A perennially unfinished project: an essay (or a lecture, or a book) giving reason why art historians should practice what they study.

There isn't any reason why art historians should paint well, but the reason they don't need to is itself symptomatic. Art history is historically poor at paying attention to facture, brushstrokes, and marks, except when they are unusual, or when they can be referred to en masse, as entire practices.

And there isn't any reason why art historians should try to make actual artworks -- images that might count as art -- but again the reason is symptomatic. Art history hasn't been good at talking about the processes of creation: it is, often properly, a retrospective discipline.


Why Art Historians Should Learn to Draw and Paint

Lecture, essay (1994 - present)

This is a never-ending essay or book project, revised many times. It's about the relation between studio art (and studio art departments) and the history of art. It is a curious and significant fact that most art historians have never tried to make art: curious because a large number of people who teach literature and literary criticism have written fiction or poetry, and a large number of people who teach music theory or music history play an instrument; and significant because that means the experience of making is seldom part of what art historians consider when they write.

In smaller institutions, and in some parts of the world, it is common for art historians to also be artists. But in North America, much of Europe, and places influenced by their sense of art history, and especially in the major institutions, it's common for art historians to have only minimal experience making objects.

When the topic of this essay comes up in European and North American conferences, it's usually posed as a matter of art historians learning some artistic techniques, so they can speak more fluently about, say, lithography or pastel. My interest is different: I'm concerned that the experiences of artmaking--the mess of it, the uncertainty, the loneliness of the studio, the feel of the materials and tools, even the smell--are considered inappropriate for historical inquiry.  

This topic matters immensely when it comes to the philosophic, practical, and institutional distance between studio art and art history. Art history would be written differently if most of its practitioners were also practicing artists; and universities would be configured differently if the experiences of the studio were considered essential for the education of art historians. But it is excruciatingly difficult to make the case. Hence the unfinished nature of this essay. 

The essay is 26 pp., and contains discussions of Aristotle, Derrida, Joseph Kerman, Stephen Melville, Gavin Butt, Rosalind Krauss, and examples including Mondrian, Rubens, Titian, Sanchez-Cotan, El Greco, and Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.

The essay is in German as “Warum Kunsthistoriker malen lernen sollten—ein Plädoyer für Werkstatterfahrung,” in Subjekt und Medium in der Kunst der Moderne, edited by Michael Lüthy and Christoph Menke (Zurich and Berlin: Diaphanes, 2006), 87-114. An earlier version is also in French, “Histoire de l’art et pratiques d’atelier,” which is in turn a translation of “Why Art Historians should Draw: The Case for Studio Experience,” Histoire de l’art 29–30 (1995): 103–112; an initial version of some of that material is in the book Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1997), paperback edition, with new preface (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2000) -- mentioned elsewhere on this site.

The two sides of art history's engagement: it is drawn to visual objects because they are visual,
but it produces a literature that does not often notice what it is that makes images visual.
Practice can help that by problematizing the gap.