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Stories of Art, Part II

Part I of my posts on James Elkins’ Stories of Art begged the questions:
Is the Story of Art History a multicultural one? Or is it an inherently Western Story?
Why does it matter {how the Story of Art is told} anyway?

the pale blue dot, from NASA's website

Before I can begin to answer these questions, I must look back at where the discipline of Art History began. Weird to think that at some point it was non-existant, no? In my world, it’s as essential as Math or English. But as far as the universe is concerned, Art History is barely a blip on the radar. Which reminds me, have you ever seen the famous “pale blue dot” photo of the earth taken by Voyager 1 as it exited our solar system? The earth appears as a single pale blue pixel lost in the vastness of space – as though it were a blemish on an otherwise dark spectral canvas that begs to be photoshopped out. That’s the kind of perspective I’m talking about ;)

Now I can see I’m going to get into trouble here, because if I look back to where Art History began – I will necessarily have to ask where did Art itself begin and then how long did it thrive before somebody finally said ‘hey, maybe we should start documenting this phenomena of human existence’ -- as we humans are so prone to do, since we are our own biggest fans. Only, I don’t think I’m really equipped to go there, because then I have to begin with the most irksome question of all: What is Art? (my inner voice just made the sound of a happily slumbering rhinoceros forced to exit the comforting mud baths of ‘if you ignore it, it will go away’ with a resounding and guttural grooooooooooooooooaaaaan, splat, slurp and the crackling of a bone or two.)

Since this is my blog though, I think I will let the sleeping rhino lie {splat, crackle, plop}, and we’ll all just agree to disagree about what Art is, or is not, and move on with The Story itself of that thing we’ve just agreed to disagree about.

According to Wikipedia, the Greeks are awarded 1st place in producing the earliest surviving text that can be considered as being of the art history variety, but was limited to (big surprise) Greek sculpture and painting. Then a Chinaman, Xie He, wrote about some Chinese painters and their methods in the 6th century. But ultimately, it would seem that Art History didn’t really get going until 10 centuries later, in 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times. I’m diggin that title, as would Bill and Ted, no doubt. 

Supposedly, Vasari (an artist in his own right) was dining amongst scholars and artists at the court of Cardinal Alessandro when it was proposed that he put together his collection of notes and papers on art he had been writing since childhood, into a cohesive and chronological fashion. [Bull 1979, p. xii] I find it interesting that this occurs at the period of transition between the High Renaissance and Mannerism; the space between when the world took a big breath, having just experienced the rebirth of the Arts and Sciences. Vasari personally knew Michelangelo – he reports having asked him what he thought of his work. Can you imagine? Vasari described him as “the pinnacle of all artistic achievement” (wiki), and then said to him ‘hey, what do you think of my work?’ That’s some cajones right there.

from the left: Michelangelo, Vasari's painting, Giorgio Vasari (the man of great cajones)

Anywho, I seem to be as bad as Vasari – meandering off into irrelevant gossip, when I should be focusing on the task at hand. Ekin’s writes that “Over 90 percent of the Lives is just exactly what he said he would not write: a succession of very entertaining stories…[he would] move quickly from talking about paintings to gossiping about painter’s lives. Along with his half-finished theories about the progress of history, his habit of switching back and forth from praise to anecdote has intrigued and bothered generations of historians.” (Elkins 2002, p. 43-46)

But I guess we should to cut the guy some slack, as he was breaking completely new ground here. There had never been a text quite like Vasari’s  – since ancient times, the topics he covered were kept separate: “Plato wrote aesthetics, Vitruvius wrote art theory, Durios of Samos wrote biographies, and Pausanius wrote travel accounts. Vasari mixed those and late medieval chronicles into a new potion recognizably his own.” (Elkins 2002, p. 46)

I love this quote from painter Benjamin Haydon, “If I were confined to three books in a desert island, I would choose the Bible, Shakespeare, Vasari.” (Yonge 1893, p. 194) Now is that high praise for Vasari, or a reflection of how more entertaining than scholarly his work is?

In any case, Lives remained the penultimate resource for art and its historians for almost two hundred years (wiki). Though many found much to criticize about Vasari’s text and methodologies, the ‘story of art’ has not essentially been altered much since then. The most popular survey texts today continue in Vasari’s footsteps by focusing on widely accepted periods of art from ancient history to the present, with the usual suspects making appearances to represent their period.

But these are Western texts, and they struggle to broaden their horizons to include things like women artists and Eastern art – either because, in the first case, there just isn’t much documented history of it, or in the latter case, it just doesn’t fit. It’s like completing a puzzle and then finding that you’ve got some extra pieces, and you can’t tell if they’re part of this puzzle or a different puzzle all together and all you know is that there are no empty spaces to fill.

As far as Eastern art is concerned, one simply cannot view it in a meaningful way until one has enough cultural and historical background of its place of origin to be able to interpret correctly its semiotics and context. Many Eastern cultures to this day do not view their works of art as things to be studied and worshipped for their own sakes – their interest in them is purely as symbols of their religion, a means to aid them on a path to enlightenment. To them, a history of art would be nonsensical.

In the final chapter of Stories of Art, Elkins proposes what he calls ‘perfect stories’ – “…half a dozen hypothetical books that might solve the problem of fairly representing all cultures. None of them, I think, could ever be written—or if they were written, they either would not make sense as art history, or they just wouldn’t sell.” So just when you think the answer will be revealed, he dooms us before we even begin to consider the solution. And then he hits you with a final punch to the gut by saying, “And finally I’ll return for a last look at multiculturalism, in order to prove that it is not possible even if people actually did want it—which I doubt.” 



In summary, I will answer all those pesky questions with which I began this post…

To me, art is the physical manifestation of the human soul expressing its experience of the human condition.

Art history in the context of Elkin’s book is a discipline born in the West that is experiencing the growing pains of a world that has become smaller and more interconnected thanks to current technology and the viral spread of information.

Art history in the context of that ‘pale blue dot’ is a much bigger thing which our human construct of the History of Art is but a meager attempt at understanding by categorizing it into smaller, more easily digestible chunks.

Until a human can live and learn indefinitely, I do not see how there can be an all-encompassing neat and tidy answer either. That, or experiments with the recently repaired Large Hadron Collider result in a rip in the fabric of spacetime causing Time itself to stop being linear - in which case, all bets are off and 'history' becomes a moot point. Or finally, just change the book titles to read "The History of Western Art". Ta-dah!

Bull, George, trans. 1979. The Lives of the Artists: A Selection. New York: Penguin.
Elkins, James. 2002. Stories of Art. New York and London: Routledge.
Yonge, Charlotte Mary, trans. 1893. The Monthly Packet. London: William Clowes and Sons, Limited.

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