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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Review: Art A New History by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson: Author, curmudgeon.

Art: A New History
by Paul Johnson
p. 2003
Harper Collins

    Paul Johnson is a conservative, Roman Catholic English writer/journalist.  I imagine he's well known in the UK, but here in the US he's just a guy.  That probably explains why I found this list price $40 handsome hard cover, full color 800 page books selling for five bucks in a thrift store in Spring Valley.  You can buy it at Amazon for one dollar.  It's not like he's particularly out of date- 2003 is not that long ago when you are talking about writing a history of art over the course of 5000 years of human history.  I mean, this book must have just been a flop, likely because people in the US do not give two shits about popular art history.  Lewis and Clark expedition? Sure.  Civil War- endlessly.  Do you know how many history books have been written dissecting the Civil War?  Check that subject out on Amazon.

    Art: A New History professes to be a history of all art,but it's more like a history of western art and it's antecedents.  Johnson is pathetically weak on anything that does not deal with the Western European tradition.  He has the artistic taste of a 90 year old, as indeed he was when he wrote this book.  For Johnson, ancient Persian art is "grandiose and repetitive,"  pre-Columbian art is "sinister and demonic,"  Hindu temple art barely rates a mention.  On the other hand, you get more then 200 pages on 18th-19th century landscape and water color.  HOLY SHIT?  200 pages?  On water colors?  #fail.

    Two facts might influence you to either give this book a shot or take a pass:

1.  There are beautiful full color works of art on almost of every page, many of them by minor masters of images I'd never seen before.  Personally, I think that makes the dollar price on Amazon a bargain- you can't find many of these image anywhere else because they come from small museums.  Johnson- or more likely his staff- did an amazing job in this regard.

2.  There are no footnotes or bibliography of any kind.  I guess Johnson can get away with this because he writes popular history, but he is clearly basing his opinions on recent trends in art history scholarship.  For example, the discussion of the inter relationship between the Italian Renaissance and Northern "Gothicism" is ripe with the latest in scholarship on the subject, noting a more complex, two way relationship.

        To the extent that there is a "conservative" aspect to this book it is Johnson's promotion of the person of the artist as the critical feature in the history of art.  Maybe that is uncontroversial to the general public, but such a thesis goes against much of art history scholarship in the last half century.  I agree with Johnson- and I would also add that even with his bizarre affinity for land scape painting Johnson creates an art history that is more useful then 95% of the specialist monographs that come out of the academy.

     Personally, I think if you're going to write a 800 page popular history of art in 2003 the thing to do is contrast non-western art to western art and try to inter-relate and differentiate the two areas while trying to get to the deeper commonalities, intertwining that with a deeper philosophical discussion of the role of art in human society throughout history.  That's what I was hoping for here but instead I got 200 pages of water colors and landscape painting.

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