Art History Old New Questions

Methodological transformations: 1970s and 1980s

The 1970s and 1980s were a moment of intense crisis in the discipline of art history, which led to a wide-scale re-conceptualisation of how to practise art history. Understanding this transformation is central to coming to terms with recent art history and we will now turn our attention to it and to the new approaches to the artist that it introduced.

The new art history

After the Second World War, art history tended to involve a mix of antiquarianism, connoisseurship and liberal humanist values that incorporated some of the idealist notion that art is a reflection of enduring, trans-historical values. At the same time, its commitment to the idea of the individual artist of genius aligned it with the requirements of the art market. The central assumption shared by most practitioners was that art provided its beholders (or consumers) with a unique sensory experience unsullied by social or worldly concerns. One of the better examples of this kind of art history is Anthony Blunt’s book on Poussin (Blunt, 1966). This is a deeply scholarly monograph by the then director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, but it is a world away from current concerns in the discipline.

In 1973 Nicos Hadjinicolaou outlined what he saw as three blockages, or ‘obstacles’ to the production of a serious study of art in Art History and Class Struggle (Hadjinicolaou, 1978). The second obstruction was art history as a history of civilisations, and the third was art history as a history of works of art, but first in his list was art history as a history of artists. Hadjinicolaou’s work was one contribution to a transformation of the discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. During this time there was a growing feeling that art history could no longer be practised in the way that it had been. In the wake of the political upheavals of 1968, which had enormous reverberations in the universities, the sense of gentlemanly taste that underpinned the discipline seemed to many irrelevant if not downright reactionary.

What is sometimes called the ‘new art history’ or the ‘social history of art’ shook up the status quo by asking key questions about the foundations of art history. Drawing on ideas from Marxism, such as the concept of ideology, and subsequently from feminism, structuralism and psychoanalysis, art historians began to challenge the idea of art as an autonomous practice; that is, one separated from wider social forces and interests. New questions seemed to impose themselves:
  • What ideological role did art play in sustaining established wealth and power, from the medieval church to the corporate museum?
  • How did the institutions of art (the guild, academy, art school, auction house or gallery) shape its production and reception?
  • Could art be used to challenge conservative ideologies?
  • What role was available for women as makers or beholders of art?
  • What place was there for art history as a critical discipline?
  • What ideological assumptions were embedded in art history and its forms (the monographic book or exhibition, the catalogue, the survey course)?


The reformulation of the 1970s and 80s took place in all aspects of art history as it bears on the artist’s biography or subjectivity. These new approaches entailed an examination of ideology and subject positions in the making and reception of art that brought about critiques of:
  • myths and institutions that sustained the dominant view of art
  • the individual as a locus of meaning or intention
  • biography as a form or genre
  • a coherent subject or body of work (oeuvre)
  • genius, gender and related essentialist notions of the self
  • rhetorics and practices of biographical explanation – the monographic form of art exhibitions and books.
Rather than a stable and self-contained font of meaning, the artist appeared instead as the carrier or bearer of values, languages and histories produced outside him or herself. As opposed to a unique, expressive subject, the artist was depicted as immersed in historical or socio-sexual forces. Often he or she was thought to be unconscious of these processes, mistaking fragments of ideology or representation for a coherent experience or inner life. The anti-humanist structuralism of the period represented a rich set of themes and questions for research.

This is not to say that everything that was argued or written was productive or ‘correct’. There was a lot of verbiage, fashionable silliness and toeing the line. Other arguments were often marginalised as off-message and some immensely significant thinkers were treated as ‘dead dogs’, only to return later full of vigour. Aesthetics was treated as off-limits, ‘empirical’ testability or ‘experience’ unreasonably dismissed, and art too easily lined up with the ‘dominant ideology’. Sometimes, the ideas were incoherent or their wider implications misunderstood.

From subject to subjectivity

Expanding on these thoughts it can be said that two central problems plagued the new art history as it developed during the 1970s and 1980s:
Structuralism is notoriously unable to account for change – focusing on synchronic systems (structure), rather than the diachronic dimension (historical development). Change in ‘style’ and even the definition of ‘art’ is central to art history, so the static structuralist approach brings with it considerable problems.

How can subjects act critically or independently?

Structuralism, and its post-structuralist successor, is a (linguistic) determinist philosophy that allows little scope for human agency or will. This is an old argument that goes back to Christian debates over free will and determination: are humans responsible for their actions, or had God predetermined the course of events? The secularised philosophies of history debate the extent to which people (agents) actually shape the course of events, or are shaped by them. Most notoriously, in the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s account of disciplinary society the subject is constituted by ‘power’. From within this perspective it is not possible to explain how subjects challenge or rework inherited frameworks. There is a performative contradiction in this argument, since Foucault’s ability to analyse this process depended on his being outside the relations that he claimed were all-pervasive, and on the paradox of him being able to evade the conditions of subject formation that he claimed were all-encompassing.

Foucault simply posited resistance as the inevitable (but unexplained) complement to power. For Marxists and feminists committed to the radical transformation of existing social relations – and many of the art historians involved in this debate claimed allegiance to these intellectual perspectives – this is a fundamental problem. In art history, change (of, say, ‘style’) or the reworking of genres, themes and ideologies became difficult to envisage. This is one reason that T. J. Clark’s account of art and ideology seemed so powerful at the time (1973a, 1973b, 1985). While drawing on some aspects of the intellectual configuration we have been considering, Clark’s fundamental debt was to the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, which focused on dialectical contradictions and change (as distinct from more inflexible and dogmatic versions of Marxism, including Althusserianism). This meant that he could argue that works of art do not reflect preformed and stable ideologies; rather they rework inherited values and ways of working. Artworks transform ideology. Clark’s work sometimes runs close to presenting his favoured artist of the moment as transcending the historical forces at work, but he is often able to account for change, novelty and ‘singularity’.

Foucault, ‘What is an author?’

One key text within the structuralist literature on authorship introduced above is an essay by Michel Foucault (2009 [1969]) in which he poses the question, ‘what is an author?’ (for our purposes the ‘author’ can be understood as the ‘artist’). The article is required reading for many fields in the humanities and is one of the foundational texts of critical theory. In it Foucault challenges at the most fundamental level the idea that the author is the ‘source’ of his works and whose original ideas and intentions are given legible expression in them.

While we won’t have the opportunity to read this here, it is an important essay to consult if these issues interest you. The essay was written in response to a text written in 1967 by Roland Barthes which proclaimed the ‘Death of the author’. Along with ‘What is an author?’, Barthes’s essay has probably been the most influential account of authorship. Barthes insisted the author is a modern phenomenon. He wrote:

The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.
(Barthes, 1977 [1967], p. 143)
Barthes insists in a famous passage that the text is not the message of an Author-God, but ‘a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture’ (p. 146). These sources, he claims, come together in the mind of the reader and not that of an author beneath or behind the text: ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’ (p. 148). Barthes is contesting the idea that an individual called an author can be the originating locus of a text or artwork. Rather, he suggests writers (or artists) rework existing forms and ideas. They are usually shaped by these pre-existing sources as much, or more, than they transform them.

Foucault’s author function

In ‘What is an author?’ Foucault uses the term ‘author function’ – a concept that replaces the idea of the author as a person, and instead refers to the ‘discourse’ that surrounds an author or body of work. It starts with the recognition that authorship and the different values and meanings associated with it are cultural products that vary widely from time to time and place to place. Scientific texts, for example, are valued more for their content rather than their ‘authorship’, while in the case of literary texts authorship becomes the most interesting aspect of the work.

According to Foucault, critics invent a variable idea of an author and of authorship that depends entirely upon their own preconceptions.

An important contribution by Foucault is what he calls the ‘discourse’ surrounding an author. Foucault developed the idea of a ‘discursive formation’ as an alternative to conceptions of ‘ideology’, ‘science’ or ‘theory’. According to him, a discourse consists in the whole range of related utterances that shape a particular question or field of enquiry. Discourses produce knowledge and effects of power, and they follow rules. In the case of an artist, the ‘discursive formation’ into which they fit includes not only their own statements, but also the critical writing on their work, popular representations and ‘myths’, institutional conditions of utterances (including legal categories), and general ideas about art and artists, both learned and popular.

So what does Foucault’s account do to the idea of the author as a stable point of origin, a concept fundamental both to the model of the genius artist and to the genre of the art-historical monograph?

Critics are invested in the idea of the author as a unitary font of meaning, a stable entity who precedes and originates the work by depositing any and all significance into it. Yet, Foucault argues, such an idea of the author is a fiction invented by the critic to provide a unifying principle that sets limits on the text’s infinite meanings. The ‘author’ contains the threats posed by the work’s complexities. As Foucault puts it, the author ‘serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts’ (p. 328). However, while Foucault, like Barthes, recognises the author as a fiction, he asks us to consider what that role does, and what it enables. This is a familiar move for him. Foucault regards structures (of power) as generative, rather than repressive. He asks what kind of knowledge they put into place or enable.


Text adapted fromArtists and authorship: the case of Raphael, The Open University – openlearn/ free-courses.

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