While I hope to know something of art, I cannot claim to be familiar with power or money. It's not for a lack of effort. I would love to master the intricate web of relationships that channels money across our societies and often defines power in our world. I wouldn't even mind wielding power (only beneficently, of course). But let's face it, the profession of art history rarely offers these possibilities. It is about as far from power and money as one can get among the supposedly respectable occupations.
In my opinion, marginality is gnawing a hole in our profession, and its steady expansion threatens to obliterate the small presence we retain in the bustling world outside academic conferences and specialized publications. In recent years, art historians have focused great attention on studying art as a part of broad networks that encompass almost every aspect of societies, past and present. I applaud this effort and have tried to make a small contribution to it, although I would dispute the claim made by some that previous generations largely overlooked these questions. This brief essay, however, is not the place to examine the nuts and bolts of historiography, but rather to look at the overall industry and suggest a few changes in the latest models.
Certainly, there has been a great emphasis on models, not the shiny, odd-smelling ones turned out in Detroit, Stuttgart, or Nagoya but those crystalline constructions of the mind - theory. Like cars, theories deserve a high degree of skepticism, yet it seems to me that we rarely kick the tires or diligently look under the hood. No doubt like many art historians, I have been inspired and swept away by an equation that seemed to solve a messy problem or open the door to recognition of a situation I had never realized existed. Whether we proceed by burying ourselves in documents, creating an ideal measure, or more likely, some chaotic muddling through, a viewpoint is necessary, maybe even the ultimate achievement. Yet, as a historian, I often find that theories are like exquisitely beautiful machines that explode the moment they are switched on. The virus of life immediately infects the system and proves far too polymorphous to be contained in its structure.
My goal is not to trash theory but to make a plea for tolerance. To encourage a diversity that will enable us to escape determination by the peculiar characteristics of academia and learn to create histories of art that share the experiences...