May 7, 2008

Is the history of art a hoax?

Short answer: No.

But, a lot of people suspect it is, so it's worth exploring the question.

In 1993, I attended the enormously popular exhibition at the formidable Chicago Art Institute of the paintings of the Belgian Rene Magritte, a commercial artist in dreary Brussels who did witty Surrealist paintings in his off-hours.

After listening to a lecture on Magritte by the curator of exhibition, I approached her and told her how much more popular Magritte had gotten in just 17 years. In 1976 I'd visited a major exhibition of Magritte's work at the museum of Rice University in Houston, which, at the time, consisted of two quonset huts made of corrugated metal out in the football stadium parking lot. Almost nobody was there.

(It wasn't that Magritte was unpopular in the 1970s -- the famous cover picture for Jackson Browne's 1974 "Late for the Sky" album was a Los Angelesized-version of a well-known Magritte painting. Instead, he was a little too popular for artistic prestige, like M.C. Escher. In the late 1970s, Magritte's paintings inspired album covers by Styx and Gary Numan, which probably did more for his popularity than his prestige.)

And then I asked the poor curator the kind of uncomfortable question that has led me to stop going out in public: "So, if Magritte can climb so much in prestige, can we expect to attend an M.C. Escher retrospective at the Art Institute in a few decades?"

Her face clouded over with consternation. She began to explain that new research into Magritte's life recently discovered that he hadn't spent all his life in boring Brussels, but had actually spent 1927-30 in Paris, where he became friends with the leading artists of the day. And then she stopped, and said, "I don't want to make it sound like being a famous artist is all about who you know ..." And then she stopped again, because that's exactly what it sounded like. I made some encouraging noises to assure her that I'd never dream such a thing, and she got back on track.

The point is of course that who you know is important in the history of art ... because history needs a story.

Why is Picasso's Bull's Head a famous work of art, while the similar Bull's Heads no doubt created earlier by random junkyard proprietors and bicycle shop employees and the like are not famous works of art? Because, of course, Picasso's was created by a famous artist.

And that leads to the question: Why is Picasso a famous artist? And it's very tempting to answer: Because he created famous works of art, like Bull's Head.

Yet, the real answer is: Because he influenced other great artists.

And how do we know they are great artists? Because they influenced other great artists. And how do we know these other great artists are ...

You can see the potential for circular reasoning here.

And, yet, I'd caution against too much cynicism about the received history of art. It is what it is -- a story of who influenced whom -- for a reason. Scholars can't just make it up, at least not all of it. It's artists who ultimately get to decide who their greatest predecessors were, not the critics and historians.

For example, consider the pre-Renaissance Florentine painter Giotto. Is Giotto's inclusion in the history books justified? Well, Giotto influenced Masaccio who influenced Leonardo who influenced Raphael who influenced Caravaggio who influenced Rubens who influenced Van Dyck, so, yes, Giotto is most definitely important. It's not all a huge con game. You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you definitely can't fool Masaccio, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens, and Van Dyck all the time.

Conversely, in Victorian times, John Ruskin, perhaps the most influential critic ever, wrote the early Baroque Carraci family out of the history of painting, but they've slowly returned since there is too much objective evidence of their influence on later major painters to permanently ignore them.

The big problem, though, is that, after the development of photography, objective skill declined in importance as a measure of the artist and conceptual cleverness rose in ranking. So, the chances have increase for plausible-sounding critics and scholars to drive art history off track and into the trackless wastes of Art Theory.

For example, the rise in recent years in art history textbooks of jokester Marcel Duchamp as the key figure of 20th Century art reflects what happens when art writers' theorizing becomes untethered from actual artistic skill. For example, Wikipedia informs us: "In December 2004, Duchamp's Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 well-established artists and critics in the British art world." Fountain is a urinal.

It's easy to write about Duchamp, who produced more epigrams and conceptual jests than actual works of visible art. And you can't reality-check Duchamp's influence on the major artists of the 21st Century, since there aren't any major artists of the 21st Century.

So, most of the written history of art, from Vasari onward, is not a hoax, but the closer we get to the present, the less we can say that with any confidence.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Maybe the influence of Duchamp and the dadaists was not on what was produced but on attitudes to art; voting for Duchamp is ridiculous if you're serious, but very much in the spirit of dada if you're not.
I think one of the many bad things about today's conceptual artists is that they lack dada's sense of humour.
Representational painting that requires actual skill is not dead. For example, the top British painter today is Lucien Freud, who has devoted his life to recording the hideousness of the obesity epidemic. I think the dead painter whose stock has risen most in the past quarter-century is probably Edward Hopper. But it's true that a lot of representational painting has been defined as "mere" illustration; I believe many of today's finest painters are actually illustrating children's books.

Bruce Charlton said...

I suppose what changed after Modernism was not the way that the greats were detected and measured in terms of their influence - but the fact that hardly anybody outside the profession of Fine Arts cares who influenced the highest-status artists of the late twentieth century.

This is not really to do with the decline of skill, because the same applies to late twentieth century classical composers - who were/ are undeniably highly-skilled. But nobody outside of the professionals of classical music cares about who influenced them, because they don't like what they produce.

Mostly it is to do with the cleavage of the arts into almost-unrelated professional and popular branches: the professionals supported by subsidies and patronage, and the populars supported by mass markets.

Anonymous said...

There's a Magritte painting on the cover of the (Rod Stewart-era) Jeff Beck Group's LP Beck-Ola . Might have been picked 'cause it shoes a room filled up like a big green Granny Smith apple -- like the Beatles' label symbol. A little joke?

OFF TOPIC: Nicky Hopkins' piano playing on this album is fantastic; check out the cover of Elvis's "All Shook Up" de-contructed and then re-constructed as a heavy jazz-blues thingy.

Anonymous said...

Isn't who you know or who discovers you or who you were influenced by important in all lines of work that brings fame? What you wrote about painting could have been written for all other arts, music, entertainment as well as politics and even possibly the sciences.

Anonymous said...

You left out the best part of the wikipedia article on Fountain. Apparently several people pissed on this work of art, and that in itself counts as a work of performance art. This stuff defies parody.

In spring 2000, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, two performance artists, who in 1999 had jumped on Tracey Emin's installation-sculpture My Bed in the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, went to the newly opened Tate Modern and urinated on the Fountain on display there. However, they were prevented from soiling the sculpture directly by its Perspex case. The Tate, which denied that the duo had succeeded in urinating into the sculpture itself,[11] banned them from the premises, stating that they were threatening "works of art and our staff". When asked why they felt they had to "add" to Duchamp's work, Chai said: "The urinal is there – it's an invitation. As Duchamp said himself, it's the artist's choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it."[10]

On January 4, 2006, while on display in the Dada show in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Fountain was attacked by Pierre Pinoncelli, a 69 year old French performance artist, with a hammer causing a slight chip. Pinoncelli, who was arrested, said the attack was a work of performance art that Marcel Duchamp himself would have appreciated.[12] Previously in 1993 Pinoncelli urinated into the piece while it was on display in Nimes, in southern France. Both of Pinoncelli's performances derive from neo-Dadaists' and Viennese Actionists' intervention or manoeuvre.[citation needed]

Jeff Burton said...

Art History: Easiest A+ ever.

Grumpy Old Man said...

Most reknowned scientists, writers, and statesmen knew others and were mentored by them. It's a secular version of the apostolic succession.

By itself, the existence of such links proves little. If, on the other hand, your point is that a lot of contemporary art is a put-on, I won't gainsay you.

Unknown said...

Fun reflections. Another thing to take into account might be the existence of "art history" in its own right. People didn't overstress it much until the 1700s, when Winckelmann semi-sorta invented art history. Music history, the same thing: Until fairly recently, people just listened to whatever was in the air. They didn't argue over who was greater, Mozart or Beethoven, and then snooze through endless performances of the same ol' canon at Lincoln Center. In many ways we seem to be returning that kind of eternal-present state. Moviemakers, for instance, have lost interest in movie history. Their movies relate more to current magazines and videos than they do to Fellini and Renoir. So it'll be interesting to see what becomes of "art history" and "music history." Both had a beginning. It could be that both are coming to an end.

Even so far as chains-of-influence go ... Well, that gets revised as artists do unexpected and different things. If contempo art zooms off in an expressionist direction, art-history will be revised to show that art-history leads inevitably to present-day expressionism. If it veers off in the direction of conceptualism, then Duchamp looks like a giant.

It happens more than you might think. I wrote a blog posting back here about how Piero della Francesco's reputation has come and gone over the centuries.

Anonymous said...

Art criticism. That's gotta be a hoax, doesn't it?

Unknown said...

A quite insightful application of the objectivity you usually reserve for psychometric stats. Do you have any psychometic or related data on famous artists, both traditional and modern? You are right to indicate that the advent of photography caused great changes in painting, chiefly in making it turn to abstraction, since many artists felt they couldn't compete with photography's accuracy of representation. This has led to a lot of confusion ....

AmericanGoy said...

Pfffft, Steve-o the elitist!
Bah, I say, bah!
I say good day, sir!

C. Van Carter said...

Artists of the past operated within a culture, and learned by apprenticeships which began at an early age. Today a talented artist expends considerable energy warding off the prevailing culture and seeking out his own antecedents. Because of the education system and the nature of modern life he starts later. This means the best art produced today can't help but be minor and slightly eccentric.

Ruskin had a tendancy to go overboard, but isn't he more right than wrong about the Carraccis? They seem to operate on the premise that if one angel is could, ten must be better.

Why does Escher appeal so much to math/science/engineering types, including ones who otherwise have no interest in art?

Anonymous said...

I studied at the Art Student's league -believe it or not there are still some academic/realist instructors - the ones I took can trace their 'linieage' back to the Chase and and the Cape Cod school. Take a look at Art Renewal living masters section -they will cite who they studied with so studying with masters is still important with realists or anyone requiring techinical skill. Needless to say, technical skill is not a requirement for most 'artists' today.

As for art historians I get a good chuckle listening to them (often the museum guides are grad students) going into pop psychology explanations of say, Sargent's Daughters of E. Boyt. when you understand it from a painter's perspective it's hilarious.

Anonymous said...

c. van carter said...
"Artists of the past operated within a culture, and learned by apprenticeships which began at an early age."

Also, artists we consider to be truly "great" were financed by benefactors, so they have a much freer hand to create what they wanted, whereas now those most successful must appeal to the widest common denomenator of tastes.
Habituating oneself to that aim probably has an overall cultural significance of gradual decay in quality of work, and in overall expectations.

Another factor is the old saw "nothing succeeds like success," which again links to the reasoning and emotions of the common denomenator of public tastes.

You may have heard a few years back of a frustrated screenwriter who, after many rejections, decided to submit "Casablanca" to different studio readers under the title "Everybody Goes to Rick's." None of the studio readers recognized the script, and all rejected the screenplay for assorted "reasons," though Robert Mckee has used the screenplay in his lectures as an example of excellent screenwriting.
Enrico Caruso at the height of his popularity once decided, for fun, to sing Beppe's Pagliacci offstage, and got polite applause from the audience, since they couldn't see, and didn't know it was him. If they had known, he'd have gotten a wild ovation.
What it comes down to, to me, is until we set aside a serious amount of endowment monies for the arts, one that is cohesive, and structured, allowing artists to train and work without worrying about starvation, we will continue to churn out creative "pop stars" that only have one or two things to say, or one or two clever things to do in their art, and go on saying it all their lives.

Anonymous said...

In the future, all art will be automated via "artbots," freeing mankind to pursue more practical enterprises:

Anonymous said...

Casablanca anonymous: That tale has been exaggerated in the re-telling, although the truth is humorous and revealing enough.

A majority of the agents returned the manuscript unread or ignored it. (The source below says ninety agents returned it unreads, seven agents never responded, and eighteen copies were lost in the mail, although I'm not sure how he was able to distinguish between the last two categories.)

Of those that did respond, thirty-eight agents recognized the script, eight regarded it as too similar to Casablanca but not as exactly as Casablanca (possibly the weirdest response of all), and forty-two apparently did not recognize it. Of those forty-two, thirty-eight rejected it.

The same website has a list of similar hoaxes, which does include a case of a National Book Award winner (but one now largely forgotten) sumbitted by the same man who did the Casablanca experiment (Chuck Ross) to fourteen publishers and rejected by all of them.

Anonymous said...

Nice post Steve.

I've posted here before about Morse Peckham and, well, I'm going to do it again. The best book on Art, in my view, is, well actually two books by Peckham.

1- Beyond the Tragic Vision

2- Man's Rage for Chaos

Personally I think Art was over when Andy Warhol put a can of soup in a Musuem. Or was it a box of Brillo? I think it was great, but more for his decision to do it than for anything else. I mean, there wasn't much in the way of technique.
But it WAS Art. They're task is the revelation of value to the world. But the way they do it is supposed to be innovative. It's supposed to violate our expectations. So, he said a can of soup or a Brillo box or whatever, was an object of value, and stuck it in a museum, and everyone went, "What? That's not Art."
I think when he did that he knew he would the first and last to REALLY get away with it; and I think he knew what he was doing, he was responding to the previous Masters as Steve mentions. He was in the direct Tradition of Constable. Constable painted the Stour Valley because it was important - TO HIM. The subject matter was of minor importance because it was the rendering that mattered, that's where the Individuality of the Artist could be best seen. By the time we get to Warhol painting was formless, form had completely broken down (like Society and Culture itself) and the Painter with it.
So what's an Artist to do if he wants to innovate while introducing value into the world? The "rendering" becomes the "decision", so he comes up with a great idea and puts a can of soup or a box of Brillo into a museum. Why these objects? For the same reason Constable painted the Stour Valley. It was connected to his childhood and so had a profound emotional value - TO HIM!What Warhol did that was profound was he exploited the fact that there is no Publicily acceptable criteria for judging what reveals value and what doesn't.
Warhol understood the cultural situation better than anybody; and that situation was that, for complex reasons having to do with cultural history Art had become what any self-designated Artist says is Art. After that all Warhol had to do was break the Publicity barrier. Once he did that he could name his price and sit back and giggle while Art Critics fumbled in confusion trying to say something significant about something that would have bored the bajeesus out any sensible person.

Anonymous said...

I find the examples of performance art you mention to be very, very funny, and I agree with the performance artists involved that there was a tacit invitation, implicit in the nature of the "art". It would be funnier still (bordering on hysterically funny) if someone interested in a bit of one-upmanship would defecate in the "art" the next time.

Anonymous said...

I think many of you including Steve have missed the point. Placing a urinal on a pedestal and “labeling” it art is as absurd as digging up the Venus of Willendorf, placing it on a pedestal and labeling it “Art”. “Art” is a concept that the Venus-maker could not think. Therefore Art is reduced to contexts. Duchamp produces a work that does more than simply illustrate his point, it is the point – or more precisely our experience of the work is the point. And most of what we call Art in the 20th century follows this strategy - namely that the form of the work is the content of the work and usually in such a way as to experientially induce the viewer to some realization of context and/or truth-assumption. Modern and Postmodern Art doesn’t “say” it – it is it.

This is fundamentally different than pre-Modern art which was generally produced as a manifestation of aristocratic and religious power (church and crown, shaman and chief, etc). Modern Art celebrates the cult of the democratic individual, Postmodern emphasizes influence and structure (and all things anti-Modern) but what they share from Manet’s “Olympia”, to Duchamp’s “Fountain”, to Pollock’s “No. 5”, to Cindy Sherman’s self portraits or Chagoya's clash of cultures comics is that hey are not illustrating ideas -they ARE the ideas.

M.C. Escher illustrates ideas (very cool illustrations). Giotto creates illusions (very, very beautiful illusions). Duchamp’s work IS the idea, and this is fundamentally, categorically a 20th century thang.

Steve Sailer said...

Okay, but it's now the 21st Century, yet self-proclaimed artists keep making the same joke Duchamp made in 1913. After hearing a joke for 95 years, it just isn't that funny anymore.

Anonymous said...


If you think about it, if one can control criticism, ultimately they can control the art by carrot and sticking of sensitive-type-artists over time.

Most critics are very leftist of persuasion in all fields of artistic expression, so criticism can drag the art to serve social change by pulling it to the left over time by rewarding 'left' art and dissuading 'right' or 'non-politicized' art as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

Hey don’t get me wrong – the overwhelming majority of works exhibited in galleries and museums today are indeed (unfunny) one-liners. But the work that constitutes the bulk of 20th century Art History texts for the most part are interesting and thought provoking – truly “wonder-ful”. Go have a look at a Pollock or a deKooning in person. That (well-done) Modernist stuff is really incredible in a sum-is-greater-than-the-parts kind of way.

My point is that you can’t compare “Fountain” to the Cistine Chapel. And that the reason Duchamp is so revered is that he changed the rules of the game for a century.

As for what’s next – most of the Art that is really interesting today is not in galleries but in data-mining art-networks, symbolic analysis net-art, immerse-able realities (VR), robots (AI) as art medium, non-linear/real time narrative programming, etc. When the history of early 21st century Art is written it will focus on engineering/information Arts – not objects in, or performances for, galleries.

Anonymous said...

We have lots of great art. Some of Steven Spielberg's movies. Walt Disney's movies and Disneyworld. All those old medieval churches, and all that stuff from the Renaissance was meant to impress the public. Or classic American cars. If Sung Dynasty chamber pots are art, then classic American cars are most definitely art.

Too much of art history is dominated by "sort of smart" people who are told someone else's subjective impressions of a piece. They fail to recognize that subjectivity, and then go on repeating this or that as if it were objectively there.

Same goes for lit crit. "The author is obviously really trying to say..." Oh really now? As much as folks here might hate deconstructionism and all that, it is pointing out the absurdity of this kind of benighted puffery.

Grumpy Old Man said...

A former colleague of mine's take on political art was that you can use a large statue to help build a barricade. The act of contemplating a made object, however, is passive and thus hardly revolutionary.

He had a point.

Anthony D'Amato said...

Representational painting has not been eclipsed by photography; rather, photography has taken over the way artists see reality with the result that what artists now draw is not what a bowl of fruit looks like but rather what it would look like if it were photographed. There is still as much room for representational painting as there ever was, but artists don't trust their eyes to see it and the public doesn't know what to make of it.