The Intelligence of Art

Article excerpt

THOMAS CROW

The Intelligence of Art

Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 120 pp.; 12 color ills., 34 b/w. $34.95

The Intelligence of Art is the first publication of the Bettie Allison Rand Lectures in Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The book's four chapters treat art and its art historians in relation to four episodes in the history of European capitalism, capitalism's stirrings in the 12th century, its colonial expansion, its relation to iconoclasm in American Northwest Coast art, in the German Reformation, and in pre-Revolutionary France, where iconoclasm was to assume new, modern forms. For Crow, art does not simply change by itself (the old formalist view), and it is more a refraction than a reflection of its economic base; accordingly, the "intelligence of art" is a certain socioeconomic intuition about historical circumstances, most evident during times of sudden wealth, which are also periods of "volatility," when status becomes more fluid and anxiety therefore mounts together with expressions of social difference in increased artistic production (a situation presumably like the present). The best art is made under these volatile conditions, and the best scholarship is about that art. The authors Crow considers-- Meyer Schapiro, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Michael Baxandall-are variously construed as contributors to the development of a structuralist social art history. Crow's final chapter applies his structuralist principles to the practice of iconography, and the four essays are presented as an urgent alternative both to what he regards as the pedantry of earlier scholarship and to the present misdirected excesses of poststructuralist interpretation. The book is thus a manifesto and an essay in method, in which case studies create the effect of close inference as works of art and exemplary scholarship are adapted to the author's developing thesis.

The book begins with the problem of addressing works of art or, as Crow calls it, the making of a paraphrase. Once the artwork is set in an explanatory scheme, its uniqueness is inevitably "sacrificed" (the theme of sacrifice is a leitmotiv). Biography is "violent" because it sacrifices work to artist, and a second "impersonal" phase in the history of art, primarily concerned with schools and lines of descent, unfortunately has degenerated into the pursuit of formal and textual models beyond "any plausible notion of human agency in the fashioning of art" (p. 105 n. 1). Such "source mongering" (Crow's dismissive phrase for art historical pedantry but also, and more importantly, for attention to broader diachronic pattern in general) was corrected when modern (post-Romantic) art became recognized as worthy of full art historical study; it then became possible for two generations of art historians to engage in a "broadly social-historical project." According to Crow, it is easier to fit image to text and circumstances (and easier to fall into the trap of false erudition) in earlier than later periods. The historian of modern art must "compare some colored pigments on a canvas with vast events like the Industrial Revolution, mass urbanization, or mechanized warfare" (p. 3). If I understand this assertion, it means that the example of modernism broadened the vision of, say, medievalists to questions of art and feudalism, much as the historicist dialectical grand narratives and reductive determinisms of Hegel and Marx are themselves woven into the fabric of modernism. However that may be, having weathered the resistance of the old guard, the new social art history was soon confronted by the even more threatening reaction of those "sailing under the fraying flag of postmodernism" (pp. 3-4). These unnamed speculators deny that history has any intelligible pattern at all and have shifted interest from the disciplines of social and economic history to the "literary academy," to "abstruse theories of language" (p. …