March 9, 2006

Revising the art canon

The NYT has an article on the new edition of the popular textbook Janson's History of Art, in which lots of the pictures have been changed. The article focuses on the dropping of the iconic "Whistler's Mother" (a.k.a., "Arrangement in Grey and Black") for the great American painter James Whistler's less famous (but, in my uneducated opinion) more beautiful "Symphony in White No. 2." One art history instructor offers an interesting New Yorker Cartoon Test of what they should be teaching:

"I can see the reasons, artistically, for dropping Whistler's mother," said Mickey McConnell, an instructor who until recently taught a survey course at the University of New Mexico and has used Janson for years. "But it's become so well known, such a part of the culture. What if there's a cartoon in The New Yorker that uses it as a reference? Younger students aren't going to know what it's talking about."

I'm a particular fan of New Yorker cartoons. Think of all the nervous people over the years sitting in dentists' or doctors' waiting rooms to get their teeth drilled or hear the results of their cancer tests who have found distraction by flipping through the pages of The New Yorker, glancing at the cartoons. So, any fracturing of the culture that leaves people saying "Huh?" to New Yorker cartoons and thus laying the magazine down and going back to fretting about that irregular-shaped mole is to be deplored. (I'm also impressed by how New Yorker cartoons don't exist to flatter New Yorker subscribers that they are morally and politically superior to the vast red state masses, like, say, Malcolm Gladwell's more recent articles do.)

That's how traditions work. You need some common denominators, even if they aren't perfect. It seems obvious to me, for example, that of two French painters born in 1839-40, Cezanne and Redon, that the lesser-known Redon created much lovelier works, while Cezanne was bogged down by his basic ineptitude. Cezanne could never master perspective.

I also like the bizarre happy ending to Redon's life story. He was a depressed man who worked solely in black and white, drawing disturbing pictures of things like plants with human heads. Suddenly, at age 55, he cheered up and started painting in luminous color, quickly developing a prodigious talent as a colorist.

But eventually Cezanne and his friends persuaded the world that his failure to master the central artistic skill of the last 450 years, perspective, was actually a triumph, if you only were sophisticated enough to understand. And that's the way it goes -- Cezanne really is more important to study than Redon.

And that's why the editors of books like Janson's aren't as powerful in the long run as they, or the New York Times, think they are. As I explained while reviewing Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment, which uses Janson's and other reference books to rank the most eminent artists and scientists:

Can we trust these data? The scholars upon whom Murray relies have their personal and professional biases, but, ultimately, their need to create coherent narratives explaining who influenced whom means that their books aren’t primarily based on their own opinions but rather on those of their subjects. For example, the best single confirmation of Beethoven’s greatness might be Brahms’s explanation of why he spent decades fussing before finally unveiling his First Symphony: “You have no idea how it feels for someone like me to hear behind him the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.”

In Paul Johnson’s just-published and immensely readable book Art: A New History, you can see how even this most opinionated of historians must adapt himself to the judgments of artists. Much of the book’s entertainment value stems from Johnson’s heresies, such as his grumpy comment on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: “No one ever wished the ceiling larger.” Still, Johnson can’t really break free from conventional art history because he can’t avoid writing about those whom subsequent artists emulated.

For example, Johnson finds Cézanne (who ranks 10th in Murray’s table of 479 significant artists) painfully incompetent at the basics of his craft. Yet, Johnson has to grit his teeth and write about Cézanne at length because he “was in some ways the most influential painter of the late nineteenth century because of his powerful (and to many mysterious) appeal to other painters …”

Of course, that doesn't mean the new editors of Janson aren't trying to manipulate the history of art for political ends:

"The new book adds many more women, and for the first time, decorative arts are included. And it uses art much more as a way to discuss race, class and gender. In the introduction, on pages that once used Dürer and Mantegna to examine the concept of originality, Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary" — a painting that rested on clumps of elephant dung and created a furor when it was shown in Brooklyn in 1999 — is used to talk about differences between Western and African ways of seeing."

In response to this calculated insult to the Blessed Virgin, Irish Catholic officers in the New York Police Department rioted, setting the headquarters of publisher Pearson Prentice Hall on fire, and the Irish Catholic-dominated New York Fire Department refused to put out the fire in the blasphemers' building.

Oh, wait, no ... never mind. None of that happened. I was thinking of somebody else.

They can wedge a lot of old women painters into the new edition of Janson, but they won't fit into into a coherent story because the great painters weren't influenced by them. But that's one of the standard by-products of diversity worship in the schools -- history ends up getting taught less and less as an interesting story of cause and effect, and more and more as just a random list of names and dates chosen for quota purposes rather than for playing an important role in the tale.

Nonetheless, there is a possibility that traditionally cause-and-effect histories might be unfair to highly talented female painters and writers. As I wrote in my review of Human Accomplishment:

Still, Murray’s rankings may be slightly unfair to female artists because they are less likely to have brilliant followers. My wife, for example, was incensed that Jane Austen finished behind the lumbering Theodore Dreiser and the flashy Ezra Pound. Yet, these men probably did have more influence on other major writers. That’s because subsequent famous authors were mostly male and thus less interested than the female half of the human race in Austen’s topics, such as finding a husband.

A reader adds:

I have a soft spot for "Arrangement in Grey and Black" because of Rowan Atkinson's line about it in the Mr. Bean movie. Mr. Bean has fraudulently presented himself as an art expert and so is required to give a lecture on the painting, despite knowing nothing about it, or anything. He improvises the theory that the painting is great because it depicts "an ugly old bird" who, nonetheless, Whistler "thought the world of."

It took a very talented art history teacher to evoke my first real appreciation for the Mona Lisa when I took his class in 12th grade, since the thing had been completely squeezed, by ubiquity, of any wonder or freshness for me up to that point.

One of my favorite recurrent themes in The Atlantic Monthly are its profiles of extremely famous (but stodgy-sounding) old writers, artists, and performers. They explain why they are so famous: they were radical innovators, but we've forgotten that because everybody has adopted their breakthroughs. For example, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, who had seemed like they had old and not-with-it forever, were, in their day, the first singer and comedian, respectively, to understand and exploit the full power of the microphone and amplification. Before Crosby, singing on stage had been an athletic feat, but Der Bingle, who certainly had the pipes to carry on in the old stentorian style, realized that the microphone meant that you could adapt a tone of conversational intimacy.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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