29 APRIL 1989, Page 35


Art history

The jargonmongers' ball

Auniversity colleague of mine in the 1970s described American Studies as 'an academic dustbin'. If the recent Annual Conference of the Association of Art Historians is anything to go by, art history will be the dustbin of the 1990s.

The conference started on a Thursday and. ended late on Sunday afternoon. For most of that time there was . very little evidence of anything that would pass for the history of art, even in the most liberal interpretation.. The reason was not far to seek: the conference logo, when unravel- led, could be seen to be made up of the title 'History/Theory/Practice: Issues in Art and Design' — an intellectual dustbin if ever there was one. '

My thoughts went back nostalgically to the more fitting logo of the London confer- ence a few years ago. It combined the hand of Adam from Michelangelo's Sistine ceil- ing with the Association's recondite sym- bol, an icosidodecahedron. The effect, as a wag was quick to point out, could not have been more apt: 'A limp wrist fondling a curiously-shaped ball'. The remark would have had him thrown out this time around, when most of the papers consisted of harangues from feminists and assorted lefties, eager to grasp the opportunities for tendentious speculation which structural- ism (only now touching art history) in the hands of the less gifted so readily affords.

For connoisseurs — a dirty word in today's brave new world of radicalised art history — the conference programme was a delight. Most synopses were couched in a catch-all style reminiscent of Molesworth's all-purpose thank-you letters (`Thank you for the ray-gun/tomahawk/air-pistol; it was great/ what I. wanted/ broken). They were hesitant with slashes, rich in hyphenation (`that necessary sense-of-one's-self-as-an- artist'), and decked out with borrowed Teutonic solemnity ('rural=gemeinschaft= good versus urban= gesellschaft = bad'). Each title had a subtitle, just as every picture/poem/text (the .approach is catch- ing) had a sub-text: 'Breaking Boundaries: Working towards -Codification of "Les- bian" Identities in Dress and Appearance, Britain 1901-1939'; 'Citing/Sighting Resist- ance: Translations of Romaine Brooks' Portrait Exhibitions of 1925'; 'Menswear: Desire-Boredom-Narcissism Function', and, most cryptic of all, 'Converting Motifs into Meaning: the Zip Signifier'.

Aids, of course, was there (Aids: the Cultural Agenda'), roped in to a section headed 'Sexual In/difference; Questions of Masculinity and Femininity'. So were US nuclear bases in Britain — in a talk about The Haywain. Throughout, there was an air of smug embattlement, as the freedom fighters of art history made themselves comfy behind barricades thrown up against the onslaught of chimerical enemies: 'The paper will look at the ways that the crisis of British capitalism, Thatcherite attacks on social consumption, and the English pas- toral tradition, form the backdrop to the Tories' recent organisation of a number of garden festivals in the North of England and Scotland'. Sinister things, these garden festivals (but see my forthcoming paper, 'The Village Rte: Deconstructing the Vicar').

The language of such papers is bor- rowed, in half-understood ways, from the jargon of structuralism, much of it sound- ing like a description of unpleasant person- al habits — `gendering', 'dissemination', not to mention 'semiotics' and that old friend 'epistemological'. The more loosely applied words strung together in these locutions, the less information is imparted — a handy strategem, since most examples amount to stating the obvious or absurd in impenetrable form. Many resist elucida- tion of any kind: 'A different perspective can propose that art has to be decentred from its nodal position for the-imagery to be relocated within a nexus of interlocking cultural circuits'; 'Art historical strategies around modernism for the representation of gender differences in which authorial speech is used to secure subjectivities and gender differences'.

By tea-time on Sunday (an imperialist ritual, thinly attended), the few bewildered souls from the 'old' art history were glazed with incomprehension and fatigue. Was this what that cunning old Marxist Anthony Blunt had been aiming at all along? When some decidedly 'ethnic' drumming broke out in the nearby lecture room none had the heart to enquire whether we were listening to a musical illustration or to the lecture itself, deli- vered in yet more obscure language. A visiting German, clutching her polystyrene beaker, sidled up solemnly to confide that 'Many from abroad are insulted because they do not want to lend support to fringe people'. In an effort to enliven the mood with some welcome gossip, a dispirited rumour trickled round the room to the effect that a 'very, very distinguished' opening speaker from across the Atlantic had cancelled at first sight of the confer- ence programme. But nobody knew who it was. And by that stage, nobody cared.

Robin Simon is arts correspondent of the Daily Mail and the London director of the Institute of European Studies.