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Art History as Fiction with Footnotes | ARTLECTURE

Art History as Fiction with Footnotes

by Sarah J Yoon
Art History as Fiction with Footnotes


What are we all writing about? Thoughts on my discipline and practice as an art historian.

John Berger’s famous opening words state that we are all animals of visual nature that learn to see before we learn to read. A powerful statement that delineates the observant fact. The paradox of art history perhaps lies in the fact that writings on works of art become as much of an art form in itself. As a discipline, it is expressed as written text — the methodical practice of writing based on visual observance and analysis. It is a written discipline of discourses based on visual forms. And therefore art history may be regarded as a form of ekphrasis, an argument that Jás Elsner makes in his seminal article ‘Art History as Ekphrasis’. Defining ekphrasis as ‘a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art’, from classical antiquity and beyond, it is generally considered to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another by defining and describing its essence and form. It is a translation; visual form translated into verbal form. In art history, the visual is reshaped; it has to be moulded to the conditions and restrictions of language, and in that process, something is unavoidably misplaced. 

One way of clarifying how we approach art writing is by understanding the distinction between art history and art criticism. A certain emergence of a genre of writing that is different from art history gave greater emphasis on the aesthetic nature and value of works of art: art criticism. Such emphasis on aesthetics and resulting sensation generated that paved a way for art criticism, is founded in detailed observation of sentiments and subjective feelings, away from the more objective art historical writing. This, in turn, sheds light on the stance that art history takes, which is that it is an incredibly self-conscious discipline that needs to grab onto whatever empirical and factual evidence that accompanies works. Commission contracts, exhibition history and alike are such. Art historians must gather such segments of evidence and grapple with them, while art critics may give an informed interpretation of a work of art that an individual comes to. In this light, art history may equate to as objective of an account gives on a work of art, whilst art criticism relates to a subjective response that may broadly encompass the general sentiment given on a work or a body of art. 

Throughout art history, historical and empirical evidence is completely laced with subjective criticisms, interpretations, perceptions and opinions about art. This has countless ramifications; the writers of art history wield great influence over the study of art, the reception of art, the success of artists. The literary tradition of art writing embodies concepts and images which impose, authorise and restrain different ways of seeing; it has great historical weight. It is unfortunate that over the years, this tradition has been kinder and more open to white men; art history would be very different had women and people of colour been granted equal access to the arts (as both artists and writers). Their voices and creativity, had they been permitted to express and cultivate them, would have changed the history of art as we know it. 

Elsner admits that ekphrasis is never neutral. How one person would verbalise a work of art is going to be very different from the next person (hence the long-established pitfalls of largely just reading the words of white male writers; we only get a glimpse of the story). We could be talking about the “courtly nature” of the painting and how Fragonard was a member of the court in Versailles, aptly conveying the overall trends in fashion and recreation in the daily life of French aristocrats. Similarly, my interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh would be different from another’s take on his portraits. 

So, art history, in its entirety – full of criticism and personal commentary – is not factual 'history' as such, however – borrowing Elsner's phrase – more like 'fiction with footnotes.' The recognition of this nature does not merely bear negative connotations, however, bring many positive consequences: writing about art and practising this form of ekphrasis is creative and not neutral. How could it be neutral? It is a good thing that my description of Fragonard will be different to yours. Contemporary art writing, at its best, should be inclusive, open, with many voices expressing many interpretations. This allows the history of art to grow, opening divergent yet inclusive avenues. Art history, at its best, should be an inclusive discipline after all. 

There is no “single truth” about anything to do with art history. It is conditional, hinging on the element of art criticism that runs through it. Arguably this is what makes it such a rich, provocative, interesting and dynamic subject; particularly now, in a world becoming more aware and critical of gendered, sexual and racial inequalities. We are taught in great depth about ourselves by reading about, looking at and responding to art, and importantly, with this engagement comes new modes of interpretation and new forms of ekphrasis. As we take pride in and define ourselves as art writers, we need to be aware of our standpoints and various nuances that historical writing and criticism may take. May the many voices be heard.

all images/words ⓒ the artist(s) and organization(s)


Sarah J Yoon

I read History of Art as an undergraduate at Oxford University and studied Medieval Studies for masters at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Presently, I am working as a researcher for a private art collector that specifically collects antiquities in Seoul. My primary research interest lies within the late medieval European visual and material culture, touching on the semantic relationship between images and text, historicity, and reinterpretation of medieval art history in light of contemporary critical theories