Falling to future-porn: The demise of art history and the rise of university marketing

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The impending closure of art history at La Trobe University,Australia, has drawn sharp criticism from academics. They have pointed out that students enjoy art history: it is economical, has enduring value and demonstrably excellent outcomes.

Alas, this mystery of a discipline loved by students and scorned by deans belongs to a larger trend in universities, in which art history has either been embattled or abolished. In spite of its popularity among students, the fortunes of art history have been tenuous, sometimes clinging on obstreperously (as at La Trobe) and sometimes perishing silently (as at Monash).

Two reasons might account for the demise of art history: an indifference from outside the discipline and a small but fatal weakness from within.

Academic administrators, who lead by clichés, do not like the sound of art history. Against the vulgar rhetoric of getting ahead in a fast-paced world, realising your personal vision, extending your creative powers and pushing the future, the study of art history sounds out of date, as if dealing with quaint things from the past. Faculties like to represent their vision as aggressively forward-looking, multi-disciplinary, lateral-thinking, full of digital newness and future-shaping ideas.

If these were only platitudes, we might only sigh; but they are calculated to flatter new students with a fantasy of leap-frogging all the fuddy-duddy disciplines.

Art history has few friends. Studio art departments, keen to project a vigorous program of creative hygiene, are mostly scornful of art history. It seems too humanist in its values. For insecure studio academics, art history threatens to cloud the studio purity and seems to infect it with uncreative chronologies.

It also does not help to explain, as Art Association of Australia and New Zealand’s Anthony White admirably did in the Fairfax press, that art history is inherently interdisciplinary and that it nicely equips students for a world saturated in visual messages. Art history drove me to learn foreign languages and their literatures as well as visual languages, to come to grips with philosophy, technology, social history, popular culture, urban planning and legislation, Indigenous culture, economics and globalisation and studio practice itself.

It is hard to think of a discipline which is quite so promiscuous in examining ideas. It prepares a person to make an intervention in almost any field of criticism.

Art history is suspected of telling the wrong story. In education, the marketable myth is that we live in a new world with new challenges that require new solutions and ways of thinking. These bracing admonitions to prospective students are ingeniously pitched to sound challenging and reassuring, with the suggestion that our faculty will equip you for this turbulent new world.

Describing the world as relentlessly new is strategically disempowering for the individual, designed to present the institution as a rescue-package for your impotence and fear in the face of unprecedented change that you won’t otherwise be able to cope with.

Against this future-porn, art history suggests that wisdom arises from knowledge, imagination and analysis, but not necessarily focused on current preoccupations but deeper cultural stock. Issues of space, imagery, language, social justice and meaning have been analysed and debated for a long time and everything that we say today tends to rehearse something said before.

Ideas — like images and spaces — have genealogies; and it pays to recognise where contemporary motifs come from. But if you base your rhetoric on the line of radical creativity, that story is fundamentally unwelcome. Art history presents as the antithesis of your illusions and is resented for its enduring pertinence.

Unhappily, the discipline itself has contributed to its own demise. The problem is the name. As soon as you say “art history”, people will only think of a boutique study of pictures and sculptures, cultivated by connoisseurs.

Few appreciate that art history means the study of almost everything cultural. The term is disastrous, even concealing from view that it includes architecture and design. Various attempts have been made to change the name, terms like visual culture or theory of art and design. None of them achieved much traction and sometimes had unfortunate consequences.

The newer nomenclature encouraged anxious political discourses in reaction to older forms of art history, thus further — and incorrectly — stigmatising the existing brand-name as politically conservative.

There are other vocationally-oriented disciplines like media and communications where it might be said that their weakness became their strength. But for art history, its strength became its weakness. The immense cultural conspectus that it entails ought to have made it robust; but the very breadth — all the while expressed with a narrow title — made its image fragile.

This myth of a rarefied discipline is like a death-warrant in the contemporary environment, with its boastfulness about creativity in a new world unlike all previous ages. It produces the situation that we know today, where the surviving art historians often practice in exile or inside studio academies as if in hiding.

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2 comments

Shayne Weiley #permalink

Very convenient. Another opportunity for you to plunder any valuable works of art under your secret society (govt) umbrella. Private schools in Sydney-are they too being manipulated into the corrupt and greedy hands of ‘you know who.?’

From the exiled,victimised and involuntarily medically researched wife of Michael Weiley who has 6 months to live because of all the poison you have put through my now defunct body.

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Shayne Weiley #permalink

Also, All above members secret society group have contemporary artworks displayed GLOBALLY in their ‘luxe” or luxurious galleries! Iit is all themed – satiric cruel and degrading artworks of all genre designed to destroy,defame,and represent his ex wife. It unifies the group who immediately recognise the ridiculing theme.These will become the new “art history”- representing this era- the past 20 years when the world has been plundered via stealth means such as infiltrating global governments, milking their coffers…buying ALL luxurious and oceanfront property – total media ownership- nepotism…… Zzzzzz. (Michael ,include moi)

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