Reductive art history

Today I had a brief conversation with Richard Shiff. We share the view that most art history is quite reductive, that it narrows art to fit abstract theories rather than opening it up to experience. In my opinion, he is one of the best, because he has a real feeling for art. The occasion was a little debate around Cézanne’s card players—Carol Armstrong in Artforum taking exception to T.J. Clark’s weariness with Cézanne, as expressed in the LRB a couple of months ago. Shiff, meanwhile, wrote a brilliant analysis of the card players, which I heard him deliver in Toronto likewise a few months ago. I think Armstrong is on the right track, although oddly she does not acknowledge Shiff. I have my own questions about the card players, which I think are very dull pictures, though dull in an interesting way, if that makes any sense.

Art history has to grow, according to the normal economic logic, and so it has to take up new areas all the time. One consequence is that art historians now publish articles about their artist peers in places like Artforum. Normally that just means a reinforcement of reductive views. Bad enough that every artist that goes to school today learns their art history from a PhD., but that the same historical schemas have to be reinforced in the art press. In Shiff’s case, the fact that he can find an audience at Pace Gallery for example, is because he can see and feel what is alive in past art, what makes it present.

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