It’s impossible to comment much publicly about one’s dissertation advisor’s immense new book. It gets even harder when that advisor has become a friend, and before that got you through some times so difficult you know that anything less than complete support would have meant you’d never have become an art historian—and then you’re reading that profound supporter’s idea of what art history is and has been.
I don’t think a lot of people I talk to will agree with a lot of the things in this book. It is cocksure about not having to address the concerns of Eurocentrism directly throughout (though there is very critically sophisticated attention to non-European art history in places). In general, the book brackets today. It says things like “man” when it means “humans” but in a kind of eternal human condition sense. Blech, why. Etc.
But I am going to go ahead and say that this book is beautiful, poignant, full of life. Anyone who cares about art history as a discipline with a history should read it, even if to disagree with it here and there. Disagreeing with good provocations has always gotten me somewhere, anyway.
How to describe the poignancy? Sometimes, when I am working with historical figures, they appear in my poems like dinner-party buddies, or at least that’s how I try to imagine them. But it’s hard to get that feel for people from the past. It doesn’t work with everyone.
Chris basically has that feeling for everyone (or at least almost everyone in this book, which is like, hundreds of people). The book is just on the edge of someone telling stories about other party guests to you while you’re at the same party, except the party has a subtle theme that you actually want to follow. You grasp the theme because the stories make you tear up a little, but in a kind of comfortable, social way. It turns out the theme is central to your life, and you can be chill about it.
Recently I made myself read the end of the book (you can go out of order). Here I agreed. I have to stop taking my encounter with art for granted. I have to stop hiding that encounter, even if to protect it from the frequent viciousness of peer review and other art historians. Those are not important. Saying implausible but elegant things here and there is not enough! Being honest about the poetics of my present sphere is not enough!
I have to let my actual art-world become part of my work, not just when it sneaks in, like when I wrote the last sentence of my first book, but more of the time, mindfully, letting the experience continue into my research and work. Because that’s the thing, good art history (as I said about Bambach above) extends the encounter. Playground peastone chalk on your hands, a little sweat, and laughter.