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.