h1

Dazed and Confused

March 26, 2018

I have just re-read a small book that I bought at the Museum of Modern Art many years ago, The End of the History of Art?, by the Germany art historian Hans Belting. He raised a number of questions that have been on my mind for the last little while, namely the difference between art, art history, and art criticism. My interest stems from the current practice of many writers, who claim to be art critics, curators or possibly both, of linking artists’ moral transgressions to their art works and damning them to the trash heaps of history. Of course, there are many artists, living and dead, who will not pass our current, and ever changing, character standards, and the works of art questioned are their products. I think that many of these moral judgements are confusing art with poorly thought out social science. This is currently a hot topic that I will return to in my next blog, hopefully next week.

I am referring, as usual, to Art with a capital A and what are classically thought of as the plastic or fine arts, like painting and sculpture, as this is a subject that I know something about. Historically, art comes first followed, many, many years later by what is called art history and, even later, by art criticism. Humans, as cave paintings prove, have been making art for a very long time even if they did not know that were doing so. Art is the observation of the human condition made visible. Put your hand on the wall of cave; blow some mud around it, and presto you have art. You have proven that you are human and that you are important. Skip ahead to the present and artists are still proving that they, along with the rest of us, are human. Artists release from their imaginations their art. Once released, it stands on its own. It no longer belongs to the artist. It belongs to us all.

Bay Window by Stephen Scott

Now this is where art history and art criticism come in, although art exists quite nicely without them. The job of art history and criticism is to explain art, and to place it in some sort of order.

Many credit Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550 and revised in 1568, with being the first art historian. Of course, theories of art go back to early Greek philosophy, but they were not a history of art as we now understand it. But, the beginnings of modern art history can be traced to Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the mid-18th century, with his History of Ancient Art (1764).

Generally the history of art deals with the past while giving contemporary art short shift. The task of interpreting contemporary art history is left to art criticism. While history of any kind is flexible and ever shifting, nevertheless it is based on the past and not on the messy present. The future can safely be left to the artists. A problem with both art history and criticism is that their practitioners continually believe that they are at the end of history and they often believe that art history is linear and ever progressing—onward and upward with the arts! Indeed, Vasari believed that art history had run its course by the mid-16th century. After all, how much better could it get than Michelangelo and Leonardo? Art critics are forever telling us that artists the likes of Damien Hirst are a natural progression from Michelangelo. It is true that we all live at the end of history. It is just that history continues every day, but eventually all of us run out of days. A fact that is bothering me more every day I wake up and realize that I am still alive.

I have been looking at art and reading philosophy, art history, and art criticism all my life and have been writing about art for over half a century. The result of all that effort has left me totally confused. So much for linear knowledge. The more I know, the more I know that I am clueless. Looking at the notes of Prof. Belting’s book, I realize that I have a majority of the books that he lists as his sources in my library and that I have, largely, read them. I have a thing about keeping all my books and after sixty years or so my house is awash with them. The problem now is finding a book that I want. Of course, remembering everything that I read is another matter and it does not get easier as I slip into genteel dotage. So, the time has come to review my thoughts on the whats and whats not of art. This blog is a good as place as any to do that.

I have been silent on my blog for awhile as I tried to work out the meaning of life, a tall order that only led to a prolonged period of depression. Who would not be depressed? In the 1960s I thought we were heading for a golden age, but along with the absence of my flying car the whole world seems to be going down the drain. So, I’m back on the blog and I promise to pump something out every week.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 March 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: