March 7, 2006

In art, either you're in or you're out.

The arbiter of art, Janson's History of Art. With a new edition, reputations rise and fall. (I like the Heidi Klum-style headline on the article!)
The new edition drops not only Whistler's portrait of his mother but also evicts several other longtime residents, like Domenichino, the Baroque master, and Louis Le Nain, whose work is in the Louvre.

The sculptor Louis-Fran├žois Roubiliac, for example, has been erased with a vengeance; even a portrait by another artist of Roubiliac posing with his work has been dropped. And some full-page reproductions that had become permanent fixtures — like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's van Eyck diptych, "The Crucifixion, the Last Judgment" — have been replaced with others seen to be more representative of an artist's work....

Stephen F. Eisenman, a professor of art history at Northwestern University who described himself as a longtime critic of Janson, welcomed many of the changes. "It's clearly a liberal version of a cold-war classic that will pass muster in most of the U.S.," he said.

But he added that it would probably never regain the dominance it once had, simply because the whole idea of a book like it, or other supposedly all-inclusive surveys like "Gardner's Art Through the Ages," first published in 1926, had become outdated.

"The main problem, I think, is that there's no longer a general belief that there exists a single canon for art that should be taught to all students," he said.

[Frima Fox Hofrichter, chairwoman of the history of art and design department at Pratt Institute], who has taught from Janson for many years, counters that teachers and students need a book to use as a starting point and basic guide to what should be considered important. But she said she had also often "taught against" Janson during her career, which leaves her in a strange predicament.

"Now," she said, "I'll have only myself to teach against."
You may think that last quote sounds silly, but I know exactly what Hofrichter means. There is good reason to want a very traditional presentation in the text so you have something to critique in class, some value to add. If the text itself is the critique of the tradition, it makes you passive, stuck with the editor's critique and forced to help students try to understand what the tradition was that this editor was reacting to, which can be confusing and annoying and nowhere near as fascinating as the editor imagines. In this case, however, Hofrichter is one of the new editors! But the old text was falling out of favor, and the publisher needed to revive it.


Mark Daniels said...

I read this article, too, and found most of the new editions' changed understandable. The painting referred to as "Whistler's Mother," for example, is hardly representative of Whistler's art.

But you make a valid point: If one's discipline is primarily about calling the accepted into question, what do you do with a text that agrees with your judgments? Naturally, this will bring on a new wave of revisionism in Art Criticism.

Mark Daniels

Verification Code: "fnalot," as in, "Do you fnalot?"

Mark Daniels said...

I meant "the new editions' changes."

Mark Daniels said...

And of course, it should be "new edition's changes."

I'll stop now.

ShadyCharacter said...

So they cut out some old masters of the Baroque to insert a couple of women artists of the period. Is it because their art is "better" or unique or more representative or is it because it fits the political ideology of the authors to include, wherever possible, more womyn, regardless of merit? Kind of an affirmative-action "white"-washing of art history?

How laughable that the biggest complaint in the article is that with relatively fewer dead white males and text that apparently apes the modern academy's fixation on an artist's skin tone and genetalia as being more important than the quality of the "art" it steals the thunder of the professors, leaving them standing at the front of the classroom saying: "as you read in chapter 7, Van Eyck was most likely a closet homosexual, which gives his work greater meaning" or "as you read in Chapter 12, this work is important because Judith Leyster was not only a pioneering female artist, she was also, we suspect, a proto-feminist and class warrior... und so weiter and so on.

AlaskaJack said...

Long ago in the distant past, art was thought to have something very important to do with beauty and the artist's purpose was to help bring us to a deeper understanding of this concept. Today, we post-moderns know better: Beauty is nothing but a socially constructed notion and is not at all helpful for understanding art.

Consequently, what is considered art (and what is good art) is constantly changing because it depends on whatever the definition of the day says it is. And so, in a recent book on John Willes Booth, we learn that he broke through "the fourth wall between artist and audience" by creating a "new" art-that of "performance assassination." With this new and arresting understanding of art, I wonder if we can look forward to the next edition of Janson's History of Art as having a chapter or two on creative serial killers.

jeff said...

I'm trying to figure out if it's the height of arrogance to define what is "art."

Then I think of stuff like Dung Virgin Mary and Piss Christ...

Okay, here's my arrogance - it's art unless it's been funded by an NEA grant in the past 20 years. Then it's probationary art, subject to rejection.

Incidently, I wonder if either of the above are in this guide?

SippicanCottage said...
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