Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Andrei Pop reviews A History of Art History

Christopher S. WoodA History of Art History. Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press, 2019. 472 pp.

Review by Andrei Pop

8 January 2020

In an era characterized in the humanities by strident commitments to vibrant matter and anti-humanisms of every stripe, a polemic in the guise of disciplinary history qualifies as a subversive gesture. But a polemic this is, more than a textbook: and that, despite its pointed refusal of the qualifier “Western” in its title, is one difference between this book and its kin, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (1945). Wood indeed peppers the chronological trunk of his account with brief but thoughtful forays into Chinese and Islamic art writing. In between, artists from Ghiberti to Baldessari and critics from Diderot to Greenberg have as much say as academic art historians and their philosophical heroes, notably Hegel and Nietzsche. In a methodological move familiar from Wood’s book with Alex Nagel, Anachronic Renaissance, art too is read as embodied historiography, revealing an artist and epoch’s understanding of precursors, possibilities, and ideals. 

Given this breadth, it may jar on some sensibilities that the linear narrative begins with eleventh-century annalist Adam von Bremen’s account of Swedish idolatry. Greek authorities like Pliny and Pausanias pop up when conjured by the moderns, but ancient theoretical thinking about art, from Plato and Aristotle to Longinus and Augustine, plays little role. Pointedly, the account ends with some generalities on the social “new art history,” with no critical attention to any historians living today. Michael Baxandall is quoted (in what the endnotes admit is a joke) as confessing that he wanted to “do Roger Fry over again but after nature” (p. 406). So, despite the care spent on Italian and Northern Renaissance artists’ sense of the past, and that of their Chinese peers, it is to the epoch of aesthetic modernism and the “classic art historians” of 1850–1950 that Wood looks to establish what art history has been at its best, as well as at its most typical, which for the iconoclast in Wood is close to its worst. This emerges less in the terse discussions of Burckhardt, Riegl, Warburg et. al—many of which are interrupted and rejoined in later contexts—than in the argumentative introduction and conclusion.

The former sets several baselines, an annalistic history that consists in establishing oeuvres and artist biographies around fixed standards of excellence, and the more ambitious relativist art history that deals with objects and canons from the outside, as if they were all equally worthy of our attention (“equally direct to God,” Wood’s literal rendering of Ranke’s famous slogan). Though we fall into them constantly, neither is adequate, because the experience of art is intense and timeless: a modernist insight that drove modernist art historians to marry relativist curiosity to speculative theories of formal development. These, the skeptic Wood believes, are largely fantastic, but without them the historian collapses into an annalist, conducting fawning interviews with contemporary artists; as for art, one “might as well cart all the old paintings from the [Zurich] Kunsthaus down to the [historical] Landesmuseum, and fill the Kunsthaus to its last corner with modern and contemporary art, so that apples can finally be compared with apples” (p. 17).

As I said, this is no mere textbook, despite the marvel of learning memorably conveyed, its palpable teacher’s joy in introducing readers to neglected masters like the scholar of Mexican ex votos Anita Brenner, or its mirth in puncturing reputations, like Winckelmann’s, whose “nonphilosophical hyperidealism” leads him to end his famous History of Ancient Art on “a note of hysteria” (p. 156). Specialists will not like everything he says—so briefly in such a long book—about their heroes. But the book is no more exclusively for them than for beginners: it aims to catch the conscience of working art historians by holding up a mirror to their practice. Whatever the reader, Wood’s restless intellect, able to ascend from criticism to aphoristic generality from one sentence to the next, itself requires interpretation. Thus a discussion of Riegl’s Dutch Group Portraits concludes by alluding to E. M. Forster’s tourists interpreting Florentine chapels, with which Wood began the chapter: “It is as if art history had undertaken to narrate a history of mural painting stretched too thin” (p. 297). 

I am too thick to get all of Wood’s witticisms, but this one must have to do with his resolute empiricism, the “only method” really at art historians’ disposal, exposing our threadbare skein of concepts. Strikingly for a writer with such commitment to the concrete, Wood has sweeping metaphysical views on art, which he unleashes like lightning flashes punctuating the exposition. Art’s power, and limitation, we learn, lies in its fictionality. Its master fiction is something like the persistence and legibility of form, evolving over time and meaningful apart from ephemeral human concerns. It is no accident, Wood argues in what must count as the book’s supreme historiographical contribution, that art historians who set out to be detached relativists recounting the succession of forms end as “fallen” realists, affirming the life or forms or the shape of historical sequences or a Kantian transcendental rightness of linear perspective (Panofsky’s case, as Wood first pointed out in the introduction to his 1991 translation of Perspective as Symbolic Form). 

The tragedy, or paradox, of form as fiction, according to Wood, is that art must be flexible enough to be able to tell lies that indirectly point out elusive truths, but that this fragility in its mode of address tempts us to turn instead to the rising tide of mass culture, which entertains us brainlessly, or to reduce art to objects in networks of exchange fit for the Landesmuseum. As a result, we aren’t well-prepared to read comics or films (an arguable point), while contemporary art glories in political content denuded of significant form. The conclusion, ironically called “Novissima,” church Latin for The Last Things but literally meaning “the newest,” is an impassioned polemic against faddish study of the contemporary to the exclusion of older artworks and languages. Wood, like a good old humanist, is disgusted by this, and has ironic fun with “the hatching of the just society of the future out of the critical art of the present” (p. 407). Surely that is a bigger fiction even than form. The perverse, but honorable thing, for a fallen relativist (if not realist) of Wood’s temperament, is to carry on critical and aporetic work on complex objects, protecting, like a moving shield, “the troubling unknown from a premature translation into a narrower existence” (p. 408).