Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Concept: The Visual Arts: A History, by Hugh Honour and John Fleming.

As part of my development of Urbantasm, I've been attempting a complete-as-possible review of the history of the West... generally speaking I'm up through the end of the Roman Republic, but since New York has such an unparalleled array of Art museums, I've actually gone ahead in the history of visual art, and I'm almost done with The Visual Arts: A History, by Hugh Honour and John Fleming.

It has unexpectedly become one of my favorite reads this year. So far as there is a sense of dramatic tension and suspense, there is no reason in my mind not to read nonfiction, and even a college survey, as a narrative exercise. Of course, I've been mostly reading to learn about art, but the sense of social and critical progression, the way the authors describe the undulation of schools, and the way one artist reacts and responds to another reads to me as a story.

A friend has pointed out to me that this particular textbook is treated by art historians with a certain amount of frustration. The response seems to be not one of contempt but resignation, and the problem is that Honour/Fleming is too short, that is, unequal to a fair and general explication of its subject. I was surprised by this, personally, because the book is the size of two Bibles. It's big enough and cumbersome enough that fellow subway riders would shoot me dirty looks and sidle away when I'd try to read while standing, holding the book open on one arm and turning the page with the other. It's almost 900 pages long, two inches thick, slightly oversize, has small print, and probably weighs enough to kill any small, furry animals it's dropped upon.

The brevity is made clear, though, as the complexity of the story becomes apparent. For example, four chapters spanning 140 pages attempt to cover the last 2000 years of non-Western art. While the book is able to explicate and discuss well-known and documented trends such as Chinese Landscape Paintings, these have to be treated very briefly. Moreover, the fact that there is any discussion at all requires many ommissions. There is no, for example, discussion of Korean art, or art from Southeast Asia beyond the 16th century. Meanwhile, the last 100 years of European and American art is compressed into 110 pages; in short, a heavily abbreviated sequence of the big guns (Picasso, Pollack, van der Rohe) marching across the pages in more-or-less single file.

I'm not saying this by way of criticism. I suspect that more meaningful analyses of this textbook would scrutinize the disparities it posits between Western/Nonwestern art, and possibly the stability of boundaries it establishes between different schools and artists. I simply don't know the field well enough to have an opinion as to whether it succeeds or not on these levels. The two greatest impressions for me, however, as a layperson, are 1) the majesty and diversity of the physical artistic historical record, and 2) the immensity of history as a whole. It's just one more example of that double-edged sword: that the world is full of interesting things. In fact, there are so many interesting things that we'll die before we've ever experienced enough of them.

Then again, maybe just one is enough.

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