Alpers dissects the art discipline

Yesterday at the Clark Art Institute, renowned and often-controversial scholar and art historian Svetlana Alpers took part in an informal discussion about her discipline, career and works past and present.
Facilitating the discussion were Stefanie Solum, professor of art history, and Michael Holly, director of research and academic programs at the Clark. Throughout the conversation, Alpers touched on issues ranging from her general conception of the field of art history and its changing appearance to her personal experiences within the discipline and amongst other scholars in the field.

Alpers is best known for her work in the field of 17th century Dutch art, and she has produced groundbreaking studies of Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Rubens and Velasquez. Among her most influential publications are the books The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century from 1983 and Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market from 1988. She is known for focusing her studies on the works themselves, speaking of art in terms of describing the actual object and rejecting the binary opposition of iconography versus style.

Alpers said her initial scholarly ambitions concerned the study of literature, but that she grew frustrated with it because it was “using words to talk about words,” she said. “Art history is special because it’s trying to use words to talk about something that is visual. And I think that it’s right to keep art as not about words, for it always to be elusive.”

In her studies of literature, however, Alpers found a more holistic approach that she said was lacking in art history. She began to reconcile this frustration in her Art of Describing, which many of her contemporaries saw as an attempt to boil down opposing methods into the simple practice of close and careful “looking.”

Alpers spoke candidly of her extremely close relationship with famed art scholar Michael Baxandall and the influence he exerted on her career. “We both considered Vasari’s Lives of the Artists to be a central, founding text,” she said. “We shared a sense of the peculiarity of using words to talk about objects. And we’re both extremely attentive lookers.” And she added that both studied literature as undergraduates. “At that time nobody got BAs in art history,” she said. “Even now, it seems like art history as an undergraduate is lean pickings.”

Alpers said that given her European ancestry, her work has been done under a largely Eurocentric framework, but added that now there is a new brand of distinctly American art history, one that she called “visual studies.” “It’s no longer the world in which I was studying,” Alpers said. She added that another new development since the time when she was producing most of her work was the legitimization of contemporary art as a focus of study. “When I was at Harvard, you needed distance from what you were studying, some element of the ‘other,’” she said. “It’s much more contemporary, broad, immediate. Now art history is more journalistic than historical.”

Turning at the end to her current work, a collaborative project that includes small fragments of Tiepolo paintings blown up to a macro size, Alpers spoke about the new areas that working as an artist has allowed her to explore. “In creating [my most recent project], I was focusing not on talking but on making,” she said. “I’m not very interested in meaning. I want to leave the art as non-verbal.”