2001 Distinguished Scholar Session
The following article is adapted from “50+ Year Members: Profile of James S. Ackerman,” which originally appeared in the January 2001 CAA News.
James S. Ackerman
What better testament to the strength and validity of CAA than a member who has remained active for his entire career? Such is the case with James S. Ackerman, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Fine Arts Emeritus in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, who joined CAA in 1945 and continues membership today. In fact, Ackerman will be honored as the featured scholar of CAA’s first Distinguished Scholar Session at the 89th Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois.
“My idea is to speak about what has happened in the world of art history since my days as a student,” Ackerman said in a recent interview with Rebecca Deo, CAA’s director of development, marketing, and public relations. “The panelists will follow up with their views of the field.”
Long before Ackerman was known as a distinguished scholar, he began his academic career as so many of the “greatest generation” did—as a serviceman in the United States Army. Following his first year of graduate work, Ackerman was stationed in Italy at the end of World War II. While awaiting his transfer back to the US, Ackerman volunteered to serve on the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. His first assignment led to a commitment to Renaissance architecture that would later manifest in an article published in The Art Bulletin in 1949, called “‘Ars Sine Scientia Nihil Est’: Gothic Theory of Architecture at the Cathedral of Milan.” Dealing with heated theoretical discussions between Italian architects and French experts on the construction of the Cathedral of Milan, this article has been more cited than any of his career.
Eight years later, Ackerman became editor-in-chief (1956–60) of The Art Bulletin. He observed that the editorship “came at a very opportune time in my career. I was an assistant professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, and it elevated me to the management level.” Indeed, serving as the journal’s editor-in-chief provided the fodder for an impromptu speech at CAA’s annual meeting in 1958.
“During the 1958 Annual Conference in Washington, the keynote speaker became ill, so I was chosen to substitute,” he noted. “I gave a talk based on the experience of editing the articles submitted to the Bulletin, about my disaffection from the absence of a theoretical base in American art history—about its naïve positivist character, with the exceptions of Meyer Shapiro and George Kubler, who were the major figures at the time.” The talk was published in the Spring 1958 issue of CAA’s other scholarly publication, College Art Journal.
Ackerman continued to grow in academe. In 1961, he became a professor of fine arts at Harvard , where he chaired the department from 1963 to 1967 and 1982 through 1984. After retirement, students continued to benefit from Ackerman’s intellectual acumen as he worked as a visiting professor in various universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, Columbia University, and the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. CAA recognized Ackerman’s continued dedication to the profession when he was presented with CAA’s Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award in 1991.
Ackerman also has the distinction of being the recipient of yet another prestigious CAA award, the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award, given to an especially distinguished book in the history of art. He received the award in 1965 for The Architecture of Michelangelo (1961). Ackerman has an extensive publishing career in print. Ackerman is also the author of Palladio (1966), Palladio’s Villas (1967), The Villa: Form and Ideology of Country Houses (1990), Distance Points: Essays in Theory and Renaissance Art and Architecture (1991), and, most recently, Origins, Imitation, and Conventions: Representation in the Visual Arts, a collection of his studies over the last decade (published in 2002). In addition, Ackerman has directed the films Looking for Renaissance Rome and Palladio the Architect and His Influence in America. In the early 1990s, Ackerman was interviewed for an oral-history project documenting the work of art historians, produced by the Getty Foundation in collaboration with University of California, Los Angeles. “This is an exciting archive of art historians from the first half of the century—those who could be found in 1990,” Ackerman observed.
When asked about the various ways that CAA has had an impact on the field, Ackerman responded, “The programming of College Art Association meetings over the last twenty years has given emphasis to scholarly and studio approaches emphasizing difference and diversity.” He also credits CAA with promoting women in the academic art field. “Prior to World War II, the field was reluctant to give women their due, either in studio art or in the art-historical realm,” Ackerman commented.
Generously funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Ackerman’s session focused “On the Old and New Art Histories.” Held onThursday, March 1, 2001, 2:30–5:00 PM, the panel was chaired by Joseph Connors and include the following participants: Caroline A. Jones, Patricia Emison, Ingrid Rowland, and Robert Nelson.