Art history has been one of the big academic growth areas of the last half century. In 1950, you could only study it in three British universities: the figure now stands at around 50. For many years Oxford and Cambridge refused to take it seriously, only offering the subject as the second part of a degree. Both have now jumped on the bandwagon and offer full courses. Although the number of university applicants recently dipped by around 10 per cent, this year's opening of Lottery-funded museums is likely to fuel further expansion.
So the provision of books to students and art lovers is increasingly big business. Tate Modern, when it opens on Bankside in May, will boast the world's biggest art bookshop. Potentially the most lucrative area is the introductory survey. The best-selling art book of all time is Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art (Phaidon, pounds 19.95). Since 1950, it has sold over 6 million copies.
Oxford University Press is now trying to muscle in on this market. The Oxford History of Western Art is edited by Martin Kemp, Professor of Art History at Oxford, and includes contributions by 51 scholars. OUP have come out with all guns blazing. A polemical press release, which slighted the authors of rival works, has already prompted a scathing rebuke in Private Eye.
Kemp himself makes no bones about the iconoclastic nature of his magnum opus. Instead of a hagiographic plotting of individual careers, the emphasis is on the contexts within which artists worked. There are sections devoted to the settings for art, from churches and piazzas to museums, and to interpreters of art - historians and critics. Discrete sections discuss "lesser" forms such as prints, photographs and the decorative arts.
While some of the essays - especially on the non-canonical artforms - are impressive, it feels like a work in progress rather than the finished article. OUP hasn't heard the old adage "too many profs spoil the broth". This is a babel of different tongues with far too much repetition, inconsistency, and some extraordinary omissions. The design is poor, with illustrations bunched in chaotic groups rather than keyed into the text.
It is also full of slack writing. which should have been edited. Thus the Great Altar at Pergamon (c.160 BC) is said to be "in an operatizing, `baroque' mode"; a Bronzino panel painting is included in a section on painting on canvas; we hear that in 1906-7 Picasso "sought to tap more primal reservoirs"; Cornelia Parker's installations are "somewhat discretely and sometimes insistently spectacular." Such sloppiness is worrying in any book but, in an introductory survey, it is fatal.
With the more innovative aspects, it is a case of "what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away". Kemp's introduction states that the separate sections on the print stress that "one of the `lesser arts' played a hugely significant role in conveying imagery to an over- widening audience". This point appears to find confirmation when we are told in a later essay that Raphael "is said" to have hung Durer's prints around his studio.
But drawings played an equally important role in the diffusion of styles. Raphael and Durer exchanged drawings, and we know that Raphael was most impressed of all by a "marvellous" Durer self- portrait in gouache and watercolour. …