I've been reading the new on-line journal, Republics of Letters- thanks to the Art History Newsletter for the link. There's an article with the provocative title: Is Theory Dead? By "theory", we're talking French modern philosophy as expounded by such intellectual superstars as Foucault, Derrida et al. For me, theory is well and truly alive. I'm contributing an article on the French art historian Hubert Damisch to a forthcoming volume on French visual theory, and I attend interdisciplinary conferences which feature experts on such names as Jean Luc Nancy. Talking to delegates at these events, I get the sense that other disciplines want to engage with art historians. We're seeing more theory-orientated panels at art history conferences, like the very good one on Nancy that was held at CAA this year.
French modern theory was very much around me in my university years: I took courses on poststructuralist theory, Foucault etc while I was a student at Sussex University, the U.K. nucleus for poststructuralism in those days. At that time, theory was nearing the end of its golden age; apart from attacks from traditionalists within the academy, politicians were planning to launch attacks on departments which they saw as left-wing, and potentially subversive. Some of those lecturers in critical theory saw the writing on the wall and decamped for the promised land- and larger salary cheques.
Theory to me revivifies art history. That's why I read in addition to Panofsky, Warburg et al, the likes of Didi-Huberman, Marin, and of course Damisch. And don't be fooled into thinking that these French theorists are interlopers in the fiercely guarded precincts of art history. Scholars like Damisch and GDH know their Panofsky and their Warburg backwards. For them, philosophical speculation, psychoanalytical dream theory and various other methodologies are art history by other means.
Art history has always been wary of theory. It started with Foucault's analysis of Velasquez's Las Meninas- above- in which the theorist threw new light on the dark corners of the masterpiece, and in the process showed the limitations of an art history without theory. I said above that there are signs that theorists from other intellectual areas want to engage with art history- but it's one way traffic. Critical theory is still far from welcome within our discipline. The conflict between art history and poststructuralism is nicely summarized in Craig Owen's Beyond Recognition. If Owens is right, it seems that theory into art history still won't go.