Art History's History Gets a New History

It's rare that a new general history of art history appears.  The discipline is so flooded with narratives and partial narratives and metanarratives that few scholars would consider writing a general history of art history.  If anyone were capable, it would be the author of the most recent history, Christopher S. Wood, The History of Art History (Princeton University Press, 2019).  This NYU professor has distinguished himself with other volumes in art historiography, most notably, The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s, and as the editor of English translations of important art histories such as Erwin Panofsky's Perspektive als symbolische Form and Otto Pächt's Practice of Art History.  Wood's writing has always been precise and insightful and this book should be no different.

The problem with writing a global narrative of a relatively recent formal discipline is threefold.  First, who is an art historian, an issue this dictionary struggles with contantly. A writer of art histories?  An organizer of art types?  An art museum administrator?  Should ritics be included?  Second, how should such a work be organized.  Chronologically runs the risk of forcing the threads of art histories into a single linear string, ignoring how methodologies tooks hold at different times and in different countries.  Organizing by country or genre or methodolgy tends to be a confusing jumble as influences overlap so much.  A third quadary is what to do with range of media associated with visual histories.  Are Italian seventeenth-century commentors on Roman sculpture to be grouped in the same story as nineteenth-century British architectural historians?  Is the history of gardens part of art history, of the decorative material culture objects?  It takes more than just a good scholar to force what inevitably must be an artificial structure onto a study which sprang, not from theory, but from necessity of organizing collections.

The late Gene Kleinbauer's Modern Perspectives in Western Art History was a serious but short stab for English-language readers, infused with personal observations which were hard to separate from facts.  Udo Kultermann's English translation of Geschicte der Kunstgeschicte set down a longer narrative but somewhat less thoughtful than Kleinbauers.  Germain Bazin's Histoire de l'histoire de l'art --never translated, delved deeply into French art historians, but with an organization accounting for museums and ignoring historians of more minor texts which nevertheless had huge influences. Heinrich Dilly's series of volumes on art histories and his principal history, Kunstgeschichte als Institution was an intellectual view of art history based upon the formal organizations it left behind.  Wood's scholarship has always been one of finding patterns or themes of art history rather than forcing the commonly agreed platitudes of its evolution.  We hail this new appearance and look forward to its contribution.

 

Lee Sorensen

Wednesday, September 25, 2019