Could Archives Democratize Art History?

By Kealey Boyd, in response to the Tilt West Roundtable on Art in Time: Permanence, Ephemerality, & Preservation

Tilt West’s April 2018 Roundtable on Art in Time. Photo credit: Tya Anthony

In September, 2016, New York Magazine published, “The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art,” written by Jerry Saltz in response to the exhibition The Keeper at the New Museum. The show was a nesting doll of exhibition history, containing various imagined museums and personal collections in different techniques of display. The thirty exhibition contributors did not self-identify as artists or consider the work in the show to be art. In fact, only a small portion of the objects were on loan from art museums. Saltz highlighted that the makers and their expressions attempted to be non-linear, label-defying short-circuits of formulaic institutional critiques — a system he dubbed Zombie Art History. Saltz argued that classification systems within the discipline of art history are not adapting or adaptable to the frontiers of contemporary art.

Saltz’s claim is both significant and the walking-dead of arguments made by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Svetlana Alpers decades ago. However, when Derrida meditated on the limitations of classifications of knowledge, he explicitly extended his analysis to include the concept of the archive, as in his book Archive Fever (1995). Jerry Saltz did not confront archival theory in his review, which is unfortunate, since it is an intellectual space that has responded rapidly to the concerns of his predecessors. Archives have the potential to be an unexpected foil for historical silos of information. Especially with the advent of community archives that are driven by public submissions, archives may be our best weapon in the battle for an inclusive record of artistic practice.

What Derrida debated and Saltz revived by proxy is the suspicion artists have about the authority, transparency, and neutrality of archives. At a recent Tilt West roundtable on Art in Time: Permanence, Ephemerality & Preservation, archivist and Founding Director of Denver’s community archive, ArtHyve, Jessie de la Cruz addressed the ways that archives have historically betrayed the record by omission. The group discussion that ensued revealed how contemporary artists perceive the value of the archive today. The shadow of the past looms large over archive theory, prompting a drastic destabilization of the visual arts archive since the late 20th century. According to Marleen Manoff in her essay “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines,” archival theory — from the visual arts to the sciences — explores terms and concepts such as “social archive,” “the raw archive,” “the imperial archive,” “the postcolonial archive,” “the ethnographic archive,” “the geographical archive,” “archival consciousness,” and “archive cancer.” These terms reveal why so many artists — such as Fred Wilson, Mary Kelly, and Xiaoze Xie, to name a few — have found archival materials to be such a rich creative reservoir. The terms also demonstrate the extent to which the field of critical archival research is now working to address a problematic past.

Jessie de la Cruz, Founding Director of ArtHyve, at the Roundtable on Art in Time. Photo credit: Tya Anthony

Questions of ownership do still linger around the archive. Who owns the collection of artifacts? Who controls its presentation and mobility? At the Tilt West roundtable, performance artists asserted a desire that no one should own or record anything. Documentation of ephemeral modes of art production like performance can be elevated to art and assume a commodity value, so I understand the source of their distrust. However, the argument that the pitfalls of the art market or even time can be evaded by street artists or performers is confronted from within that community by artist Vito Acconci in Performance after the Fact (1993): “On the one hand, performance imposed the unsaleable onto the store that the gallery is. On the other hand, performance built that store up and confirmed the market-system: It increased the gallery’s sales by acting as window-dressing by providing publicity.” How an artwork reverberates into the market can’t be constrained, despite the artists’ best intentions. Creating a record of the contributors, the spaces, and the immediate impact of a performance event is manageable for future generations.

Another source of resistance to archives may reside in the skepticism some artists feel toward their own abilities to narrate their work. The temptation to edit out one’s failures and fears may be too great to resist, demonstrating that the only thing more flawed than memory is ego. As De la Cruz put it, “The art is the hero; the archive is the man — the flawed man — the human story. It is the trace of the body, the trace of the mind.” Her assertion recalls Sigmund Freud’s metaphor of the “Mystic Writing Pad.” The child’s writing pad allows marks with a stylus that are only visible when the waxy sheet is in contact with the reverse side of plastic. Although marks can be erased by separating the two surfaces, the trace of impressions never really leaves the dark deposit sheet. Freud leveraged this analogy to claim that every experience we have is informed by the traces of prior experiences. In this context, any work of art can be read as the culmination of many previous “marks.” Artists cannot always see these connections in their own work. For this reason, the interpretation of an archive is outside the control of the artist, and with each generation it will be reevaluated.

In “The Politics of the Liberal Archive,” historian Patrick Joyce insists that the modern archive can be the cornerstone of a free and informed society. We must preserve the past, because we cannot predict the future. Our collective memory starts with gathering the testimony of individuals. Photos, invoices, and journal entries can all provide insight into an artist’s interior world while also revealing chronological and geographic context, rivalries, collaborations, and important collectors. Inclusion, a term broadly used and under-executed, requires the participation of everyone in order to avoid the symbolic annihilation of certain groups of people from the artistic record. Inclusion insists on action rather than philosophizing about its benefits. This effort doesn’t necessarily have to start with large museums, which often have a top-down approach to staffing and programming. Instead, it can begin with individuals and organizations choosing to proactively contribute to the historical record. A community archive like ArtHyve provides such a platform. Archives like it represent hope for the democratization of art history.


Kealey Boyd is an art historian, writer and museum educator. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic and has published art criticism with College Art Association (CAA Reviews), ArtBeat Magazine, and Artillery Magazine. She is also a lecturer in Art History at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Her research interests include methodologies for interpreting painting and other visual forms as an integral element of political and cultural discourses.


Tilt West’s mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture through live events and publishing efforts. We aim to provide a platform for inclusive community discussion and debate on a range of issues relevant to cultural production in Colorado and beyond. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of the organization. For more information about our programs, including audio recordings of roundtable discussions, go to our website: tiltwest.org.