Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 19, 2006
John Paoletti The Art History Survey Text: More, More . . .? College Art Association
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These comments were originally prepared to provoke discussion in a session at the annual College Art Association meetings on Thursday, February 23, 2006, about the needs for a comprehensive textbook for introductory courses in the history of art. They should be read in that light and in tandem with a comprehensive review of ten currently available examples of such textbooks presented by Larry Silver and David A. Levine, Quo Vadis, Hagia Sophia? Art History’s Survey Texts,” also online at caa.reviews.

My credentials for speaking here this afternoon are very, very slight. They consist simply in having taught various forms of an introductory course most years since I began teaching in 1961 and in having co-authored with Gary Radke a textbook on Italian Renaissance Art. That book did provide us experience—albeit in much abbreviated form—with the incredibly complex and wide-ranging issues facing anyone who contemplates writing or teaching the whole history of art (even if what is meant by that is the whole history of Western art or the whole history of Asian art). So my necessarily brief comments should be taken simply as entries into the open discussion that I am sure everyone in this room is impatient to begin.

They commence with two caveats:

1. We are putting the cart before the horse here. Until we know what we want our introductory courses to be—what, in other words, we think the “Introduction to the History of Art” is—we cannot really address the issue of what textbooks we might use;

2. We are assuming that we are teaching the HISTORY of art—or the history of ART (a term that does not even exist for the historical period that I teach). But that is patently not what we are doing—or at least not ALL that we are doing.

Since the first of these caveats seems self-evident, let me unpack the second a bit. Even if we think of the HISTORY of art in the narrowest terms as a history of style, we still have to teach our students to READ the images before we can even address issues of style. Visual description is not necessarily visual analysis. We are teaching the very basics of a new language, so before we even think about history, we have to be sure that our students understand the formal structures of the objects that we discuss. Identifying the subject matter is not reading the image.

Of course explaining the subject matter of the art is also part of what we do, especially for students increasingly unaware of iconographies distant from them in time or place. Or, for that matter, of their own time or place, since our current quest for novelty has led to an incessant bombardment of visual media where no image—perhaps with the exception of Mickey Mouse—is permanent enough to carry meaning over time; even the Marlboro Man, perhaps the last of our popular canonic visual images, is gone, only to be replaced by a fleeting Brokeback Mountain. But formal analysis and accurate identification of subject matter are merely the basic tools we need to make our histories (in the plural) of art. How formal treatments of a particular iconographical subject matter develop into typologies that can be borrowed to undergird meaning for other iconographies—as when Ambrogio Lorenzetti borrows the composition of Last Judgment imagery for his fresco of the Buon Comune in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena—requires that we teach how integral formal presentation is to meaning. Typologies, canonic arrangements of forms for a particular subject matter, have histories, but they are not history. Most textbooks simply do not tackle these pre-historical issues of visual analysis and visual typologies in a satisfactory manner. And until our students learn these tools—and others—they cannot hope to make a history of those images.

But suppose, in the best of all possible worlds, we and our students had all these informational sources at our fingertips, how would we include descriptions of fairly complex works of art in any textbook of a size that we might be able to lift and carry? Let me give an example that I suspect everyone in this room knows: Michelangelo’s David. Anyone having taught the sculpture has most likely presented it formally or as a culminating expression of Michelangelo’s early oeuvre, or even as a powerful political image used to support the reinstated Republic of Florence. Marilyn Stokstad’s treatment of the statue indicates the issue in a poignant manner:

In 1501 Michelangelo accepted a commission for a statue of the biblical David for an exterior buttress of the Florence Cathedral. When it was finished in 1504, the David was so admired that the Florentine city council placed it in the square next to the seat of Florence’s government. Although Michelangelo’s David embodies the athletic ideal of antiquity in its muscularity, the emotional power of its facial expression and concentrated gaze are entirely new. Unlike Donatello’s bronze David, this is not a triumphant hero with the head of the giant Goliath under his feet. Instead, slingshot over his shoulder and a rock in his right hand, Michelangelo’s David frowns and stares into space, seemingly preparing himself psychologically for the danger ahead. Here the male nude implies, as it had in classical antiquity, heroic or even divine qualities. No match for his opponent in experience, weaponry, or physical strength, David represents the power of right over might. He was a perfect emblematic figure for the Florentines, who twice drove out the powerful Medici and reinstituted short-lived republics in the early years of the sixteenth century. (Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, New York: Harry N. Abrams/Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995, 689.)

It is amazing how much information the author was able to cram into that short paragraph. Every sentence provides provocative opportunities for extended discussion.

But how would we include questions that do not admit to simple presentation of information? For example, is the statue really by Michelangelo? Does it really represent David, or at least only David? What is the meaning of the David’s costume of nudity, as opposed to his simple nakedness? Could male nakedness within the culture contemporary to the carving of the statue possibly have had any resonance for the viewer? And how can such nakedness conform to the civic role that the statue played? Imagine formulating a set of questions like this for Picasso’s Guernica or Jasper Johns’s Flag or any favorite works from your own period of expertise. Even with a handful of such examples from each of the historical or geographical periods represented in most texts, we would have mini-books—or not-so-mini books—within the textbook that would, incidentally, bias our history by reifying the contested notion of masterpiece and thus threaten to limit our field of vision to elite art.

And of course none of this necessarily deals with HOW it is that we do what we do as art historians, namely the methodology of building a history of art. In other words, are we going to present a history of art or an art history? They are not the same. The first presumes a history of the objects of material culture, the other a history of that history, neither of which is innocent of bias or—something we rarely consider—the accidents of preservation and the vagaries of conservation and restoration, which, for my historical period, give us many instances of modern overpainting presented as if it were the original Renaissance pictorial surface. And how do we integrate historiography—the history of texts—into the history of visual objects?

At this point I suspect you are thinking that I have forgotten the important term of “introductory” and that I am essentially asking for information that rightly belongs in intermediate or advanced courses. Of course, that brings us right back to the first question: What are we introducing our students to?

So what is a poor textbook to do?

OBSERVATIONS

1. My history of art is not your history of art.

Let me give a couple of examples. Do we present the history of ancient Greek sculpture as a development from Egyptian to Archaic to Classical to Hellenistic to Roman copies, with important descriptive cue words like Polykleitan pose or Scopasian head that also allow us to introduce artistic personalities and stylistic characteristics? I certainly learned it that way, and I know that it is still taught that way in many places—especially those places tied to one or two of our major textbooks. Or do we use a single artistic environment like the Acropolis to analyze and discuss issues such as: site and the spatial extensions of that site; movement through space and time both actual and mythic; interactions between sculpture and architecture; stylistic development; meaning embedded in forms like the temple and the kouros and the physical and remembered experiences of those forms; the complexities of contemporary history perhaps, focusing on the rivalry between the Periclean and the Kimonian parties? Teaching Greek art of the classical period in this manner (which I have also done) precludes the possibility of presenting any comprehensive range of contemporary examples, given the constraints of class time.

Or do we give up any gesture toward inclusivity, to concentrate on one historical time period, as I have most recently done by using Medici patronage in the fifteenth century as a way to analyze how images can communicate information? In this case one can move sequentially through issues like formal analysis, iconography, iconology, historical context, later readings of the material, and visual and/or historical theories of material culture while still staying focused on a comprehensible number of objects. I don’t think I have given up HISTORY by this form of presentation. Nor do I think I have given up ART. Detail, complex readings, understanding of method, and a foregrounding of the process of making history with material objects as our primary sources is a form of the history of art, although certainly different from the pyramids-to-the-present approach.

2. Why be inclusive?

Textbooks have become larger and larger (read heavier and heavier) as authors attempt to be inclusive. Soon these books will come with their own wheelies. No matter how many images are included, there will always be someone to complain that a favorite Botticelli does not appear (as I know only too well). We are at the outer limits of what we can expect to ask our students to pay for texts that aim at some form of inclusivity, regardless of how that is defined. And, after all, there is the web. Moreover, by including more and more images, do we run the risk of appearing simply to be enlarging the canon rather than questioning it? [Here it might be useful to point out that most responses from the audience at the CAA meeting indicated a preference for fewer images and for more extensive discussion of those images.]

3. Success in sales obviously encourages publishers to continue publishing.

The success of certain books is also a strong disincentive toward change. The new edition of Janson is a case in point; despite more women (read: despite the addition of women artists), more images, shifts from the old chestnuts to more telling images by the same artists, the book is essentially the same, even as the editor claims that a quarter of the contents have changed. A somewhat breathless article in the New York Times (March 7, 2006, A1, A18) unwittingly raises issues that most of us would prefer to ignore. The Prentice Hall editor of the new text indicated there that changing more of the book “would have risked losing our very loyal base of customers.” That statement provides a welcome reality check. The publishers are in the business to sell books. Apparently the users of those books—at least Janson—are telling them to leave well enough alone (although adjusting for issues like those mentioned above). So we seem to be getting what we have asked for—which may undermine the point that I made above that your history of art is not my history of art, since the textbooks insidiously imply that it ought to be.

4. Anyone in this room who has published—in any form—certainly knows that there are constraints in publishing, most of them economic, having to do with market pressures as well as printing. One issue, of course, that we must be vigilant about is how the more vocal users of texts like Janson may serve to influence publication in art history the way that they do in history and in other fields. I thought that one of the most telling comments in the New York Times article was that the new Janson is “clearly a liberal version of a cold-war classic that will pass muster in most of the U.S.” That statement is fascinating from a number of different points of view, regardless of whether we would really want to characterize the new Janson as “liberal.” It also strikes me as a very large red flag. How far are we, for example, from having to excise Bernini’s overtly orgasmic St. Theresa from our histories because it might be offensive to a very vocal “majority”? This is not simple fear-mongering. One need only look at the 1985 catalogue from the Royal Academy in London of German Art of the 20th Century to notice a startling lacuna: apparently Nazi art, according to this presentation, never existed, a rewriting of history that is reprehensible for its unwillingness to deal with difficult issues and, as a consequence, seriously undermines our ability to understand the art of the post-war period by an emerging group of new German artists—think Beuys, Richter, Immendorff, Kiefer—who, whether they wanted to or not, had to confront their visual history and the constraints it put on their own work.

SUGGESTION

I would like to propose a moratorium on all publication of general textbooks in the history of art until we sense a new sea change in our corporate understanding of what information is useful for students of the 21st century.

This suggestion may sound draconian, and I am sure that the publishers in the room are having wonderful visions of my head on a platter or my tongue torn out by pincers, to name just two familiar images from my period of study. And you are probably asking what world I live in that I could even imagine classrooms without textbooks. But suppose that everyone teaching an introductory course were to give up whatever models their current textbooks provide. Suppose we had to invent our discipline all over again. Certainly many of you have already done that, if articles and panels at professional meetings about introductory courses are any indication of the ferment out there. But we don’t seem to be willing to let the textbooks catch up with our innovations in teaching.

Classrooms without a textbook would demand both a certain degree of humility—we simply can’t do everything—and thus a confrontation with the question of what we can do with our own individual backgrounds, our institutions’ educational resources, our students’ needs and preparation.

Does this suggestion threaten our positions as the only discipline that seeks to present the whole of Western culture or of world cultures in a single course? You bet. But if we present a severely limited view of these cultures, what are we presenting to our students but the very kind of sound byte that has completely undermined political discourse in this country and that is seriously eroding our fundamental concepts of democracy. Do we really want to reinforce such a model of intellectual vacuity in our students’ minds?

Basically I am asking that we put the textbook in the service of our teaching and not our teaching in the service of the textbook.

John Paoletti, Kenan Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Art History, Art and Art History Department, Wesleyan University, jpaoletti@wesleyan.edu

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.