The Only Art History Dispute That Matters

That's not true, it also matters how much Jacques-Louis David sucks

Hey, There,

So, recently I was catching up with an old friend I hadn’t talked to for quite a while, and somehow we got onto the topic of what the big, lingering, heated disputes are in our respective academic fields. I learned that people in the nutrition field get mad about very niche stuff, and listed off five controversies in art history, several of which I’ve kind of bounced off of in this newsletter.

But thinking about it later on, I realized that I’d kind of missed what I think is the huge, fundamental dispute that structurally sits at the heart of art history, just underneath the surface: which type of art matters most. Like, is it the stuff made by famous names in museums, or the stuff made by ordinary people? There’s some bleed between the two, but they really do typify two different ways of thinking about art. Is it important to know the canon, to be able to spot a Caravaggio when you see one? Or is it important to have a handle on what people are doing with the new frontiers in self-expression the internet has provided?

Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, which, by the way, has always looked to me hilariously like Zoe Kazan settling a score

The first approach, the famous-names approach, tends to be what the general public thinks art history is. I know that whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was doing art history grad school, that’s the direction the conversation would tend to go: what did I think of Picasso, or had I heard about that recently-unearthed Da Vinci painting that had just sold for an insane amount of money? It makes sense that this is what people expect; this is basically the way undergrad art history surveys are taught, emphasizing a lot of memorizing ways that you can distinguish a Giotto from a Fra Filippo Lippi and whatever. My grad school experience contained exactly 0 of this kind of stuff, but when I talked to people in other programs, they’d get a beleaguered look in their eyes and say that they had way too much of this stuff layered on top (and when I mentioned this to my advisor, she immediately looked evil and asked me if I felt left out). Our museums are certainly predominantly built around this model.

The second approach is much more diffuse. Less asking “what makes a Gehry building distinctive?” and more “what kinds of houses are people building in 2020, and why?” The second approach is more interdisciplinary, to borrow a buzzword, because it usually involves looking at wider context and social trends and such. Looking at street art is a great example of this; you often don’t even know who made all of it, but it’s certainly worth investigating what kind of a visual conversation a city is having with itself, what that means, and what the driving forces are.

So yeah, my argument is that the work of Kate Beaton is as important and worthy of study as the work of Caravaggio. What did it mean that at the turn of the century, a person could put comics up on a thrown-together website and build a career out of it?

I’m probably overstating the case that there’s a clear dispute between these two approaches; I don’t know any sane art historian who pretends that it’s all one or all the other. Well, that’s not quite true—I think there are some traditionalist pockets that would argue that we need to worry about the canon and nothing else, but I don’t think there are many radical power-to-the-artistic-people types who think there’s no value whatsoever to knowing the canon. Really, I think the dispute lies in where exactly the slider between the two approaches should be placed, with the revolutionary side of the continuum being the one where there’s more and more attention paid to “vernacular” work being made by ordinary people.

If you care enough about what I think to have subscribed to this newsletter, I don’t think it’s much of a mystery where I stand. I’m firmly, solidly on Team Ordinary People. I think that approach is more inclusive, more accurate, and more valuable in revealing where society is at. I love a lot of canonical artists, and have strong opinions about a lot of them, but I also think that fundamentally a lot of canonical artists are just ordinary-person artists who got elevated by some arbitrary circumstances of happenstance or societal forces. I took this position seriously enough to do my thesis on non-canonical art (if anything, my thesis borders on being a manifesto on the power of self-publishing comics) because I believed in it, even though that’s not exactly a field of expertise that leads to a lot of museum jobs.

One thing that does occur to me: it’s a little unsettling that notions of beauty are pretty solidly excluded from all academic art history. The concept is present a little bit if you’re approaching the discipline by looking at the canon, although it can be a little bit under the surface: X Artist is canonical because they are so great at Y technique (which renders their work beautiful). Populist what-is-this-telling-us art history pretty much sets beauty and aesthetics aside. Which is a thing I absolutely understand (beauty is arbitrary and subjective, after all, and notions of beauty often reflect deeply unfair structures in society), but it’s still kind of a bummer, since beauty is usually part of what hooks people into caring for art in the beginning.

What am I arguing for here? As usual, I’m not even entirely sure. I guess just that people should think about where they stand on the matter of whose art matters, and whether being on a wall with a label next to it makes a piece of self-expression more valid. And, I guess, not to let the idea of beauty die out completely when you’re thinking about art.

Right on. Stay safe.


The best ongoing music writing that I know of right now is Tom Breihan’s Number Ones project for Stereogum, where he’s writing a long, well-researched essay about every song that has ever been #1 in the Billboard Hot 100. It’s great, great stuff, and super fun to follow his journey into stretches of cultural history that I remember (as of this writing, he’s in the mid 80s). Learn about that godawful Dire Straits song with the dumb video! Learn about Duran Duran’s cheesiest hit! Islands in the Stream! You name it!


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

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