Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 12, 2020
Christopher S. Wood A History of Art History Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. 472 pp.; 24 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780691156521)

An accessible and timely book on art history’s history is a gap that needed to be filled, but the title of this book by Christopher S. Wood, a professor in the German department at New York University, is somewhat misleading. This book goes well beyond a history of art history, or even a historiography of the field, as several reviewers have noted. Andrei Pop, for example, calls it “more than a textbook” and rather a “polemic” with art history; Cindy Helms argues that it is “a heavy duty assessment of what the discipline of Art History has thought about itself since its humble inception.” Wood himself states that the book is “not only a history and prehistory of the academic discipline of art history, but also, more generally, a history of historical thinking about art” (9). Also quite misleading is the cover’s suggestion that the book was written for an audience “inside and outside art history.” Never underestimate the educated layperson, but I agree with Helms that a PhD in art history is a “handy prerequisite” for fathoming this book. Wood assumes the challenge of assessing the development of art history and taking a historically substantiated position on where it is as an academic discipline. In doing so, he also reforms various aspects of art history as we know it. In short, there is a lot at stake in this book. The contemporary art historian, regardless of specialization, will have to relate to the book’s premises, arguments, and conclusions—if they take the trouble to read it carefully to the end—and may agree or be critical. I belong to the latter category, which is not easy given the undeniable erudition of the author, who has published many books and articles on historiography, especially with regard to German and Italian art history.

The book is arranged chronologically, as one would expect from a book on history, but begins much earlier than typical textbooks, which usually start with either Giorgio Vasari (sixteenth-century Italy) or Johann Joachim Winckelmann (eighteenth-century Germany) while often citing Pliny as the source of art historical writing. These historians also play an important role in Wood’s book, but they come across much less like the giants of art history and are contextualized historically in unexpected ways. Before we get to Vasari, for example, we are already on page 80. In fact, the book begins as early as 800 CE, with the German chronicler Adam von Bremen identifying the statues of Norse gods in the Swedish Temple at Uppsala. Italian artists who wrote about art before Vasari are also discussed extensively, such as Cennino Cennini and Lorenzo Ghiberti in the quattrocento, and the early Netherlandish painter and writer Karel van Mander, author of the Schilder-boeck (inspired by the example of Vasari), receives a lot of attention immediately after the Italian master. The other founder of art history, Winckelmann, has to share 1750–70 with three others, Denis Diderot, Horace Walpole, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, leaving Winckelmann only slightly more space than Diderot (one page). All of this can be seen as welcome and necessary nuance in a specialized art historiography, based on the idea that the thinking of art historians (who in Wood’s erudite account include artists, critics, collectors, and anyone else identifying, classifying, evaluating, or interpreting art) deserves to be properly contextualized. But Wood also comes up with remarkable reevaluations and interpretations through this contextualization, which often shed a different light on the work of well-known art historians. To stay with Vasari, his work is read in conjunction with the Reformation and Martin Luther’s ideas about art (in 1500–50). Usually this connection is not elaborated much, since Vasari was clearly only interested in art as an artistic discipline, and Luther focused on the use of art as a means of communication in the service of religion. By discussing them as close contemporaries, Wood establishes a deeper link between the new religion and the renaissance of art. Even more notable is the way in which Vasari’s Vite is compared to similar trends in what Wood calls “annalistic history” in other cultures, such as calligraphers’ albums at the Safavid courts in sixteenth-century Persia.

The book has a long introduction (forty-seven pages), in which Wood, in addition to giving general yet provocative explanations of what art history is, defines his criteria and art historical terms, such as the different types of art history he distinguishes (annalistic, typological, and “fabulous”). The main premise is relativism, which Wood calls “the main theme of the book” and sees as “the basis of modern art history” (12). Relativism must be understood both in time and in a spatial sense: each period, as well as each culture, has its own conventions for judging art. Given the importance attached to this concept and the way it is methodologically used to organize the art historical material throughout the book, it is worth quoting Wood himself here: “In modernity, the widened horizon of knowledge has revealed that each society has its own idea of the proper yardstick. One cannot justly hold up one’s culture’s yardstick to another culture’s art. Relativism, or the cognition of not just one but many different concepts of art, is the basis of the modern discipline of art history” (10). This premise leads to another premise—namely, that in order to be understood, works of art must be contextualized in the time and place in which they were created: relativism and contextualization go hand in hand. While these principles are general and fair enough that they will not come as a shock to most art historians in today’s global world, the conclusions are sharper and, indeed, polemical. First, it becomes clear only in the conclusion why the book ends in the second half of the twentieth century (with Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Ernst Gombrich, and George Kubler, among others). Here a certain cultural pessimism arises with regard to art history: according to Wood, from the 1970s onward, art history has fallen into the deep water of a kind of historical amnesia, whereby interest in the past is considered less important, let alone authoritative. The cause of this “obsession with the contemporary” and “jettison of the past” (378), which also translates into corresponding student numbers at universities, lies in the rise of modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century, which advocated a break with the past that has never been reversed. The three categories of art history defined in the introduction are also blown up after the 1960s as the art historical concept of form is replaced by the idea of ​representation. Art can be anything, in all kinds of self-determined media and conceptual procedures, beyond the discourses on form in the traditional sense, which are linked to such things as convention, craft, and the ratio between form and content. In Wood’s words: “Art today is less about form than about the conditions of possibility of effective speech and action, the tension between enunciation and performance, the virtues of images” (380).

All in all the book is challenging, mainly because of its erudition and the surprising ways in which relativism is methodically used. To mention other unexpected connections in the chapters surrounding Vasari that are typical of the whole: in 1500–50, Albrecht Dürer is associated with Mexican artifacts and the praise of Indigenous art by the Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas, and van Mander plays a role alongside the Chinese artist-scholar Dong Qichang in 1600–50. But while the book clearly puts Western art history in perspective, I remain critical of the end result, which concerns predominantly European art history. The author claims this is due to his knowing only a few European languages, ​​and therefore he refers to art histories of other cultures only strategically—that is, when they contribute to the main arguments. The question is whether this approach will satisfy contemporary art historians, especially those specializing in art history after the 1960s, whose areas of expertise are criticized but not well discussed (other than under the general umbrella of “new art history”). This is undoubtedly also a strategic decision, but I consider it rather unfair because the book is, as Pop says, “a polemic under the guise of a disciplinary history.” In addition to the innovative theories and methods that emerged after 1970 (certainly in the United States, thanks to October journal), more and more voices (postcolonial, feminist, queer, etc.) have also been heard since the 1990s, calling for a revisionary and more inclusive art history and thus for a European art history that looks more critically at its own (colonial) history. A relativistic position does not suffice to revise, correct, and modernize art history (for lack of a better term) according to the demands and insights of our global era—which begs the question of whether we need historiographic Eurocentric exercises like Wood’s at this point in time. One may wonder if Wood’s relativism is in fact what keeps him from looking at art after the 1960s, in and outside Europe and the United States. In the conclusion, he recognizes that this period has its own context and concerns that he does not fully understand—so he reduces it to the “magic circle” of contemporary art (379), without acknowledging that it is the magic of hundreds of years of European art history that has lost credibility. Art history is a historical construct, and the serious reconsiderations of that construct today can (and will) lead to historiographical revisions beyond what cultural relativism can do.

Sjoukje van der Meulen
Rudolf Arnheim Visiting Professor, Humboldt University