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My Latest Read: 'Stories of Art' by James Elkins

"… Stories of Art is a terrific and transparent meditation on what’s at stake in the histories of art we all so glibly recite. Instead of writing yet another survey, James Elkins provides the little counternarrative that rubs up against the monumental survey volumes with a kind of graceful annoyance. This is the little buzzing bee that worries the elephant.” –Michael Ann Holly, Clark Art Institute (from the back cover of the book)

I’m writing this on my laptop, which is perched upon my own survey of art history book from college – Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, ninth edition. It is almost 9 ½” wide by over 11” long, it has 1,135 pages, weighs approximately 8 pounds according to my bathroom scale and currently has two bent and battered slips of paper sticking out the top from when I last perused it for inspiration. It’s great for pressing flowers or, if you can heft it, for whacking upside somebody’s head in self defense.

A used copy of the 9th edition currently sells for about $35 online, but probably set me back over a hundred bucks at the time. (Thank you mom and dad, it has served me well.) The latest 13th edition lists for $177.95 – it also has the nifty updated title, Art Through the Ages: A Global History; which is confusing because there’s another 13th edition called Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Huh? Methinks somebunny got confused in the marketing department. The irony of these incompatible titles is exemplary of the questions Elkins explores – is the Story of Art History a multicultural one? Or is it an inherently Western Story? I’ll get back to that later, let’s start at the beginning…

In the first chapter, Elkins invites the reader to present a personal visual representation of their concept of the History of Art. His first is a starry night sky, with each star being either an artist, an artwork or an art movement (Impressionism, e.g.); he includes some of the masters like Michelangelo as well as his wife’s paintings and even a prehistoric piece of inscribed bone. He declares that, “Naturally such a drawing is very personal and it isn’t likely to correspond to anyone else’s.” (p. 2). Interestingly, he labels the moon with “natural images: twigs, grass, stars, sand, moths’ wings” (p. 3).  I’m not sure I would’ve thought to include natural elements. No, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have – but it makes beautiful sense.

The next visualization he presents is a landscape scene. In the forefront is a shoreline labeled “recent western painting,” with rocks jutting out at various distances (from Pollock to Minoan) out in the water until we reach a far shore labeled “Ancient Middle East”. This type of chronological representation will probably appeal to more people, resembling the manner in which art history is typically taught. It has the added benefit of showing how the further back in time an artwork or culture is, the more distant it feels and how that distance will incur a haziness – reflecting the difficulty of ‘connecting’ personally with things that are distant in time as well as space.

The next is by a student from China, who puts herself in the center of the drawing with roads leading out like spokes in a wheel heading in different directions and distances to various cultures, movements and artists. I found her un-crossable river blocking her path to modern art particularly intriguing, as well as the myriad of artists and periods I’d never heard of that held as prominent a place on her map as Greek and Roman art. I wonder: if she had never attended school in the U.S., would her map have included anything familiar to me?

My big picture visualization looks like one of those compilation satellite images from NASA of the earth at night:

 Now imagine that this night view starts completely dark. And instead of all the lights coming on in a single day, imagine it taking millennia for them all to light. Watch as little specks of light begin to shine in various regions, these will be the cave artists, potters and weavers, etc.; then see lights begin to shine in Egypt and India, Japan and China as well, then Rome and Greece; by the end of the Renaissance, Italy and France are glowing bright with the most lights ever seen on the face of the earth. From then on, it becomes more and more difficult to find any area without some light, however faint.

The above is not a particularly personal view, however poetic, it’s just how I imagine the progression of art as a whole throughout the world. Here’s my attempt at a more personal Art History Map:

After several hours of drawing, erasing, pondering, drawing some more, erasing even more -- I realized I could spend days grooming this puppy -- I even started to plan drafting cutaways with more and more detail. In fact, I probably could’ve made a little book of the thing – but I got other fish to fry, and I haven’t even made it past the first chapter yet.

The most difficult part of this process was in determining a relevant scale and in editing down the list of types of art that I felt actually had something of an influence on me. I also began to question what qualified as ‘western’ versus ‘eastern’ – I’m not sure I got it right, as this phantom division of the earth always seemed ridiculous to me (it’s a sphere, people), but this is my map and am fairly certain nobody will be knocking down my door to publish it in a reference book. (I also wanted to see what I could remember without looking anything up, as that would’ve been cheating.)

After this exercise, Elkins delves into describing a myriad of possible solutions to the problem of presenting Art History in a categorical/systematic manner. Each being valid for it’s own purposes; and clearly there are as many ways of doing this as there are art historians – but none suffice as an all-encompassing answer.

Why does it matter anyway? Stay tuned for that answer and more, in my follow-up post… in the meantime, what does your sketch look like? {if anyone reading this actually takes me up on that, well... first, I’d be amazed; second, I’d love to post your sketch here; just lemme know ;}

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