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23 December 2014

Untrodden Territory

The Challenge of Emulation

Many art historians will be taken aback by the unapologetic nature of these proposals, but one can appreciate Mayernik’s book even while rejecting some of his premises because it offers something essential to discussions of Renaissance imitative practice: an insistence on the artists’ creative engagement with tradition.
Elena Calvillo, review of The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture, in Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2014, p. 1332

I’m pleased The Challenge of Emulation in Art and Architecture was recently reviewed in Renaissance Quarterly (Winter 2014). The reviewer argues that what I cover in the book is “well trod,” but in fact during my research and since I have not come across much, if any, Renaissance or Baroque scholarship that explicitly and correctly uses the term “emulation,” with its sense of rivalry (i.e. aiming at victory, in the words of Erasmus): certainly no studies on the visual arts, apart from those on ancient Roman sculpture and Napoleonic painting, where emulation is the primary theme. I don’t think, in fact, historians are attuned to an emulative mode of thinking, precisely because, as the reviewer notes, the notion of advancement in the arts is foreign to them; historians are good at tracking down artists’ sources and precedents because it is not unlike what they do in the archives, but they don’t allow themselves to think in terms of better or worse, and don’t recognize artists’ competitive streak because they don’t share it (not to imply that historians aren’t competitive with each other, but it’s not as dominant a trait as it was for the artists they study). Anthony Grafton and James Grossman’s recent essay in The American Scholar is quite good on the humility required of the historical researcher.

Robert de Cotte, Palais Rohan, Strasbourg
Sine it’s been a year since the book appeared, it may be worth commenting on the difficulty I’ve found in getting the book reviewed, and even being invited to lecture on it by ostensibly sympathetic organizations like the ICAA (their Washington DC chapter being a notable exception, for which I’m grateful). I was also surprised to find at last February’s INTBAU conference Unpacking Pastiche that some of my colleagues, leaders in “traditional” architecture, weren’t troubled by the concept of pastiche, indeed proudly claim to practice it. Clearly, then, the notion of emulation is, if not only foreign to most contemporary classicists and traditionalists, in fact troubling. It seems to fly in the face of the deference they display to past heroes, even minor ones.

If pastiche is not as problematic as it should be for classicists, what about kitsch? Roger Scruton can’t help reveling in kitsch’s durability in the face of modernist condescension (recently for the bbc magazine, 15 years ago for City Journal), but surely an argument for tradition or the classical shouldn’t cozy up to the vulgarities of kitsch. Modernists were indeed right that, by the early twentieth century, much academic and representational art had become either maudlin or cloying, drained of intellectual force and inventive energy. That, though, is a problem of the nineteenth century, but does not apply to art of the eighteenth or earlier. So reconstituting representational art from its nineteenth-century residue is not the thing to do, and certainly claiming kitsch as a defense of representational art’s appeal doesn’t help either.

An unjustifiably forgotten book is Michael Greenhalgh’s The Classical Tradition in Art (1978)[1]. Greenhalgh argues for the idea of the classical tradition as effectively a product of the Renaissance; defines a living classical tradition as not slavishly devoted to the past; and locates the death of the tradition with Ingres (I might located it slightly earlier, but I too would position Ingres outside the idea of a living classical tradition). For some reason the Renaissance and Baroque are not today the defining periods for the classical that they were for Greenhalgh and his generation, even as they were for Gromort; and it is in large measure this that makes the idea of emulation anathema to contemporary classicists.

As we end a year and embark on another, here’s to the hope that the Renaissance and Baroque are re-appreciated for their essential role in the classical tradition. And that emulation is not feared, but embraced.


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