Thursday, 24 August 2017

What happened to art history?

Perhaps it's a bit unfair to complain about the collection of essays, The Books that Shaped Art History (2013), since a collection describing just 16 books is very unlikely to comprise a summary of what art history (or at least, art history in the 20th century) is all about. For my own take on the books that shaped art history, see my post here

Nonetheless, there is a strong temptation to see this book as just that: what if these 16 books constituted the essential themes that art historians have been concerned with over the last 125 years or so? Before going any further, I should list the title (given here in English, for simplicity):

1.       Emile Male, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the 13th century, 1898
2.       Bernard Berenson, The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, 1903
3.       Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, 1915
4.       Roger Fry, Cézanne: A Study of His Development, 1927
5.       Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius, 1936
6.       Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public, 1951
7.       Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: lts Origins and Character, 1953
8.       Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study of ldeal Art, 1956
9.       E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1960
10.   Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, 1961
11.   Francis Haskell Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, 1963
12.   Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 1972
13.   T.J. Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, 1973
14.   Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, 1983
15.   Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1985
16.   Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: a History of the Image before the era of Art, 1990

There are many ways in which you could respond to this book. Let’s start simply by some general observations simply by looking at the list above:

·        The list comprises two monographs on individual painters, nine books that cover a specific period, two collections of essays, and three studies that follow a theme throughout art history.  None of these books covers the entirety of art history. Several of the titles do not go much beyond 1914. In other words, this is in no way a coverage of the entirety of art history.
·        Most of the content of these books is about Western art history: the classical canon, although it forms a very selective subset of it: two on medieval art, three on Renaissance art, one each on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
·       There appears to be little or no discussion of contemporary art. Rosalind Kraus is the only writer of the above to engage on postmodern art; she wrote a monograph on the sculptor David Smith, for example, but this book is very concerned with methodology, rather than engaging in an assessment of the art itself.  If any of these writers discuss performance art or other non-representational art, it isn’t mentioned in this book. In other words, much what constitutes art in the 21st century is not covered in these books. Has the art outstripped the theory, or is the theory asking the wrong questions?
·       Perhaps one of the best summaries of this book is in the introduction:

The variety of objects and approaches to art history may lead us to the conclusion that there is no golden thread neatly drawing the subject together as a ‘discipline’. Perhaps, to adapt the phrase of one great practitioner, there is really no such thing as art history, there are only art historians.

If this really was a “core library of art history”, the studious reader would hardly be equipped for a visit to, say, HEART, the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark. On a tour there last week, there was not a single representational work of art to be seen. Nonetheless, it was a rewarding gallery, providing lots to enjoy and to respond to (and it had a great cafe); but none of the books listed here would provide an introduction to what is after all a typical contemporary art collection. So what is art history for? 

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