James Elkins

It is notoriously true that art historians virtually never look at the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the British Journal of Aesthetics, or the Zeitschrift für Aesthetik—not to mention the twenty-odd other aesthetics journals published throughout the world. Most developments of interest to art history are reported in its own journals, and when artists are discussed in the pages of aesthetics journals, the essays are not consistently cited in subsequent art historical literature.

Imagine two societies that live on distant islands—call them Ah and Ae. (“Ah” for art history, “Ae” for aesthetics.) Although they are neighbors in their archipelago, they are very far apart, so that they are just barely visible to one another in good weather. One day, a trader arriving from Ah carries with him a request from the people on Ah for a picture of their own island as it appears from Ae, and he brings with him a picture that had been made on Ah, purporting to show the island Ae. No one on Ae recognizes the odd shapes in the drawing, but they comply anyway, and after a time the trader returns with the message that no one on Ah recognized their island in the strange picture sent over from Ae. People on the two islands study the drawings, and conclude that it is probably best to stay where they are, since the people on the other island clearly can’t draw, and they may not even be able to see straight. For diplomacy’s sake they even send some letters back and forth, arguing about whose representation is worse, and they end up deciding that the members of the opposite tribe have no idea how to talk about pictures to begin with.

Why Don’t Art Historians Attend Aesthetics Conferences? (PDF file)

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