Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Whither art history? with a personal reminiscence

Growing up in tranquil Southern California during World War II, I followed the war mainly through the radio and the newsreels. None of my immediate family went off in uniform, though my mother took a job at an army base.

The conventional wisdom in those days was that Europe was finished. It was so devastated that it would never make a comeback. Some, overly mindful of Roosevelt’s "good neighbor" propaganda, believed that our destiny lay in a partnership with Latin America. My parents, who were of the far left, thought that the future lay in the undamaged parts of the Soviet Union, from the Urals to Vladivostok. Both views were wrong.

Just a few years after the war ended, a book appeared with a title that has stuck in my memory: "Fire in the Ashes." Europe was on its way back. This recovery was due to the reservoir of human capital among the Europeans who survived, combined with some strategic help from the Marshall Plan.

Indirectly, the Marshall Plan helped us scholars to get to Europe. Senator William Fulbright devised a scheme whereby American there could soak up money the Europeans owed us on research projects. Eventually, I got one of these Fulbright Scholarships (to England). As a friend later sardonically remarked, we were the children of NATO. However, I am getting ahead of myself.

During the decade after the end of the war I developed a yearning to go to Europe, perhaps staying there forever. Like other sensitive youths I had developed an aversion for what I deemed the "vulgarian" culture of America. Overseas, the grass was much greener.

About this time I discovered art history at UCLA. I knew that I had to go east for the real thing, and that turned out to be at the Institute of Fine Arts (IFA) of New York University. There I received instruction from a stellar body of teachers, most of them from the Transatlantic Migration of intellectuals forced to flee from Central Europe by Hitler’s barbarism. Except for one token professor of Chinese Art (himself German), they all focused on the art of Europe. And within Europe the majority gravitated to Italy. This focus was of course a long tradition in Central European art history from Winckelmann and Rumohr to Wölfflin and Riegl. The artistic treasures of Italy are indeed sui generis, comprising both classical (Greek, Etruscan, and Roman) and European art of the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.

If Italy was the cynosure, the locus of the discipline lay further north. Naturally I must learn German—and so after a fashion I did. Looking back on the matter I see now that the German language was almost incidental to the amazing proficiency of my professors. They brought to the work a remarkable precision, honed by six years of Latin and three years of Greek. In addition, they were cosmopolitan, overcoming any local idiosyncrasies in favor of a larger allegiance. They took their duties as new citizens of the US very seriously. One of them the archaeologist Karl Lehmann got so wrapped up in his study for citizenship that he wrote a book about Thomas Jefferson.

Admirable as their breadth was, my IFA professors were still Atlanticists. The rest of the world counted for very little, though occasionally courses in Egyptology appeared in the syllabus—-but as a prelude to Greece and Rome.

Their Sehnsucht nach Italien meshed with our society’s general Italomania. That was the espresso-bar era. Italian cinema, from Neo-Realism to the more symbolic works of Fellini, Anonioni, and Pasolini, seemed better than Hollywood. Experienced close up, Italy was pleasant and cheap. Italians were polite and welcoming, unlike, say, the French, who were wrapped in gloom because of the disasters in Indo-China and Algeria. Germany still suffered under the pall of its recent Nazi past, and Spain, under Franco, was beyond the pale. Britain, though, our closest companion in World War II, was the country of Shakespeare, not the visual arts.

So I too was swept along. The ancient city of Rome beckoned, and I was to live there for a year and a half. At UCLA, though, I had been exposed to Chinese civilization, so I knew that a wider world awaited out there.

With the passage of time certain modifications came into play. Relentless PR secured the triumph of "American-type painting" a.k.a Abstract Expressionism. While the adepts of this art eclipsed their European contemporaries, both components—abstraction and expressionism—again pointed back to Europe in the early years of the twentieth century.

Woman artists received new attention, as did gay and lesbian artists. These concerns folded, it seemed, into the New Art History, itself a branch of the vast Postmodernist movement in scholarship. This waned with century’s end, though, as many found that the purported revolution of Postmodernism consisted of a new, often opaque language and little else: Derridada in short.

These changes aside, transcending the Eurocentrism of the post WW II mold remains difficult. Recently at my college I argued for a new job position with a specialty in New World art "south of the border." What I was mainly interested in was Pre-Columbian. While modern Latin American art enjoys some popularity, this seems to be mainly for extra-artistic reasons. "Fridamania" is the most extraordinary case I know of a glaring disconnect between intrinsic artistic quality (exiguous) and hoopla.

East Asian art has elicited a much deeper response. This may appear to be case of aesthetic prestige following economic muscle-power. That explanations seems superficial, though, as. Chinese and Japanese art have an intrinsic quality and staying power that makes them easy competitors with the West.

Progress towards study of art on a world basis is patchy at best. It is not helped by continuing disparities in the quality of scholarship. For many years most of the leading art scholarship has been produced in the US, Britain, and Germany—with France and the Netherlands assisting in lesser roles.

There is a glaring discrepancy between the interest that professionals—and indeed ordinary travelers—have in the art of the southern tier of Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal) and the modest quality of scholarship emanating from those countries. Friends tell me, for example, of the flood of publications, many lavishly produced, appearing in newly prosperous Spain. But who are the leading Spanish art historians of today?

As the southern European countries advanced from third-world status to wealth, they became absorbed in consumerism and lifestylism. The quality of universities remains poor. There is little need to pay attention to the intellectual product of those countries. Italophile friends tell me about "il pensiero debole," weak thought, a trend in philosophy. To which I answer: "di debolezze ne ho tante," I already have enough weaknesses.

To my students I would continue to administer a bitter pill: learn German. German thought continues to be important in many fields. These include art history. Wolfgang Sauerländer is the world’s leading medievalist, and many of his works have not been translated. Two other major figures are Hans Belting and Martin Warnke. Only now have the major works of Alois Riegl, on the great Founders of our discipline been translated. When it will come the turn of August Schmarsow, Wilhelm Vöge, and Hans Sedlmayr (the latter represented by one atypical work in English)? I do not know. One can read the magnum opus of the Viennese Julius von Schlosser in German, Italian, and French, but not in English. The notion that "if it’s important, it must have been translated" is a dangerous myth.

Art history is gradually returning from its grotesque excursion into Postmodernism and Derridada. But it is difficult to achieve a balanced understanding of world art.

Where are we going? I don’t know. But I am glad that I experienced Beijing and Kyoto, Agra and Angkor Wat.


Blogger Jody said...

NB: his name is Willibald Sauerlander, not Wolfgang.

7:00 PM  

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