The Long View: Art: A New History

Paul Johnson is the Howard Zinn of the right. Like Zinn, he is really popular, but also like Zinn Johnson is also willing to bend the facts to tell the story he wants to tell. If you keep that in mind, Johnson's books can be fun and even informative, but he shouldn't be your primary source.

They Didn't Expect Him

They Didn't Expect Him

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Art: A New History
By Paul Johnson
HarperCollins, 2003
777 Pages, $39.95
ISBN 0-06-053075-8

Yes, it is possible to write a single-volume general history of art, if you narrow the definition and focus on your own enthusiasms. Paul Johnson is best known for his large-scale histories, written in the Burkean tradition of moralizing conservatism. He is also, however, a serious painter himself, and the son of a professional. He suggests that he might have made art his career, but his father warned him that the future would belong to charlatans like Picasso. Actually, what's remarkable about this book is that it's mostly about what the author likes. This is a commendable approach that all conservative cultural critics should emulate, especially with regard to 20th-century material.

You can put only so much into a profusely illustrated 777-page over-size book (with still not nearly enough illustrations, alas!). “Art” here means physical art objects: painting, architecture, and sculpture, in about that order of emphasis, but also mosaic, stained glass, landscaping, and even tattooing and body painting. For the most part, it's Western art; the rest of the world enters in as it affects the art of the West.

The author has his theories; or better, his standards. Art, we learn, is part of the essential human search for order and pattern. The highest art, in Johnson's view, tells the truth about life, which generally means that it is figurative. Still, all art is editing, whether the result is highly formalized or photographically realistic. The healthy norm for art throughout history has been a continuous tension between a canon of technique and the need of individual artists to express themselves. The tension takes the form of long waves, in which generations of complication and refinement alternate with generations of simplicity and “classicism.”

Johnson deplores the modern prejudices against drama in figurative art, and even against mere size. What the Renaissance called “terribilitá” is not so different from what Burke meant by “the sublime.” The author also insists on the reality of “fine art.” Such works can be created only with notable skill. They repay a second look, and many looks thereafter. Indeed, one of the characteristics of fine art is a capacity to delight that outlives its period. In this, as in other ways, it differs from “fashion art,” in which the level of novelty exceeds the level of skill. The effect of fashion art is that whatever capacity it has to please is soon exhausted, thus creating the demand for more fashion art, and yet more. When fashion art crowds out fine art, that is a bad thing.

Johnson moves with due caution through the intimidating specialties of Paleolithic art, the art of the ancient Near East, and into the time of the Greeks and Romans. Then the story begins to deal with known artists and acknowledged masterpieces, mostly sculptures of the human figure. Johnson sadly follows the story of Greco-Roman painting. Little has survived, none of much merit, and there is no reason to suppose that the known lost masterpieces were much better. As for the decline of classical art, all we really learn is that something snapped in the second-century AD. A century later, and emperors were reduced to stripping ornaments from earlier monuments to use on their own memorials.

Johnson emphasizes the continuities between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, both chronological and geographical. The north drove the transition, especially in drawing, more than the Italians have ever been willing to admit. Interesting as all this is, Johnson obviously chafes to get to artists who typically did what he does, which is paint in oils, on canvas (or later, with watercolors). Johnson virtually pounds the table in frustration that artists of the skill of Giotto were still restricted to the fresco, an awkward and notoriously fragile medium. On meeting Caravaggio (1573-1610), there is almost a sigh of relief: at last we are talking about oil painting, with chiaroscuro, dramatic subject matter, and a complete grasp of perspective and lighting. The artist even had a long arrest record. Art had achieved the mature form from which it would not begin to decline until the end of the 19th century.

No sooner was the paint dry on Caravaggio's canvases than the first of a series of classical revivals set in to correct what were seen to be his excesses, a dialectic that continued throughout the long climacteric of art in the West. The chief theater of creativity shifted from Italy (whose cultural life never quite recovered after the decline of papal patronage) to the west and north. Johnson has a merry time explaining how French governmental interference spoilt French academic painting, particularly the relative disparagement of landscapes. The best portraiture in history was, of course, done in the Low Countries, in an unexampled tradition that continued until the economic eclipse of the Netherlands by England. The rise of the private market made that tradition possible. The same pattern manifested itself in architecture in England, where Whig grandees built fine country homes to rival the tawdry splendor of Versailles.

Johnson is keen on 19th century landscape painting, chiefly the American Hudson River School (“Illuminist” is the term that later art criticism prefers for this episode), and he also surveys similar work in the rest of the English-speaking world. However, his nominee for best painting of the century is a disturbing interior scene from Russia: Ilya Repin's “They Did Not Expect Him.” The painting brings the viewer into the story of a man obviously just returning from exile in Siberia to a middle-class home. For my money, though, the one jaw-dropping illustration in the book is John Sargent's “Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose.”

The conjuncture of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and the new treatment of light by Turner marked the great point of flexion in the history of Western art. Turner was trying to implement Goethe's theory of sight as the perception of color rather than of shapes, but he had no intention of moving away from figurative art: quite the opposite. As for the Pre-Raphaelites, they were the first Movement, complete with a manifesto and the will to shock. What surprises now is that they were part of a Christian revival, one that affected all the arts in the 19th century. A string of unintended consequences ensued.

It was in Paris (wouldn't you know?) that things started to go off the rails. The Impressionists were actually a pretty conservative bunch, fine draftsmen for the most part. Like Turner, they thought that the most important aspect of painting was color. They experimented with abstraction as a type of foregrounding. Manet introduced some technical innovations that made painting “faster.” All this was to better represent immediate experience. The real trend, however, was to represent what the artist knew was there, even if that meant abandoning perspective and accurate figure-drawing. So the Cubists increasingly did. Soon, surrealists learned to treat the artwork simply as an object. Both tendencies moved away from representational art. Novelty became easier to produce, and found a ready market. The ignition of the fashion-art engine was lit, and the jumbo jet of imposture took to the sky.

Johnson finds much to commend in the 20th century's fine arts, including all the major representational artists he can find (not an enormous number, really). He is tolerant of abstractionists like Kandinsky, whose work you can enjoy without knowing the theory. Even the theory-minded Mondrian had integrity. For the most part, though, he finds the fine art of the 20th century cynical, ephemeral, and repetitive. The last point is important: the installations and performance art of the last third of the 20th century simply repeated the Dada of the early decades, but without the original humor. Too much 20th-century art was perpetrated by great imposters. The model is Picasso, a manufacturer of fashion objects on an industrial scale. The fine arts at the beginning of the 21st century still suffer from systemic distortions. A cartel of fashion artists, gallery directors, and art dealers contrive to bid up the price of new fashion art and unload it on the galleries. People who sell stock in this way are liable to arrest.

The fashion artists had entertainment value, and even a kind of skill: people who tried to reproduce Jackson Pollock's effects, for instance, generally found that they couldn't. Still, the measure of the century is perhaps this faint damn of Andy Warhol: “He was not so much an artist, for his chief talent was for publicity, as a comment on twentieth-century art, and as such a valuable person, in a way.”

In product design and in architecture, the original impulse of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement had good effects until almost the middle of the 20th century. The Movement itself lasted only a few years, of course, but it begat the Arts & Crafts Movement, which begat Art Nouveau, which was really just an early form of Art Deco. Johnson loves Art Nouveau down to the last futon, and grieves that so much was scrapped by 1950. (The White House was extensively decorated by Tiffany, incidentally, but Theodore Roosevelt got rid of it all: Louis Tiffany, Roosevelt said, had “laid his hands on other men's wives.”) Louis Sullivan's skyscrapers were in this tradition. Sullivan actually laid down the principle that “form follows function,” by which he meant that decoration should relate to the purpose of the building, not that buildings should not be decorated. This philosophy produced several decades of fine buildings, from cathedrals to railway stations. (There has yet to be a fine airport, in Johnson's estimation.)

Unfortunately, by mid-century, Germany had done for architecture what France had done for painting. Walter Gropius, we are told, suffered from a physical handicap that made it impossible for him to manipulate a pencil. He was, however, a master of ideology, most of it wrongheaded. Gropius's Bauhaus sought “a new architecture for the machine age.” This ignored more than a century of experience with industrial design and new materials, much of it as good as building has ever been. Then there was the Bauhaus preference for straight lines over curves, based on the bizarre notion that straight lines were “scientific.” The theories may have been comical (especially when Le Corbusier got hold of them), but the result was the three most dismal decades in architecture since the fall of Rome.

In the age of the “machines for living,” according to Johnson, libraries baked their books, hospitals killed their patients, and the people forced to dwell in the glass-and-concrete boxes showed a marked tendency toward homicide. This assessment is a cartoon, to put it mildly, but certainly the official architecture of the third quarter of the 20th century was often both banal and uncomfortable. Happily, the ice broke in the 1970s. Major buildings were again free to be ugly in an interesting way. Public works, particularly bridges, were often stunning. Johnson looks benignly on the “Lower Frivolity,” the riotous mixture of styles that Las Vegas has come to represent. Such structures are temporary, and they are fun. The problem is the “Higher Frivolity” represented by buildings like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: they are fun, too, but the joke gets old.

Painting and sculpture are reviving, after decades in which art schools made a point of not teaching their students how to draw. Johnson is sanguine: “Human life is short but the life of art is long and the best is yet to come.” Still, the advances in the art of restoration on which Johnson dwells are not the stuff from which Renaissances are made. Perhaps we are looking toward a period whose work will be chiefly the recovery of the great tradition. If so, this book shows that task will be no small glory.

This review originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of First Things

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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