As someone who once considered becoming an English professor but wound up writing about contemporary art, I’ve always been struck by the fact that while scholars who write about Shakespeare or Milton call themselves literary critics, those who specialize in Velázquez or David call themselves art historians. What does the art historian mean by disidentifying himself with the critic? In art writing, the distinction between historians and critics is generally based on a rough distinction, first of all, between the objects of their attention: Critics write about more or less recent things, while historians deal with older ones. Of course, there’s inevitably some overlap. These days the art of the 1960s and ’70s is being combed for dissertation topics by young historians who may not have been born yet, while critics remain loath to abandon it as no longer contemporary–after all, many of the era’s protagonists are still hard at work.

But there’s another distinction to consider: A historian is assumed to be a credentialed academic, a professional, while a critic may be something else altogether–what the art theorist Thierry de Duve once nicely described as someone “whose profession it is to be an amateur.” Some critics may have scholarly qualifications–indeed, might themselves be historians on their day off, as it were–but those qualifications are of secondary importance. Instead, the critic is a self-appointed observer; all that counts is that he offers an articulate account of aesthetic experience: “painting reflected by an intelligent and sensitive mind,” as one of the greatest art critics, the young Charles Baudelaire, put it in 1846. Erudition is no impediment to the critic, but imagination and gusto are more essential; an aptitude for generating ideas and interpretations is more valuable than the ability to test and verify them.

From the critic’s ill-founded endeavors, the historian takes a distance. The granddaddy of art historians, Heinrich Wölfflin, made it clear that the field’s scholarly credibility could only be underwritten by a subjective removal: “Instead of asking, ‘How do these works affect me, the modern man?’…the historian must realize what choice of formal possibilities the epoch had at its disposal.” The historian’s, according to the author of Principles of Art History, is a descriptive and classificatory enterprise whose pursuit is not so much the particular object or the individual artist as that series of “modes of vision, or let us say, of imaginative beholding” that are normally called styles.

Despite the intuitive attractions and methodological usefulness of this imagined distinction between the critic, receptive to aesthetic experience in the present tense, and the historian, abstracted from his own subjectivity, the better to reconstruct the mentalities of another time and place, the two have more in common than either would like to admit. No one, not even an art critic, lives wholly in the present without a grain of historical consciousness, while the very definition of a field of inquiry under the rubric of art depends on implicit judgments about value, which by definition can never be free of critical subjectivity. The critic has to be at least a little bit of a historian, the historian something of a critic.

There was a time when questions about the boundary between art history and art criticism might have seemed immaterial because few people had much interest in crossing it. If you were to look back at an issue of Artnews from the 1950s, when it was the leading American magazine in the field, you’d see that articles on the art of the past were written by professional historians. Only rarely did the latter care to engage with the art of their own time; a figure like Meyer Schapiro, the great medievalist who also wrote on Modernism, was distinguished in part by his rarity. By contrast, articles on the work of living artists would be written by critics who, for the most part, were either artists themselves or moonlighting poets. Sometimes their writing even earned the historians’ disdain as an “associative and thus eminently arbitrary and subjective procedure”–so Otto Pächt put it in 1930–“already discredited by the known fact that one can project, with some complacence, anything whatsoever into a picture, sculpture, or ornament”; “a kind of journalism all the more amnesiac for having constantly to adapt itself to market trends,” as Yve-Alain Bois fulminated in the pages of October magazine some fifty years later. Sometimes not.

This clear division of labor between historians and critics began to break down in the mid-1960s with the appearance of magazines like Artforum, which became the organ for a new generation of academically trained art historians who were passionately involved in the art of the moment. For them history became the engine driving art toward its future. They brought a new, hardheaded, formidably analytical style to writing about contemporary art. Its effect was all the more powerful in that it seemed to echo the equally hardheaded and intellectual style of much of the important new art of the day–of Minimalism and, soon afterward, of conceptual art. Just as artists like Frank Stella, Robert Morris and Donald Judd seemed to have stripped Modernist painting and sculpture of all their indulgence in the mere idiosyncrasy of personal sensibility, taste and doubt–replacing it with the stark conclusiveness of objects as austere as formal proofs and in which (as Stella put it) “what you see is what you see,” nothing more, bereft of pathos or metaphor–so critics like Michael Fried and Rosalind Krauss seemed to abjure the vulnerable accents of merely personal sensibility in order to assume the authoritative voice of history itself.

Yet history, like God, never stays on one side for long. As ambitious young artists take pleasure in hijacking the future toward unpredicted destinations, it becomes difficult to disentangle the truly new from simple “market trends.” The tragedy of the honest art critic is that sooner or later the only role left may be that of the curmudgeon. Yet the two-fisted historian/critics of the ’60s found another way–to wait for the artists they championed as critics to become historical figures and for their own youthful writing to become part of the historical record, which they could then use as part of the material for a more scholarly account.

But they still had to go through their curmudgeon phase. For some of these writers, it started as early as 1974. In November of that year, Artforum carried an article by Robert Pincus-Witten on the work of artist Lynda Benglis. A photograph Benglis had originally hoped would be used to illustrate the piece had been refused, so she paid to have it published as a full-page color ad in the same issue: a self-portrait, nude and brandishing a huge dildo. Most of the magazine’s contributing editors signed an open letter of protest at the appearance in its pages of what they termed “an object of extreme vulgarity”; as Krauss later put it, “publishing that ad was tantamount to saying that we were all hookers together, the writers, as well as the artists. That we were all for sale.” Soon afterward, Krauss and Annette Michelson resigned from Artforum to establish a new magazine, October–a magazine of contemporary art that would be closer in spirit to an academic journal, purer, more exclusive and more insulated from the market. Moreover, it was to be a prime conduit for the fresh new ways of thinking and writing that were entering American culture under the rubric of “French theory.” As the more analytic criticism of Artforum had been established in opposition to the belletristic criticism of Artnews, this new organ was created in opposition to Artforum and its perceived fall into the abyss of the spectacle.

All three magazines are still with us. Artnews is no longer home to criticism by poets like Frank O’Hara and artists like Elaine de Kooning but is more like what its name always promised, a magazine of news, of journalism. Criticism remains the concern of Artforum. And October is the established, now rather stodgy academic journal with a critical position on the contemporary scene, though seemingly from a greater and greater distance with every passing year; its pages, however, continue to attract ambitious young scholars who yearn to become part of the establishment. Now, as if to cement its power, four of the journal’s editors–Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, along with Bois and their senior partner, Krauss–have produced a monumental history of twentieth-century art.

Monuments, though, are iffy things. Krauss once found, in her famous essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” that “the logic of the monument” was no longer operative under the conditions of Modernism–that a Modernist sculpture could no longer function as a “commemorative representation” in relation to a particular place but could only embody a “loss of site, producing the monument as abstraction, the monument as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential.” It turns out monumental histories have similar problems; Krauss and her collaborators understand this and have done their best to face them. In the first instance, they’ve done this by the mere fact of being collaborators. A generation or two ago, it was credible for figures like Ernst Gombrich or Horst Jansen to single-handedly cover the entire history of art from the caves to abstraction, but now even the art of a single century hardly seems something an individual can master. Yet the joint authorship of Art Since 1900 takes a peculiar form–as if the four contributors could not decide whether they should speak collectively or individually, in unison or in counterpoint. This becomes apparent right from the start, with the four introductions that open the main body of the book. Each lays out a distinct methodological formula–psychoanalysis, social history, formalism/structuralism and poststructuralism/deconstruction–yet they offer little hint of how these might be synthesized; even concrete judgments on particular artists or movements are quite distinct, at times even contradictory.

So each of the four authors, it is clear, will have the freedom to work according to his or her own chosen procedures and to express an individual viewpoint; and yet the four introductions are not individually signed, so any reader unfamiliar with the authors’ previously published writings–the average student, for instance–can have no idea who is actually staking out these divergent viewpoints. It’s as if they wanted to retain the authority of the collective voice while still being unwilling to subsume their idiosyncratic differences within it. Likewise, readers in the know will readily identify the authors of most of the chapters that follow (a chronological pageant of significant works and events from 1900 through 2003); they will be aware, for instance, that the pages on Matisse could only have been written by Bois, although these too lack individual signatures. But how, then, does Buchloh’s bald assertion that the human figure was “expunged from most modernist art for the first two decades of the century” square with the focus on Picasso and Matisse in Krauss’s and Bois’s entries for those decades? Only in a pair of roundtable discussions–the first appearing midbook, between the chapters on the years 1944 and 1945, the second following the last chapter, which chronicles the 2003 Venice Biennale–do the four voices emerge as those of distinct individuals in contention.

Sometimes the effect of these tacit disagreements can be rather funny. Anyone who knows the story of Lynda Benglis’s ad and its catalyzing role in the foundation of October will be amused to encounter it again as one of the very first works reproduced in the textbook produced by four of the editors of that magazine, and with a caption offering a very different and much more positive sense of its meaning: Far from being the vulgar, antifeminist paean to art as prostitution, as Krauss viewed it thirty years ago, the ad is here praised as an important work in which Benglis “mocked the macho posturing of some Minimalist and Postminimalist artists, as well as the increased marketing of contemporary art; at the same time, she ‘seized the phallus’ in a way that both literalized its association with plenitude and power and parodied it.” That clued-in reader will also realize that this section of the book is by Hal Foster, who is too young to have been involved in that bygone controversy, and that the presence here of Benglis’s work must be a subtle in-group dig aimed at demonstrating his autonomy within the little family of October. A student reading Art Since 1900 as a textbook, or an ordinary art lover looking to it for some clues about how to understand the things that turn up in the contemporary wing of the local museum, however, would pass this by without the slightest hint of the tacit discord–and that’s a shame, for the difference of opinion says a lot about how art world attitudes have changed in three decades, which is certainly part of the history such a book should be conveying. And then, too, an awareness of the dispute might encourage readers to be a bit more skeptical of the sometimes very partial and even rather moralistic judgments that are propounded with such an air of authority at times in this book, particularly as its chronological timeline draws nearer to the present.

That timeline itself, in any case, quickly shows itself to be as much of a convenient fiction as the book’s veneer of collective authorship. Let’s take a look at some of those pages on Matisse I mentioned. Matisse first enters the narrative near the beginning, in one of the two chapters headed with the year 1900: “Henri Matisse visits Auguste Rodin in his Paris studio but rejects the elder artist’s sculptural style” reads the legend below the date. What follows is essentially a survey of Matisse’s sculpture–a survey that gains a good deal from being framed in terms of the younger artist’s debts to and differences from the elder (I owe the alliterative formulation to Bois). And through this dialectic, Bois is able to throw off, like so many sparks, compare-and-contrast references to Brancusi, Cubism and much more of early-twentieth-century sculpture–and even to the sixteenth-century Mannerist sculpture of Michelangelo and Giambologna–that allow the particularity of Matisse’s achievement to emerge with great clarity. These are pages that, given the careful reading they deserve, would make a better introduction to Modernist sculpture than a great many laborious tomes. But they have very little to do with the year 1900, and one suspects that their sense would have been even more perspicuous had they been framed as a section of a single chapter entirely devoted to Matisse, references to whom have instead been scattered here and there, in chapters headed 1900, 1906, 1910 and 1944. While this dispersal helps show Matisse as part of the broader context of his time rather than as an isolated genius, it makes it hard for readers to get a real overview of his achievement in all its complexity. Moreover, it allows Bois to ignore those moments in the artist’s career that might fit less comfortably into his view of what Matisse should have been. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that any assessment of Matisse’s work–or of European art in the postwar era in general–could overlook his chapel at Vence, which would be an equally fascinating case whether one judges it a failure or a triumph. This book does. While it makes sense to press the traditional protagonists of an art-historical narrative, namely individual artists, movements and national cultures, a bit further into the background, the timeline structure offers nothing to replace them with; it provokes a merely tactical dispersal of them into puzzle-piece-like fragments.

Another problem is that, even with four authors representing diverse positions and interests, the combined fragments may not form a whole. The book’s first half, spanning the years through 1945, covers what is by now the traditional canon of Modernist art produced in Europe and the United States. But the rest of the world is out of the picture. Even the Mexican muralists enter only by way of the scandal over the censorship of Diego Rivera’s work for Rockefeller Center. Pre-World War II Africa and Asia are apparently entirely outside history, as far as this book is concerned. Likewise, any form of artistic endeavor beyond the boundaries of the professional art world counts only as an influence, never as a reality in itself. The discovery of the art of the insane and other “outsiders” can be mentioned insofar as it fascinated Paul Klee and Max Ernst, but the fact that figures like Adolph Wölffli, Martin Ramirez and Bill Traylor produced oeuvres of considerable artistic value and presented substantial problems to criticism is nowhere registered. Popular arts, too, are excluded; no matter how many painters may have admired the work of George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, he remains beneath notice. These omissions are nowhere explained; for all their methodological scruple, the authors never theorize about the constitution or boundaries of their field of study. On the other hand, whereas until now the history of photography has always been considered a separate subject from that of the traditional arts of painting, sculpture and drawing, with only the occasional painter/photographer like Man Ray to link the two, Art Since 1900 substantially integrates them. This is the one truly groundbreaking aspect of the book.

If the first half of the book is stolidly conventional though finely executed, the second half is likely to be more controversial. The geographic boundaries begin to open up with the emergence of the Gutai group in Japan and the Brazilian Neoconcretists in the 1950s, though the book never shakes the sense that modernity is something that emerges from Europe and North America, without real roots elsewhere. But what’s most striking about the pages covering the late ’40s and ’50s is the virtual erasure from the story of Abstract Expressionism. Yes, substantial pages are devoted to the crucial work of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. But they are strategically detached from their lived context. And when the other Abstract Expressionists can’t be ignored, they are assassinated: What Willem de Kooning made of Pollock’s innovations was “a kiss of death”; the movement as a whole is to be disdained as “a half-romantic, half-petty-bourgeois” version of the Cartesian Cogito ergo sum and infected with “much vulgarity” to boot. Petty bourgeois!–now, that hurts, coming from a crew with such an impeccable class composition as the October editors. Here at last, they seem to speak with something like true unanimity: a formal analysis of Bois’s sort delivered in Buchloh’s strident tone but employing Krauss’s favorite epithet, “vulgar.”

Well, at least such passages have the energy of a good knockabout fight to them. And on through the chapters on the ’60s and ’70s, the élan of the authors’ varied parti pris makes the book fascinating, however much one might disagree. In fact, the more one disagrees, the more one can learn from mentally arguing with these generally well-articulated positions. (The spluttering intemperance of the pages on Abstract Expressionism is a rare exception.) On the other hand, this hardly makes for a trustworthy textbook. But things get worse as the last couple of decades loom. Suddenly, all fighting spirit seems to expire. Events on the timeline start becoming sparser just where the effect of perspective would normally make them more numerous–recent events tend to seem more important than they really are, after all. Here instead they occur in a desultory fashion, as if the effort of finding artworks that would at once exhibit some sort of imaginative energy while at the same time lending themselves to the authors’ strictures on historical necessity were no longer worth the effort.

Bois’s introduction on formalist and structuralist methods rightly concedes their limits, their affinity for certain very particular types of oeuvre, which are serial and systematic in nature (like Picasso’s Cubism or the mature work of Mondrian), yet Bois rightly claims that “the heuristic power of structuralist and formalist analysis, especially with regard to the canonical moments of modernism, need not be discarded.” But to have to judge one’s own method as merely heuristic–preliminary, exploratory, destined to be replaced by something more solid–seems modest to the point of pessimism, all the more so if it is something to be reserved for “canonical works” rather than the living art of today. The other authors are equally frank about such matters. Buchloh has to admit that the social history of art is truly revealing only under special circumstances, “those historical situations where actual mediations between classes, political interests, and cultural forms of representation are solidly enacted and therefore relatively verifiable.” But where these are ambiguous or, as with the twentieth-century avant-gardes, actively contested, then “social art history’s attempts to maintain cohesive narrative accounts often emerge at best as either incongruent or incompatible with the structures and morphologies at hand, or at worst, as falsely recuperative.” All the more so, perhaps, in a volume such as this, in which actual historical events outside the art world are kept strictly offstage, political position-taking becomes difficult to distinguish from mere attitudinizing.

What these scrupulous admissions indicate, though the authors of Art Since 1900 barely register this possibility, is that scholarly attempts to form coherent methodologies, ostensibly in order to put their efforts on a sounder scientific footing, are fundamentally something else altogether: expressions of taste. Scholars develop working methods that derive in part from the kinds of art they prefer–structural analysis is not merely something that Bois “applies” to Cubism; Cubism is already a “structuralist activity”–and that aid them in fathoming and intellectually appropriating it. This preference, this taste, is always the fundamental thing. Yet somehow the subjective, perhaps even irrational or arbitrary foundation of each author’s activity is something that all four of them–even Foster, with his emphasis on psychoanalysis–are anxious to disavow. As if one’s repulsion at the inevitable vulgarity of the self were enough to expunge it.

Just as these writers wish to disavow the subjective bases of their own positions, their tendency is to repudiate subjectivity in the art they write about. Perhaps this accounts for their extreme animus against the Abstract Expressionists. A good thing about this book’s timeline structure is that pinning everything to a specific date is conducive to the use of telling anecdotes. There are a good many famous stories included, but one of the most famous anecdotes of modern art gets left out. The date is 1970; the place, the Marlborough Gallery in New York. Abstract Expressionist painter Philip Guston–another member of the Art Since 1900 blacklist, mentioned only as a possible influence on the Neo-Expressionism of George Baselitz, though the influence can only have flowed in the opposite direction–returned after several years of soul-searching with a new group of paintings in which figuration had suddenly re-emerged, but of a starkly grotesque and disenchanted sort, like a cross between late Goya and the cartoons of Robert Crumb. The response from his old friends, the artists of his generation, was stony silence, complete rejection. With one exception. De Kooning threw his arms around Guston, saying he understood what it was all about: freedom. It’s a word that doesn’t get much play in this book.