Alana Jelinek / Visual Culture

WTF Art Thou?

It may seem controversial, but as Alana Jelinek argues, shouldn’t we start accepting that art history and art practice are, in many ways, incompatible?

WTF Art Thou?

If you believe the Association of Art Historians (and I do), they are a terribly beleaguered bunch: losing departments and staff up and down the country as a consequence of various current government initiatives that seem bent on undermining previous systems for sustaining strong, independent cultural and academic practices. With this in mind, I do not wish to add to the burden of art historians when I argue here that they and their values should be kept at a remove from art students and practicing artists.

Instead I wish to point out where art history and art practice are incompatible disciplines. Art historians should understand that the values endemic to their discipline are different from the those conducive to a strong or interesting art practice and that, despite being embedded in art practice departments, art historians may have little productive to offer contemporary art practice, at least as it is currently taught.

This is not to say that artists should not learn the history of their practice. Far from it. I would argue that, not only does good art require an awareness of art’s history, but that art is only art because a practitioner knowingly builds on a history of disciplinary practices, norms and knowledges. In other words, not only is it true that to be a good or interesting artist, an artist must know the history of their practice but to be an artist in the first place, a practitioner must know their disciplinary history, at least to some extent. Where a person creates something without such knowledge, they might create something interesting but it is not art. When an elephant with a paintbrush makes a painting, it may be pretty or interesting, but cannot be said to be an artistic act. Art requires disciplinary knowledge and understanding. In addition to art-specific methods and discourses, art disciplinary understanding includes a knowledge of other art practices and their history. Art does not happen in a vacuum. We are not born into solipsistic universes where any old accidental or narcissistic outpouring is enough to be considered art.

Neither is art the product of the capitalistic continuous present as if the past is irrelevant (except as a lucrative source of nostalgia). Art practice is an informed negotiation with the specific conditions of each of our lives built on a history of such negotiations.

So artists need to know art history but we rarely need the art history that is taught, and we very rarely need the art history that is most often found in the mainstream media. That is the art history of the canon and it is the job of the art historian to create and police the canon. In manufacturing the canon, art historians create a value for art in terms that ultimately equate to money and, by the very nature of their discipline, they intersect with both the market and history in fundamental ways. We, artists, on the other hand, must create our own values that may or may not intersect with the values of the market or the values of the history writers. Our job is to create art within the terms that we decide are important, given the history of our discipline and in negotiation with contemporary conditions. If we are ambitious, we must create the best art we can within those terms. If anyone else values those terms or our art, so be it, but that is not why we make art. The obverse is also true: our job is not to pander to the terms laid down by art historians, art administrators, curators or others, and the inappropriate terms which underpin the cherry-picking endemic to their discipline, including the art historical myth of genius and more recent myths of market meritocracy or global audience impact being important.

Samuel Beckett articulates well the task of the artist in Three Dialogues, though he writes from a palpably different historical position:

‘To be an artist is to fail, as no others dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink of it desertion, art and crafts, good housekeeping, living.’

I would clarify and update Beckett for our neoliberal context by saying that if there is something to be gained from knowing one’s efforts to speak the world are doomed to failure then the task is to maintain oneself in the face of curatorial, institutional and market indifference, to maintain the capacity not to replicate systems that produce mediocrity through the endless variation of a basic matrix. ■

This is Not ArtAlana Jelinek is the author of This is Not Art: Activism and Other ‘not-art’, and is currently AHRC creative fellow at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

Image courtesy of Liis Kramer.


2 thoughts on “WTF Art Thou?

  1. Very thoughtful and nicely articulated ideas, here. However, as an art historian and artist, I disagree with the author’s division of labor. I also take exception with the assertion that art historians automatically are in the business of canon formation. Of course this has been and often still is the case, but it need not be. Art historians, especially when they acknowledge their reliance upon criticism and theory, have done much to open up, rather than narrow down, possibilities within visual art.

  2. “That is the art history of the canon and it is the job of the art historian to create and police the canon.”

    – In ways I agree, and in ways I do not. I think in Art History’s earlier days this was certainly the job of the art historian, and while it has shaped the discipline as it is taught today, I don’t feel that this was conducive to the efforts to engage the general public. Almost everyone I speak to, when I say I’m an art historian, immediately responds with, “I don’t know much about art”. I think art historians have successfully shaped a discipline, but the canon needs rethinking. I agree with Stilestyson’s comment that we have also done much to open up possibilities within visual art. But in terms of art historical writing, I see possibilities as having been remarkably narrowed – paintings are ‘deciphered’ and closed off for discussion. I think if anything, art history and art practice need to feed off each other more, because I see art history becoming incompatible with itself.

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