I've lately had a number of good things to say about the bloggers at The New Criterion, and they in turn have kindly linked to and posted about this site. Most recently, Stefan Beck has advised that I should be more confrontational. All right, then. This (warning: pdf) strikes me as deeply wrong, if not bizarre:
I would like to make the argument that for art history at Brown to survive as a discipline it must rely on the native tools of its discipline, which traditionally has been rooted in connoisseurship and the unique categorization of great works of art. Related to this, I would like to propose that art historians at Brown rely on only source material contemporary to their subjects. Only then may we understand artists on their terms rather than on our terms.
Obviously this is a simplified expression of the point James was trying to make, and I'm not sure what he really argued. But even as a conservative vision of the field, it is remarkably restricted. Connoisseurship as a fundamental I can understand in the sense that without the training in seeing that allows one to make distinctions one probably won't be much good at any other art historical task. To draw the line there seems unduly narrow, though, as if one believed that possibilities for art history stopped dead at Beazley or Berenson. Though I salute the achievements of the former, his work stands as a reminder of the damage done to historical understanding by fostering a cult of the artist. As for source material, contemporary material is peachy - few are the historians who would do without it. Far more complain that they don't have enough of it. But aside from the point that understanding artists "on their terms" is far from the only legitimate question for art history, it seems odd to argue for ignoring either the preceding record that might illuminate a new development or the ways in which it has been received by later generations. Sure, I can think of studies done on the terms outlined that are thoroughly convincing - but why close off options? I doubt that methodological conservatism necessarily dictates any other kind, for that matter, if that's the hope.
If I were to start a back to basics movement, instead of connoisseurship I would emphasize a more hands-on approach that gave students more experience dealing directly with the art object precisely as an object. A required course in basic conservation science, for instance, would teach aspiring art historians more about the fundamental subjects of their field than they would learn almost anywhere else. In my experience, historians of ancient art come closest to integrating such training, mostly due to the close association of their field with archaeology. Still, such experience should form the beginning of the investigation, not the end.
UPDATE: James Panero responds here. I won't be able to consider all he has to say until this evening at the earliest (2nd update: more in response to JP), but two quick points. First, I think linguistic models, for better or for worse, are more deeply intertwined with the traditions of art history than James seems to acknowledge. Second, while I don't go out of my way to seek confrontation, this image of me as some sort of shrinking intellectual wallflower really seems to be going too far! The fact that I use a pseudonym here has as much to do with not wanting to have personal information displayed all over the net. Anyone who tries to google my name currently receives a strange list of hits, none of which has to do with me and many saying the person by that name is dead. I like it that way.