Cover image for Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing By James Elkins

Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts

Art History as Writing

James Elkins


$108.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-01630-6

312 pages
7" × 10"
39 b&w illustrations

Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts

Art History as Writing

James Elkins

“Concerned with the rhetorical dimensions of art writing, Elkins identifies the ways in which immediate questions about the truth of interpretation are inevitably deflected by awareness of the stylistic qualities of art historians’ texts. . . . Wildly imaginative at making connections, his highly original book inevitably will be one necessary starting point for all future discussion.”


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How do psychoanalytic, semiotic, deconstructive, and other interpretations represent works of art? What can they see, and what must they miss? In Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts, Elkins suggests that the philosophic problems posed by these questions are essentially insuperable because philosophy makes demands of visual artifacts that they can answer only by becoming mirror images of philosophic discourse.

Elkins argues that writing is what art historians produce, and, whether such writing is a transparent vehicle for the transmission of facts or an embattled forum for the rehearsal of institutional relations and constructions of history, it is an expressive medium, with the capacity for emotion and reflection. Therefore, it needs to be taken seriously for its own sake: it is the testament of art history and of individual historians, and it is only weakened and slighted by versions of history that imagine it either as uncontrolled dissemination or objective discovery and reporting.

Elkins's investigation is not a prescription for opening art history to new influences or for focusing it on particular problems. It is a plea for circumspection in the entire endeavor of trying to force images into words, and in the curious vocation of writing the history of art.

“Concerned with the rhetorical dimensions of art writing, Elkins identifies the ways in which immediate questions about the truth of interpretation are inevitably deflected by awareness of the stylistic qualities of art historians’ texts. . . . Wildly imaginative at making connections, his highly original book inevitably will be one necessary starting point for all future discussion.”

James Elkins is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His books include The Poetics of Perspective (1996) and The Object Stares Back (1997).

First Introduction

Starting Points

James Elkins

This text is adapted from the introductory lecture, given on July 17, 2011.

Why Farewell to Visual Studies? Our title is meant to raise the question of visual studies’ successes and failures, and to promote a critical orientation in a field that has, until now, often been content about its accomplishments and its history. The three of us who organized the event and edited this book have very different senses of what needs rethinking, what is promising, and what might be left behind. In this brief introduction I will list some of my own concerns, things that were on my mind when I first named and advertised this event in 2006. Some of them appear in the pages that follow; others don’t, and that’s how it should be. Each of the thirty people involved in the 2011 event, and the twenty additional writers who have contributed Assessments to this book, have different senses of visual studies. As in the other books in this series, the idea is to give voice to as many perspectives as possible, and not to constrain critical discourse.

I like to think we are now in the third generation of visual studies. The people who founded the first Anglo-American programs of visual studies are in their late fifties, sixties, and seventies: Tom Mitchell, Douglas Crimp, Michael Holly, Keith Moxey, Janet Wolff. Their first students are now well established—people like Lev Manovich and Howard Singerman. I think of all those scholars, and many others I’m not naming, as part of a single generation. I am in the same group, except that I wasn’t trained by anyone engaged with visual studies. A second generation, now in their thirties, forties, and early fifties, are the later students of those scholars. In this event, we had Bridget Cooks and Jeanette Roan, both graduates of the Rochester program, and now teaching in Irvine and the California College of the Arts. Sunil Manghani, one of the faculty, would perhaps be part of that group as well, and so would Gustav Frank, even though he was trained in literary history. This kind of schema is of course impossible to sustain, as Wilhelm Pinder discovered (he attempted to write a history of art by generations), but I propose it in order to say that there is a third group, a third generation, people now in their twenties and early thirties: current graduate students. In my experience, their concerns are nearly disconnected from the concerns that animate our discussions here. I raise that point several times in the Seminars, just to signal that the concerns about history, politics, and visuality are often put in ways that make more sense to the first- and second-generation scholars than the current generation.

This was echoed in an interesting way in a book I was editing when the Farewell to Visual Studies event was in progress; it has since been published as Theorizing Visual Studies: Thinking Through the Discipline (2012). That book is composed of seventy short chapters, all written by graduate students around the world. My coeditors were also graduate students at the time we assembled the book. The idea was to produce a next-generation reader for visual studies that did not depend on midcareer scholars. My contributions were limited to the introductory material. One introduction was an essay on the history of visual studies, which has a fair amount of detail (including a number of texts and institutions that are not mentioned in this book). I wrote it around the time of the Farewell to Visual Studies event, well before we had gathered all seventy chapters for the book. It turned out that overwhelmingly, the graduate student authors were not interested in the deeper history of their discipline. I thought that was striking, and I decided to publish the introduction anyway, with the title “An Introduction to the Visual Studies That Is Not in This Book.” The graduate students’ interests, their sense of visual studies’ history, their favorite theorists, their preferred journals and zines, and their central visual practices, artists, and objects are significantly different from what we talk about in these pages.


I have a list of things I’d like to say farewell to, and another list of visual studies’ unfulfilled promises. Farewells and absences. Here they are, in no particular order. Most of them are expanded in my Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction. Even though that book was written in 2002 and published in 2003, I would defend most of its points—I think they still remain unsolved problems for the field.

(1) Visual studies should be harder to do. At one point in the Seminars, Keith Moxey quotes the end of my book, to the effect that I would like visual studies to be more ambitious, more wide-ranging, more difficult, slower, and less self-assured. I still find the majority of the writing in visual studies to be too easy, by which I mean it is not difficult enough to write an essay that is fit for publication. It would be good, I think, if visual studies interpretations, no matter what their methodologies, purposes, tactics, or strategies—we distinguish those in the Seminars—would stumble over their assumptions, hesitate over their terms, ponder their formal and contextual analyses. I would like interpretations to slow, perhaps not to the extreme of writers like Joseph Koerner, Tim Clark, or Georges Didi-Huberman (their slownesses are products of different disciplinary concerns), but at least to the point where the author’s voice can emerge, questioning her own thoughts and the adequacy of her writing. Farewell, then, to essays that are not as challenging as they possibly can be. I prefer my essays to be uncertain, wavering, obdurately difficult, and rewarding on several rereadings.

(2) Visual studies continues to depend on a relatively small, fairly fixed set of theorists. When I wrote this in 2003, I was thinking of Lacan, Foucault, Marx, Benjamin, Butler, and Barthes, and they are still as prominent. Now the list would include Rancière, Badiou, Bourriaud, Muñoz, and Malabou, but the general configuration is similar. I wonder how different visual studies would look if it adopted Hugo Münsterberg or Béla Balázs (both are mentioned in the Seminars), or contemporaries such as Hermann Broch. And why not stray further away? In the book I proposed writing on some subject of topical interest using Ranke, Burckhardt, Mario Praz or Waldemar Deonna, Henri Frankfort, Elias Canetti or Robert Musil, Fernando Pessoa or Ludwig Hohl, Giambattista Vico or Giordano Bruno? Why not take our cues in gender theory from Sor Juana Iñes de la Cruz instead of Butler, Muñoz, or Irigaray? There are everyday reasons why this might not work, and it isn’t a good strategy if you don’t have a permanent teaching position. But that doesn’t mean the field as a whole can’t stray beyond Benjamin. Farewell, then, to Benjamin, at least for a while.

(3) Visual studies continues to look mainly at modern and contemporary visualities. This is explored in the Seminars by Michael Holly, Keith Moxey, Whitney Davis, and Gustav Frank. As Michael Holly notes, it appeared at first that visual studies would combine new theories with visual objects from all cultures, and especially from the premodern West. It has not turned out that way. The overwhelming majority of dissertations that engage visual studies are concerned with art from modernism onward. Visual studies has evolved a more or less predictable canon of interests, which includes popular imagery, kitsch, and camp, mixed with some contemporary art. Its one medium whose history extends back before modernism is photography, for reasons that we explore in the Seminars. Ideally, visual studies would be interested equally in art, and visual practices, from any culture or period. It shouldn’t have a flavor or a taste: it should range over the visual without prior aesthetic commitments. So, farewell to the usual subjects. Let’s write on something new: the world is filled with objects beyond our current interests.


This is a wish list: things I’d like to see visual studies become.

(1) Images need to start arguing. If visual studies is to fulfill its promise of thinking of images differently than art history, then the most fundamental challenge is to stop taking images as illustrations of theories, exemplifications of historical arguments, or mnemonics for encounters with the original, and begin employing images to argue. This is an enormous subject, diffusely theorized and hinted in many dozens of publications from Benjamin onward. The introduction to Theorizing Visual Studies sets out a theory about how images can argue, how they can theorize, even philosophize; it gathers some crucial texts and consolidates a list of specific ways that images can work alongside, or even against, the arguments in the text. Still, even though that’s the principal guiding idea of the book, it has been very difficult getting that to happen. Despite the rhetoric about “image theory,” images in visual studies continue to be simply illustrations of the theories they accompany.

(2) Visual studies needs to make more adequate use of its images. This sounds similar, but is a different problem, one visual studies has in common with art history. Its images are underutilized, underdescribed. Here is an example of how difficult it is to use images, and how important to keep trying. Two recent books, Tom Mitchell’s Cloning Terror and Nick Mirzoeff’s Watching Babylon, are concerned with contemporary images of war, and how they make their way through the world. Both books, I think, read their images very quickly, and in Mirzoeff’s case there is a reason for that: he says the images have been entirely packaged by the military-industrial complex, leaving us little freedom to engage them. Recently I came across a project headed by a man named John Pike, called Public Eye. Pike commissioned surveillance satellites to photograph sensitive sites like Dimona, Israel’s nuclear facility. He then got experts to interpret the images, and he posted the analyses. In many cases, he ended up with a relatively small amount of textual information, and the mesmerizing satellite photographs of Dimona, Pyongyang, and other sites remain largely uninterpreted, and ultimately unused. His project shows that even with complete control of the visual material, and even with expert analysis and all the necessary technology, the visual doesn’t seem to matter much. I take it this is an endemic problem in visual studies. The nonvisual concerns of visual studies are often enough the majority of what we do, and the visual is underutilized. We need to dwell on the visual, in the visual.

(3) Visual studies needs conversations about its own history. The discipline of art history has a complicated and continuously developing sense of its own historiography. The history and historiography of art history are traditionally taught at graduate level. Visual studies has a shallower history, so it would seem that it could engage that history more readily; but there is not yet any common or shared sense of what that history might be. I am writing these lines after having completed the event in Chicago, and it seems clear to me that no matter what else this book might accomplish, it spends enough time on visual studies’ histories (in the plural) so that the historiography of the field—by which I mean discussions about the pertinence of different texts, written in different decades—can more easily be a part of every student’s sense of the field. I hope this book might be seen as marking a moment in the history of visual studies in which it becomes more aware of its multiple histories, its deeper historical connections.

(4) Visual studies shouldn’t bypass non-art images and scientific images. The Faculty and Fellows in the Seminars include a disproportionate number of scholars who are interested in science studies. Among the Faculty, I have been engaged in these issues, and so have Whitney Davis and Lisa Cartwright. That made the event a good place to raise, once again, the agnosticism of most of visual studies in regard to science. In Seminar 8, an interesting contrast develops between Whitney Davis’s interests and Lisa Cartwright’s. Whitney would like visual studies scholars to read and engage with the findings of postwar vision science, and he is interested in neuroaesthetics and the cognitive psychology of vision. Lisa’s interests are in the sociology, ethnography, and historical study of the sciences, in fields such as laboratory studies and media studies. From her point of view, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to look at the findings of recent science: what matters, instead, are the contexts in which science has engaged media. My own interests have been in the production and interpretation of scientific images. All three of us, as different as our approaches are, are outliers in relation to the bulk of work in visual studies, which remains almost entirely uninterested in imaging in science, mathematics, and engineering. Especially in the Anglo-American domain, that lack of interest is coupled with an agnosticism about the truth of the claims of science: most younger scholars, I think, wouldn’t go anywhere near that question—but it is crucial to orient any work that considers imaging in the sciences.

(5) Visual studies should be engaged with the phenomenology of the making of images: like art history, it has yet to think seriously about what kinds of knowledge can come from the making of art. Few writers in visual studies also make art. Of the participants in this event, several of us—Sunil Manghani, Lisa Cartwright, and myself—have either made art or experimented with making in order to think about writing. This is a long-standing interest of mine, ever since I moved from the MFA to the MA at the University of Chicago, and the department in which I currently teach is constituted as one of the few visual studies programs in which students also make art, and theorize the connections to their practice. By and large, visual studies remains a university discipline, and its spaces are seminar rooms, lecture halls, and libraries, and not studios. Visual studies is often taught to art students, and it is part of the pedagogy in institutions like Goldsmiths in London; but the theorization of the relation of practice to historical and critical writing remains the province of UK-inspired art educators who work in practice-based PhD programs.

(6) Visual studies needs to resolve the unclarities of its politics. Midway through our event, Tom Mitchell sent us his latest essay, “New Rules for Visual Culture.” One of the rules is that visual studies scholars should tell him what the politics of visual studies really is. “Someone has to explain to me what the purpose of visual studies is,” he writes. “What are we trying to accomplish? Are we amassing a new knowledge project? Exposing and intervening in false consciousness? Producing an archaeology of power?” Section 7 of the Seminars is a good sampling of the range of ideas regarding the politics in, and of, visual studies. On the one hand, Anglo-American visual studies has been political from its beginning; on the other hand, a great deal of current writing is nonpolitical or apolitical. In Section 7 we consider a spectrum of positions in this respect, from the idea that the most responsible politics of our moment is a practice of writing which might not have any consequences in the world, and which is oblique and ambiguous, to the idea that visual studies is a call to action, requiring scholars to unveil ideological formations and help students understand the visual regimes in which they live. From my point of view there are cogent arguments in support of those and other positions: what concerns me is that there is no debate, in visual studies, on this issue itself.

(7) Visual studies is confused about ideological critique. A concrete example of a problem with a particular political position is the one I have called the Case of the Calvin Klein Suit, and it is pervasive enough to be considered separately from the general problem of politics. It is a thought experiment about a classroom critique of Calvin Klein advertisements. The purpose of the class is to analyze the desire to own the product, by revealing how the advertising seeks to construct its viewers. In various forms, that move is a central strategy of visual studies. The thought experiment is a way of noting that the intrinsic logic of the class itself is incomplete, because the teacher demonstrates a strategy of unmasking without saying why it is appropriate to stop after one example. The class exercise posits unveiling as a desirable end, but nothing in the logic of visual studies explains why such analysis would not be universally desirable—why visual studies, in this context, wouldn’t be an unmasking with no end other than a change in class consciousness. The Case of the Calvin Klein Suit comes up several times in the Seminars, as a token of the difficulty visual studies has in adjudicating and framing its ideological critiques.

In brief, in sum: at the moment, visual studies is the best place to study visuality and images in general. It blends art history, cultural studies, sociology, visual anthropology, film studies, media studies, postcolonial studies, philosophy of history, the science of vision, and science studies. It promises a new interdisciplinarity (or transdisciplinarity, or subdisciplinarity, or indisciplinarity, or postdisciplinarity), and it is effectively a laboratory for thinking about relations between fields that address the visual.

But it is not yet a general study of visuality and visual practices: it thinks and works too quickly; it does not reach across the university, or, usually, far back in time; it is undecided about how it engages politics; it doesn’t include theories of making; it has a definable canon, including a disproportionate interest in contemporary fine art; it continually returns to the same theorists; it has an unresolved internal logic and purpose; and often its attachment to images is unclear; it uses images too cursorily, as illustrations or information; its images continue to merely illustrate or exemplify theories articulated in the texts, and they do not, so far, live up to the hopes that a number of writers have about them, namely that they contain, provoke, direct, or engender thoughts, theories, and arguments.

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