Art History, Oxford Style

By Lewis, Michael J. | New Criterion, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Art History, Oxford Style


Lewis, Michael J., New Criterion


Rumors of the death of the Western canon have been greatly exaggerated, and no more so than in the field of art history. There Giotto and Michelangelo, Cezanne and Picasso soldier bravely on, holding the high ground, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Paradoxically, the conservative character of art history is guaranteed by its very dispensability. The undergraduate who takes the introductory course expects, at a minimum, to get a rough inventory of the works he might one day see in Florence or in Paris. Tamper with that inventory too much, and the student is gone--no Michelangelo, no art history. As a consequence, the undergraduate has generally been spared the worst of the theoretical excesses of the new art history, at least until graduate school.

This fundamental conservatism is ratified by the principal textbooks of the discipline, above all H. W. Janson's hefty History of Art, the principal undergraduate textbook since 1962. Although the current sixth edition version is more unwieldy than ever, a $95.00 leviathan augmented by considerable new material on the art of Asia and Africa, the essential story remains intact. The stage is more crowded, and the principal figures are now shouldered in among a much larger cast of bit players, but they still hold pride of place. And the narrative still progresses in linear fashion, in which choice examples unfold in a dynamic evolutionary sequence.

So the history of art has been taught in the West since at least 1550, when Giorgio Vasari published his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Perhaps the only difference is that while Vasari presented a single strand of development, that glorious cadenza from Giotto to Michelangelo, the modern academic survey presents a number of independent lines, such as Greek art, Gothic architecture, or Modernism, each with its own internal logic and evolutionary momentum.

A progressive view of art has undoubted drawbacks. The reader learns to judge works of art not on their intrinsic qualities but on the degree to which they are progressive, and learns to disdain evolutionary dead ends--such as that art historical dinosaur, the late Gothic. But the linear sequence also has its virtues, not least of which is the literary merit of generating narrative propulsion. And it has the great intellectual merit of depicting each successive artist in vigorous and intelligent competition with his contemporaries and immediate predecessors--which approximately describes the nature of the art world through much of western history. Such has been the nature of art history from Vasari to Janson. And such is the edifice that the Oxford History of Art seeks to topple. Introduced in 1997 by Oxford University Press and edited by Simon Mason, it proposed "a comprehensive, accessible library covering all aspects of art and architecture, East and West, from ancient civilizations to Cindy Sherman." A grand total of sixty volumes was envisioned, each attractively designed, generously outfitted with color illustrations, and quite affordable (mostly paperbacks selling under seventeen dollars). To date, Oxford has published twenty-five volumes, two of which I have already used in class. It is now possible to begin to take the measure of the series--or rather, alas, to plumb its depths.

In appearance and format these books are as conventional as can be. The casual reader, flipping through the 150 or so photographs, would have little inkling that the series represents a defiant challenge to "the elitist, connoisseurial approach of the past." But this becomes abundantly clear at the table of contents, which radically rejects chronology as a basis for ordering information. Instead, chapters are arranged thematically, according to such collective abstractions as nature, community, and money (in Dell Upton's Architecture in the United States) or gender, aesthetics, and deconstruction (in Donald Preziosi's Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology). …

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