Saturday, 10 May 2008

best of net: THE ART CATALOG

Morgan Meis (of 3QD) reviews 30,000 years of art in The Smart Set
It’s a piece of coyness. I prefer to imagine a group of art historians sitting around a table with a sixth or seventh bottle of wine giggling to each other like schoolgirls. “Take that, art theorists! We give you a book with all art and no theory. We give you a book that says nothing and simply is what it is. We give you description and description alone. Its subject matter? The entirety of the history of art. Take that!
As with all of my "best of net" series, you should go read the original, but I will quote long sections here:
Art historians and the theorists of art have been at quiet war with one another for a long time. The theorists, per their nature, accuse the historians of “mere” scholarship. The historians, per theirs, accuse the theorists of airy speculation. But it is difficult for the historians to be vocal in their accusations. The central problem is that once you enter into the verbiage you’ve already given up a good deal of ground to the theorists. You’re fighting them on their turf and they’re going to get you tangled up in a morass of “whys.” It is as if entering into the debate at all is already to concede it. Silence, the mute labor of the scholar, is thus a potent weapon in itself. Plus, it drives the theorists to distraction, like dealing with a lover who returns your letters unopened.

This, I think, is the weapon of choice for the folks at Phaidon who put 30,000 Years together. Show, and do not tell. The lack of telling may also be due to the fact that E. H. Gombrich is dead and therefore couldn't write the preface. Gombrich, the pre-eminent art historian of the 20th century, published his book, The Story of Art, with Phaidon in 1950. It has been called the most famous and popular art book ever written. In it, he proposed to do battle with “big ideas” of every stripe. His opening to the text, a sentence of which he was forever fond, goes like this: "There really is no such thing as art, there are only artists."

Gombrich was crotchety in a lovable and straightforward sort of way and he always stuck to a basic premise: Art is about image making. Those images, he thought, can either come from the "memory image" — the clear and precise idea we have of how things look — or from the "mimetic image" — the attempt to faithfully reproduce the look of things in sensual perception. Artists, in producing images, swing from one option to the other and the history of art is nothing but the "story" of individuals producing images according to their skill in one craft or the other. Period.

The crucial thing about this view of art is that it obliterates periods. In fact, if you take his viewpoint to its logical conclusion you have to say that there isn't really such a thing as a history of art at all. (Which makes sense, since Gombrich has already said that there is no such thing as art. A history of nothing, therefore, would merely be nothing times two.) There are simply a lot of different works, they got created over time, and some of them represent the apex of skill in making visual objects.

And that, it is easy to see, is the hidden polemic behind 30,000 Years of Art. It is a book that doesn't really believe in art with a capital-A at all. Indeed, “art” is in lowercase on the front cover. The book could just as easily have been called, 30,000 Years of Skilled Individuals Producing Things to Look At. The word “art” is just a placeholder for a longer and clumsier sentence.

This anti-art-as-concept approach is heightened by the way that the works chosen for 30,000 Years are visually reproduced in the book. Every “art” object is shown floating in the middle of a white background, popping off the page as an image, pure and vibrant. An image. Sculptures, friezes, and objects, are, along with paintings, flattened out into an absolute, imagistic space. It's beautiful but it's weird. The idea that any of these works need to be seen in the context of the worlds in which they were created is utterly denied. They exist, instead, in a timeless place, a graphical version of the white box.

The accompanying texts for each of the works follows what I'm calling a Gombrichian focus on image and on skill. We get some background, we get some explanation about materials and techniques used in fabrication, and then we get a sense of why the work represents an extraordinary moment in the application of skill. One of the first works shown, for example, is the “Venus of Lespugue,” an ivory figure created in the Gravettian Period around 23,000 B.C. The text says: "As a highly stylized composition in hard material, the piece is a uniquely confident example of very early human sculpture."


There is an absolute refusal to rank or to organize except along the indifferent axis of temporality. The closest thing to a guide in the book is the timeline at the very end. But all you get from that is a graph showing how different civilizations overlap over time, which helps to explain why “Sakalava Couple,” a relatively crude statue from Madagascar, is on the same page with Francisco de Goya's “Third of May 1808.” It is extraordinary to watch this leveling instinct at work. There is a kind of historian’s revenge being exhibited on every page. The book is drunk with the power it wields in smashing through every received idea about “Art” and its “development.”


The first 27,500 years are a reasonably smooth romp. Then things get a little trickier. Gombrich himself was always aware that somewhere in the 18th century the plot thickens considerably. That’s because it was around that time when people in Europe decided that when they were doing art, they were doing Art. It's also the time during which theories of art really start to proliferate and aesthetics becomes a specific discipline. People decided that Art was a specific kind of activity with its own domain and its own rules.


This can all be summed up with one specific object and one specific question: What in the world is 30,000 Years going to do with Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain,” the factory-produced, ceramic urinal that Duchamp turned upside down, signed R. Mutt, and displayed as a work of art in an exhibit in 1917? It is a work that denies artistic skill in almost every way that Gombrich meant it. It is the quintessential challenge to the story of image and skill. This, in fact, is the question that Arthur C. Danto, the eminent art critic and philosopher, once posed as an attack on the Gombrich line. The fact, Danto noted, that Gombrich cannot account for works like Duchamp's “Fountain” means that Gombrich's claim that art is essentially about visual images breaks down once we get into the modern period. Art, Danto would point out, has changed. To ignore this fact would be to close one's eyes to everything that has been happening in art for at least the last 150 years.

Do the authors succeed in dealing with the self-reference and irony of Dada? Can art have a history without a theory? Find out the answers to this and much more: read the exciting conclusion at The Smart Set!

Also, see my previous writing on Dada.

No comments: