'ThoughtOut', and why art history needs to change

October 25 2012

How can arts and humanities academics best disseminate their research to a wider audience? If there is a gap between ivory-towered researchers and the wider public, how can we overcome it? Is there any point in publishing research in obscure academic journals nobody ever reads? Is the digital world killing academia?

Last night I went to the launch of a project called ThoughtOut. Sponsored by UEA and Editorial Intelligence, it aims to help academics transmit their ideas to a wider audience, primarily through a new website. The background to all this is partly to do with changes in the complex funding formula for universities, which I won't bore you with here. But essentially the idea is to have a platform where research in arts and the humanities, often with 'contemporary resonance', can be made accessible to all. 

To launch the project, ThoughtOut organised a debate on the question, 'can elite ideas be accessible?', with David Aaronovitch, Orlando Figes, Mary Anne Sieghart, Sarah Churchwell, and Tom Holland. It was an interesting discussion. Much of it centred around the need to break down the obscure, isolating language some academics seem to revel in. It was hoped that a positive side-effect of the decline in traditional publishing, and the need to reach as wide an audience as possible through digital means, might be to persuade academics to write in less mystifying language. This can only be a Good Thing.

The presence of Figes and Holland meant that the debate was slightly skewed towards history as a discipline, and it was agreed that by and large history has escaped the descent into jargon suffered by so many subjects. Fans of this site's regular 'Guffwatch' entries will be well aware that art history has not had such luck, however.

The presence of a self-regarding elite (I use that term reluctantly) whose development of a special art history language, one designed not only to exclude the ignorant but to make the writers believe they are more clever than they really are, has done much damage to the subject we love. In part this is because 'new art history', as for convenience I like to call it, is a bullshitter's charter. For example, there is so little written evidence to give us concrete proof of an eighteenth century artist's or patron's intentions that we are given free rein to speculate endlessly from images about what a composition means, what and who it was painted for, how it fits into its social and gender contexts, and so on. And that's to say nothing of the more far out art history concepts we are all asked to consider these days - last week I went to a conference where a speaker went on about an artist's 'sovereignty', whatever that is.

The consequence of such endless, jargon-fuelled speculation, especially when combined with the right-on mindset that academics often feel compelled to work within, is that art history is in far greater danger as a discipline than other subjects. It has disconnected itself from the mainstream, and writes books and articles that nobody wants to, or can, read. Because (especially in America) university art historians and museum art historians mutually sniff at each other, and in turn sniff mightily at writers who publish 'crossover' popular art history books (not to mention art dealers!), we have ended up with a subject which, despite 'the history of art' being more popular than ever in terms of a museum-going public, is often incapable of connecting with the wide audience it needs to if it is to survive.

Proof of this is surely the fact that art history departments around the world are often the first to face the axe in these days of squeezed university budgets. And that's why art history needs to engage in projects like ThoughtOut. The subject must stop talking to itself. The eventual collapse of the traditional routes by which research was published means that art history has no choice but to engage new audiences. 

The good news is that we can make the digital cuckoo in the nest work for us. A cleverly written art history book self-published on Amazon really can sell well. We no longer have to spend two years getting an article approved by academic journals. We are all now our own publishing houses, and have websites, blogs, and even Twitter at our disposal. Sites like the University of York's Art World in Britain are leading the way in making one of the long-ignored basic ingredients of art history, documentary evidence, available for everyone for free (and can help stop the bullshit). And perhaps best of all, we have the increasing availability of free-use images from museums like Yale. Of course, this means that there may be a little less money to be made from publishing your first monograph (if indeed anybody ever did make money from publishing a monograph). But art history must come down from its ivory tower. In short, it needs to globalise.

Update - a reader writes, eminently:

As I was reading your post, I was making the point to myself that you made in your final paragraph. You observe that "there is so little written evidence to give us concrete proof of an eighteenth century artist's or patron's intentions that we are given free rein to speculate endlessly from images". Well, true enough. But actually for me, there is a ton of evidence out there, waiting to be found and exploited. There is a strange fatalism among even senior art historians & curators, who say (of painters etc) that "we just don't know" about so and so. Actually, more often than not there is a fair bit about so and so that can be deduced from even quite unpromising-looking scraps of evidence. But, as you say, instead of having a good rummage in the archive, we have collectively chosen a different route. I recently asked a very senior historian of British art if he'd heard of the National Register of Archives: he hadn't! Historians, I suppose, don't have any pictures to hide behind: all they have to go on are the sources.

Quite true - and as a member of the government's advisory body on historical manuscripts I would urge all readers to make use of the wonderful resources available to study archives (in the UK we really do have the best level of archive accessibility in the world). Too many (but not all!) art historians shy away from archives, however. I suspect it may even be idleness - after all, theorising is much easier than learning to read 16th Century script.

Another reader takes us back to our old friend, contemporary art-speak, and alarmingly informs me that it's being partly funded by our tax pounds:

This is even more of a problem in the world of contemporary art, try spending an afternoon with a little Arts Council funded magazine called Art Monthly!

“Higher-intelligence-speak” also now pervades Tate Magazine, this must be very puzzling for the ‘ordinary’ Tate member receiving it.

Progress indeed required.

I don't see why the state needs to support a magazine like Art Monthly, which it does to the tune of about £40,000 a year. Perhaps AHN should apply for a grant - my readership is certainly larger than Art Monthly's (which prints 3,500 copies a month, with a claimed readership of c.20,000. AHN's readership last month was 23,896).

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