Introduction: Two Cultures?
What we conventionally call an “event” in history is simply a
segment of the endless web of experience that we have torn out of
context for purposes of clearer understanding.
H. Stuart Hughes, History as an Art and Science
William M. Ivins, Jr., the Curator of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1916-1930 notes in his book Prints and Visual Communication that “[i]t is amusing to think how few of the great weavers of aesthetic theory had any familiar first-hand acquaintance with works of art and how many of them either … knew the art they talked about only through engravings, or else sieved their ideas out of the empty air”1 (Ivins 1978: 174). Indeed earlier historians of art as well as writers on aesthetic theory often built their expertise upon a limited knowledge base personally and were aided in their studies by textual sources that were likely to rest on less exposure to the actual works than many of the globe-trotting public of today. Similarly, before the nineteenth century academic education about visual art was likely to rely on textual description more than actual engagement with the objects studied, although in some cases casts or a print depicting an original painting might be available to someone who could not travel. Ivins sums up the predicament well, writing:
Whenever we read a book, especially about art, archaeology, or
aesthetic theory, written prior to about the beginning of the first
world war, it is well to ask ourselves to what extent the writer had
both a dependable memory and a first-hand acquaintance with the
objects he referred to, to what extent he knew them through
1 This is accentuated when we consider that visual information circulated less historically than our sense of it in our visually saturated culture. Ivins estimates that the number of printed pictures produced between 1800 and 1901 was probably considerably greater than the total number of printed pictures that has been produced before 1801 (Ivins 1978).