoverish the foundation, annul ends and starts.”

Indeed, Nesbit’s story has a second, European frame: Deleuze, and in particular his interpretation of Michel Foucault as a pragmatist. Foucault, in Nesbit’s paraphrase of Deleuze, offered “a philosophy-in-progress,” one that grows outward from historical material and is meant to have a “general, even public application.” She puts the thought of Deleuze and Foucault in the wider context of French engagement with American thought and culture, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings on William Faulkner and John Dos Passos to Chris Marker’s unlikely exposure to Charles and Ray Eames in Moscow. Foucault remade philosophy as an “open site,” or as a “flow” that responds to events—a parallel to the opening of art history to real experience that Nesbit goes on to describe in the rest of her book.

NESBIT’S NARRATIVE PROPER, which begins in the ’30s, is told in episodes and saccadic bursts, zigzagging across time and the map at breakneck speed, carried by word-pictures and apothegms. Her prose shows what it is like to try to grasp actuality. The writing is so swift and at the same time so lucid that the book reads like a summary of itself. There is no rest: We are chasing the present, and in the phrase of George Kubler, Focillon’s pupil and translator and later the preeminent historian of Mesoamerican art, “the moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses.” Nesbit follows Schapiro and Kubler in refusing any longer to be outpaced by events. “Many ideas sped alongside one another undetected,” she says about the ’30s. “They were being driven on by a general effort to catch up with truth. And by the sense that thought had to become more than the thought of thought.” Kubler, in his still much admired short book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962), tried to complete Focillon’s project, much as Nesbit tries to complete Kubler’s. How similar the two books are, with their stylized prose, at once poetic and direct.

Nesbit takes her narrative up to the early ’70s. In her word-lenses, Kynaston McShine’s “Information” exhibition in 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the early writings of Robert L. Herbert and T. J. Clark come into sharp focus. The social historians of art, she says, were willing to “let the past run out ahead of them.” They let “history widen the time of actuality.” The book closes with a report on a performance by Gordon Matta-Clark at Vassar College in 1971, an event framed by an exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut of twenty-six women artists that was itself contextualized by Linda Nochlin’s famous essay of that year, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” “The fault, dear brothers,” Nochlin wrote, “lies . . . in our institutions and our education—education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter into this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals.” So Nesbit returns to the place where Their Common Sense began: the scene of pedagogy.

The Pragmatism in the History of Art is the archaeology of Nesbit’s own art history, although she never calls attention to this seemingly immodest project, unmasking the obvious only in the book’s unexpected and moving final sentence. She gets away with it because she is, after all, the most creative American art historian of her time.

Her book is also the archaeology of today’s patterns of collaboration among art production, art theory, theorized academic art history, and exhibition practice. Artists, writers, thinkers, and curators all increasingly resemble one another. Shadowing this book is Nesbit’s own role as cocreator, with curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, of the hybrid project Utopia Station, launched at the Venice Biennale in 2003. (She is also a contributing editor to this magazine.)

Deleuze provided many of the concepts underwriting the convergence of art history, art curating, and art production realized in our own time and historicized by Nesbit’s book. For Deleuze, reality is inaccessible to the ordinary subject experiencing and acting in the world, moment to moment. This is a doctrine that is possibly reconcilable with pragmatism, but not with common sense. Such everyday, “actual” experience, for Deleuze, is an illusion. Reality, which he calls the “virtual,” is delivered only by artists and others endowed with second sight. The past is one aspect of the virtual. The artist is better equipped to grasp that past than a mere historian wielding the clumsy instruments of empirical scholarship. Nesbit’s new-model art historian sees the limits of empiricism and chooses instead to approach the past through the artist.

A paradox looms. Nesbit says that history brings the real into the encounter with art. Yet her account of the new compact between art history and actuality drawn up by these scholars leads straight to the amnesiac moment we are living in right now. Students today are less mindful of the once-binding imperatives of historical study and historical perspective. Pragmatist philosophers courted this insouciance toward the past, preaching a new, post-European freedom from the obligations of history. Nesbit would deny it, as did Cornel West in his classic The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989), in which he stressed Dewey’s reconciliation of the “voluntaristic, amelioristic, and activistic” Emersonian tradition with the historical consciousness cultivated in nineteenth-century Europe. But the fact of the matter is that the American pragmatists were never very interested in the past.

Nor was Deleuze. Following Henri Bergson, he believed that “the past and the present do not denote two successive moments, but two elements which coexist.” You can only reach the past by way of the present. Moreover, according to Deleuze, it is lodged right there in the present, where an artist will find it. There is no need to toil away in the library in search of the past.

Nesbit’s own meaningful past, it would seem, does not extend back more than a couple of hundred years. She gives us no reason why we ought ever to peer back beyond the horizon of the industrial revolution. How far back is history still “real”?

THE ELECTIVE AFFINITY between French and American thought that Nesbit detects may be no more than a shared coolness toward the German philosophical tradition that has dominated academic art history since the nineteenth century. German and German-language art history—Jacob Burckhardt and Warburg, Riegl and Wölfflin, Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich—appears diverse, dialectical. But all these art historians shared a common philosophy of history: the depressive assumption that in the past, or in societies far from Europe, art was better integrated into life. Art seemed to them poorly anchored in the shallow soil of modern European life. Not taking seriously the avant-garde’s attempts to bring art and experience into a new alignment, art history as a discipline became progressively alienated from the production of new art.

In the Germanic philosophy of history that framed the traditional study of art history, you do not get to choose your past. The past chooses you. Kubler disparaged with a vivid legal term the submissiveness of Renaissance and modern European artists and historians to classical, archaic, and prehistoric forms: He described the cold grip of the past as a “mortmain action.” Paralyzed by history’s dead hand and harried by the present, the German critical theorists sought ever more recondite escape routes, for example Walter Benjamin’s fantastical, neo-scholastic concept of the Jetztzeit, an event that “recapitulates the entire history of mankind in a monstrous abbreviation.” A philosophy of history, like Benjamin’s, that takes the past too seriously—a pragmatist would say—will devolve into a theology of history.

Art history without a philosophy of history—“there is no script,” as Nesbit says—is also art history without a tragic dimension. With the pragmatists and, for that matter, with Deleuze, she shares a fundamental optimism and a forward-looking gaze. But like Focillon and Schapiro, Nesbit also has high aspirations for her discipline. She throws art history a lifeline.

Christopher S. Wood is a professor of German at New York University.