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What's the 'Social' in the Social History of Art?

Gail Day
University of Leeds

Steve Edwards
Open University

Andrew Hemingway
University College London

Margaret Thatcher famously observed: "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." Among the things this ideological gem exposes is that despite their naturalization in vernacular parlance, 'society' and the 'social' are deeply contested theoretical categories. Even the relationship between the noun and the adjectival form is unfixed, since although practitioners of the social history of art, broadly conceived, seem comfortable with 'social', it is less clear that many of them have, or indeed, want a theory of society. In actuality, within the broad range of practices covered by the term, its adherents draw on a range of different theoretical models including several Marxist variants and a range of concepts derived from thinkers as diverse as Bourdieu, Foucault, Giddens, Simmel, Weber, Badiou, Negri and Žižek. In the English-speaking world, many simply fall back on commonsensical empiricism. This session explores the idea that art history as a discipline would benefit from more clarity and more debate about the 'social' and the work it does in art-historical explanation. To this end, we invite papers that consider the value or problems of particular theories, the causal functions of structure and totality, the character of determination and its mediations, and the relationships between different categories of social division such as class, gender, race etc. Papers may take the form of general theoretical expositions or case histories. This session is related to an on-going research project on the social history of art as a model.