Canons and Conveniences

Charles Hope

  • Ideals and Idols by E.H. Gombrich
    Phaidon, 224 pp, £9.95, November 1980, ISBN 0 7148 2009 1

Sir Ernst Gombrich is not only one of the very few historians of art now alive whose ideas have aroused wide interest outside his immediate discipline, but he is also an astonnishingly skilful lecturer. It is therefore only appropriate that he should so often have been invited to give those formal university lectures devoted to the discussion of general cultural issues. Most of the pieces included in his latest volume of collected essays originate in lectures of this kind, although in some cases the original texts have been greatly expanded. The themes that he examines will be familiar to anyone who has read his earlier work, but his arguments gain immeasurably by being presented in a single volume, even though this inevitably involves a certain amount of repetition, notably in his remarks on the PhD industry and the dangers of specialisation.

Such issues, fortunately, occupy only a small part of the book. Instead, Gombrich is primarily concerned with two kinds of attitude prevalent in the humanities which he regards as especially pernicious. The first, discussed under the general title ‘Values in History’, is the historicism (to use Popper’s term) associated with Hegel and his followers, the idea that all aspects of a particular society, whether in its art, its religious beliefs or its customs, are manifestations of a single unifying principle. For the more conventional Hegelian, this would be the Volksgeist or the Zeitgeist; for the Marxist, the economic structure of that society. The second attitude, considered under the heading ‘Values in Art’, is the now fashionable relativism, or, as Gombrich calls it at one point, radical subjectivism. This is the belief that judgments of quality in art are wholly subjective, historically or socially conditioned, and ultimately futile.

Gombrich’s main attack on historicism appears in his Deneke Lecture ‘In Search of Cultural History ’, which has already been published separately as a book. Here he argues that cultural history, even as practised by its most famous exponent, Burckhardt, rests on an untestable and therefore unacceptable premise. For although the relationships that such historians may reveal, or claim to reveal for example, between economic status and artistic taste – are themselves amenable to testing, the idea that a relationship of some kind must exist between such diverse phenomena is no more than an article of faith. It need hardly be said how widespread this belief is, even among scholars unsympathetic to both Hegelian and Marxist beliefs. It underlies, for example, much of the more elaborate kind of iconographic analysis which is so often, if not altogether fairly, associated with the Warburg Institute, and which Gombrich himself so effectively criticised in the introduction to Symbolic Images.

But without some kind of belief in Unnecessary connection between diverse cultural phenomena, is cultural history possible? Gombrich certainly believes that it is, and that it involves both the testing of those generalisations that traditional historians of culture produce in such abundance and also a closer study of the behaviour and ideas of individuals and small groups. There may not be a spirit of the age, but there are phenomena such as fashion and taste which are eminently worthy of the historian’s attention, as he has himself demonstrated in his essay ‘From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of the Arts: Niccolò Niccoli and Filippo Brunelleschi’, in which he argued that the fashion for antique idioms in early Renaissance art originated in the preoccupations of a small circle of ‘codex-swapping’ humanists.

Gombrich returns to the problem of fashion and taste in one of the longest pieces in the book, ‘The Logic of Vanity Fair’. This is concerned with a re-examination of the underlying theme of Art and Illusion – the question of why styles change. The historicist would say that such changes are related to a change in the economic situation or to a new Zeitgeist. Gombrich’s answer is based on the model of fashion. He argues that in all but the most authoritarian societies fashions in dress will inevitably tend to change because some individual or group will be bound to try to be conspicuous. If the innovation catches on, a bandwagon will begin to roll, and in time everyone will become involved, since mere reluctance to adopt the new fashion will itself become a badge of conservatism. One cannot stand outside such developments. Gombrich believes that the same kind of process occurs in art. The logic of the situation requires not only that artists tend to modify the prevailing idiom in order to attract attention to themselves, but also that the public at large will be forced to take sides. And here, as in fashion, he thinks that social pressures will largely influence our response.

This conclusion, he says, is ‘a little distasteful to my own inclinations and prejudices’, because it seems to suggest that all judgments of taste are socially conditioned, and that the value of a particular style is unrelated to its durability. He is made all the more uneasy because one of the arguments often used in favour of new fashions in art and music is the historicist claim that they reflect the spirit of the age. The use of this argument by the champions of Schoenberg, in particular, has apparently had the effect of strengthening Gombrich’s resistance to his music. But even on the basis of his own arguments, the conclusion that he draws is unnecessarily gloomy. As he himself has shown, the hisioricists’ case can simply be disregarded, since it would have applied equally well to any kind of music that Schoenberg or his contemporaries might have chosen to write. Nor does the logic of Vanity Fair tell us anything about the type of new fashions that will catch on, merely that fashion will change. Unless one supposes that the public is wholly amenable to manipulation by unscrupulous or misguided publicists, it is quite unnecessary to fear that widely accepted developments are likely to be without value. This view, of course, is often advanced, especially by people hostile to contemporary art, but it does not seem to be one to which Gombrich himself would subscribe.

This, at least, is the implication of the most remarkable essay in the book, an enlarged version of his Romanes Lecture on ‘Art History and the Social Sciences’. Taking as his example the Sheldonian Theatre, where the lecture was originally delivered, Gombrich brilliantly demonstrates the limitations both of historicism and, more important, of stylistic relativism as methods of art-historical investigation. To explain why the building looks as it does, he first discusses the immediate circumstances of the commission and the ideology it was intended to embody. But he also shows how Wren drew on various strands of tradition for the actual design and decoration, and argues that an appreciation of this tradition is quite as necessary as a knowledge of contemporary social conditions if we are to understand the architect’s intentions and achievement.

For his second theme, concerning the place of value judgments in the history of art, Gombrich turns his attention to the ceiling painting, an ‘Allegory of Truth’ by Robert Streeter. By a fortunate chance he has an ideal text ready to hand in a contemporary description of Streeter’s picture by Robert Whitehall, which ends with the words:

That future ages must confess they owe
To Streeter more than Michael Angelo.

None of the methods employed in the first part of the lecture would help us to assess the validity of Whitehall’s claim, but Gombrich believes the historian of art must and can deal with just this type of problem. He must do so, because in neglecting the question of excellence he would be disregarding the very thing that distinguishes the activity of the artist, in the eyes both of the practitioners and of their public, from mere building and decorating. He can do so, because the artist is concerned not just with self-expression, but with the mastery of the problems of his craft. This kind of mastery, like excellence in cricket, is something that the interested and experienced spectator can recognise and evaluate. But a mere observer, without the involvement of the enthusiast, will obviously not be qualified to judge a performance with the same kind of competence. Among cricket fans there is bound to be disagreement about the precise ranking of the great players, but there is nonetheless a wide measure of agreement about the identity of these players. The same is true with regard to the great artists, who exemplify different types of excellence and provide the touchstones against which the work of others can be assessed. They comprise, to use Gombrich’s own expression, ‘the canon’; and art historians are the keepers of the canon. This, in fact, is their principal role. But it is not one that they perform solely for their own satisfaction. For without a canon it would be impossible, for example, for a social scientist to consider questions of general interest such as the relationship between the artistic achievement of a period and its social structure.

Gombrich himself recognises that the notion of the canon is problematical, and he examines some of the difficulties in a correspondence with Quentin Bell which is included in the present volume. Their differences, which are never fully resolved, are focused on one central issue. Bell would accept a canon if the criterion of selection was historical importance or reputation, but he is reluctant to concede Gombrich’s view that the members of the canon are necessarily the greatest artists. As he puts it, ‘to the true canonist the canon is the ark of the covenant; I have turned it into a public convenience, which is not quite the same thing.’ As either ark or convenience, one could argue that the canon would adequately fulfil the functions I have mentioned. But for Gombrich this is not enough. As he indicates at several points in his book, he is pessimistic about the future of our civilisation, and he certainly believes that the canon embodies a set of values that are in danger of being losl. It is this belief that makes him a true canonist.

Bell’s reservations are easy enough to understand if one thinks of the most famous of all canons, the Bible. This is a selection of texts compiled by the Church from a much larger body of religious writings. Within this canon there is material of many different kinds, but all of it is distinguished from other texts by the criterion that it embodies the word of God. Gombrich’s canon is similar, in that all its members possess the quality of greatness, though they are great in different ways, and its function, like that of the Bible, is to preserve the essential values of a tradition. Seen in this light, a canon is by its nature exclusive, and what it excludes it devalues. Moreover, its content is fixed; to question the canon is to declare oneself a heretic.

But Gombrich’s canon does not seem to be so rigid, nor, so far as I can see, does he believe that it has been established by a council of art historians as a repository of divine truth. He thinks that it has been established by tradition, that in some sense it is an essential componet of our civilisation. An obvious objection to this view is provided by Francis Haskell’s study of fluctuations in taste in Rediscoveries in Art, where he shows that at some period virtually every famous artist has suffered a drastic decline in public esteem. This is indisputable, but, as Gombrich points out, taste is not the same as admiration. Reputations may have changed, but there exists a group of artists whose work has always demanded assessment, even if it was condemned. These, it seems, are the members of the canon; they are the artists who compel us to take sides, whereas the rest can be disregarded. Michelangelo comes in the first category, Streeter in the second. This does not mean that the canon has never been modified, but changes have come about largely because of contingent factors such as the accessibility of particular works of art. Artists have to be in the public domain before their candidacy for the canon can be considered.

In recent years, historians of art have increasingly been drawn to question the basic premises of their discipline. Most of what they have written has been turgid and lacking in conviction. Gombrich’s new book is a conspicuous exception. Unlike so many of his colleagues he believes that the enterprise is valuable because works of art have an intrinsic and unique value. He is surely right in his conviction that if we abandon this belief the subject will soon wither and die.