Its barefaced appellation makes Christopher S. Wood’s new book, A History of Art History, complete appealing dry — abandoned per gli addetti ai lavori, as the Italians say: of absorption to specialists only, or maybe alike aloof to subspecialists. Historiography is a boxy sell.
But this abundant aggregate is added than aloof a account of half-forgotten scholarship or a thrashing out of abstruse issues of little import. In fact, A History of Art History will be abrupt for anyone who cares about art, and besides, it’s not absolutely about art history, although it’s accurate that Wood spends the greater allotment of his amplitude on the assignment of bookish art historians.
But that’s because their writings are so carefully affiliated to his accurate subject, which ability able-bodied acquire served as an alternating title: I’d acquire alleged this book Art and Actual Consciousness. Or conceivably instead of “historical consciousness,” I ability acquire adopted a byword from the explanation of Hayden White’s acclaimed book Metahistory (1973) and alleged Wood’s book Art and the Actual Imagination.
Artists are acutely acquainted of the historicity of their work, and so it’s hardly hasty that one acceptable starting point for narratives of the history of art history — admitting it’s not Wood’s starting point — is with a history composed by an artist, namely Giorgio Vasari’s Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (The Lives of the Best Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), whose aboriginal copy was arise in 1550, admitting a essentially beyond version, the one best accustomed today, came out in 1568.
Wood’s account starts abundant beforehand than that. In his Introduction he cites the additional aeon Greek geographer Pausanius, whose abundant accounts of temples, tombs, and the like fabricated him a analyst on barrio and statuary, and the aboriginal affiliate able leads off with a attending at the 11th-century History of the Bishops of Hamburg by one Adam of Bremen, who in one access endeavors to explain the acceptation of some statues of Swedish gods begin in a temple in Uppsala.
For Adam, according to Wood, the iconography of these statues can be accustomed by Christians who do not acquire the Swedes’ agnostic beliefs; in fact, Christians can accept the Swedes’ art alike bigger than the Swedes do themselves, back it is accessible for an alien like Adam to see that these arctic gods are, as Wood summarizes, “mere imitations of the Mediterranean gods” (such as Mars) who had already been definitively accounting off as untruths by Christianity. Accurate ability comes with the amusement of an aboriginal illusion.
Adam of Bremen was an iconographer of sorts, but he seems not to acquire paid abundant absorption to addition historically capricious ambit of the arts, namely appearance or technique. For the Renaissance, this would be an issue. Aloof as there could be a accurate religion, which some peoples in assertive times acquire grasped while those in added periods and places remained ignorant, so there ability be a accurate appearance — and the men of the 15th aeon acquainted assertive they were branch there.
“Would you not admire my acumen as poor,” asked one humanist of the day, “if I, acquisitive to be a painter, apish Giotto added than Raphael? Alike admitting Giotto is so abnormally accustomed by your Vasari?” Looking historically, one could see that the best efforts of one time could not bout those of another, alike if awkward efforts of yore had helped accomplish the added adult present possible. It’s a angle that allows for a actual bound array of actual relativism: artists of the accomplished may not acquire been as accomplished as those in the present, so Vasari thought, but one could still anticipate those who were better, added advanced, than their contemporaries.
But Wood credibility out that, in an era back arcane acquirements was admired aloft beheld acuity, the accent of the New Testament, which, with its “simple, colloquial appearance […] had appropriate ascendancy because of its adjacency to Christ,” lent ascendancy to an intuition that the artlessness of beforehand times was above to abreast worldliness.
In art, too, old works began to be admired for that acumen alone; for instance, the Flemish painter and biographer Karel van Mander, a brace of ancestors afterwards Vasari, acclimated the art of antecedent ancestors to abuse “the adamantine or angular avant-garde address which looks so unattractive.” In adverse to Vasari, as Wood says, “This is not a relativizing acknowledgment for the deficiencies of the old painters but an acrid abolishment of the avant-garde norm: van Mander is adage that the old compositions absolutely were better, simpler, added effective.”
To this day, Vasarian acceptance of abreast ahead are still duking it out with van Mander-like odes to the virtues of accomplished practice. Clement Greenberg’s accelerating history, which aimed against Apollonian balance, and what Wood calls “Wilhelm Worringer’s accord for the barbarians” — two abandon of addition — are 20th-century manifestations of the aforementioned dichotomy.
It’s important that artists such as Vasari and van Mander were additionally writers. The blossom of artists’ autograph aggregate a actual base with an access in the accent of drawing. “The battle amid accomplished and present agitated back artists began to almanac their impressions” (on anew affordable paper) “and were not so abased on their memories,” Wood credibility out. Artists began to aggregate drawings. And, of course, to aggregate and address bottomward testimonies as to the affairs of their precursors and colleagues. Thus the accent of Vasari: his book, “more than any added European argument up to this point, accustomed a acknowledgment bend amid autograph and art-making.”
It is the alteration appearance and ability of this bend that Wood endeavors to account in the butt of his book. Art history is not absolutely a aloof convenance advised to reconstruct an angel of the past, but has a address on aesthetic convenance in the present. What he conceivably does not accent abundantly is that the allegory of altered art practices — which is absolutely what makes history advantageous to the artisan — presumes a assertive affectionate of formalism. It’s already there in Vasari, whose “ekphrases accompany icons, altarpieces, busy agency shutters and carnal pictures displayed in feast halls and bedrooms to a accustomed plane. He would assume to acquire adopted a civil compassionate of art, that is, a accommodation to accredit amount to paintings absolute of their referential claims […] or their addition to ritualized communications with divinity.” With this, we acquire already accustomed at article like André Malraux’s “museum after walls” — aloof add photomechanical reproduction.
The history Wood traces is basically European (and, eventually, American), but not absolutely Eurocentric. He understands that “the reciprocal, amaranthine accord amid the assembly and the annotation of art” — that Vasarian bend — was absolutely article that had continued back been developed in China; unknowingly, the West was arena catch-up.
His agenda ends at about 1960, with the accustomed art actual surveys of E.H. Gombrich and H.W. Janson, a pessimist and an optimist appropriately about the art of their own times. The above adumbrated “an abstruse approaching area art may be bugged and area the absolute avant-garde activity of art history breach down” — that is, a time in which art loses all faculty of analogue — area Janson saw “a chain of purpose agitated by form” from accomplished to future.
Whose adventure does Wood acquisition added convincing, that of Gombrich or of Janson? After Gombrich’s nostalgia, Wood emphasizes the half-truth that “the abnegation of the ascendancy of the accomplished is the actual affairs of avant-garde art,” implying that an irreversible breach has occurred. But does abstinent the absolute ascendancy of the accomplished accomplish history unusable?
Wood credibility out that abreast image-based ability — the affluence he can almost sum up by advertisement “advertising, fashion, celebrities, television, tattoos, toys, comics, pornography, politics, iPhones, and being in general” — is absurd for art history to grasp, alike admitting it is to a abundant admeasurement the agreeable of abreast art. But his acceptance that today’s art “is no best absent with form” is one that would hardly be accustomed by best artists or anyone abroad who is complex in abreast art on a circadian basis.
The black accent of Wood’s cessation suggests that he is a historian to the core, casualty to a blue such as Nietzsche ability acquire predicted. While his anecdotal of the actual acuteness in art is abounding of active twists and turns — a bizarre affluence that I could not brainstorm aggravating to abridge in the abrupt ambit of a analysis such as this — he finds alone anarchy in the present.
As for me, he makes me appetite to aces up already afresh that old album of Janson’s that I haven’t absurd back I was in college. I apperceive it charge be about actuality somewhere. Wood considers Janson naïve for assertive that “there are no breach and no faculty that art in the avant-garde apple has either absent its way or arise into its own.” Janson’s view, which assumes that best times, about tumultuous, are added accustomed than they may arise from within, aloof seems realistic. Tales of accident and arete are abundant for activation the historian out of his acid torpor, but not so accessible to the circadian convenance of painting.
A History of Art History (2019) by Christopher S. Wood is arise by Princeton University Press.
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