Holland Cotter: the other art histories

Whatever is happening to art history? asks Holland Cotter in the NYT.

“The attempt to unite traditional and contemporary remains a source of tension, like an identity crisis unresolved. Some scholars continue to decry present-mindedness. They hear a clock ticking, and see only the preservative work not being done. Others take a more positive view: African and Asian cultures, they say, by their volatile and multifarious natures, are in states of perpetual transformation. This present is always, instantaneously, the new past. We document that instant.

As for museums, they haven’t figured out what to do. Blockbuster-consciousness has them thinking ancient, rare, monumental,  expensive,  never-seen-before. All of this is now harder and harder to come up with, but institutions won’t risk trying alternative models, though there are some out there. (Just look at exhibition catalogs published by the Museum for African Art in New York in the 1980s and ’90s.)

But the big question is, why does the direction taken by museums, or by art history as a discipline, have to be an either-or? Traditional or contemporary, old-style or new style, in-the-field or online. That’s the rhythm of fashion: something always has to be out so that something else can be in. But writing the history of art shouldn’t work that way. Good artists don’t work that way. Why not take lessons from them?”

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