This is an interview held over the email in the last quarter of 2009 with Michael Ann Holly, one of the founders of the VCS program by Hanneke Grootenboer.
HG: Michael, my first question regards the various Visual Studies programs that were founded in the 1990s, several of which were modeled after the University of Rochester’s VCS program which was the first of its kind in the U.S. Obviously, at the time of VCS’s founding, the discipline of art history was desperately in need of refurbishing. Now, after twenty years, we have seen many shifts in the discipline that have proved valuable and have stirred debates about interdisciplinarity as well as questions about the nature of “visual culture” and how it should be defined. When you founded the program, what were your hopes and expectations as to how these new programs were going to change art history and what has actually happened? What part of the vision shared by you and your fellow founders has been realized? Are there still developments in art history or visual studies that need to be more fully fleshed out? Have you been disappointed by some of the new directions critical theory took in art history?
MH: I came to Rochester as an “outside” chair in 1989, with the expectation that I would consider initiating a graduate department in “Fine Arts” over the next few years. For some reason that prospect didn’t excite me, probably because the discipline of art history seemed to have run out of steam, mired as it was in writing more and more about less and less (little known “masters and “masterpieces” ). I am sure I wouldn’t have known how to begin to shake things up if it were not for a couple of galvanizing developments: encountering feminism and its challenges to established art history, reading Norman Bryson’s Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, and meeting Mieke Bal who taught in the comparative literature department across the quad. Mieke and I bonded right away. Her mind has always reminded me of a dazzling fireworks display, and I was seduced by the boldness of her imagination. Late at night we would conspire about not only how to hire Norman, but how to generate an interdisciplinary program initially called Comparative Arts. Did we have a mission, or even a vision in those days? I suppose so, if wanting to radicalize art history the way literary studies had been by post-structuralism counts as a vision. Above all, it was CRITICAL THEORY that won our minds and souls, and it seemed to know no limits. New questions always generate new answers. Am I disappointed with the way Visual Studies has turned out two decades later? I don’t think so, because I admire how it keeps gaining momentum. Yes, that momentum has gone in a different direction than I might have nudged it—ever-expanding its range of visual objects that merit study and loosening its ties to phenomenology and psychoanalysis—but nevertheless the discipline is clearly alive and flourishing. I only wish that more of our graduate students—just as you did so remarkably—would have put their minds to work on periods earlier than the twentieth century.
HG: What I often wonder is what challenges you think remain
for us graduates of the VCS program, who are now players in
the field. So much has changed for the better already, and though
some battles continue to be waged, humanities, as a whole, seems to have
embraced critical theory. This has become particularly apparent in the job market, where an interest in critical theory, post-colonialism or queer theory was once viewed with skepticism, but is now often a requirement. At the same time, many voices claim that French theory has been exhausted, that “high theory” is outdated, or that we need to find a way out of the so-called theoretical impasse by recognizing theory as philosophy, by rediscovering the philosophical
foundations of the discipline of art history. Is this the way forward, or should we consider it a U-turn or backlash? Should we be concerned about calls for a more conservative kind of visual analysis or view it as a further radicalization of the underlying principles upon which VCS was founded? If we, as VCS graduates, wish to continue carrying the VCS torch (which is certainly my aim), what direction do you, as a founder, think we should take?
MH: My goodness, how boring the world of scholarship (not to mention all the other worlds) would be if there were no challenges left. Luckily, we all have many of them. Yes, the fearsome and fierce post-structuralist (mostly French but certainly not exclusively) challenge has abated but not before leaving lots of productive shatterings in its wake. Having passed through it, serious intellectuals can’t ever return to some quiescent pre-historical state-of-affairs. True enough, there are a few stranded art historians who breathe a sigh of relief that it is over, and at last they can return to business-as-usual, but those scholars are not writers whose work VCS types read or think about, I should think. Of course theory has always been a kind of philosophy, and that’s an intellectual attitude that should be championed, not pushed aside. Did you mean by a “U-turn” a rejection of poststructuralist theory and a return to the founders (such as Riegl, Wolfflin, or Panofsky)? They never abjured theory, far from it, as you well know. Or did you have in mind something like the new directions in German Bildwissenschaft? In either case, we are still securely in the realm of theory. If we tried to expunge it from our studies, we would be impoverishing the complexities of the interpretive strategies used in the history of art and visual studies by eliminating some of the most creative thinking of the last forty years. Just supposing we could do that, what would be the losses? Just the whole identity politics moment, for one thing. Not to mention many, many more. But let’s talk about the future, as you suggest. Recent initiatives—I kind of think of them as the “new aesthetics”— put emphasis upon the materiality and presence of the image, at the same time as they contribute meaningfully to the ideological critiques of the recent past. These new interpretive challenges might well keep the VCS torch blazing.
HG: Your term “new aesthetics” is apt. And indeed, I now find myself returning to the school of Riegl, Wolfflin and Panofsky, or wondering about the iconographic tradition before Panofsky. Once, when I took one of your courses on the History of Art, you referred to the work of Focillon, which was resting on my shelf for years (I am embarrassed to admit) only to be opened about a year ago. The beauty I found was breathtaking, but somehow only visible for me now, at this station in my professional life. Another example is the work of Adrian Stokes, which you recommended to me quite some time ago, but which seems to reveal its value and significance to me only now. Stokes’ interactions with works of art are very lively, and she describes the works as though they are breathing, nourishing us somehow. As you say, the recent emphasis on the materiality and the presence of the image poses new interpretative challenges. But my concern is whether this is a step away from the text-based model of semiotics, or a step forward to an image-territory of pure visuality not yet fully explored. Do we need to rethink our attitude towards semiotics? Is claiming that an artwork is discursive still an advantage here? Or are we heading toward a wholly new “system” of visuality?
MH: Of course, I always feel such relief when we “go back” (to the so-called “old guys”) before going forward. Whatever going forward means. Kind of like Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung, I suppose. Picking something up that came before and carrying it along and changing it in the terms of the present. It makes the whole project of meaning-making richer and more legitimately grounded. And—but of course—sometimes the rhetoric of how they say something rather than what they say (especially with Focillon or Stokes) carries us along on the drift of uncharted waters. It always amuses me that more poetic writers on art are not considered legitimate art historians, as though they should have purged their prose of affect. And I think, somehow, they recognized something then that we are only coming to terms with now: the recognition that it is often the object of art that prompts the act of interpretation more than what we bring to the object. The question always is why are we fascinated by works? What hold do they exert over our imaginative lives, both conscious and unconscious? I love the way you say they “are breathing or nourishing us somehow.” And, yes, I would maintain the art work is still discursive, that there is something residing in the image—a structure—that underlies the project of making meaning. I guess I am saying something akin to what we want to see today is whether there is an inherent discursivity in the work. Even if it is impossible, many of us want to try and pay attention to what it says before applying schemes of interpretation, as smart and analytic they may be.