Shone, Richard y Stonard, John Paul. The books that shaped art history

Great books have lives of their own that grow over time, through translations, new revisions and editions, and above all through reading and re-reading by generations of scholars and art lovers. Re-reading is the crucial step towards grasping the character of a book, what it stands for, and what we think of it, be that a matter of admiration or antagonism. Re-reading can also bring to light the disputes and debates between books, intellectual conflicts that can consolidate positions as well as create completely new ways of seeing and describing. Re-reading may also remind us of when we first became fascinated by art, not just as a matter of visual pleasure but also of intellectual nourishment, and may in addition help us to recall our developing awareness of the strange and elusive concept of art itself. (pag 11)

None of this, however, detracts from the towering importance of Patrons and Painters, which remains, as Rice puts it, a ‘prolegomenon to a branch of art history that was still in its infancy’. This sapling was soon to grow into one the most profoundly original approaches to art history: the social history of art.

By the late 1970s the question of what makes art history was being asked with renewed vigour by many art historians. The rise of the social history of art entailed a rethinking of the relationship between art and history, and forwarded the claim that a work of art could be a piece of history, like any other historical event, and could be analysed as such. (pag 31)

Baxandall was reluctant to be termed a ‘social art historian’, and once wondered if he was not simply ‘doing Roger Fry, you know, in a different way’. He was indeed held to account by those for whom it was imperative to see art as an instrument of political will, and for whom the ‘aestheticism’ of Fry’s arguments about artistic form were no longer valid. In the scintillating first chapter of his Image of the People, which was drawn (like Mâle’s study of thirteenth-century French art) from his doctoral dissertation, T.J. Clark sets out his ambitious goals for a social history of art on such a basis. He stresses the importance of moving beyond a simple scenario of ‘influence’ – history as ‘background’, biography as ‘context’ – to evolve instead a language that is able to say more about the complex political interaction of art and history. As Alastair Wright notes, Clark’s neo-Marxist position was a criticism not only of Hauser’s Social History of Art (1951), but also of Gombrich’s concept of the ‘pictorial schemata’ in Art and Illusion, which implied that our notion of art necessarily blinded us to nature; for Clark, the blinkers we wear are always ideological. (pag 28)

As Krauss makes clear, both the model for and the target of her writing is the critical approach of Greenberg as it appeared in his 1961 Art and Culture. In a series of essays devoted first to paragons of modernism, including Rodin, Picasso and Giacometti, and then moving to the post-War American art of Jackson Pollock, Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra, Krauss proposes a ‘radical inversion’ of the premises of Greenbergian formalism on the basis of structuralist and poststructuralist philosophy. As Anna Lovatt argues, Krauss’s pioneering use of French theory had an extraordinary impact on art history as an academic discipline, ferociously questioning many of its underlying assumptions, and introducing a new critical term, postmodernism, into the field. The myths that Krauss attacked – principally those of authorship and originality – were often myths that had arisen in the context of curatorial scholarship and essays in exhibition catalogues, but her target was the far wider problem in art history of unexamined appeals to biography as a source of aesthetic explanation. Yet it would be wrong to see Krauss as an outright opponent of academic art history, or indeed her book as one that has ‘de-shaped’ the subject. (pag 31)

Hamburger points to two other books, David Freedberg’s The Power of Images (1989) and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory (1994), both of which make the claim for a ‘pictorial turn’ – that is, a move towards the study of ‘images’ rather than ‘art’ – yet, as Hamburger also explains, on divergent grounds. (pag 33)