Preposterous Timing

Hal Foster

  • Medieval Modern: Art out of Time by Alexander Nagel
    Thames and Hudson, 312 pp, £29.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 500 23897 4
  • Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum by Amy Knight Powell
    Zone, 369 pp, £24.95, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 935408 20 8

Typically, the first job of the art historian is to slot a work of art into its proper place in time, in the corpus of the artist who made it and in the context of the world that informed its making. Usually, we rely on the notion of ‘style’ to help with this task, to connect the work to the individual manner of its creator as well as to the collective Kunstwollen (or ‘artistic will’) of its culture. As the index of the artist and the period, ‘style’ is crucial to the chronological basis of the discipline, which in turn is why anachronism, or the assigning of a work to a temporal frame foreign to it, is anathema to art history, and why ‘pseudomorphism’, or the relating of different works that merely look alike, is also problematic. Rookie mistakes, we smile when students make them, two wrenches inadvertently dropped into the academic works. It comes as a surprise, then, that some scholars now aim to redeem both errors, and to question the verities of the discipline in doing so.

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[*] In this broad scope distinctions between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ are often elided; hence my use of the hedge ‘(post)modern’. I borrow the term ‘preposterous’ from the Dutch art historian Mieke Bal, whose Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (1999) is an early instance of this interest in anachronism.

[†] In his own account of persistence in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008), Michael Fried argued that the easel painting has returned in the guise of contemporary photography, whose digital capabilities have reinvigorated pictorial concerns. For Nagel postmodernist art registers the defeat of the modern tableau, while for Fried postmodernist art is in turn defeated by the modern tableau come again.