White Hat/Black Hat

Frances Richard

Helen Gardner’s benevolently dictatorial Art through the Ages was published in 1926, and remained the pre-eminent survey for American undergraduates until 1962, when H.W. Janson’s History of Art joined it on introductory syllabuses. Now in its 12th edition, Gardner has been revised and updated without its pantheon of geniuses being much dislodged, while Janson, in its seventh edition, makes more concessions to newfangled notions like feminism and deconstruction. But both are encyclopedic tomes in which neophytes will find the chronology of stylistic periods unfolding like the geological record: Triassic to Jurassic to Cretaceous; Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism to Cubism to Futurism to Constructivism to Expressionism to Dada to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism to Pop to Conceptualism. Students might wonder at this perfect taxonomy, or at the one or two textbook chapters that purport to summarise the art of Africa, India, China, Japan, the Americas, the Pacific and Paleolithic humans before getting back to Athens and Rome, to Florence, Bruges, Paris and New York. If the class is labelled ‘Art since 1945’, the teleological march will begin in medias res: aesthetic concerns and world-historical events predating the war will be lost in the primordial soup and only a few giant patriarchs will remain: Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian – and Duchamp perhaps. The survey will end in a hodgepodge of examples tautologically labelled ‘contemporary’.

Students on advanced courses will find this story embellished rather than transformed, with 20th-century concerns added as detail: the role of photography, say, or the impact of psychoanalysis; a semester might be spent comparing the formalist Modernism of colour-fields and industrial materials to the commodity Modernism of automobiles and television. New names will appear: Clement Greenberg, Alfred Barr, Josef Albers, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon. All but the stodgiest departments – though this exempts many – will make gestures towards what has for the last thirty years been referred to, again tautologically, as ‘Theory’. Somewhere along the line, art history majors with professors worth their salt will encounter, severally or federated, the critics Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss.

This quartet have been working together since the 1970s, and are currently co-editors of the journal October. Founded in 1976 and subtitled ‘Art/Theory/Criticism/Politics’, October introduced a generation of academics to an art history radically more complex than the fables of Gardner and Janson, or the connoisseurship on which they were based. Formalist criticism collides in October with Althusserian Marxism, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, poststructuralist linguistics, film theory, queer theory and institutional critique. In the course of its re-examination of the historical avant-garde, the journal has brought new attention to Surrealists who rebelled against their controlling impresario, André Breton: Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Michel Leiris. It has pondered the theory of the sign, foregrounded photography and helped to install Peter Bürger’s 1974 essay ‘Theory of the Avant-Garde’ (translated into English in 1984) as a founding text of alternative cultural criticism. October’s influence on arts professionals has been powerful and lasting, though the editors in feistily refusing their own teachers’ canonical Modernism have retained a surprising amount of the earlier generation’s confidence in magisterial pronouncements and ideological prerogative.

That the stubbornly traditional Janson and Gardner and the already eminent October – despite their profound opposition – both currently represent art-historical authority is symptomatic of changes in the field since the 1960s. The once-upstart October-ites are now professors with CVs as long as their arms, and their own acolytes have become teachers, writers and curators. Nevertheless, their publications are still met with howls of conservative disapproval from the heirs of Greenberg et al. (The fact that Krauss is an apostate to this tradition, having been a Greenbergian in her youth, tends to earn her the shrillest condemnations.) At the same time, the US culture wars of the 1990s have hardened into an unembarrassed official policing – and defunding – of any activity that dares suggest a role for art beyond the prettifying of what the mandarins are pleased to call ‘mainstream values’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in