Art history enters PC fray

October 6, 1995

Denouncing the practice of art history in America as "one great big post-modern mish-mash", art historian Bruce Cole has set out to take on the forces of political correctness in his field.

An Indiana University professor, author of 14 books and a member of the council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cole and a colleague are launching a professional association dedicated to the traditional study of art history.

It amounts to a direct challenge to the giant College Arts Association of artists and art professionals, which critics say is locked into race, class and gender studies. "Many art historians feel disenfranchised by what's going on at the CAA," Professor Cole said.

He and Georgia art historian Andrew Ladis had an "overwhelming response" to a first mailing they sent to several hundred scholars in the field. They aired the idea of an Association for Art History focused on quality, universal meaning, masterpiece, objectivity, "jettisoned by post-modern scholarship" and PC, he said.

Art history, a young and relatively small discipline, has not been centre stage in the so-called campus culture wars. But the two men were inspired by the success of a literary association that two years ago was also just in embryonic form.

The Association of Literary Scholars and Critics held its first convention this month in Minneapolis, drawing nearly 300 of some 1,400 members. John Ellis, a Welsh retired professor of English at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a driving force behind the ALSC, pronounced it a resounding success.

Defenders of multi-culturalism, feminist and gay and lesbian approaches to literature and art say the phenomenon of "political correctness" and its supposed muzzling of free intellectual exchange has been vastly overblown by conservatives.

But Professor Cole, author of The Renaissance Artist at Work, published in Britain by John Murray, says half the art books put out by university presses are politicised.

"The pendulum has swung so far to the left that somebody who stands in the middle looks like they are on the right," he said. "If you stand for the tried and true and traditional aspects of a discipline you are labelled by some as a cultural conservative."

"The worst thing is the obfuscation of post-modernism has removed the study of the history of art farther and farther from art historians' natural constituency, the educated museum-goer. If you love art you have to feel that that is morally wrong."

At the CAA's annual meeting this January in San Antonio, Texas, 4,000 members heard papers that included. "Subversive Display: Undermining the Traditional Exhibition", on artists who challenged museums' "constructed notions of cultural value and authority . . . as an impediment to creativity".

CAA meetings are part art show, part jobfair. But there was also "J. C. Leyendecker and the Homoerotic Invention of Men's Fashion Icons, 1910-30", examining "a strong homoerotic matrix for the imagery of modern men" in illustrations for a Chicago men's clothing manufacturer.

Lynne Munson, a research associate at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Professor Cole's group "is the only hope for art history today". While modern approaches in other fields have produced some innovative and challenging ideas, art history has mimicked them while producing little that is fresh, she claimed.

The ALSC also confronts a giant in the literary field - the Modern Language Association, criticised for years, fairly or unfairly, as the home of a new orthodoxy that interprets Shakespeare as an apologist for the British empire and lingers on lesbian undercurrents in Jane Austen.

The ALSC and the planned AAH share an emphasis on the study of art for art's sake rather than a pretext for social commentary. Both have loose ties to the interdisciplinary National Association of Scholars, whose formation in 1989 marked the beginning of a cultural backlash.

The ALSC came of age this month when it brought nearly 300 mostly elderly literary figures, including several from Britain, together at a Minneapolis hotel. It is dedicated to "broad conceptions of literature rather than the narrow, highly politicised ones often encountered today".

ALSC's three panels included Robert Pinsky of Boston University reading from his new translation of Dante's Inferno and the University of California's Robert Alter on "Reading for Style in Dickens". The keynote address was by classical scholar Bernard Knox, whose speciality is "dead white males" - the ancient Greeks.

At the Modern Language Association's convention in San Diego last December, by contrast, papers presented on nearly 800 panels included "Victorian Buggery and the Sensation of Scandal" and "The Iconology of the Not-Quite-Postcolonial Body in Public Performance". The ALSC's latest plans are to establish an electronic mail network for graduates in the job market with a more traditional outlook to tie up with like-minded department heads.

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