Book Reviews -- Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History by Stephen F. Eisenman

Article excerpt

Stephen F. Eisenman. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. 376 pp.; 51 color ills., 318 b/w. $45.00

The surest indication that what was once called revisionist art history, with its emphasis on social and ideological contexts, its intertextual readings, and its methodological tools imported from Marxism, semiotics, structuralism, psychoanalysis, etc., has moved from the periphery to the center is the recent appearance of survey texts reworked with these concerns in mind. Among these are Stephen F. Eisenman's Nineteenth Century Art, with contributions by Thomas Crow, Brian Lukacher, Linda Nochlin, and Frances K. Pohl.(1) The book immediately lays claim to a radical approach not only in the introduction, which invokes Karl Marx and Louis Althusser to distinguish its "new critical" art history, sensitive to questions of class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, from the old "purely empirical" breed, but also in the frontispiece illustration: Gustave Courbet's great 1848 portrait of Charles Baudelaire, seen subjecting his text to the closest scrutiny, a holy (or unholy) light glinting off his brow--the very model of the engaged critic. Moreover, the consonance between Eisenman and company's aspirations to a newly revitalized and tendentious history of art and the invocation of Baudelaire's example is no accident, for at the core of this study is the conviction that to raise such questions is to closely follow the lead of one of the most significant nineteenth-century mentalites, that is, the belief that representations do not illustrate but rather participate in the fashioning of the world as ideological. In this respect, the contributors to Nineteenth Century Art would do no less than the subjects of their study by thinking artistic imagery of this ideological world through the lens of a "historical and critical consciousness" (p. 13).

With such a claim, Eisenman makes an argument of both affinity and ancestry for the continued relevance of nineteenth-century studies to the contemporary reader and viewer. This argument is literally framed in his introduction by another overarching concern. Eisenman also means to put paid to the old dichotomy between content and form that has often marked (and marred) art historical study, and the newer dichotomy between social/historical contextualization and judgments of artistic quality--indeed, the two are linked in his mind. But such linkages and the sundering of such false dichotomies have still another agenda. In Nineteenth Century Art they are also bent more or less explicitly toward buttressing an edifice under considerable fire these days: the nineteenth-century art historical canon privileging the production of a French and largely male avant-garde. In Eisenman's view, the canonical positions held by Courbet, Edouard Manet, and Paul Cezanne are never more completely justified than in the context of the contextual account: "formally innovative works of visual art may in fact be judged more significant than conservative ones because they played a greater role in bringing about (or, at least, compellingly addressing) historical change" (p. 13). Eisenman's is an ambitious attempt to answer to the contemporary concerns of the discipline, which might be said in some ways to have fairly run aground on the social history of art and the not-unrelated question of canonicity in general (Eisenman takes on Albert Boime as his straw man in this respect). Whether or not you believe he succeeds in this endeavor will largely depend upon what you yourself bring to the debate. This is not to hedge my bets, although in the case of such a provocative and intensely problematic book, I might want to. Rather, I would simply suggest that I do not think it either the intent or the effect of this book to convince the unconvinced or to sway any fence sitters. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the measures of the success of such enterprises as Nineteenth Century Art is the extent to which they manage to enrage their perhaps predictable detractors. …