Art Writing after the Victorians
If art writing was a luminous and influential body of literature in the nineteenth century, that prominence receded in the later twentieth century. Contemporary writing about visual arts, whether in the academy or in the press, is a professionalized kind of criticism defined in opposition to qualities we would deem “literary.”1 Few courses on post-war British or American literature would include art essays in their literary canon. Professional art writing takes a more objective tone, avoids poetic effusions, and speaks within the specialized world of its educated readers. The relative importance of art writing in culture has also changed directly in proportion to the role played by the visual arts in everyday life. Although the art world today in Britain and America is infinitely more accessible to viewers than it was in the nineteenth century, the visual arts have lost their central position as a topic necessary to assure middle-class respectability. While Victorian spectators needed a knowledge of art to cement their class status, the visual arts in the twentieth century are coded as the canons of a cultural elite, existing beyond the sphere of daily life. Today art writing works less to educate ignorant eyes than to commune with a select few already possessing a knowledge of art. This development follows out of shifts in the art world we have observed in this book, as collectors and connoisseurs—especially wealthy turn-of-the century American collectors and British connoisseurs—helped to create visual art as the ultimate commodity, signifying above all its own exquisite essence. Any close look at contemporary art writing must acknowledge its intimate link to the art market and commodity culture, perhaps more so than other kinds of academic or professional criticisms.
The trajectory of this book will suggest one way that more avant-garde or oppositional Victorian art writing participated, ironically enough, in the diminishment of its own literary role. We have seen how many art writers elevated visual form above other kinds of artistic judgment as the crowning height of aesthetic sensibility. Their efforts ensured that “the image” became the model, in modernism, for formalism in all of the arts. Although Pater and Greenberg named music the most perfectly formalist art, in fact twentieth-century artists and writers showed comparatively little interest in the innovations of modern music. Instead, modernist writers avidly followed experiments in visual arts, and used metaphors from the visual arts to frame an aesthetic of literary form. The