Wolff, Janet. “Excess and Inhibition: Interdisciplinarity in the Study of Art.”
Cultural Studies. Eds. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., Treichler, P. Routledge, New York, 1992. 706-718.
In her 1992 work “Excess and Inhibition: Interdisciplinarity in the Study of Art”, Janet Wolff searches for the true realization of “and” when engaging with or producing interdisciplinary research. How do disciplines effectively cross and profoundly inform each other? Her initial argument is found in the relationship between art and sociology. She finds art history scholars who incorporate sociology for a social understanding of art and sociology scholars examining art from its own perspective, both with little regard to the methodologies and theories encompassed and applied by the other. A prime reason for failure to do so is due partly due to “the intense specialization within disciplines and of the exaggerated separation between them (706).” Truly effective and informed interdisciplinary instruction, for Wolff, requires the integrated use of methods and theoretical/analytical frameworks from more than one academic discipline to co-examine not only the text but also the living culture and processes of what is being analyzed.
She makes clear that images and art do not simply reflect and reinforce social ideologies; they participate in the discourse to actively produce these ideologies and social relations. Traditional disciplines handle art history as an instrument not unlike a mirror in a room, used to represent and reflect, while Wolff argues that the arts are not a disparate outlying object – they are a major support beam, integral to holding the foundation and structure of the room together. Wolff asks how we challenge existing discipline boundaries to also move away from the text as a primary informer – for her, this is the excess. Interdisciplinarity often equals intertextuality and little else with many scholars in traditional disciplines. She also challenges the reality of textual analysis still being prized over analysis of social relationships and provides for us the example of “images of women” in art, wherein the representation itself actually composes the concept of man/woman. Images of women in the historical art canon were studied as if they simply reflect and reinforce the idea of “woman”, when these images are actually complicit in the process to produce ideologies, marking, production and relations of gender. Wolff provides a choice: we can either focus on understanding social reality through language, text and discourse or through the hermeneutics of interaction and communication to form The Social and how it works to explode the text and explore the outliers and boundaries of institutionalization. Most movement towards this end, she points out, are student-led rather than university-led endeavors.
To this end, Wolff also addresses roadblocks that are set up by traditional disciplines – for Wolff, this is the inhibition - so that culture studies, humanities, and the arts do not overstep bounds by exploring the boarders and, in doing so, besmirch the ensconced disciplines they are seeking to extend - “without proper scientific (that is quasi-scientific) controls, it would provoke reprisals for illegitimately crossing the territorial boundary (714).” In reference to institutionalizing cultural studies, Wolff expresses the need for cultural and aesthetic studies to work fluidly within and with traditional disciplines, stating, “Any critical practice must exist in constant and close contact with those cultural forms it is interrogating (714).” Yet, there is concern expressed about how we keep cultural studies and art history timely, not allowing it to become another conservative discipline. Wolff’s call to action asserts the need for aesthetic and cultural disciplines to expose institutional biases, destroy the myth of the masterpiece, explore the true nature of social production, locate systems of signification in the boundaries of culture, and explode the possibilities of interpretation. She warns that the inability to do so will only serve to maintain the status quo and create more iterations of it within the cultural and aesthetic realm.