Revising the canon, one yawn at a time
Post #747 • March 7, 2006, 10:54 AM • 16 Comments
This item (see also ModKix) gives me the opportunity to rail against one of the bugbears of my early life as an artist: Janson's History of Art. The new authors have revised a quarter of it, dropping some artists in favor of others and creating the expected discussion about the canon. I doubt that they will address a greater underlying flaw with the work: it is a trial to read. Bernini could turn stone into flesh. Janson could turn Bernini into mud:
Bernini's David shows us what distinguishes Baroque sculpture from the sculpture of the two preceding centuries: its new, active relationship with the space it inhabits. It eschews self-sufficiency for an illusion - the illusion of presences or forces that are implied by the behavior of the statue. Because it so often presents an "invisible complement" (like the Goliath of Bernini's David), Baroque sculpture has been denounced as a tour de force, attemtpting assentially pictorial effects that are outside its province. The accusation is pointless, for illusion is the basis of every artistic experience, and we cannot very well regard some kinds or degrees of illusion as less legitimate than others. It is true, however, that Baroque art acknowledges no sharp distinction between sculpture and painting. The two may enter into a symbiosis previously unknown, or, more precisely, both may be combined with archiecture to form a compound illusion, like that of the stage.
Eschews self-sufficiency for an illusion? Presences or forces? "Invisible complement" quotes whom? Who denounced Baroque sculpture? If the accusation is pointless, why are we discussing it? Symbiosis previously unknown? And on it goes, crawling down a nigh-thousand page road to oblivion, paved with sclerotic phrasing, unattributed thoughts, unfelt arguments, passive sentences, and flaccid parallels.
In one of the few disservices that RISD did me, the department acknowledged my advanced placement credit in art history but felt that their survey was too important for any student to miss, in a sense crediting me for material I hadn't covered while not crediting me for material I had. In a darkened hallway with 400 fellow captives, I looked at slide after slide while some dreadfully uninspired speakers intoned away into the space in front of them. One of them had me wondering for a week where the artist Ang was in the book; "Ingres" lay beyond her powers of enunciation. Another professor punctuated her speech with 'um' so frequently that a fellow student tried counting them, only to lose track in the middle three digits. Janson's was assigned, and the combination of presentation and material caused me think for the next three years that art history wasn't worth knowing.
We ought to think about whether the dismal slog through art history exemplified by Janson's paved the way, stylistically, for the ascension of Postmodernist writing about the subject during the latter 20th Century. You don't have far to go to get from Janson's "invisible complement" to Derrida's present absence - bad writing clears the way for bad thinking. When the new Janson's authors dropped Whistler's Mother and included Chris Ofili, it was a shame, but unless the seventh edition features markedly better writing than the third, ultimately the new inclusions and exclusions are just a fresh coat of make-up on a corpse.