The Interart Moment by Stephen Greenblatt

Text: Sandra Biberstein

Already in 1997, Stephen Greenblatt, literary historian and leading exponent of New Historicism, referred to the need of interdisciplinary approaches in the study of the art and media. The starting point of his short essay «The Interart Moment» is an observation he made at the University of California at Berkley, where he was teaching in the 1990s. The existing structures of the various departments of Life Sciences had been formed in a different era, so it was time to rethink them. Therefore, the dean asked each faculty member to send him a list of the five colleagues with whom they most wanted to talk about their current research. The result revealed that intellectual alignments had shifted drastically. Stephen Greenblatt reports that in a short time new departments were created and that «these are now regarded as among the jewels of scientific research in the United States.»[1]

Drawing on the analogy of the developments within natural sciences in the 1990s, he pleads for more collaboration between literary critics, art historians, musicologists and media scholars in the study of culture, past as well as present. Stephen Greenblatt illustrates the instable situation for various academic disciplines in the Humanities using his own field «that has begun to crack apart under the weight of its own imperial success»[2] as an example. As a world language English «is in the process of becoming many quite distinct languages»[3]. There are plays from South Africa, novels from India and poems from the Caribbean and also the rediscovery of nineteenth and early twentieth-century African-American writers that has transformed the English curriculum in many universities in the United States during the 1900s. Stephen Greenblatt refers not only to the pressure of this cultural realignments, he also points out that the old «great tradition» itself «has come to seem less familiar and cosily Anglocentric.»[4]

The effect that the boundary lines had faded has meant a liberation not only in the field of English studies, also in many other academic disciplines as Art History, Philosophy, Political Sciences, History, Anthropology and Film. Stephen Greenblatts’ notion of an «Interart Moment» shows the need to understand how multiple art forms and media conjoin to tell stories. Using Shakespeare as an example he shows that objects can not be treat as texts unrelated to any other from of expression. Shakespeare was a man of the theatre; he worked as a shareholder actor and playwright in his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As far as it is known, he showed no interest in publishing his plays. So Stephen Greenblatt argues that the plays «call attention to the fact that they are not simply being read but being seen, that words and images are conjoined together»[5].

As a further «crucial reason why texts must interact with images», Stephen Greenblatt names «the dominant media of our time – television, film, and popular music – depend, as did the Elizabethan theatre, upon the intersection of arts: words, images, music dance.» [6] He emphasis that because the «great art forms are largely collaborative enterprises that depend upon creators with different areas of expertise talking and working with one another»[7] it is long overdue for scholars to do the same. Stephen Greenblatt also points out that this is important «to understand not only their own contemporary cultural objects […] but also to understand the cultural objects of the past.» [8] As examples he mentions the films that the scholars or their children watch, the hypertexts that they scan on the internet, the video-installations they encounter in museums, the performance art they see in theatres. In conversations in different disciplines about this cultural objects Stephen Greenblatt saw a gesture towards a «new alignment», which he has given a term «with a deliberate air of the temporary, the hybrid, the betwixt-and-between that is exactly right for this fluid moment»[9]: «Interart».


Greenblatt, Stephen: The Interart Moment, in: Lagerroth, Ulla-Britta/ Lund, Hans / Hedling, Erik (Hg): Interart Poetics. Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media, Amsterdam 1997, S. 13-15.


[1] Greenblatt, Stephen: The Interart Moment, in: Lagerroth, Ulla-Britta/ Lund, Hans / Hedling, Erik (Hg): Interart Poetics. Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media, Amsterdam 1997, S. 13.

[2] Ibid., S. 14.

[3] Ibid., S. 14.

[4] Ibid,. S. 13.

[5] Ibid., S. 14.

[6] Ibid,. S. 15.

[7] Ibid,. S. 15.

[8] Ibid,. S. 15.

[9] Ibid,. S. 15.