Artists and art historians have a peculiar relationship. Many art historians operate with the assumption that artists need them, while artists are able to make their work without bowing to the dictates of questions of history or criticism. Some believe that art historians are necessary in order to activate a work outside the confines of the studio, and some artists have accepted this proposal.
The relationship between the artist and the art historian seems to have been established without deference to questions of obligations and responsibility. The connection between the two practices comes into question when MFA students are required to study art history, when art historians write catalogue essays, or when, together, the two parties organize an exhibition. It seems that since the formal establishment of our discipline in the nineteenth century, artists and art historians have benefited from their symbiotic relationship.
There is a need to investigate the complacency of the unspoken contract between these two parties in order to ask, “What do art historians owe artists?” How should the art historian behave in a manner befitting their other half? Do we do enough to acknowledge studio practice? Do we do enough to ensure that practicing artists understand the living history and unique traditions of our discipline?
Do MFA students see value in the study of art history beyond the fulfillment of requirements? Is there not a chasm between art history lectures and their relevance to your own work? An MFA student may rightly ask “What do Hegel, Boucher, or Bierstadt have to do with me?” Are we doing enough in the practice of art history to make those connections seem vital? Have we made the requisite effort to make history a significant part of a studio practice? Is that our obligation?
The challenge to an art historian working alongside artists (or art history graduate students sharing their institutions with MFAs) is to tell a history of art that makes both parties feel like they are being initiated into the same world. Both parties seek to educate the public about the importance and value of art—but do art historians do enough to educate themselves about the process of making the substance of their specialization? Do we do enough to identify our individual needs and ask how can we help each other succeed?