Old Whine

Reviewed by Stephen C. Pinson

Art: A New History
by Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 777 pages.

New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art recently closed its Biennial, the premier event dedicated to contemporary American works. Much of the buzz surrounding the event highlighted the accessibility of many of the exhibited works, notably in the reappearance of painting after its oft-declared death, and the re-emergence of the human figure as a valid subject for serious art. Such works provided relief for a culture-hungry public frustrated with the anything-goes attitude that characterizes so much of contemporary art. Many people today are left bewildered and unmoved by the art shown in museums and private galleries, even if the anxiety of betraying a lack of culture conspires to keep everyone quiet. Rare is the critic or historian who gives voice to this anxiety by questioning the quality of this art as well as the motivations of the institutions that support it. Paul Johnson, who has built a solid, if controversial, reputation by offering strong opinions in broadly drawn histories for a popular audience, has characteristically broken the conspiracy of silence.
A journalist and historian best known for his revival of general ethnological studies (on the British, Americans, and Jews) and especially for his unapologetic promotion of Western capitalist society in books like Modern Times (1983), Johnson has now set for himself the admirable task of delivering a popular survey of art. In and of itself this is a daunting project. Johnson raises the stakes in Art: A New History by also attempting to write a book that stands as a corrective to everything that he sees wrong with the discipline of art history, and indeed art in general. If he succeeds in building a synthesizing critical narrative based upon provocative personal judgment, interpretation, and evaluation, this is despite the fact that what he ultimately delivers is a deeply flawed historical overview. Even those readers sympathetic to Johnson’s diagnosis of what is wrong with current artistic practice and criticism may have a hard time swallowing his cure. For what Johnson prescribes is a kind of impossible return to art before the advent of Modernism. This is already a strangely reactionary move for someone who has devoted so much energy to the advantages of the creativity and dynamism of modern capitalist society. Johnson further entrenches himself in a regressive path, however, by employing an outdated methodological model insufficient to his task.
In essence, Johnson sees art as a self-contained system evolving, albeit with stops and starts, toward an inevitable goal, which in his opinion is the realistic depiction of the world. By itself, this kind of teleological history is problematic. One of its main disadvantages is that it proposes art as one long movement, so that individual creativity (which Johnson claims to rescue from the impersonal art historical “taxonomy” of stylistic movements) is inevitably overlooked in cases where it does not meet the predefined goal of realistic depiction. Johnson compounds the problem by never clearly defining what he means by “realism.” To complicate matters, he infuses his criticism with a further ideology that dismisses almost all of the art produced from Picasso on as mere “fashion,” so that his survey does not include many of the most impressive artistic achievements of the last century.
To his credit, Johnson does warn the reader in his introduction about what is to follow, by laying down the principles of art as he understands it. First and foremost he insists that art is a “process of ordering, and so understanding and mastering, the wild world of nature.” This “ordering instinct,” to Johnson’s mind, is what makes society possible and has “therefore always been essential to human happiness.” It follows that we must always “beware of the enemies of order, and particularly mere fashion.…” But on the question of what exactly “fashion” art is, we are told early on only that it is “concerned with conformity to social rules.” Unfortunately, Johnson waits until the end of his book to teach us the true nature of fashion art. In the meantime, he concentrates on the art of order, of which cave art is the first major extant example of humanity’s desire “to make sense of a chaotic universe.” From the first stirrings of human art in caves Johnson ascends to the art of ancient Egypt and the Near East.
The Egyptians, we are told, produced objects of great technical skill, but never with any individual expression. The Mesopotamians were monotonous and the Persians, although occasionally building a sublime palace like Persepolis, were nevertheless sterile and repetitive. The obvious explanation for this, Johnson says, is the too-powerful role of the monarch in producing an art of propaganda. Bad society breeds bad art: “a serious artistic weakness is often the external, visible sign of political, economic and social weaknesses.” According to Johnson, the end of these palace civilizations resulted in a “Dark Age” that was rescued only by the Greeks and the foundation of a “fine art tradition which survives to this day.”
Art: A New History begins to pick up steam in the chapter devoted to Greek art, because this is a society that Johnson admires. Defiantly ignoring easy objections about the exclusion of women and slaves from citizenship, Johnson praises the social organization of the classical Greek city-states, which he claims is based on “universality of access to and participation in culture,” thus making them “the ideal social environment for art.” More important to Johnson’s theory, however, is that the art developed by the Greeks was derived from the study of man and nature. As long as this new canonical tradition was respected, artists were allowed to express individual innovation. This individualism is the main factor that distinguishes Greek society from those that preceded it, and according to Johnson it is the result of the artist’s direct confrontation with the exterior world: “Once the artist creates what he sees, rather than what he is told he ought to see, his individualism inevitably asserts itself.” This becomes the leitmotif of Johnson’s book, and the history of art is seen as a struggle to achieve realism, or mastery over nature, within the classical tradition inherited from the ancient Greeks.
Much of what follows is fairly standard, and can be found in many general histories written through the 1960s, when the revered classical tradition appeared irrevocably out of reach. A reversion to “primitive” art followed the Greco-Roman period, because of the political and religious absolutism that accompanied the founding of monotheistic religions. There is a new efflorescence with the rise of cathedrals (the greatest accomplishment of humanity in art, because they reflect a “profound system of order”) and in the “realist” art of the Middle Ages as exemplified by Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Durer. A cultural climax is of course attained during the Italian Renaissance. With few exceptions (late Botticelli, El Greco, Poussin, Watteau), Johnson finds much to admire in art until the middle of the nineteenth century. Things begin to go wrong, however, with the French painter Gustave Courbet, and the system of order breaks down completely, according to Johnson, with the triumph of Impressionism.
Up until the nineteenth century, then, a good deal of serviceable, and often quite fine, material is found in Johnson’s book, as long as one remains vigilant to his predilections. Johnson is particularly adept at explaining the tools and materials of art, and this is a welcome contribution that is often overlooked in surveys. He includes a nice, brief history of vellum and parchment in his section on Albrecht Durer, and there are welcome chapters devoted to the rise of landscape painting and the spread of watercolor in the nineteenth century (although the absence of Paul Huet and Georges Michel, practitioners in both fields, is unfortunate). He does his best to revive the work of many neglected artists, and devotes a chapter to nineteenth-century Russia.
Johnson, moreover, has an obvious affinity for architecture, and he gives this realm of artistic production more attention than normal for a survey. His apparent justification of this focus, namely, that it is easier for sculpture and architecture to achieve effects of realism than it is for painting, is puzzling. Apparently this facility is due to the fact that sculpture and architecture are themselves actual, real objects, whereas painting must resort to a “series of tricks to create the illusion of reality.” This assertion involves Johnson’s narrow and muddled view of realism, which we will come to shortly. But while he goes into detail on architecture, he does not similarly dwell on sculpture, which seems shortchanged as a result.

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