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In the U.S., theory does come late to the history of art—or the history of art comes late to theory. Early on, much of the work claiming some general consequence for the discipline came very directly out of literary study through such figures as Mieke Bal, Norman Bryson, and W. J. T. Mitchell. There was of course already important theoretical work being done elsewhere in the field—most notably in —but its visibility and consequence evidently suffered more largely from the general marginality of the contemporary and modern in the discipline and so was not seen as addressing the discipline as such. When wanted an extended review of theory’s place in and implications for the history of art, it turned to Bal and Bryson. Their essay located itself firmly in semiotics and its extension toward the visual, just as Bryson’s early edited volume , subtitled (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), by and large found its readings within French literary and philosophical writing, but ignored the work of, for example, the figures associated with the journal (Yve-Alain Bois, Christian Bonnefoi, Jean Clay, and Hubert Damisch), the art critics and theorists associated with (Marcelin Pleynet and Jean-Louis Schefer), and a generation of extraordinary French classicists. It is striking also that of the major works of poststructuralist thought, the one of arguably most direct pertinence to the history of art—Lyotard’s —remains untranslated.

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Taking on the full weight of theory’s opportunities and difficulties for the history of art is not easy. It demands rethinking our curriculum, our senses of what an art historian needs to know, of how that knowledge is to be gathered, and of what it is that the art historian finally does. It demands a willingness and ability to work through particular idioms to underlying issues. It demands a full recognition that scholarship alone does not, and cannot, constitute an object or a field of inquiry. It demands a willingness to think not only about the shape of the discipline, but also about its institutional situation—to take up, for example, the question of criticism’s homelessness in the university, or to re-imagine the very shape of the borders between the history of art, studio practice, and philosophy. And it demands working on the strange, difficult, and urgent task of making room for thought in a late modern university increasingly convinced at every level that it has no greater task than purveying a certain range of commodities. If it would be comforting to imagine we knew what theory was, it would be even nicer to think our universities—our faculties—still capable of finding ways to tackle it, able to make differences that might then count.


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Literature, in its broadest sense, is any single body of written works