'Art in History: 600 BC to 2000 AD', by Martin Kemp - Review

By Bayley, Stephen | The Spectator, February 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

'Art in History: 600 BC to 2000 AD', by Martin Kemp - Review


Bayley, Stephen, The Spectator


Art in History: 600 BC to 2000 AD Martin Kemp

Profile Books, pp.232, £8.99, ISBN: 9781781253366

My career at school and after was greatly enhanced by a series of books called The Bluffer's Guide to ....These gave mischievous advice, often on the reliable when-in-doubt-confuse-the-issue lines. A favourite of mine, still in use in emergencies, was: 'I think Jack Kerouac was more a Franciscan Christian than Buddhist, don't you?'

Martin Kemp's Art in History is several clicks up the ratchet of sophistication, but, being a beginner's guide, retains something of the character of a prop for the indolent. The curious title betrays a little uncertainty. It is one of the publisher's 'Ideas in Profile' series which includes Shakespeare, Criticism and Politics. But why the preposition between 'art' and 'history'? Why not just call it 'Art'? I mean to say, they didn't call the other titles Shakespeare in Theatre, Criticism in Literature or Politics in Government.

Perhaps this is because art historians are an insecure lot. Although Kemp, who is Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Oxford and an authority on Leonardo, is more secure than most and would perhaps disagree, art history can never quite decide what it is. The streams which fed its deep pools of sensitive experts included connoisseurship and attribution, history of ideas, Hegelian dialectic and, lately, deconstructionist palaver. It's not really a coherent discipline at all, although, I concede, they once said that about English Literature too.

I know this because, being bad at drawing and very bad at maths, in an adolescent crisis of confusion, I abandoned architecture and defaulted to art history. As Hunter Thompson said of something else, it was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids. My course was populated entirely by well-spoken girls headed for the art trade: it is the only humanities subject which is a good training for business. Despite the increasing presence of loopy 'theoreticians' in the current practice, it is a very conservative subject. One would, not, after all, wish for Christie's assumptions about value to be questioned.

Kemp has, for whatever reason, not been tempted into any original interpretation of his subject. His explanation follows the established historical sequence of Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, Modern and Post-Modern (although his chapters have different titles). Each begins, I think unpromisingly, with lengthy excerpts from profoundly respectable source material: Pliny, William Durandus (Bishop of Mende, since you ask), Vasari, André Felibien, Jonathan Richardson, Eugène Delacroix, Baudelaire, Marinetti and one Douglas Crimp (who may or may not be profoundly respectable; he was new to me too).

Art in History comprises very well-informed, but rather windy and prolix, accounts of familiar material, conventionally organised. …

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