On the second day of the Historians of Islamic Art Association’s Fifth Biennial Symposium, Jeremy Johns’ keynote speech offered a poignant and critical analysis of the state of affairs of the art historical field. Johns, a professor at the Khalili Research Centre at The University of Oxford, began his speech with news clips about the recent abolition of art history from A-level testing. Johns relayed the argument put forward by journalists and pundits that, “art history is too posh,” which he illustrated with a photograph of The Duchess of Cambridge admiring an Old Masters’ painting.
This introduction asked the audience to consider why art history is not easily shared with the public and why art history of the Islamic worlds are even more obscure to the general public? Between this cohort of renowned scholars, we often forget that this discourse has relevance and urgency for people both inside but also outside of the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Research Forum. Johns’ keynote examines these questions thoroughly. He hypothesized that art history has diverted from the actual object. He posited that studying visual culture is actually just the practice of studying “things” and the “making of things.” Johns asserts that art history must return to this rudimentary goal in order to succeed in today’s trying times
Johns focused his first example on the famous Umayyad frescos of Qusayr Amra. He asserted that the new studies of these images and inscriptions were only made possible after the extensive cleaning and restoration of the site. This cleaning allowed for previously held beliefs on the iconographies of early Islam to be debunked. He then compared this issue with a well-researched site – the 12th century Capella Palatina in Palermo, Italy. This royal chapel, although well known and studied by art historians, is consistently confronted with breakthrough discoveries. As historians return to the architecture itself, they are finding more missing pieces to the puzzle. Ironically, the answers were right under their noses the entire time. In comparing these two historical sites, Johns demonstrated that the constant reexamination of objects and the ways they are produced can shed new light on human civilisation and tradition.
Johns speech then changed tone to examine his most recent collaborative project with the Labratory of Tribology and Dynamic Systems in Lyon. The project analyses and reconstructs archaeological techniques of artistic production. He found in his research on rock crystal art forms that there is a divide between practice of craft and knowledge of art. He asserts that there is an inextricable link between the physical labour of making art and the beauty, soul and originality of the finished product. In the Islamic sense in particular, this difference has a spiritual and divine context, elevating the art to a new level of importance. Johns closed with a touching anecdote about his family, more specifically, his grandfather who was an antiquing man. He taught Johns the importance of the tangibility of items and the desire for humans to work with such things.
As art historians, we have a duty to travel through time and different cultures and translate these past desires for the present. Johns’ speech truly resonated with the audience, from the most accomplished art historian in the room to the most junior like myself. His speech showed to me that the history of art is both reliant on the previous studies of others, but it also can and must evolve.