At the SAH meeting in Glasgow last June, as I ran into old friends or met new people, the topic of my appointment as JSAH editor kept coming up. Congratulations were regularly followed by variations on a perfectly reasonable yet still vexing question. “What,” some well-meaning person would ask, “is your vision for the journal?” Ill prepared for this question despite its predictability, I would mutter a few half-cooked phrases, watch as a brittle, God-help-us smile spread across my interlocutor's face, and then wait uncomfortably for another topic to touch down like a life buoy amid the drowning. The truth is, my vision at that point—a volatile mixture of grandiosity and self-abasement familiar to many academics—extended little beyond wanting desperately not to be the person responsible for sinking a venerable seventy-five-year-old publication.
I need not have worried: one way or another, JSAH—by now the collective effort of thousands of people over three quarters of a century—has its own momentum. It will endure. Editors, meanwhile, come and go.
But while we are in place we are given a considerable trust, and a bully pulpit if we choose to use it. Having finally gained a handle on the journal's basic operations, I recently returned to the question of what, if any, my broader vision for JSAH might be. A quote from Michael Baxandall sprang to mind. Responding in 1979 to the “hortatory and peremptory” nature of the discussion around what was then called “the new art history,” Baxandall wrote: “I dislike being admonished. … What I do like is there being a manifold plurality of differing art histories, and when some art historians start telling other art historians what to do, and particularly what they are to be interested in, my instinct is to scuttle away and existentially measure a plinth or reattribute a statuette.”1 If Baxandall can be chided for putting himself above the fray (and threatening to flee it altogether), his comment also signals a dread of dogma or, more affirmatively, a willingness to let others proceed as they might and the benign expectation that they will do so in good faith, even when their paths run counter to our own. This may strike some readers as a dubious flexibility, a lack of ideological or methodological commitment, yet it seems to me a sound basis on which to operate a journal whose writers and readers come from around the world and whose interests and outlooks range widely across time, place, and persuasion.
Because JSAH is the journal of record for our field, I intend as editor to be more reactive than proactive, responding to what is submitted more than commissioning pieces according to my own interests or observations. As ever, careful, reliable research is expected; so too are professional integrity, seriousness of purpose, and respect for our material. Methodological experimentation is encouraged, as is the creative application of new tools and questions. I welcome commentary and opinion, along with spirited, civil debate. And, as both a reader and an editor, I care as much about literary matters as I do about scholarly ones. I value clarity and freshness of expression, writerly craft, effectiveness of communication, engagement with audience, and thoughtful storytelling. Academic prose is often lambasted, and fairly enough; I side with those who maintain that there is no inherent contradiction between good scholarship and good writing.2 JSAH should be a good read, accessible and engaging to intelligent, curious people both inside and outside our organization and the disciplines we represent. If none of this is new to the journal, still it bears repeating.
For those who have not already taken up their plinths and statuettes, I will end by saying that bully pulpits are in no short supply these days; if nothing else, the digital age has granted us a surfeit of them, most generating loads of sound and fury but little of immediate or lasting consequence. A journal like ours is different. The depth and extent of its impact outside the field is difficult to determine, and even inside, its influence is often slow and indirect. But it is built to last. Asteroids and epidemics notwithstanding, there is no reason this issue should not still be available in one form or another a century from now. And as with any good scholarly journal, its authority comes not from amplified volume or emotion but from the calm, reasoned analysis and interpretation of hard-earned evidence. In an era when so many of our information platforms are offering precisely the opposite—conflating opinion and conjecture with fact, fostering ever more polarized communities of the like-minded—it seems to me more crucial than ever that scholarship once again prioritize objectivity and balance, all the while acknowledging that we rarely if ever hold all the facts and that we might well be wrong. We do this knowing that our backgrounds and biases will inevitably color the things we do and say and that the line between truth and fiction looks increasingly thin and porous; sometimes, we might go so far as to cross it deliberately for effect. But it is important that we recognize and maintain that line, even as others doubt or defy its existence.
I would like to think that all of this is wholly uncontroversial, though I read enough comment threads to suspect otherwise.