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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.

Comment

1.

Jack

March 7, 2006, 12:02 PM

Why Franklin, don't you know that speaking plainly and intelligibly about art is not the thing? Just ask your favorite famous art authority, however imaginary. Everybody plays the game, and even in such paltry sport, some are more inept than others. It's not really about saying something worthwhile, but rather about sounding suitably fluent in artspeak, not to mention properly with-it and so forth. Image, after all, takes precedence. I'm sure any academic worth his/her salt would agree.

2.

oldpro

March 7, 2006, 12:59 PM

Well, damn, Bernini was always one of my favorite sculptors. But I certainly do not want to be accused of liking anything that might be a "tour de force".

And I better rethink the earlier sculptors I admired so, like Donatello. You can't go around admiring sculptors whose work lacks an "active relationship with the space it inhabits"

And "Baroque art acknowledges no sharp distinction between sculpture and painting"? Wow. Those folks were sharp. Pomo before their time!

Yes, the writing is marvelous indeed. All that and more in a few paragraphs.

3.

Jack

March 7, 2006, 1:14 PM

I quite agree, OP. Who wants to have his socks knocked off by by an exuberance of talent? It's so shallow and over-the top, and probably elitist to boot. No, what we need is proper theoretical underpinning and correct meaning or message. The actual work is just a tool, after all, and need not be of any particular quality. It just needs to fit into the currently favored scheme as determined by the currently sanctioned and approved savants, even if they're of the idiotic kind. Rep and status are rep and status, after all. The program rules, you know.

4.

Hovig

March 7, 2006, 3:23 PM

Last month ArtNews wrote a feature article about art history textbooks: Cannon Fodder: What's wrong with art-history textbooks? [Feb 2006]. It discusses Janson, Gardner, Gombrich and Stokstad. (The CAA even makes a guest appearance). As a non-art-school-er who's interested in the subject as an academic civilian, I'd love to hear more about these or other art-history texts.

5.

oldpro

March 7, 2006, 3:57 PM

The title was "Canon Fodder", Hovig.

If you don't teach art history or need to take it this is all moot. Art and history are uncomfortable bedfellows. Art is direct, present, experiential, and assumed by intuition. History is indirect, distant, unexperienced and assumed by memory. The process of art history, like all history, is infected by factual error and distorted by the opinions of people who often understand neither human nature nor art. Current fashions bend to politricfal correctness and sociological interpretations and that's what the histories will reflect. Down the road it will be something else.

I am thankful that art is held in such high regard and is so expensive because that is what preserves it and keeps it visible and available. History has nothing to do with art. When I look at Giotto the painting and I are always in the present.

6.

catfish

March 7, 2006, 5:18 PM

oldpro: that is the most succinct explanation of the relationship between art and art history I have ever encountered.

I can only add that a serious artist can do quite well without ever taking an art history course, whether taught as they are now or the way they were taught 40 years ago.

Janson is a long standing archetype for "the art history text". To master art history, you need never experience any art but you must experience many art history books. Janson is a good place to start because it was and is written by a committee.

7.

beWare

March 7, 2006, 9:48 PM

It sure is nice to see how Giotto led to Cubism though!

8.

eva

March 7, 2006, 10:48 PM

No... history matters. History is what makes things move. Hegel. Events drive more events. Art may not 'need' history, but it can make sense of it.
And it is loads of fun to find out what people were thinking, what they were writing at the time a piece was made. The wars, the beliefs, the whole nine yards. If you like to read old novels, too, then art history helps a heap. It enriches everything.

Sure, I can look at anything from my here and now. Thank God I can get away from it too and a hell of a lot more than that: through history.

9.

catfish

March 7, 2006, 11:59 PM

eva: history as a fact and history as an academic discipline are two different things. Hegel speculated about history as a fact. He was not a historian but a philosopher. I do not think he really made "sense" out of history but that is not my point. Certainly art does not make sense out of history. Art ignores it, like it ignores most everything but itself.

Neither art nor artists need the discipline of art history. This is such an unconventional position that even a pomo might love it.

10.

Marc Country

March 8, 2006, 1:10 AM

How do you pronounce 'ingres' then, Franklin?

11.

jordan

March 8, 2006, 3:34 AM

Ingres is pronounced and 'yahn' is denounced- spelling matters as much as following stock while broke, or being told to 'check her out' while being gay.
This blog is fun.

12.

his story

March 8, 2006, 4:04 AM

good morning be ware!

13.

beWare

March 8, 2006, 6:59 AM

Morning!

14.

Franklin

March 8, 2006, 7:00 AM

Ingres is pronounced "shar-DAY."

15.

oldpro

March 8, 2006, 1:14 PM

sort of like vichySWAZZ, right?

16.

Jack

March 8, 2006, 1:28 PM

The Ingres problem could have been easily solved by using his given names instead: Jean-Auguste-Dominique. You know, like Jean-Baptiste-Camille for Corot. Very simple, really.

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