Newsletter Archive: Spring 2008
Research Forum: Generations Past & Future
Chris Green in discussion with a student The final question asked on the final evening devoted to the Courtauld Generations series was put by Sarah Monks, an undergraduate and research student from the 1990s and 2000s. In the open, permeable state of the disciplines in the Humanities, how can there be a future for an institution as small as ours, devoted to a single discipline? The question brought the series full circle, for we began with the generation of the 1960s and early 1970s, when the very existence of art history as a discipline seemed to be in question.
I was a student and a teacher of that generation. My memory is of a need then to prove something: to prove that a critical awareness of art, architecture and their history was as important as knowledge in any other area of the Humanities. The first ‘Generations’ evening left the impression that this was not a need so strongly felt by medievalists, but for me as a modernist refugee from a Cambridge history faculty dominated by the rich story-telling of J.H.Plum it was crucial to establish what was special about art history. My teachers were Bob Ratcliffe, Alan Bowness and John Golding, and art criticism then (Studio International, Art Forum) was dominated by the rigour of Greenbergian formalism. It seemed that we did have something special to do: we had objects as material evidence, objects that invited visual exploration. Ours was not a discipline whose starting point was documents or texts; it was neither history as I had studied it, nor the practical criticism of English Lit. faculties. Ever since, I have worked outward from that position back into history (contexts), increasingly aware of what has come to be called ‘Theory’. I have become an inter-disciplinarian. And The Courtauld has become more and more inter-disciplinarian too, more engaged with the larger issues that a critical awareness of art and its history can enable the Humanities to confront: cultural, social, political.
So we are left with the problem that Sarah Monks had us face in the
Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre. Is not the proper place of any art history
faculty in a multi-faculty university, where the disciplines feed off
each other? I have no neat comprehensive response to it, but I remain
absolutely convinced that The Courtauld can and should have a place of
its own in the international and national university worlds. Our commitment
to looking outwards and taking in other disciplines is a function of
a confidence that was not there in the 1960s: a confidence in the importance
of a discipline (and it remains a discipline) whose starting point is
neither documents nor texts, but art objects, images, buildings, even
what now is called ‘visual culture’.
We are small, yes, but that ensures an intensity of focus which is itself
an advantage, something our Gallery underpins; and, caught up in the
scholarly chatter of London, I see no reason why we should ever again
feel a need to separate ourselves from the larger world of the Humanities.
Professor Christopher Green