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THE HISTORY OF ART

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In some respects the history of art is comparable with that of literature. There is continuity and change in both, progressive improvement in neither. Both are punctuated by works that seem to transcend circumstantial limitations, with a timeless appeal independent of, and sometimes at odds with, the intentions of their creators. The history of art is, however, dependent on the physical survival of objects. And their survival has depended on a number of factors, as has their destruction. Religious images have been destroyed in order to subvert the beliefs of their devotees, by early Christians in the Roman Empire, by Muslims in India, by Spaniards in central America, by Protestants in northern Europe, by nineteenth-century missionaries in Africa and Polynesia and most recently by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution in China whose appalling zeal is an indication of the importance still accorded to the visual arts - for strictly non-aesthetic reasons, of course. Yet in some places, works of art have been preserved in private collections and, later, public museums, for their artistic excellence. It is no coincidence that only where this has occurred have histories of art been written. They marginalize some works and totally exclude many more in order to focus attention on the few which their authors hold up as models for later generations of artists to emulate or even in some way to improve on, thereby establishing new canons of exemplars. Such canonical works provide the skeleton for a history of art with its continuities and changes, revivals of past styles and experiments with new techniques, though what is omitted or underplayed may sometimes seem today to be of equal if not greater interest.

The earliest extant history of art, devoted to that of Greece and Rome, was written by Pliny the Elder, a Roman polymath, as part of a vast treatise on natural history completed before he died in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Pliny had, however, the benefit of some now lost Greek accounts of artists, including one of the fourth century BC, from which he derived the notion of progress towards a greater naturalism which, it was thought, had reached perfection during the writer's life-time. The earliest known treatise on Chinese painting was written in about AD 500 by Xie He: the Classified Record of Ancient Painters, which ranked artists according to their command of six essential principles (see p. 284) without suggesting development towards any single end. For a millennium and a half, this provided purely aesthetic criteria for the discussion of paintings; but only those by the highly educated elite known as literati. Dong Qichang's writings about painting in the seventeenth century are typical (see p. 568).



In Europe, after the Middle Ages when writings on art effectively mark the divisions of gender and social class set by men. Images of women are, of course, ubiquitous in the art of the world. The earliest known (see p. 37) are usually thought to represent a mother goddess; but as they were the products of non-literate cultures their significance cannot be known for certain. When forms of writing were invented they were limited to men closely associated with ruling groups (there were no female scribes in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt). In early historic times female deities were worshipped (as they have been ever since in most cultures) and women sometimes gained political power; but men predominate in all records of life on earth, so often chronicling the victories of kings. And, until relatively recent times, artistic patronage has been dispensed mainly (in some places exclusively) by men of the ruling classes whose ideals of masculinity and femininity were expressed in works of art even when, exceptionally, they were executed by women.

THE HISTORY OF ART

In some respects the history of art is comparable with that of literature. There is continuity and change in both, progressive improvement in neither. Both are punctuated by works that seem to transcend circumstantial limitations, with a timeless appeal independent of, and sometimes at odds with, the intentions of their creators. The history of art is, however, dependent on the physical survival of objects. And their survival has depended on a number of factors, as has their destruction. Religious images have been destroyed in order to subvert the beliefs of their devotees, by early Christians in the Roman Empire, by Muslims in India, by Spaniards in central America, by Protestants in northern Europe, by nineteenth-century missionaries in Africa and Polynesia and most recently by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution in China whose appalling zeal is an indication of the importance still accorded to the visual arts - for strictly non-aesthetic reasons, of course. Yet in some places, works of art have been preserved in private collections and, later, public museums, for their artistic excellence. It is no coincidence that only where this has occurred have histories of art been written. They marginalize some works and totally exclude many more in order to focus attention on the few which their authors hold up as models for later generations of artists to emulate or even in some way to improve on, thereby establishing new canons of exemplars. Such canonical works provide the skeleton for a history of art with its continuities and changes, revivals of past styles and experiments with new techniques, though what is omitted or underplayed may sometimes seem today to be of equal if not greater interest.

The earliest extant history of art, devoted to that of Greece and Rome, was written by Pliny the Elder, a Roman polymath, as part of a vast treatise on natural history completed before he died in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Pliny had, however, the benefit of some now lost Greek accounts of artists, including one of the fourth century BC, from which he derived the notion of progress towards a greater naturalism which, it was thought, had reached perfection during the writer's life-time. The earliest known treatise on Chinese painting was written in about AD 500 by Xie He: the Classified Record of Ancient Painters, which ranked artists according to their command of six essential principles (see p. 284) without suggesting development towards any single end. For a millennium and a half, this provided purely aesthetic criteria for the discussion of paintings; but only those by the highly educated elite known as literati. Dong Qichang's writings about painting in the seventeenth century are typical (see p. 568).

In Europe, after the Middle Ages when writings on art were limited mainly to technical manuals, Pliny's notion of progress was revived by the Florentine painter and architect Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors, first published in Florence in 1550. This set out to describe the 'restoration or rather the renaissance' of the arts that had been gradually achieved, according to Vasari, during the previous two-and-a-half centuries - that is to say, after their 'rise to perfection' in ancient Greece and Rome and subsequent decline. Like most historians he studied the past to explain the present. Conceiving the history of art since the fourteenth century as a series of progressive improvements, he described how Giotto had been able to suggest solidity and expressive movement, Masaccio had mastered perspective and light and shade, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael had added grace and beauty. The hero of his story was Michelangelo, a 'genius universal in each art' - sculpture and architecture as well as painting. Although Vasari's book was devoted almost exclusively to Italian artists, giving pride of place to Florentines, it provided a model for histories of the very different art of the Netherlands and, later, of that of other nations. The pre-eminence accorded by Vasari to Michelangelo was soon contested by those who recognized that some artists had excelled him in various ways - Raphael in drawing and composition, for instance, Titian in color. None, however, had achieved that perfection in all branches of art that became the goal for further progress towards which artists were encouraged to strive.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, it was widely felt that the arts were once again in a state of decay which could be cured, according to the historian and theorist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, by a return to the true principles of Greek art. In his History and Ancient Art of 1764, he gave an account not so much of progress as of an organic process of birth, maturity and decadence evident also in Italian art. The arts of Greece before the fifth century BC and those of Italy before the sixteenth century were not comparable in every respect, he remarked, 'but both of them possess a simplicity and purity suitable for improvement' whereas the perfected arts already carried germs of corruption and affectation and over-sophistication which became virulent under oppressive political systems. The reassessment of the earlier arts of both Italy and northern Europe soon followed, necessitating a readjustment in historical writing. A far greater change was brought about in the early nineteenth century by the Romantics whose belief that the aim of art was to express the artist's individual feelings and per-ceptions underlay later developments for each of which historians traced an ancestry in the past, thereby maintaining an illusion of progress.

In the late nineteenth century when faith in the advance of Western civilization was beginning to falter, new approaches were made in the history of art, mainly in Germany and Austria where it had first been accepted as a subject for study in universities. Alois Riegl in 1893 set out to provide a purely objective study of ornament based on the notion that styles adopted in different places and periods were manifestations, albeit multifarious, of a general though somewhat nebulous 'will-to-form'; discussions of progress and decline were thus irrelevant, indeed meaningless. 'Every style aims at a faithful rendering of nature and nothing else, but each has its own conception of Nature', he later declared. In 1899 Heinrich Wolfflin in a book on Classic Art, a study of Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture, enunciated criteria for stylistic analysis more fully developed in his Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe of 1915 (translated as The Principles of Art History in 1932) in which he isolated tendencies in Classical and Baroque art according to contrary concepts: linear and painterly, plane and recession, closed and open form, multiplicity and unity, absolute clarity and relative clarity of subject-matter. His terminology came to be used for an almost exclusively formal analysis of paintings, whether devotional images, history paintings, still-lifes, landscapes or genre scenes. In this way paintings were discussed and analyzed without regard to their subject or content as if they were all non-representational. A reaction came, first in Aby Warburg's study of the survival and revival of Classical antiquity in Renaissance art and then in the study of iconography. Strictly speaking, iconography is the study and identification of subject-matter. For a broader approach to the analysis of meaning in the visual arts the term iconology has been used, notably by Erwin Panofsky. He distinguished three layers of meaning in subject-matter: its primary or obvious meaning (the image of a woman), its conventional meaning (the Virgin Mary) and its intrinsic meaning or content (the religious beliefs embedded in and conveyed by the image). The search for intrinsic meanings became the preoccupation of many subsequent art historians and has led to a much wider, more pluralistic and open-minded approach to the visual arts. It was taken up by Marxists for social histories of art and more recently and fruitfully by feminists for their critiques of male-dominated art history. They have revealed how many images represent and perpetuate -whether intentionally or not - the subjugation of women, and also how gender influences the ways in which women create and interpret art, because their experience of the world is different from that of men.

Histories of art inevitably reflect the minds and feelings of their authors, who have been almost as diverse as the artists about whom they write - as diverse and many-sided as the works of art themselves. For works of art are more than aesthetically pleasing objects, more than feats of manual skill and ingenuity: they deepen our insight into ourselves and others, they sharpen our awareness of our own and other modes of thought and religious creeds, they enlarge our comprehension of alternative and often alien ways of life - in short they help us to explore and understand our own human nature. The creation of works of art is the activity that most clearly distinguishes human beings from other animals. The history of art is an essential part of the history of the human species.


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