Friday, June 07, 2013

[The following piece will serve as a précis of my larger exposition of the historiography of art at  The piece is a revised and enlarged version of an article originally written for the Grove Dictionary of Art.]

                                    HISTORIOGRAPHY OF ART

Progress towards knowledge in the visual arts occurs within a historical framework. The nature and breadth of this endeavor merits serious discussion. Although earlier accounts of art (and aesthetics) had intimated the possibility of tracing patterns of historical development in art practice, it was not until the 19th century that a truly systematic effort was begun to give art history a formal philosophical basis.

As art history became increasingly linked to (and rooted in) academic and educational institutions a shift occurred. This reorientation fostered the emergence of a new profession: what we now call the art historian. This new status came to be seen as increasingly sophisticated - a specialized professional practice. Partly as a result of this increased specialization, partly as a result of cross-fertilization with other disciplines, early 21st-century art history in the Western world became many-faceted.  Yet there was a downside, for this understanding spelled a renunciation of earlier ambitious efforts to give a unified account of the kingdoms of art that was comprehensive and universal.

This article examines art history from two main viewpoints: 1) summarizing its development as an intellectual discipline; 2) outlining its deployment as a modern institutional practice, primarily within the Western world.  There is also some discussion of recent areas of contention.

The present analysis of issues ranks as but one instance of a range of potential approaches to art history. It must also be noted that art history tends to thrive in advanced industrial societies, while it is commonly disdained as a luxury in less developed nations - though not always. Countries such as Mexico, Nigeria, India, and Thailand have stressed the importance of cultivating the study of their own distinct artistic heritage, regarding this commitment as a spur to consolidating national identity. Moreover, in India art history figures as part of a broader discipline - namely archaeology. In this context the role of the art historian is naturally quite different and relatively well defined.

Art history,  I: Historical development

1. Pre-15th century:

The earliest surviving work that can be described as a history of art is the account of the unfolding of Greek painting and sculpture embedded in the Natural History (XXXIII–XXXVII), compiled by the Roman aristocrat Pliny the Elder in the 1st century CE, Pliny’s account interprets art in terms of progress. Because of his diligence as a compiler of earlier records, Pliny is the “go-to” source for classical art.

That said, it is possible for us to see back even further.  For modern scholars have recovered the gist of the foundational ideas formulated by a man who appears to rank as the first art historian, Xenokrates of Sikyon in Greece. This pioneer wrote about 300 BCE (sadly, his original texts are all lost). Trained as a sculptor, Xenokrates sought to formulate criteria whereby the development of art could be measured. To judge from indications in Pliny, by the time of Xenokrates a canon of the acknowledged masters of Greek sculpture and monumental painting had already emerged. Moreover, the idea of decline had made its presence felt.  The early Hellenistic period (when Xenokrates was writing) saw the start of a growing sense that the great epoch of Greek art was over. As both participant and observer, Xenokrates typified the artist–critic who regarded his own time (even if it had been somewhat disappointing in his case) as part of a continuously unfolding story.

By contrast, the aristocratic Pliny took a purely retrospective view, for he largely ignored Roman artists.  In his view art essentially belonged to ‘long ago’—a lost Golden Age. This contrast - between art as continually developing process and art as an illustrious product of a glorious age now past - was to echo down the centuries. As a rule, critics who themselves began as artists were more sympathetic to contemporary works and trends.

In later Roman times two important genres flourished: the guidebook tradition, of which the major landmark is the 2nd-century work The Description of Greece by Pausanias; and the Ekphrasis, a vivid description of works of art, sometimes imaginary ones. The need for constant alterations emerged in response due to new religious interests. These two genres of writing about art continued into the Middle Ages, yet introduced no fundamental innovations in the history of art.

While European art history marked time, there was enormous innovation happening several time zones away. An extraordinarily independent awareness had developed halfway around the globe - in China. It had achieved its first academic landmark with the pithy Six Laws of Painting set forth by Xie He ( fl ca. 500–35 CE). Subsequent Chinese art history was carried forward by the scholar–official class, whose members - like Xie He - required an adept ability in calligraphy as it was regarded as closely akin to painting. Based on earlier schemes, 11th and 12th century connoisseurs consolidated a standard three-category hierarchical ranking of painters from the past: competent, inspired, and excellent.  Sometimes there are truly exceptional artists.  In effect these make up a fourth group, hors concours as it were.  These numinous figures are known as the untrammeled.  Other Chinese scholars explored the contrast between the Northern and Southern Song schools, which show markedly different styles.

In summary, the Chinese formulated a canon of worthy artists, who were then ranked by status; other formal differences reflected schools and geography.  These Chinese theories of art seem to have evolved entirely autonomously, although they show some affinities with ancient and later European ones. This connoisseurship declined during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911).

At all events, these achievements of analysis and classification played little role in the West, except in one area: the past 100-year study of Chinese art itself - roughly from the onset of World War I to the present.

2. 15th century to the late 19th.

The revived Western tradition of art history stems from the Italian Renaissance, with its enthusiasm for Classical antiquity and its striving for earthly renown.  Ever since, the era has proved a lure to artists, writers, and political figures alike, The sense of fame as a kind of earthly immortality counts as one of the roots of the emerging concept of individual genius, which was to be important in the later cult of the great masters.

Combining the Pliny model with his own inquiries, the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti created the first sketch of the history of Italian art in his Commentarii (ca. 1450). After his death, several other writers compiled notes containing a good deal of miscellaneous information, while oral reports of artists’ undertakings continued to circulate.

This data remained unsynthesized, however, until the publication in 1550 of Giorgio Vasari’s monumental work Le vite de’ più eccelenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, which was followed by an enlarged edition in 1568. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, or so it is said.  Thus this Italian painter, architect and scholar wrote just as the intensity of the Renaissance art effort was waning. Although Vasari was avidly perused in his own day, and subsequently for the vivid details he supplied about individual works and their creators, he also propounded an overarching theory of the history of art. From 1250 to his own time, he believed, there had been three main eras: a modest (though hopeful) beginning; an improved[ (but still imperfect) intermediate stage; and the final triumphant attainment (which became known as the High Renaissance). Paradoxically, this summit of perfection posed a dilemma: since it was not possible to go higher, art could only maintain itself on a plateau, or begin to descend down a slippery slope. This second possibility became part of a discourse of decadence that continued to haunt cultural historians. Vasari entertained a normative concept of three styles: the ‘good’ all’antica style (whereby affinities could be traced between Renaissance art and its Greco-Roman predecessor), and ‘bad’ Gothic and Byzantine styles. Lastly, although he was a rationalist and a believer in adherence to the rules, Vasari suggested that a few artists were endowed with grazia, an ineffable excellence. Vasari’s model long ranked as paradigmatic.

Gradually over the next two centuries Vasari’s ideas spread first through Italy and then throughout Europe and became the dominant way of organizing information about art. Such humanist writers as Karel van Mander, Joachim von Sandrart, Roger de Piles and Antonio Palomino took over Vasari’s paradigm, adding much data from their own national records. Slowly, however, a new type of art historian emerged, as great collectors began to employ learned functionaries. Two prominent examples are Filippo Baldinucci, who worked for the Medici, and the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was in the service of Cardinal Alessandro Albani in Rome. Winckelmann’s elegant writings, most notably his Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764), marked a new phase of art history, characterized by German dominance. Winckelmann held that scholars should sternly avoid personalities and write of art as a product of inexorable forces. In his rapturous accounts of the culture of ancient Greece, which he had earlier studied in the Classical texts, he emphasized the enabling factors of climate and political freedom, and he may thus be regarded as a proto-historicist. He also represented a beholder-centered (rather than artist-centered) historiography. Although he claimed competence only in ancient art, Winckelmann also disparaged the Baroque styles that continued to exert a powerful influence on 18th-century art and thereby helped (with the aid of such contemporaries as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing) to foster the rise of the antithetical trend of Neo-classicism. In addition to his effects on art history and archaeology, Winckelmann gave impetus to the nascent field of art criticism (Denis Diderot acknowledged his influence), and from that point onwards the more contemporary-minded field of art criticism began to diverge from art history proper.

During the early decades of the 19th century historical research enjoyed enormous prestige in Germany. Discarding earlier models that expressed universal normative preferences, the new trend, sometimes termed historicism, emphasized the unique character of each individual epoch. Above all, the scholar embracing this ideal was required to resist anachronistic longings to project his or her own preferences onto to the past. With regard to art research there were two main versions of historicism: a universal model derived from the philosopher and university professor Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in which art—from the ancient Egyptians to Hegel’s own time—moves from the symbolic to the classic to the romantic mode in accordance with the historical development of Geist or Spirit; and a particularist version, spearheaded by the independent scholar Karl Friedrich von Rumohr (1785–1843), which stresses the collection of discrete facts and the critical scrutiny of individual paintings. This last preoccupation fueled the trend towards connoisseurship exemplified by Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and Max Jacob Friedländer—a major theme of 19th-century art history.

Another important development in the 19th century was the institutionalization of art history as an academic discipline, beginning with the appointment in 1834 of Franz Kugler (1800–58) to the chair of art history at the Universität in Berlin. Professorial chairs were subsequently created at the universities of Bonn, Strasbourg, Leipzig and Prague, which were all occupied by German speakers. Slowly the institution spread to other countries, and there were also separate appointments in Classical archaeology. This development was accompanied by the establishment of a new approach to the study of art, placing it within the framework of a broader study of cultural history and thereby allowing such figures as Jacob Burckhardt to mediate between the two different versions of historicism. Other scholars meanwhile found employment in the great museums that were founded in many European capitals in the 19th century. Gustav Friedrich Waagen, who became Director of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin in 1830, was the first distinguished figure of this type, closely followed by Charles Eastlake, who developed the National Gallery in London.

3. Late 19th century and after.

It was only from the 1880s that modern art history crystallized into a new synthesis, which remained dominant until the 1960s. The Swiss Heinrich Wölfflin created a formalist system based on the contrast between two ‘modes of beholding’, the first dominant during the Renaissance, the second during the Baroque. He also introduced a series of terms to characterize this contrast; of these, the linear and its antithesis, the painterly, are probably the most important. The linear mode brings out discrete separations between depicted entities by introducing clear lines and contours, while the painterly approach tends to merge individual elements into a single whole, the fluidity of which denies any clear boundaries. During the following decade the Viennese art historians Franz Wickhoff and Alois Riegl developed similar models, though with more allowance for cultural factors. This Vienna school (like Wölfflin) was influenced by new discoveries in experimental psychology, especially in the study of perception, and was important in ‘rehabilitating’ such neglected eras of art history as Roman art, Early Christian art, Mannerism and the Baroque. Links between this new openness signaled by these scholarly advances and the artistic avant-garde of the Post-Impressionists, though often posited, are not easily demonstrable.

At the turn of the 20th century the French medievalist Emile Mâle emphasized content over form, leading to the maturation of a new approach to subject-matter. These endeavors were carried further by his younger Hamburg contemporary Aby Warburg, who founded a widely influential research institute, which later moved to London. Both figures gave important impetus to the study of iconography, the subdiscipline that addresses stable patterns of meaning in visual schemata and is therefore akin to semiotics. One of Warburg’s protégés was the prodigiously learned Erwin Panofsky. Sometimes misrepresented as a Formalist, Panofsky sharply criticized both Wölfflin and Riegl. He was interested chiefly in medieval and Renaissance art and brought to bear a range of sources, both visual and literary, intended to produce a holistic reading of individual works of art in keeping with a method that he termed iconology. In 1933 the imposition of Hitler’s racial laws compelled Panofsky to settle in the US. From the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, he exercised a beneficent ascendancy over a maturing American art history.

In fact, with the work of Arthur Kingsley Porter and Charles Rufus Morey, American art history had begun to develop auspiciously during the second decade of the 20th century. In the mid-20th century, reinforced by a transatlantic migration comprising some 400 art scholars (many, though not all, of Jewish origin), it achieved international prominence. Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) integrated approaches derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and other disciplines, while Leo Steinberg (1920-2011) combined close visual analysis with a careful reading of texts to provide flexible and subtle models of interpretation.

As the 20th century advanced, art history came to seem more and more a closed guild, with its certifying Ph. D. process and well-defined academic niches. The language became highly technical, sometimes almost hermetic, at least in the view of some observers. Still, the influence that some distinguished outsiders were able to exercise was notable. Although he disclaimed any art historical credentials, Sigmund Freud’s essay on “Leonardo da Vinci and a Childhood Memory' (1910) opened the way to the study of the intrapsychic development of artists. Martin Heidegger’s treatise “Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes” (The Origin of the Work of Art) of 1935-36, famous for its interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh’s 1886 painting “A Pair of Shoes,” offered a philosophical approach. To profit fully from such expositions one needs to share the value systems (in these cases psychoanalysis and existentialism); many do not. With his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” of 1935 Walter Benjamin, the Marxist literary theorist, was an exception. Focusing on the concept of the aura and its decline, this has become a seminal essay for today’s art history. Also influential has been Michel Foucault’s essay on Diego Velázquez’ masterwork “Las Meninas,” published as the opening chapter of his Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (1966). In several studies the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss applied a structuralist approach to objects of Amerindian origin.

Institutional art history had tended to neglect modern and contemporary art, and the first great advance in this area were made by scholars outside academia, such as Julius Meier-Graefe, Roger  Fry and Alfred H. Barr. Also neglected by the mainstream was Asian art, cultivated by such pioneering figures as Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (China and Japan), Joseph Strzygowski (western Asia), K.A.C. Creswell (Islam), Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (India and Sri Lanka), and Stella Kramrisch (India).
After World War II the discipline seemed eager to find its way back to positive values. Panofsky’s emphasis on philosophy, religion and traditional humanism seemed particularly relevant in the immediate post-war period, yet with the maturation of the secular post-war culture, with its consumer society and new media, this appeal dimmed. Political attitudes also changed: a new spirit of revolt found Panofsky too traditionally humanistic, out of tune with the yearning for innovation and transgression. Moreover, untrained in the strict canons of Classical philology, many of the German polymath’s disciples experienced difficulty in emulating his achievements. Other problems reflected a changed emphasis in academia itself: a broader decline in the humanistic tradition gradually smothered the intellectual environment that had sustained his teachings, and within art history many felt that Panofsky’s disregard of contemporary art was short-sighted. A new pluralism in art history was fostered by other factors, including a sense that art and the study of art should be socially significant. As in other fields of the humanities, new influences came from a renewed interest in Marxism, psychoanalysis, Semiotics, and the cluster of views known loosely as Deconstruction. This New Art History, as it is sometimes termed, was more an alliance of interests than a single doctrine.

Controversy continues to envelop problem of art history of the present. Is it really possible? Giorgio Vasari and some art historians who succeeded him thought so. But towards the end of the 19th century a hands-off approach became standard among professional art historians. One had to let the dust settle, they seemed to think. And it would take time to assemble an adequate repertory of concepts and words. But it may be that there is no easy answer to this problem. Perhaps it could be said that critics who occupy themselves with contemporary are are simply writing the rough draft of history. Still, no one can doubt the serious commitment of such contemporary critic-historians as Lucy Lippard and Irving Sandler. In terms of overall understanding, there is an undoubted feedback from trends in contemporary art work.

Recent decades have seen the elevation of the reputation of Marcel Duchamp over that of Pablo Picasso as the artist of the 20th century. In a nutshell, Duchamp emphasized thought instead of visuality, opening the way for all sorts of artists working now. In a somewhat similar fashion, Caravaggio has supplanted Michelangelo as the ultimate Italian old master. The reasons for his elevation are complex, including the influence of the cinema, his tormented life, and gender issues.

Sustained study of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Pre-Columbian Americas also began to flourish in the second half of the 20th century. After the 1960s, however, such scholars as Edward Said questioned the appropriateness of imposing Western standards on other cultures. The task of creating a universal history of art, first glimpsed 200 years ago by Hegel, has still not been realized to this day.


M. Schapiro: ‘ Style,’ in Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory, ed. A. L. Kroeber (Chicago, 1953), pp. 287-312                                                                                                         
E. Panofsky: Meaning in the Visual Arts (Garden City, NY, 1955)                                                 
J. Schlosser Magnino: La letteratura artistica (Florence, 1964)                                                       
C. Eisler: ‘ Kunstgeschichte American Style: A Study in Migration’, The Intellectual Migration: Europe and America, 1930–1960, ed. D. Fleming and B. Bailyn (Cambridge, MA, 1969), pp. 544–629

W. E. Kleinbaurer, ed.: Modern Perspectives in Western Art History (New York, 1971)

H. Dilly: Kunstgeschichte als Institution (Frankfurt am Main, 1979)

E. Arntzen and R. Rainwater: Guide to the Literature of Art History (Chicago, 1980)

D. Watkin: The Rise of Architectural History (Chicago, 1980)                                                         
C. R. Sherman and A. M. Holcomb: Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820–1979 (Westport, 1981) 
J. Alsop: The Rare Art Traditions (New York, 1982)

W. E. Kleinbauer and T. Slavens: Research Guide to the History of Western Art (Chicago, 1982)       

U. Kultermann: Geschichte der Kunstgeschichte (Frankfurt am Main, 1982; Eng. trans., New York, 1993)

M. Podro: The Critical Historians of Art (New Haven, 1982)
M. Barasch: Theories of Art: From Plato to Winckelmann (New York, 1985)                                                                                                                                                        S. Bush: Early Chinese Painting Texts (Cambridge, MA, 1985)

H. Dilly and others, eds: Kunstgeschichte: Eine Einführung (Berlin, 1985)

L. Dittmann, ed., Kategorien und Methoden der deutschen Kunstgeschichte, 1900–1930 (Stuttgart, 1985)

G. Bazin: Histoire de l’histoire de l’art de Vasari à nos jours (Paris, 1986)

H. Dilly, ed.: Altmeister moderner Kunstgeschichte (Berlin, 1990)

M. Sitt, ed.: Kunsthistoriker in eigener Sache (Berlin, 1990)

F. Haskell: History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past (New Haven, 1993)      
C. H. Smyth and P. M. Lukehart, eds.: The Early Years of Art History in the United States (Princeton, 1993)
V. H.Minor, Art History's History (New York, 1994).
H. Zerner and J. Bouniort: Ecrire l’histoire de l’art: figures d’une discipline (Paris, 1997)          
P. Betthausen, P. H. Feist, and C. Fork: Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon (Stuttgart, 1999)

K. Michels: Transplantierte Kunstwissenschaft: Deutschsprachige Kunstgeschichte im amerikanischen Exil (Berlin, 1999)

C. Soussloff, ed.: Jewish Identify in Modern Art History (Berkeley, 1999)

G. Guercio: Art as Existence: The Artist’s Monograph and Its Project (Cambridge, MA, 2006)

D. Preziosi: The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. 2nd ed. (Oxford, 2009)

Journal of Art Historiography (Glasgow and Birmingham, 2009ff.)
R. Shone and J.-P. Stonard, eds,: The Books That Shaped Art History (New York, 2013)

II. Modern institutional practice.

The institutionalization of art history as a professional discipline from the 19th century took several forms: the development of professional organizations, a system of professional training, and shifts in the perception of its relation to other academic disciplines. Parallel to these were developments in the dissemination of information, necessary to sustain the discipline at a professional level as well as in relation to a more general audience.

1. Professional aspects.

The first international art historians’ association was formed in Vienna in 1873 on the occasion of the World's Fair there. Except for interruptions owing to war, meetings have taken place every three years. In the US a quest for status led to the creation of a host of professional organizations around the turn of the 20th century, for example the American Historical Association (1884) and the American Sociological Association (1904). The founding of the first professional grouping of academically employed artists and art historians, the College Art Association, came in 1911. This group, with its huge annual meetings and prestigious publications, provided a model for others. The (American) Society of Architectural Historians was formed in 1940, and in 1948 German art historians reorganized themselves as the Verband Deutscher Kunsthistoriker. Similar organizations appeared in Britain and France during the 1970s. There are hundreds of smaller organizations around the world, many of them catering for specialist areas, such as the societies for Oriental ceramics, Egyptian antiquities and so on. The maturation of a new profession, that of art librarian, was signaled by the formation of ARLIS/NA (Art Libraries Association/North America) in 1972; the British counterpart is ARLIS/UK.

Until the last decades of the 19th century almost all art historians were self-taught, perfecting themselves through travel and personal contact with mentors. This informal method yielded to the German seminar system, whereby the tiro art historian learnt his or her craft from an established master, the ‘Doktorvater’; variations of this procedure are still employed in Central Europe, the United Kingdom and North America. As a terminal credential, the PhD is now essential for most art-historical employment. The labor required to acquire the concluding document that confers the degree varies in intensity: in France it is the thèse d’état; in the UK and the USA, the PhD thesis; in Germany, the Dissertation; and in Italy, the tesi di laurea. At one time graduate students were expected to know Greek and Latin in addition to modern languages; now an Asian language may be required in addition to French and German. Museum work affording contact with original objects is often regarded as essential; there is sometimes the possibility of intern service. Under the aegis of some universities and museums, excavation experience abroad is possible. Today the student and art historian must be computer-literate, not only for his own work but also to gain access to an increasing array of electronic data bases; consultation with the specialized art reference librarian is often essential.

Modern art historians may specialize in a period, medium or even an individual artist, or they may be generalists. Among the specialists, some cherish a sense that the particular styles and types of art they favor are objectively privileged, that they are in effect superior to other kinds of art, while others share with generalists a sense of value-neutrality. One group of art historians, the uniformitarians, tend to view historical development as a gradual process; others, who might be termed the saltationists, detect clear breaks or discontinuities, which may take the form either of qualitative advances, sudden spurts, or of setbacks and even actual catastrophes. Finally, some art historians favor dualistic systems, stipulating the alternating domination of opposing principles (such as the linear vs. the painterly mode), while others minimize such fundamental contrasts.

There are also different views on the appropriate relation of art history to other academic disciplines. The contemporary organization of knowledge assigns the history of art and architecture to the sphere of the humanities (along with the study of literature, music and philosophy) as distinct from the social sciences and the natural sciences. The practice of art history involves a range of auxiliary disciplines and expertise, from paleography and chronology to radiocarbon dating and chemical analysis. Archaeology and art history, though originally closely allied, have grown apart; this distinction is particularly evident in Pre-Columbian studies, where archaeologists allege that art historians are interested only in prestige objects rather than the reconstruction of the entire culture, which archaeologists and anthropologists seek. On the other hand, anthropologists of the calibre of Franz Boas and Claude Lévi-Strauss have made their own contributions to the study of art, and there are useful collaborations between art historians, who are interested in subject-matter and cultural context, and anthropologists, with their interest in myth and social structures (see Anthropology and art). Sociology is another discipline from the social sciences with which an alliance with art history can open perspectives, including the study of art historians themselves, their training, motivations and group interactions. The study of non-Western art has often flourished in the context of what are called area studies (of East Asia, South Asia, Islamic countries, and so on), although the findings of these interdisciplinary researches need to be integrated. Finally, art history has long had a problematic relationship with art criticism, and the links between the two are subject to alternating patterns of consolidation and estrangement.

Some scholars hold that art history should find its place in a larger consortium: the study of visual culture. Emerging in the closing decades of the 20th century, this trend embraces film studies, psychoanalytic theory, gender studies, queer theory, and the study of film and television. It can also include video-game studies, comics, advertising, and any other medium that relies on a visual component. As this orientation emerged it seemed that it might incorporate, or even absorb the field of art history. It has generally been concluded, though, that art history needs to retain its autonomy.

2. Dissemination of information.

Access to good reproductions has long been of great importance for art historians, both for research and as standard teaching aids. There were four main developments in this, the first being the technique permitting prints made on paper from engraved plates. This practice, popular in many parts of Europe from the 15th century onwards, lent itself to both original and reproductive engravings. Reproductions were made of the more or less contemporary masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque, as well as the admired statues of classical antiquity. The second major development stemmed from the introduction of still photography in the mid-19th century. The new medium was considered to provide an objective rendering of the subjects and was more convenient, allowing an art historian to document his or her research visits. Insertion of illustrations in books became much easier; new firms sprang up, offering huge selections of images of art and architecture. The third development was the use of photographic transparencies or lantern slides. In Munich in the 1890s a two-slide method appeared in public lectures; with a notable time lag, this way of comparison did not become prevalent in American classroom teaching until the 1960s. Color slides came into wide use after the 1950s. Finally, by the early years of the 21st century, lantern slides had become obsolete for classroom use, for the most part yielding to Microsoft PowerPoint (launched in 1990), Apple’s Keynote (2003), and other forms of presentation software. Drawing on an almost inexhaustible supply of images, the new methods have immensely increased the scope and flexibility of art history lectures and classroom seminar reports.

In recent decades the contribution of electronic means of storage and communication to art history, and to scholarship as a whole, has been immense. Operating across the Internet, modern electronic mail, commonly known as email, has largely supplanted “snail mail” (letters in the traditional sense). Not only do researchers communicate more rapidly and efficiently by email nowadays, they generally submit their academic papers to journals through this means. The journals themselves are increasingly appearing in electronic versions. Ordinary email generally goes to specified individuals or groups. However, blogs (short for weblogs) are accessible to anyone who searches for them. In addition to the blogs conveying information about the art world and the progress of research, there are those maintained by contemporary artists to document and market their work. Digital image banks, such as ARTstor (, offer a vast range of visual material. In addition, most museums nowadays maintain sites whereby the works in their care may be accessed. One should not discount Wikipedia, the online reference work available in many languages, as a means of quickly obtaining information and images, though of course it does not pretend to be a vehicle for primary research. Developments in the contemporary art market can be monitored at Finally, YouTube is an extremely popular video-sharing website, created by three former PayPal employees in February 2005, on which users can upload, view and share visual clips. Some of these videos are art documentaries from various periods. Some Internet sites permit virtual tours of Egyptian tombs, Gothic cathedrals, landmark houses and other buildings of note. All these resources are enriching. Concededly, nothing can replace direct inspection of the objects. Still, the two procedures are not so much in conflict as complementary.

Locating and accessing existing literature about art is as important to the art historian as the access to reproduced images, and there are a number of reference genres for this purpose, all of which have long histories. Encyclopedias and dictionaries often form the first point of reference, and the role played by art bibliographies is of great significance, from selective listings embedded in art books to such cumulative, ongoing works of the 21st century as the Art Index, The Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA), which is also available in French, and the RILA (Répertoire internationale de la littérature de l’art), which is now absorbed into the BHA. The major cumulative bibliographies are available in both hard copy (printed volumes) and electronic retrieval modes, and include classifications of the articles in many of the scholarly art journals that proliferated in the 20th century. Catalogues, often illustrated, list the items of particular collections or temporary exhibitions, while catalogues raisonnés concentrate on particular artists.

The tradition of the artist monograph, combining the life and works, has flourished since the time of Giorgio Vasari in the mid-16th century. During the second half of the 20th century, however, it seemed to lose prestige. The reasons are various: decline of connoisseurship which made the enterprise of determining the canon of the artist’s authentic work less vibrant; growing suspicion of the “great-man” theory, the notion of genius, and the instantiation of these beliefs in the cult of the old masters; controversies about the methodology of interpreting artists’ personality, and the sense that broader social forces are more important than individuals. Nonetheless, the interest in artists’ biographies has persisted. and is likely to continue to do so

Museums, on the other hand, have taken the lead as a source of dissemination for the general public as well as art historians; indeed, many major European museums were created by the opening up of private, princely collections to the public in the 17th and 18th centuries.Today the role of museums has expanded, and attendance is skyrocketing. Their prosperity (most charge admission now) facilitates the launching of major loan exhibitions, sometimes traveling to sister institutions, with their subjects ranging from the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt, through Leonardo and Vermeer, Caspar David Friedrich and Paul Cézanne, to contemporary figures, some of whom, like the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, are off the beaten track, but very popular all the same.

Some media, such as earth art, performance art, and video, are impossible to display on a permanent basis. However, film showings have long been a staple of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its peers in other cities. New museum buildings and wings of existing buildings have been designed by  such major architects as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Richard Meyer, Renzo Piano, and E. M. Pei. Arguably these splendid structures are our cathedrals.

Most modern museums provide lecturers, with some offering audio guides and even access via one’s own cell phone device using the local area codes to avoid roaming charges (commentary on particular exhibitions and galleries so that the visitor, may choose to stop and start the tour based on preference. Many museums emphasize work with young people so as to educate a new generation of enthusiasts. Moreover,in an increasing number of art galleries and museums, visitors can consult a computer library. This is an appealing meeting point for those somewhere between traditionalists and the technophiles of the new century. In London's National Gallery, for example, there is a Micro Gallery, or computer information room, which gives visitors access to over 4500 pages of material covering every painting and artist in the Gallery. Visitors may choose up to 10 paintings and print out a free floor-plan that lists the selections and highlights their locations in the Gallery. It is also possible to print out black-and-white photocopies of any of the Gallery’s holdings.

After World War II the USA took the lead in publishing well-illustrated general textbooks on the history of art; the best known are those of Horst Woldemar Janson, Helen Gardner, and Frederick Hartt. For the layperson interested in art history, the medium of the ‘coffee-table’ book became popular. While some specialists disparage this commerce-driven dissemination, such volumes communicate much information in an easily digestible form.

The medium of television has achieved less in promoting art history than might have been expected, although the series "Civilization," hosted by Kenneth Clark in 1969, was widely successful and set a high standard. Other programs of this caliber have remained sparse, though Wendy Beckett (born 1930), commonly known as Sister Wendy, a South African-born British nun and art expert, became well known in the 1990s, presenting a series of art history documentaries for the BBC.


L. S. Jones: Art Information: Research Methods and Resources 3d ed. (Dubuque, IA, 1990)
L. S. Jones: Art Information and the Internet: How to Find It, How to Use It (Phoenix, AZ, 1998).                                                                                                                                   
W. Miller and R. M. Pellen: Evolving Internet Reference Resources (Binghamton, NY, 2006)       
S, Barnet: A Short Guide to Writing About Art. 10th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J. 2011)


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