An attempt at a clarification of my view of history and historiography: a response to B

from Hayden White’s essay, “The Burden of History,” of 1966:

Such a conception of historical inquiry [in which the historian and scientist organize facts through tentative metaphoric approximations] and representation would open up the possibility of using contemporary scientific and artistic insights in history without leading to radical relativism… It would permit the plunder of psychoanalysis, cybernetics, game theory, and the rest…. And it would permit historians to conceive of the possibility of using impressionistic, expressionistic, surrealistic, and (perhaps) even actionist modes of representations for dramatizing the significance of data…. [p. 47]


stylistic difference.001

‘historiography’ is the philosophical study of how history is written, constructed, told, assembled, in short: it’s the study of the often unconscious assumptions historians make in producing their histories. it’s important to note that historians don’t exactly ‘make history’. people ‘make’ history, but it’s not only people who make it, in fact; though humans do have considerable impact on history making. it is possible, or is it? to write history that reflects only on human activity. but any such history would be woefully incomplete because it would give no account of very important historical events that have made humans human. For example, the now deceased anthopologist, Paul Sheppard, wrote a book entitled: The Others: how animals made us human. Some of those ‘animals’, would include Neanderthals, our direct ancestors, who it turns out were making art long before humans were, and with whom homo sapiens interbred. One of Sheppard’s examples is while it’s true to a degree that human’s domesticated the dog, he shows that dogs also helped to domesticate humans because they co-evolved together, co-determining each others behaviors. It doesn’t take much analysis to recognized that purely environmental factors have had considerable impact on human history; climate change is doing that as i write, and geologists have named a new period of history to describe this feedback loop: the anthropocene dates to the beginning of the industrial revolution, when humans began to pump CO2 in the atmosphere in enormous quantities. the examples of human-animal-forest collaborations are too many to list: nomadism was dependent on animal migrations and seasonal changes that effected agriculture. We only have to look at the last hurricane season to see just how much impact the environment can have on human history on texas, florida or the caribbean.

but even ignoring the impact of the histories of the non-human world, of non-human ‘actors’, we must consider that what is typically thought of ‘history’, itself has a history and therefore must be considered not something ‘natural’ like air or water, but like everything human, a human invention that over time has taken many different forms. history as it’s typically taught and thought of today, is largely an invention of the 19th century. It’s true that many historians cite the early precedents of classical greece, Herodotus and Thucidedes, or for biograhical histories, Plutarch’s Lives. And there are of course many other examples. But they lack many of the criteria by which ‘modern’ history has been written. Specifically, they lack the criteria of ‘modern’ science, rules for determining what is or isn’t a ‘fact’, what constitutes a ‘document’, generally, what constitutes ‘evidence’. ‘modern’ history also requires a particular form of writing style, of what might be called a style/voice of ‘objectivity’. It requires the production of ‘proof’ through the making of ‘arguments’. It requires the ‘art of persuasion’, which ‘art’ in classical times was called, rhetoric. It requires ‘logic’ and combining logic with various forms of evidence.

To step back, historically, a bit, history as we think of it today, was made possible by the mechanization of language and images with the printing press. this made illustrated pamphlets and books possible for the first time. it made record keeping reproducible and able to be disseminated. It made libraries and archives possible on a widely available scale. Sure, there were libraries full of handwritten or hand-printed books before 1462. And such books are now part of ‘history’s ‘archive’. But such books were every expensive, and their availability very limited. And in the West, there were written only in Latin. So they were only available to a very small class of aristocratic scholars and priests, to in fact, scholar-priests; because to be educated in the early universities, was to be educated in what today would be considered a very narrow range of subjects designated by the categories of the Trivium [grammar, logic, and rhetoric] and Quadrivium [astronomy, arithmetic, .geometry, and music], and a fluent knowledge of the ONLY language in which was generally written, Latin. [Classical Greek came much later, after the Medici founded the Platonic Academy for the teaching of Greek and Arabic during the Renaissance so after the Arabic scholars fled to Italy to avoid being murdered, for the translation of long lost works of the Greek and Arab scholars]. But there was another catch for being able to study at Cambridge or Oxford or University of Paris or Heidelberg or Padua; a scholar was required to become a christian theologian. Thus the scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume, was barred from teaching in the university because he was an self-proclaimed atheist.

Another important ‘fact’ in this history of history relates to my earlier claim, that ‘modern’ history would not be possible without a particular form of written style, that included argument, logic, and evidence, of a voice of ‘objectivity’. This did not exist as we today understand ‘objectivity’. The ‘style of objectivity’ arose only in the 16th and 17th centuries with a small group of ‘scientific’ writers, then called ‘natural philosophers’. [the term ‘scientist’ wasn’t coined until 1840 by the polymath William Whewell in England.] What we today think of the ‘essay’ was invented first by 3 writers: Galileo, Descartes, and Hume. Others contributed to the ‘genre’, like Montesque and Pascal and later, Newton and Leibniz and, particularly important to the history of history, Giambattista Vico. these scholars, as stylists, crafted the first time, the ‘essay’ as a form of presentation of scholarly knowledge, that developed into the style of academic writing in general, and the scholarly ‘treatise’. As importantly, these authors were the first scholars to write in their vernacular languages, suddenly opening up their work to a more ‘popular’ readership and breaking the hold on ‘knowledge’ by the aristocratic, educated, elite. [Galileo even gave highly popular lectures in Italian about his scientific investigations. Later, in France, the first proponents of the Enlightenment, the Philosophes, Voltare, D’Lambert and others, would write and publish, in French, the first, highly illustrated, Encyclopedia to make ‘all’ knowledge available to everyone.] This is not by a long shot a complete history of the ‘essay’, but it hits some main points.


Okay… I need to mention two more seminal authors in order to restate my account of history and historiography so that i can clarify for B what i said insufficiently previously. The foregoing brief cultural history of history is meant only to roughly demonstrate my claim that there is in fact, a history of history that means, because history in fact has a history, it’s not some kind of ‘natural’ thing like air or water. I haven’t described the other can of worms, ‘oral history’… like that of the native hawaiians, who ‘sing’ their histories in the form of chants, that are so specific and detailed that they are able to guide voyagers in small canoes well enough that they can make the 12000 mile trip between hawaii and new zealand…

There are two works about history and historiography without which, Hayden’s work, and my orientation to them, would be impossible, probably. At least not in the terms that have become so contentious since White wrote some of his highly influential essays beginning in the mid-1960s. The first is a series of lectures Hegel gave at the University of Berlin in 1822, 1828, and 1830, since complied in a book called, The Philosophy of History. This is the book that has had profound influence specifically on how art history has been written, since his lectures recounted his philosophy though recounting a ‘history of art’ since Homeric times in ancient Greece, through the Roman Period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. This history was based on Hegel’s more general philosophical, systematic account of human development of consciousness in general, in his Phenomenology of the Spirit. In this work, Hegel developed a ‘historical’ philosophy based on what he called ‘dialectics’. Dialectics is complicated, more complicated than the popular accounts of that art history subsequently absorbed. But i will use that over-simplified version here simply so i can get to B’s question… Hegel was a christian, so he thought that ‘god’ was the ‘spirit’ that drove historical development in time. Since ‘god’ was both omniscient and infinite, his spirit could never be manifest within the paltry limits of human perception or even within the physical constraints of the ‘phenomenologically’ determined world human’s ‘experience’. He was reacting to Kant’s equally influential treatises, the 3 Critiques: The Critique of Reason, the Critique of Morals, and the Critique of Judgment; which collectively argued that the ‘world’ was irreparably dived into two pieces: the ‘noumenal’ [the world as it ‘actually’ is], and the ‘phenomenal’ [the world as it appears [to humans]. According to Kant, the noumenal world can never be known/perceived, ‘in and of itself’, because it is always filtered through the structures of the human mind and perception. the human mind/perceptual apparatus, projected itself on the world, and constructed it in terms of it’s innate biological and moral and judgmental systems/structures. This is why Hegel titled his philosophical treatise, the Phenomenology of the Spirit. We can never know anything about ‘god’ directly; we can only know how he partially, appears, phenomenologically, manifests his spirit in the world.

The way god does that for Hegel, is through an evolutionary process through which human consciousness grows over time ‘progressively’ more enlightened. To attempt to cut to the chase here, this happens according to him, through the process of ‘dialectic’, which moves through 3 stages he called: affirmation, negation, and synthesis.  [again, this is oversimplified] the spirit of history, god, first manifests in one form affirmatively – during the homeric, geometric period of early greek art; but the greeks eventually come to consciousness that that expression of human form is inadequate, doesn’t account sufficiently for what humans are, so the reject it, negate it, and develop a new aesthetic style, high attic greek style; but that under the romans comes to be seen as equally inadequate, so the hellenistic style develops that synthesizes aspects of the homeric with aspects of the attic period, in a ‘supercession’ of both previous stylistic forms. He goes on to ‘demonstrate’ this same triadic, evolutionary process during the middle ages, the renaissance, and Baroque. This version of art history becomes entrenched as what has been taught since hegel as the ‘early’, ‘middle’, and ‘late’ periods. to give one example, early renaissance [Giotto’s Assisi Chapel], to middle renaissance [Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel], to late renaissance [Pontormo’s The Deposition from the Cross]. ETC…ETC…ETC… Affirmation-Negation-Synthesis…


Most of the major art history surveys, like Jansen’s, etc. present art history as an evolutionary, progressive development of early, middle, late periods. Which carries the very unfortunate result that has the spirit of history progresses through time, human consciousness becomes more and more enlightened; with the unfortunate corollary that the humans of the renaissance are more enlightened and therefore ‘higher’, ‘better’, humans than the humans of the middle ages and the greco-roman period. Not to mention how far superior the Greeks were than the Egyptians and the sub-sarahan Africans. ETC ETC ETC. the history of modern art essentially follows the same hegelian dialectical ‘logic’ – Manet to Picasso to Malevich…. you can see how wobbly this gets and quickly. but the general scheme is maintained – naturalism, to quasi-realism, to complete abstraction = modernism. minimalism to conceptualism to materialist formalism = postmodernism… pretty wobbly too, but these art historical narratives are very common. [i fall into this same trap in some of my brief cultural history diagrams below… hegel goes as deep as freud’s concepts of the ego-id-superego… ]



the second book of importance, written in opposition to Hegel in part, as well as against Kant, as well as against what he saw as an ‘unhealthy’ 19th century obsession with capital “H” history, was Nietzsche’s early essay,  sometimes translated as, ‘The Use and Abuse of History’, but more recently better translated as ‘On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life; written and delivered at the University of Basel shortly after obtaining a professorship there at the ripe age of 24. This essay has become a very important work for the ‘poststructural’, ‘postmodern’ phase of philosophy, cultural theory, art history, and the like, since the late 60s in France, and because everything is so delayed in the US, there, since the 1980s.

Nietzsche argument is of course complex, and i will not attempt to do it justice here. I will only quote it’s opening paragraph to give a pale flavor of its brilliance.

it begins:

“Moreover I hate everything which merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity.” These are Goethe’s words with which, as with a boldly expressed certerum censeo [I am of the opinion], we may begin our consideration of the worth and worthlessness of history. Our aim will be to show why instruction which fails to quicken activity, why knowledge which enfeebles activity, why history as a costly intellectual excess and luxury must, in the spirit of Goethe’s words, be seriously hated; for we still lack what is most necessary, and superfluous excess is the enemy of the necessary. Certainly we need history. But our need for history is quite different from that of the spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge, even if he in his refinement looks down on our rude and graceless requirements and needs. That is, we require history for life and action, not for the smug avoiding of life and action, or even to whitewash a selfish life and cowardly, bad acts. Only so far as history serves life will we serve it: but there is a degree of doing history and an estimation of it which brings with it a withering and degenerating of life: a phenomenon which is now as necessary as it may be painful to bring to consciousness through some remarkable symptoms of our age.

i cite this articular passage in order to give some context for the white citation with which this post begins. and i mean of course, only ‘some’ context. white suggests that some types of science, and some types of art, are perhaps the best models for history that serves life by quickening its activities. unlike hegelian history which only enfeebles it. as does that type of art history which only accounts for those artists who have conquered the art market.

it’s my view that paul demarinis accomplishes White’s type of Nietzschean history in exactly its articulation of science, art, music, sound, performance, and technologies. his work is as humorous as it is erudite, as ironic as it is romantic, as comic as it is tragic, as ‘pop’ as it is ‘high’ culture. it’s as self-critical as it’s arrogant. i’ll remind readers here of all these false dichotomies with one example:

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paul discovered through very sophisticated research that he could play a hologram of a vinyl record or recreated edison wax cylinders using a directed laser beam instead of a diamond needle. that’s hilarious, as well as profoundly challenging to our ‘hegelian’ belief in the ideology of scientific and technological progress. his work forces us, once we engage it on it’s own terms, which are ‘our’ own terms, in historical terms, to face both the, ‘what might have been’, as well as, ‘what might be’. and well, also and perhaps most importantly, what should be called the deep history of our own ‘present’. while i’m deeply critical of hegel, one can only respect to a degree his brilliance no matter how wrong he may have been: and one of his philosophy of history adages was, to paraphrase: the depths of the past are contained in the present. paul’s work is definitely and demonstrably, non-heglian, by political commitment. it shows us a way to think about ‘history’ in a non-progressive way. in a non-linear way. it breaks open our ‘present’ to reveal the depths of history. and in so doing, it invigorates life rather than enfeebling it. some of his work is as challenging as hegel himself was; but some of his work is entirely ‘superficial’, as nietzsche suggested ‘life’ should be: by which he meant, directly active, performative, present, and, profound. like shooting a laser beam into a goldfish bowl, with practically speaking, zero possibility of hitting it, to the tune of polka.

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So that is hopefully clarification #1… in historiographical terms.

Clarification #2: Art history is not unlike the quip: history is written by the conquerors…

that is: artists who fits the hegelian dialectical pattern get into major museums and make a lot of money… those who don’t, don’t. modernism linked to capitalism, to market forces, once the two forms of early patronage, the church then the wealthy early mercantilists like the medici, lost power, when a middle class developed and became less religious and interested in worldly mundane everyday life, as was first the case in Holland. When the middle class had enough money and the patronage of the aristocracy and the church no longer support artists, artists were like everyone else, thrown into the market place. thus artists like rubens who ran essentially a painting factory staffed with assistants who specialized in painting fur or skin or drapery… ETC ETC ETC…

art history is written by hegelian art historians who become linked to the art market: galleries or repute, art magazine reviews, major museums, through the intercession of curators. that is obviously oversimplified, but not by that much. art history as produced by most academics tends to reinforce the hegelian/market/1% dialectic…

the 8th edition… blockbuster art history

Davies, Hofrichter, Jacobs, Simon, Roberts & Janson ...

It became the holy grail for any blockbuster curator: a cultural event that grips the public imagination. As Engels reported to Marx: “Everyone up here is an art lover just now and the talk is all of the pictures at the exhibition.”

Blockbuster, a highly explosive word not usually associated with art, has now entered the lexicon as a term applied to art exhibitions. By 1996 so-called blockbuster exhibitions–big, popular, moneymaking showcases that delivered a powerful impact–had become important sources of direct and indirect revenue, visibility, and prestige for museums worldwide.





An attempt at a clarification of my view of history and historiography: a response to B

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