Owens does not focus on the meaning of art and its politics, ideology, or propaganda, but on what art does and accomplishes. What does art do? Representation is not neutral. It is about power, about who is excluded and included, and more. Art history takes part in these power structures via attribution. Owens argues that because of its power, humanities like art history work in legitimizing and perpetuating Western European culture.
Western art history has defined representation in terms of absence and presence. The image is seen as a stand-in for something else, an absence whereas the presence is the replica of the image. There is a need to focus on what has been and what is concealed. Transparency reveals what has been rendered invisible. Interpreting art is all about power.
Owens focuses primarily on painting, so his argument could be fleshed out a little more. For instance, I’ve been waiting for the Indigenous Art History course at Kwantlen and I assume it will not be taught. There are not that many indigenous professors to begin with, let alone in the Fine Arts Department. Just recently, the Brooklyn museum hired a white woman as the consulting curator for African art and there has been an uproar over representation in museums and in the arts.
The Pulitzer Prize winning art critic Jerry Saltz’s instagram is refreshing to follow as he points out the failures in art history and in art criticism, focusing on censorship, sexism, politics, power and racism in the art world and in pop culture.
Following the account Renoir Sucks at Painting is a humorous reminder that not all that we are taught in art history is the truth. Maybe Renoir does suck at painting… They have some good points!
Print after Mather Brown. Portrait of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, 1788.
People of Color in European Art is an excellent resource and another reminder of what is and isn’t taught in art history classes.