Reading progress – The NEW Art History

As part of my reading material for Part 3 I read the book of essays “The NEW Art History” edited by Borzello and Rees.

In my analog notebook I noted what seemed important or impacting while I was reading. I will distill some of those notes here in my learning log.

How revolutionary is the new art history? – Stephen Bann

  • Svetlana Alpers in “The Art of Describing” : “What characterises the visual culture of the 17th century is a belief that reality is not given but has to be found out trough what was considered to be the investigative craft of seeing – of which painting itself is an experiment.”

Something about Photography theory – Victor Burgin

  • “the ‘new’ art history differs from the ‘old precisely in that it seeks to restore to any history the missing dimension of lived social relations; the expression ‘new art history’ therefore is another way of saying ‘social history of art'”
  • “if you can understand what I’m saying then your views of the world, whatever they may be, rest on a foundation of mainly tacit, unspoken, assumptions which make up the interlocking complex of theories we know as ‘common sense'”.
  • “Theory sets out to question the underlying assumptions of common sense in order to replace them, where necessary, with better founded, or more comprehensive, explanations.”
  • Criticism – not explanations but value judgments
  • Liberal studies – you study to be a liberal
  • tools of linguistic analysis – SEMIOLOGY
  • The question: “how is our subjectivity involved in producing meaning when we’re confronted with a text?”

New lamps for old – Tom Gretton

  • “aesthetic values are falsely taken to be timeless”
  • E.H. Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’ = “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.”
  • “The ideological power of art derives from its mystifications of the process of making, the granting of special status to art making.”
  • “This is to regard works of art as special sorts of signifiers, but no more or less special than any other tightly defined and highly institutionalised form of image, such as the advertising poster, the product label of the technical book illustration. In such a view paintings and similar objects have no a priori special status as carrier of value systems because they are works of art”
  • “The specific work of art does not take place so much on the level of the meanings articulated in individual works of art, as in the production and reproduction of the category ‘art’ as a whole.”

Saussure versus Peirce: Makes for a Semiotics of Visual Art – Margaret Iversen

  • “Semiotics brings with it analogies between language and other forms of representation.”
  • “Linguistic signs are arbitrary in the sense that there is no relation between the sound of a word and its meaning other than convention, a ‘contract’ or rule. It is clear that visual signs are not arbitrary, but ‘motivated’ – there is some rationale for the choice of signifier.”
  • “Schapiro’s ‘Words and Pictures’ chapter in ‘Frontal and Profile as Symbolic Form’ governed by the Saussurean principle. ………. as with Lévi-Strauss, difference is here reduced to sets of two term oppositions……….. there is no doubt that binary opposition does play an important role in visual signification.”
  • “Saussure’s main contribution to the science of signs is his demonstration that signs can only operate within systems of difference.”
  • “The rigidity of the binary opposition with its privileging of one term of the pair is a familiar ruse of power which enforces hierarchies, fixes gender roles and conspires with the politics of exclusion, It is incumbent upon the critic to deconstruct these polarities, rather than to police their boundaries. “
  • “Post structuralist would begin by pointing out that binary opposition marginalises women as other, as different in relation to the positive identity of man, and then remind us that a positive identity, if one existed, would need no other to secure its standing.”
  • “The very gesture intended to secure an autonomous identity undermines the position.” (page 89)
  • Peirce’s theory of signs: 
    • Icon – Similarity, resemblance, portrait
    • Index – casual connection, footprint
    • Symbol – contract or rule, arbitrary linguistic sign
    • “You can write down the word ‘star’, but that does not make you the creator of the word, nor if you erase it have you destroyed the word. The word lives in the mind of those who use it.” (See Rauschenberg and erasing Kooning’s drawing)
  • Abstract Expressionism – the indexical sign or all over signature

Pater, Stokes and art history: The aesthetic sensibility – Michael O’Pray

  • “A major problem with the new art historians is their insistence on the spectator’s engagement with the art object being of an intellectual kind.”
  • “Locating and deciphering the meanings in a work of art leaves the affective aspects of the work untouched, so that feelings, mods and aesthetic experience are left stranded or denied altogether as somehow ideologically suspect or subjectivist.

History of art and the undergraduate syllabus: Is it a discipline and how should we teach it? – Marcia Pointon

  • John: Onions: “somehow both words ‘art’ and ‘history’ have a magnificence and potency about them when thought of separately which sadly then lose as soon as they are coupled in the bed of ‘art history’; which certainly suggests that we are not living them to the full”
  • “Development and the capacity to change in the national as well as the personal sense depends upon self-criticism and this is fostered primarily by the so-called ‘non-vocational’ art subjects.” 

Art History and Difference – John Tagg

  • “Reality as the common referent of a number of discourses from which it may be extrapolated to serve as an index of truth.”
  • “And yet art history never had an authentic counter-course movement. When critique came, it came late and from teachers, even professors, rather than from students.”



Rees, A. and Borzello, F. (1986). The new art history.


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