Visual Studies, Historiography and Aesthetics

This dialogue is an opportunity for Mark Cheetham, Michael Ann Holly and Keith Moxey to speak together in print for the first time since their edited collection entitled The Subjects of Art History (1998). Concerned, in that volume, with the prospect that ‘art history, like many other fields in the humanities, has entered a post-epistemological age’, the three editors wrote opening ‘position papers’ outlining, respectively, their concern for the (Kantian) philosophical imperatives of/in art history, and how the specters of context haunt the writing of the history of art, and the historiography of art history as Hegelian. Overall, their collection was a chance to reassess the role that the philosophies of history of Kant and Hegel and other philosophical, semiotic, queer, postcolonial, psychoanalytic and museological traditions concerned with ‘history’ have played, and continue to play, in art history’s efforts to legitimate its past and predict its future. In many ways, then, The Subjects of Art History was an attempt, from within the discipline of art history, to picture that area of inquiry in an expanded field that we may continue to call art history or might be more usefully designated as visual studies. The dialogue in this issue of the journal of visual culture is an opportunity to continue that conversation. Specifically, it is a chance to rethink the question of the place of both ‘aesthetics’ and ‘history’ in and through visual studies. As such, this dialogue seeks to address questions such as: how might visual studies rethink what we thought we already knew? Are both critics and supporters of visual studies right to believe that ‘aesthetics’ has nothing to do with visual studies? Why might they be right, or wrong? (And if they are wrong, how does visual studies offer us an occasion to engage with aesthetics in new ways?) What status do or should the philosophies of history of Kant and Hegel, say, have in visual studies? How does visual studies affect such models of history, or what does it mean for it no longer to believe it needs History at all? Or, to put it more kindly, is there something that visual studies can teach us about Kant and Hegel and subsequent historiographical thought? By no means looking to resolve these questions, this dialogue is motivated by an urge to problematize in productive ways the accusation that visual studies does not do, care for, take into consideration, or otherwise understand ‘history’. It hopes to indicate why visual studies has to deal with history, however conceived, if for no other reason than at least (and most importantly) that it can attend necessarily to the genealogies of the study of our visual cultures.