Art history is young?

March 4 2013

Image of Art history is young?

Picture: Thames & Hudson

I'm interested, but also slightly baffled, by a new book called, 'The Books the Shaped Art History: From Gombrich and Greenberg to Alpers and Krauss'. Interested because it sounds like a worthwhile, and worthy read, and baffled because it assumes art history began in about 1900, as summed up in this review by Jackie Wullschlager in the FT:

 Art history is more nervous and self-doubting than any other humanities discipline. The reason is obvious. Literary, political and social historians all use words to analyse other words – texts, documents, archives. But art historians grapple in the rational tool of language with material far less ordered. It will always be an uneasy mix.

Art history is also young. It lacks foundational texts like Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria or Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Until the 20th century, writers on art offered partisan, if sometimes brilliant, commentaries on their own or recent times – Vasari on the Italian Renaissance, Ruskin on Turner. The Books that Shaped Art History, a path-breaking volume emerging from a series in The Burlington Magazine, explores through a focus on 16 works how the discipline evolved after 1900.

Now then. Art has had its histories ever since Pliny wrote about Zeuxis. What is new, (in a post-1900 sense) is the determination to theorise art, often based on no historical evidence at all. Happily, for those who like to theorise, the fact that art history revolves primarily around images, as opposed to documents, allows scope for endless, hard to contradict supposition on what pictures 'mean'. In part, this reflects a curious lack of historical skills on the part of art historians, for very often key documents exist, but are neither found nor used. Mostly though it reflects the fact that, in some quarters, art history has become a form of illustrated sociology.

If I was teaching an art history course, I would begin lesson one with this resonant quote from Turner: 'Have you read Ruskin on me? [...] He sees more in my pictures than I ever intended!'

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.