How does art work and what does it mean? I realize these are naive questions — unsophisticated and unanswerable. On the other hand, maybe they are  profound questions, perpetually elusive, just beyond the reach of scholars and academicians. It seems that one is simply supposed to know the answers. Or, if not, to spare everyone the embarrassment and know enough not to ask.

I do know art works on me, it alters me. I see something —  I look up at a Byzantine ceiling, a painting, a photograph — and I am no longer the same. Memory, experience, dreams, my senses, my skin, my brain, the optic cables in my head all hum and suddenly everything is different, and I feel something like discomfited joy.

I put words around it — this shameful delirium — not to give it substance, but to find its trace. This is a forensic exercise.

Art, memory, and history are related. They do the same thing, yet each one is stubborn, slippery, and absurdly unreliable. But they rhyme in unexpected ways. I hear those rhymes echo in the art I see — in those strange, mute objects that speak without words.

Many disciplines lay claim to those strange things: philosophy, psychology, theory, criticism, the social sciences, the many fiefdoms of cultural studies, and of course, art history. Art eludes them all, it’s bigger than all of them. That old parable comes to mind — if art is the elephant, the scholars are the little blind priests, groping. I don’t mean this as a slight to scholars. The best ones probably agree.

Katsushika, Hokusai. Blind monks examining an elephant. c. 1814-78. Library of Congress LC-USZC4-8702 and LC-USZC4-8703. Click to enlarge.

Art History certainly provides methodologies, ways to find answers to my questions — but it does so in a peculiar manner. It is the complaints of its practitioners — art history’s discontents — that suggest to me useful ways forward. The answers to my questions, it seems, lie in the occlusions, fault-lines, and blind spots of my favorite dusty discipline. For answers I have to look to Art History’s inabilities.

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