How should one write about historical objects in an era of rising right-wing extremism, populist nationalism, and various flavors of separatism? At a time when disparities of wealth have taken on alarmingly retrograde proportions? At a moment when religious bigotry has returned from the wings to become, once again, a central player in social and political life? How can a scholar possibly justify months or even years spent in libraries, in museums, and in archives, rather than on the front lines of political, social, and environmental engagement? How, that is, do we earn our keep, when the pursuit of disciplinary art history seems not merely suspect, but at times genuinely perverse in its ivory-tower remoteness? Art as History, History as Art offers an attempt to answer questions such as these, and while some may find its answers unpersuasive, Stephen Graham Hitchins deserves praise for defining his discipline as an instrument with which to address the world empathically, rather than as one with which to perform ever-finer sorts of cultural dissection in the service of ever more recondite abstraction.
While this book is nominally about two bodies of early modern pictorial work, in truth its author’s interest lies with the individuals to whom he ascribes that work and whom he sees as exemplary in the present. Bosch, in this account, comes across as a missionary of uncompromising conviction, dedicated to recuperating the lost souls he sees around him. Bruegel, by contrast, takes on the qualities of a wily political activist, hell bent on correcting the course of a wayward society. Let us leave aside the question of whether one can meaningfully talk about a lone artist’s “vision” with respect to a time when the artisanal persona had only recently become legible as such (cf. for instance the argument advanced in Larry Silver, Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market, 2006). Similarly, let us not dwell on Hitchins’s presumption of a sixteenth-century Netherlandish Zeitgeist. Though relevant, such qualms risk distracting us from the most important feature of Hitchins’s project – an attempt to establish a kind of personal engagement with historical precedent.
In order to achieve this engagement, Hitchins places Bosch and Bruegel in a type of dialectic, which he then uses to arrive at a set of moral – not merely ethical – pronouncements. Needless to say, his aim is grand, and it adopts both a scale and a tone that have been largely absent from academic writing for nearly a century. For instance, Hitchins writes about the context for Bosch’s paintings that, “the cult of death flourished at its most morbid during the lifetime of Bosch…. As the years passed, the obsession with death increased. Death, the great leveler of social and religious status, was a patron of the arts” (51). It hardly comes as a surprise, then, to find Huizinga quoted chapter and verse on the page that follows this declaration.
As with Huizinga, however, so it is with Hitchins: what draws the reader to this work can also drive her to distraction. The argument loops and circles back on itself; points arise multiple times, often contradictorily. And then appear the epigrams (Graham Greene alongside Abba, for instance) and “entr’actes” (short disquisitions on Tracy Emins, Bill Viola, Cy Twombly, Jake and Dinos Chapman, among others, all addressed in passages typeset in Akzidenz Grotesk, while the rest of the text is set in Berthold Garamond). Many a reader will find these elements of the book maddening – not so much for their prolepsis or their Benjaminian reflexivity, but more for their obliqueness and, at times, circularity. That reader should persevere nonetheless, for this book makes its topics legible in novel and quite provocative ways.
A colloquial saying in the U.S. claims that “the nail that stands up gets hammered down.” Art as History, History as Art is such a nail, and it will undoubtedly come in for its share of hammering. However, readers should not dismiss this book as merely a curiosity or as somehow peripheral to a “proper” scholarly endeavor. The depth of Hitchins’s research is striking, with relatively few omissions for a project of such scope.* More important, the depth of feeling and the sense of urgency that attend this work are admirable, because they challenge us to reconsider the purposes, the benefits (yes), and the limitations of scholarly detachment. Readers will find in this book an authorial voice that has itself been modeled on Hitchins’s convictions about Bosch and Bruegel – viz., that the maker of paintings or arguments is driven by a commitment to improve the behavior, and thus the lot in life, of those around him. (Another source that Hitchins might have used – and, I suspect, appreciated – appeared after his book came out: Constance Furey, “Erring Together: Renaissance Humanists in Certainty’s Shadow,” The Journal of Religion, 95: 4, September 2015, pp. 454-476.) And therein lies perhaps this book’s most salutary function: it demands that we ask what we want art history to do for all of us as people, not just for a few of us as art historians. Such an opposition, like the presumptions that govern it, is perhaps debatable. Nonetheless, in implicitly offering such an opposition, Art as History, History as Art helps make clear how the rigid professionalization of academe has in some ways actually dehumanized scholarship in the humanities.
*Though it feels a bit churlish to say this, referring to Elizabeth Eisenstein, Sandra Hindman, and Walter J. Ong, among others, would have helped with the discussion of print and modernity. Consulting the work of Stanley Fish would have allowed Hitchins to offer a more consistent account of the vicissitudes of interpretation. And further engagement with Joseph Leo Koerner’s recent work on enmity would lend weight to certain ideas about Bosch, though Koerner’s Mellon lectures, another dialectic between these same two artists, appeared too late to be considered.
Indiana University, Bloomington