Problems with Art History

Too much of popular art history is not history; it is hagiography or jeremiad. The stories of the lives of progressive artists with their trials, tribulations and triumphs are comparable to the lives of saints (hagiography). Or a jeremiad, a general complaint about how art has lost its way, declined and become decadent. Art is not a religion and art history should not be religious doctrine.

If art history is history then it is often a ‘whig history’, as defined Herbert Butterfield The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), with a belief in the progress that praises some artists as ahead of their time while condemning others as obstacles. The crucial fault of a ‘whig history’ is that the past becomes an anticipation of the present. Like Robert Hughes Shock of the New, these histories tell a story that concludes with the most progressive, modern art. No wonder Hughes thought that later artists, like Jeff Koons, were frauds because they were subverting his history and not perpetuating it. These new artists were new obstacles in a race that had already, in Hughes opinion, been won.

Andre Breton’s list of precursors to Surrealism, like Arcimboldi or Bosch, forms a similar retrograde model of art history. Instead of trying to understand the historic forces that give rise to the play of the conscious and unconscious mind in the creation of fantastic images Breton distorts history to tell as story of with visionary artists anticipating the general rise of Surrealism.

The curators of early art museums adopted an even more antique system of periods from the classical to the modern. This system is without historic or scientific validity; the strata are not always clear, they are not universal and do not form neatly deposited periods. However, the collections of museums were developed to illustrate these periods or styles and current curators continue to distort art history with these collections and exhibition. The blockbuster exhibitions in particular that celebrate certain artists in the canon of significant artists; and once again we are not dealing with history but hagiography for ‘canon’ is the word for the official list of saints.

The glorification of certain canonical artists is endlessly repeated in TV documentaries like Simon Scharma’s The Power of Art. I never wanted to see another documentary celebrating the life of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Picasso before his series was even made. (How about a Vincent Van Gogh action figure?) Art history, even in its popular form, could still have a strong narrative but look at the commissions, the exhibition venues, the media, the collectors, the public and non-canonical artists.

The idea that artists are the driving force in art history ignores so many other forces at work on its development. It is as absurd as to consider politicians and royalty the driving force of history. This idea of artists as the primary actors has then influenced the development of art history. The conclusion that if artists could invent art styles then they could end them created the modern art history of isms based on artists’ proclamations; and when artists and the public tired of the fashion styles were described as “dead”.

The didactic family tree of art styles is a pruned version of illustrations of evolutionary tree of life, as if art styles were determined by survival of the fittest. The typical tree of styles is pruned for purposes of didactic clarity although many of these styles continue, as do many early life forms. Styles do not become extinct when a new style appears (many species continue in their niche as others evolve around them). Byzantine style continues in the creation of Orthodox Church icons, folk art styles continue and as do many other styles.

Popular art history, academic art history aside, is in a sorry state principally because it has not been genuinely separated from religious thinking.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Problems with Art History

  • phillegitimate

    BAM! Thanks for this article, it really has set me thinking. Art history without endpoints, without extinctions or arrivals at the ultimate history-ending ism sounds like a far healthier and more organic kind of art history. Decanonisation of art and demystification of its history sound like very big steps in the right direction.

    And I couldn’t agree more; I don’t really need to hear again about how tortured Van Gogh was.

    Thanks for writing!

  • whiteCubist

    Hi Mark,
    Fantastic analogy you make between hagiography, jeremiad and popular art history.
    Hughes’ name always sparks interest in me. I recall reading in Shock of the New that Picasso’s Guernica was the last work of art with any chance of political impact. Such a universalising statement is utter stupidity. If there’s any value to such outspoken statements it resides in their ability to fuel debate (I believe his descriptions of the first settlers’ encounters with indigenous in The Fatal Shore did so). However, to challenge biased interpretations like Hughes’ or popular versions of art history we need a minimum ‘literacy of ideas’. Without it we are vulnerable to divisive revisionists.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks Nik, It is always good to have some outspoken statements to fuel debate but your point most important point is about how we create a minimum ‘literacy of ideas’ – basically how to write an introduction to art history for primary school students without creating a religious tract from the church of art. We need some basic common information to work with as we learn more. Solution could include looking at the technological developments (marble drills, oil paints, optics), the institution of art (official styles and folk styles, commissions, the development of art galleries), the geographic spread of art styles, or to look at the social influences that created the style (WWI and Dada). All of this would be much better than another cannon of great artists or a history of progress.

      Mark Holsworth

  • Picasso Who? | Black Mark

    […] but only one was by me and that was more about Picasso being overrated in the popular media. Black Mark: “I never want to see another documentary celebrating the life of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, […]

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