None of us, as art historians, is likely to have many original thoughts about how meaning works. We produce new interpretations, but few of us create new ideas about the process of doing so. Even as we dig to reveal new meanings in artworks, we seldom find new ways to think about interpretation itself. Such thinking exists, of course, and it structures our understanding of how history presents itself and how it can be written--but it is uncommon. The great majority of us follow well-worn paths.
I take that as a perhaps slightly depressing but acceptable fact. It might be said that we can at least master the interpretative methods we select, and that we can learn a range of methods and choose the ones we want. I wonder, though, how often we understand how we choose or arrange interpretative methods. It seems to me that interpretative strategies are hidden from us twice over: first, because we cannot explain how we pick just a few out of all the possible theories, and second, because there is no narrative in art history that helps us grasp the effects of juxtaposing different theories. I might opt for a Lacanian reading for one essay and a semiotic reading for another. I know the names of those interpretations, and I believe I know why I choose them in each instance. The Lacanian reading, I may think, fits one artwork, and a semiotic reading fits another. I feel that in gathering interpretative methods and in knitting them together, I am acting on my own, to produce a new configuration of meanings. Yet what happens in art history--and, by extension, in other humanities--is more or less the opposite. Interpretative sources are chosen partly because they are in the air. Theories are notoriously subject to fashion, which is another way of saying that they come and go without good reason. Theory dates research: the theoretical sources cited in an art historical text can be used to estimate the year the work was written. This has nothing to do with the veracity or fruitfulness of the ideas that are cited or the interpretations that are generated; it is just to say that the historical moment dictates what theories emerge in art history, as much as any considered choice made by the historian. It follows that other theories or philosophies that are not named may actually drive our interpretations. It may be that we do not want to name them, but it may also be that we are unaware that they influence us. And when the text has to do with non-Western art, it can happen that two or more traditions can be involved, each one offering its own selection of theorists, philosophies, and critical terms. The result is a mixture of discourses, blended according to rules, taste, and customs that the writer may not even be aware of.
What I have in mind here is a kind of discourse analysis, intended to characterize the choices of theories, theorists, and concepts that have gone into Jonathan Hay's essay. The study of Chinese art provides, I think, an exemplary occasion to analyze how theories are chosen and deployed, because it gives voice to the intersection of two historiographically reflective traditions, each with its critical and historical texts. Hay's essay presents a particular moment in the ongoing encounter of those traditions. If I can borrow one of the expressions he uses, it has its own flavor, tianqu, a word that also means "appeal" or "taste."
I will begin with a list of the Western theorists, philosophers, and concepts that he cites, and I will take them in the order they appear.
The first three notes are, for the reading I am after here, preparatory. The first note in the essay is to Hay's current work. The second cites historians of Chinese art, including A. John Hay, Wu Hung, and Richard Vinograd, in order to indicate a long-standing interest in mediation among art historians of Chinese art. The third note, pursuing the same point outside the Chinese context, cites an essay on T. J. Clark by Gail Day. It is a single, unexpected, and unelaborated reference outside the Chinese context.
The theoretical sources make their first appearance in note 4, with Niklas Luhmann. For Hay, Luhmann's systems theory suggests that mediation is self-reflexive: the painting not only works between "viewer and world," but also has the capacity to "problematize, and thus mediate, its own mediations." Luhmann has been of interest in art history since 2001 or so. A number of art historians, including W. J. T. Mitchell, are interested in his work or have experimented with it, and an edited volume is in preparation. (1)
The following note cites Gilles Deleuze, for the idea of "individuation"--of people as "nodes" of information and agency. It is an idea that has been in the air in Anglophone scholarship at least since 1991. (2) Deleuze and Luhmann are the only theoretical sources listed in the opening pages of the essay, in notes 4 and 5, following the introductory citations of scholars interested in mediation. Then follow several pages of notes to the scholarship on Chinese painting. With the exception of note 22 (to Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood's "Intervention" published in these pages in 2005) and note 36 (to David Summers's Real Spaces), the next citation of a Western theoretical source is note 39, to Krzysztof Ziarek's Force of Art. That in itself is remarkable, because it interrupts the common pattern in which theory sources are named early in an essay and then not mentioned again until the end. (Or not mentioned again at all.) It is a pattern that can be observed in a fair amount of art historical writing, and nearly inevitably the theory sources are Western even when the subject matter is not.
Midway through, Hay also cites Hubert Damisch, for the idea that naturalism in painting is "a system of visual thought" that "produces possibilities of subjecthood." The idea of an artwork as "a system of visual thought," with specific reference to Damisch, is being pursued in at least one research program: Hanneke Grootenboer's project on "The Pensive Image" at the Jan Van Eyck Academic in Maastricht. Grootenboer's initiative was launched in 2005 and is explicitly dedicated to conceptualizing the ways in which images can be said to think or philosophize. The idea was not original to Damisch but was mobilized by him, and it belongs to the last decade or so of art historical scholarship. (3)
Rosalind Krauss's critique of media in A Voyage on the North Sea is also cited (note 44); Hay does not use her argument but takes it as an example of the relativization of the concept of medium. For Hay, it helps in thinking about "a generalized mediational condition of the...