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04 December 2009

On Reading History

I’ve found more often than not lately that the new books on art history I pick up wind up being an awful slog to get through—generally because the author has some sort of big, unwieldy axe to grind, or else too narrow a wheel to grind it on. I won’t name names, in part because they are each merely symptomatic of a growing, relentless trend, fueled by the ever-narrowing focus that the field encourages in its scholars, and by scholars without the generosity of spirit once the hallmark of the humanities. I’ve taken, as an antidote, to picking up copies of older scholarship, written by humanist historians who were also truly authors (today, instead, we have scholars who can not write counterbalanced by popularizing disseminators of history who are not scholars).

The reason all this matters a wit to anyone interested in the contemporary renaissance is that we depend absolutely on historians for what we know of the great artists of the past (the artists being long gone, and generally inarticulate in anything other than their visual medium). As historical writing in the arts becomes more and more unreadable, where are young aspiring artists interested in the Old Masters going to find new scholarship to fire their inspiration? It may be, in fact, they must read the same authors I read when I got started a quarter century ago— Ackerman, Blunt, Coffin, Hibbard, Lavin, Levey, Millon, Panofsky, Penny, Rykwert, Shearman, Wind, and Wittkower—since their writing makes their ideas (even if in some cases superceded by more recent research) infinitely more vital, alive, and compelling. The intervening generation of scholars, who bear a portion of the blame for the opacity of their students’ writing, are themselves excellent, and these include Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, Joseph Connors, and John Pinto. Many more recent writers seem to celebrate the gulf between themselves and their subjects of study, and if it was the rare historian who actually practiced the art they studied, they at least benefited from the rudimentary instruction in drawing that once formed part of a decent general education. Which is why someone like Rudolph Wittkower could write so credibly and economically about the artistic hand of a Bernini or Baciccio, but so many recent authors cannot.

What we will perhaps see, if we are lucky, in the coming years is knowledgeable artists and architects who have recovered the practice of classical forms writing insightful analyses of the work of the Old Masters. To be credible, these future authors need to be informed about scholarship of the last half century, and if there is a weakness in the current revival of interest in the human figure and the classical orders, it is that the practitioners seem mired in nineteenth century historiography, or suspicious of history and historians generally.

What we lack, therefore, are scholarly artists and artistically-minded historians. No doubt there is a cause and effect dynamic in play here; and if both or either is to be corrected, a recovery of the mind and manner of an Erwin Panofsky would be a welcome thing indeed.

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