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History of Modern Artby H Harvard Arnason
At the start of the twenty-first century, the term "modern art" already has something of a venerable ring to it. It has joined other capacious art historical categories, such as "Renaissance" or "Romanticism," which, though they may usefully serve to give shape to broad contours of art history, become less clear in meaning and more open to dispute the closer you get to detailed discussion of specific works of art. The only difference between these and "modern art" is that modern art as a temporal category is still open-ended: it is, by one definition, simply the art of the present day. But it also includes the early paintings of Matisse and Malevich, Braque's Cubist collages, and the first building designs by Frank Lloyd Wright—products of a world that now feels very distant indeed, separated from us by two world wars, the atomic bomb, and the Internet. The words "modern art" have soaked up so much history that they can never again mean what they once meant (or at least, not with the same heady conviction): shockingly new, bewilderingly progressive, utterly of the present moment, unprecedented-though they still encompass that.
A Short History of History of Modern Art
Just as "modern" is a many-layered term, this book, now in its fifth edition, has a history of its own. As the term "modern art" has broadened and been reinterpreted over time, successive scholars, editors, and specialist contributors have amended and added to Harvey H. Arnason's original text, which Arnason himself fully revised some years after the book was first published in 1969. This has been a process not only of fine-tuning and updating information but also of revisiting much of Arnason's material in the context of a scholarly and educational environment that has changed significantly from the one in which he wrote. There are parallels to this process in other cultural arenas, for example in the reorganization and reinterpretation of museum and gallery displays. The core of the collection remains the same, the objects have the same indelible presence and fascination, but, juxtaposed with new acquisitions and displayed under different lighting conditions, they lead viewers to look at them in different (sometimes very different) ways.
In this sense, while this new edition of History of Modern Art contains much added material, it is still essentially Arnason's creation. This Preface offers a brief investigation into the marathon staying-power of his original endeavor, even through successive revisions have seen the book evolve over the years to take account of new directions in art and art history. After more than three decades and four new editions, Arnason's vision remains the core of this standard work of art historical reference.
The Art of Looking
Arnason was Professor and Chairman of the University of Minnesota's art department from 1947 to 1961, and he had a long association with New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum as its Vice President for Art Administration. He embarked on History of Modern Art relatively late in life. The project was conceived and intended as a long-term landmark—the first book of its kind—and it drew on the experience of his distinguished career as an art historian. Two deep-rooted convictions underpin Arnason's History: first, that understanding art is a matter of fundamental importance; second, that the way to learn about art is to look for yourself. His Preface unequivocally emphasized his belief in the importance of the individual's face-to-face experience of art—a belief that, as he saw it, gave the book its rationale and its structure:
The thesis of this book, insofar as it has a thesis, is that in the study of art the only primary evidence is the work of art itself. Everything that has been said about it, even by the artist himself, may be important, but it remains secondary evidence. Everything that we can learn about the environment that produced it historically, socially, culturally is important, but again is only secondary or tertiary evidence. It is for this reason that an effort has been made to reproduce most of the works discussed. For the same reason a large part of the text is concerned with a close analysis of these works of art and with detailed descriptions of them as well. This has been done in the conviction that simple description has an effect in forcing the attention of the spectator on the painting, sculpture, or building itself. If, after studying the object, he disagrees with the commentator, all the better, In the process he has learned something about visual perception.
Encouraging his readers to look at art was Arnason's first objective. But he had a further, more challenging aim in view, which was to get people thinking about what it means to go beyond the realm of words—facts, opinions, descriptions, books (no matter how inspiring or enlightening these may be)—and experience art as a purely visual phenomenon. "The principal emphasis of this book," he wrote,
revolves around the problem of seeing modern art. It is recognized that this involves two not necessarily compatible elements: the visual and the verbal. Any work of art history and/or criticism is inevitably an attempt to translate a visual into a verbal experience. Since the mind is involved in both experiences, there are some points of contact between them. Nevertheless, the two experiences are essentially different and it must always be recognized that the words of the interpreter are at best only an approximation of the visual work of art.
Why does Arnason consider looking at modern art such an important art to master? The valuation that society places on art, and the reasons for that valuation, change with time, and here again, since History of Modern Art first appeared, shifts have occurred in our perception of why art matters.
Experience and Interpretation
The distant roots of Arnason's belief that looking at art is in itself a profoundly worthwhile activity can be traced to the liberal, secular educational ideals of the nineteenth century. These ideals presumed that exposure to the "highest" kind of cultural experiences could make people, whatever their social or ethnic background, better citizens and happier individuals.
More recent generations of scholars and writers have fiercely questioned the foundations of this outlook, but its monuments remain at the center of Western cultural life. The conviction that simply looking at paintings and sculptures, or entering a grandly beautiful building, were necessarily uplifting and "ennobling" experiences was an important factor in the nineteenth-century enthusiasm in Europe and North America for establishing public art collections and opening great private collections to the public. As a scholar working in the orbit of major American collections, Arnason was a direct heir to the tradition of promoting contact with art for the general good. These collections, and later ones founded on their model, still provide the public with their most important point of access to art.
His belief in the power of art to work its own magic in our lives marks Arnason as a man very much of his time and background. Today art has lost none of its cultural glamour, but the role of interpretation is now regarded as not merely helpful for the viewer's own experience but in certain ways essential for it. The idea of art history as a unitary field of knowledge has been replaced by the recognition of diverse art histories, each shaped by a particular interpretative approach. Likewise, the old notion of the canon—a roll-call of indisputable masterpieces that set the standard for all artistic achievement—has given way to a far more inclusive view of what constitute legitimate objects of art historical attention.
These changes have affected the ways in which art is made, viewed, presented, and taught. Textbooks locate art within contemporaneous social, historical, political, and philosophical themes. Museums, too, which at one time were regarded as palaces or temples for the display of self-evidently significant cultural treasures, now see the interpretation of these treasures as an equally important activity, recognizing that any work of art may well mean quite different things to different viewers. To take one obvious example, it is now comfortably accepted, as it would not have been in art history pre-Feminism, that Western art's long preoccupation with the naked female body, in particular the centrality the nude has enjoyed in histories of Western art, does not carry the same messages for women as for men. It is not that we look any more carefully or subtly at art than earlier generations did, only that the range of information regarded as relevant to an understanding (or understandings) of art has been vastly extended.
This new edition, as one would expect, acknowledges interpretative standpoints more openly and, inevitably, more self-consciously that did Arnason's original text. This will be especially evident to the reader in the substantially revised and expanded chapters dealing with art after around 1970, a period during which critical theory and the awareness of multiple interpretations came to inform much art practice.
How Arnason would have interpreted the art of the final quarter of the twentieth century can only be guessed, but he would no doubt have applauded the emphasis on the need for art education to work on a broad front. "It is recognized," he wrote, "that a work of art or architecture cannot exist in a vacuum. It is the product of a total environment—a social and cultural system—with parallels in literature, music, and the other arts, and relations to the philosophy and science of the period." But when he wrote History of Modern Art, you quickly gather, following up these parallels was not his primary concern. The two world wars, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Nazism and the Depression era of the thirties stalk Arnason's narrative of the first half of the twentieth century, but they are largely felt as distant thunder, heard in the background while artists got on with the business of making art.
Charting a Path through Time and Space
In History of Modern Art, Arnason built on the liberal educational tradition in two particular areas. First, he sought to present modern art as essentially the latest phase of a tradition in Western art reaching back to the Renaissance. He acknowledged, but at the same time tended to play down, the dramatic, contentious "shock of the new"—the image of modern artists setting out not only to find new ways of doing things but, as part of this process, loudly and violently rejecting the art of the past. In Arnason's account, modern approaches to making art are more the result of a conversation than an adversarial contest; his model is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Second, he addressed "the problem of seeing modern art" as a problem that concerns not only students of art but links to our ability to orient ourselves within the world as we find it. The "problem" could be stated like this: why is it that, a century and more after these works were produced, the Lumiere brothers' early motion pictures of Parisian street scenes look quaint, antique, yet familiar, while Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon can still excite and affront us with its strangeness? "There is no question," asserted Arnason, "that the efforts of the pioneers of modern art changed modern artist's way of seeing, arid in some degree, modern man's." What is more questionable is whether the modern person's way of seeing has yet caught up with the work of those pioneers. In a sense, the old reverence for "realistic" appearances still rules: audiences accustomed to the presentational modes of photography, television, and commercial movies may have no more of an advantage here than did the followers of tired, overblown academic painting in the 1890s.
This problematic situation reveals another reason why, for Arnason, modern art matters so much: it is a grand project of exploration, a journey into space. There are no limits to artists' capacity to explore space or to take a willing and well-informed audience with them. Arnason's reflections on space in art illustrate his critical method, and are worth quoting at some length. His Preface begins:
The arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture are arts of space. For this reason it is essential to approach these arts in the twentieth century, or in any other period, through an analysis of the artist's attitude toward spatial organization. Since space is normally defined as extension in all directions, this attitude can be seen relatively easily in architecture and sculpture, which traditionally are three-dimensional masses or volumes surrounded by space, and, in the case of architecture, enclosing space.
Painting, however, offers an altogether more complex universe:
It is probably more difficult for the spectator to comprehend the element of space in painting than in either architecture or sculpture. A painting is physically a two-dimensional surface to which pigments, usually without appreciable bulk, have been applied. Except insofar as the painter may have applied his paint thickly, in impasto, the painting traditionally has no projecting mass, and any suggestion of depth on the surface of the canvas is an illusion created through various technical means. The instant a painter draws a line on the blank surface he introduces an illusion of the third dimension. This illusion of depth may be furthered by overlapping or spacing of color shapes, by the different visual impacts of colors—red, yellow, blue, black, or white, by different intensities or values, and by many other devices known throughout history. The most important of these, before the twentieth century, were linear and atmospheric perspective.
Arnason then noted, with a decisive stroke, the shift that first made modern painting modern:
Perspective, although known in antiquity, became for the Renaissance a means for creating paintings that were imitations of nature-visual illusions that made the spectator think he was looking at a man, a still life, or a landscape rather than at a canvas covered with paint. Perhaps the greatest revolution of early modern art lay in the abandonment of this attitude and the perspective technique that made it possible. As a consequence, the painting ... became a reality in itself, not an imitation of anything else; it had its own laws and its own reason for existence.
The idea that "laws" might be deduced for modern art would have led an art historian of a more theoretical temper to attempt to formulate them. Arnason preferred an empirical approach: "As will be seen," he continued, "after the initial experiments carried out by the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves, and Cubists, there has been no logical progression." Art is not like science or technology, in that experiments and discoveries do not lead to work that is progressively better or more effective, but they do expand (to use a spatial term) the range of possibilities. With History of Modern Art as our guide, Arnason seemed to be saying, we can proceed with confidence, but on a case-by-case basis.
The Primacy of Experience
Arnason's views on art were in keeping with the critical stance of his influential contemporary, the American art writer Clement Greenberg, who in his 1961 book Art and Culture asserted: "Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles, and what counts first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary." Greenberg was banging the drum for abstract art here, taking on its critics who clung to the persuasion that representational art was somehow "superior" to non-representational. Judging art, he was saying, is not a matter of laws or principles, as academic artists and critics believed-there is no automatic right or wrong about it. Instead, art should be judged by "Experience, and experience alone"in other words, the aesthetic effect it has on the viewer.
Though Arnason's approach can clearly be aligned with Greenberg's formalism and his advocacy of American Abstract Expressionist art, he was far less tendentious. Rather, his great virtue as a writer and educator is that he was prepared to share his insights without insisting that readers share his ideology. It is this inherent generosity that has, in fact, made it possible for later writers of different critical persuasions to revise and augment his original project without subverting its vision.
In practice, of course, our experience of art includes the recognition that an object can be classed as "art," and it is therefore always an activity of some cultural complexity. In Arnason's view, the process of "learning something about visual perception" involves a preparedness to countenance conflicting arguments rather than rush to judgment. This caution applies particularly to assessments of aesthetic value based on non-aesthetic criteria. Who, after all, can sit in final judgment on the relative virtues of those great contemporaries Matisse and Picasso? Produced during the Nazi occupation of France, Matisse's work of the early forties makes no obvious reference to the events of the time, whereas Picasso's Guernica delivers a high-voltage indictment of fascist brutality. Matisse's political leanings during this murky period in French political life have been thought suspect, but not even the more politically outspoken Picasso could touch him in his command of color.
This example recalls a passage in Greenberg's Art and Culture that has considerable bearing on Arnason's critical method: "That a picture gives things to identify, as well as a complex of shapes and colors to behold, does not mean necessarily that it gives us more as art ... The explicit comment on historical events offered in Picasso's Guernica does not make it necessarily a better or richer work than an utterly `nonobjective' painting by Mondrian." In general, Arnason left it to others to open up the question of exactly how and on what levels art is wired to the world outside. For his part, he found plenty of drama in what takes shape in the studio.
How Modern is Modern?
One question that was never directly addressed in History of Modern Art's early editions was the meaning of the term "modern," the limitations and slippages of which have already been outlined. In one sense, of course, its use is purely chronological, referring to art produced at any time after the modern era in art was held to have begun (in Arnason's account, as in numerous others, this was around the mid-nineteenth century in France). Modern art, as chapter 1 explains, rejected the moribund academicism of Salon artists, the conventions of illusionistic space organized according to the rules of linear perspective. But beyond this, the term was hardly more closely defined. In particular, there was no definition of the label "modernist," which, together with the later coinage "Post-modernist," is now generally seen as part of the basic toolkit for any discussion of twentieth-century culture.
Whereas the term "modern" is a historical catch-all, "modernist" usefully refers to a much more specific vision of what art is for and the form it ought to take—in other words, it carries both moral and aesthetic imperatives. Reinforced concrete is a modern building material, but not all architects who adopted it were modernists: of the two most famous early proponents of ferroconcrete construction, Auguste Perret was a staunch defender of French classical tradition, while Le Corbusier was the archetypal modernist, dedicated to art's mission to speak to the concerns of the modern world through an international formal vocabulary that was at once both austerely beautiful and determinedly functional.
Post-modernism, a term originally applied to architecture, emerged as a self-conscious counter-current to modernism during the decade after History of Modern Art's first edition. By this time modernism, despite its early twentieth-century affiliation with utopian socialism, was identified by many with the values of a social and cultural elite. Modernism, it was argued, was just one of any number of stylistic vocabularies; it had no more claim to be seen as essentially progressive than, say, the ubiquitous classicism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with its Greco-Roman litany of columns, cornices, and pediments. Post-modernism stepped aside from the single-minded trajectory of modernism and asked why art and architecture should not be allusive, eclectic, ornamental, easy-going in their stylistic loyalties, and even ironic or humorous (modernism tended to take itself very seriously). Where modernism is frequently absolute and prescriptive (as in its aversion to ornament and "frivolous" decoration), Postmodernism is relativistic and pluralistic, and skeptical of attempts to correlate form and meaning in any systematic way. Throughout the twentieth century, there had always been artists who challenged prevailing orthodoxies, including modernism. In the Post-modern world-view, the very notion of orthodoxy was discarded.
Both modernism and Post-modernism are terms that reach beyond art to connect with broader cultural and historical trends. This fifth edition of History of Modern Art touches more often on non-artistic contemporary events than did Arnason's early editions. At the same time, it respects Arnason's original approach, in which the reader is enjoined first of all to look, to enjoy art as visual sensation before plunging into the intellectual discourse that surrounds it.
A Book That Moves with the Times
Arnason died shortly before the third edition of this book was published. Because of his failing health, the project of revising the third edition was undertaken by Daniel Wheeler, who extended the book's historical scope up to the mid-eighties. By this time, modernism's role as a once-dominant artistic ideology that contemporary art of the seventies and eighties was reacting against necessitated a fresh look at Arnason's account of the progress of modern art up until that point. As Wheeler wrote:
Since so much of the new art produced during the 1970s and thereafter represents some form of reaction against the whole modernist tradition that went before ... the earlier chapters have received almost as much fresh attention as the new chapters addressed to the various forms of Conceptual Art, to Photorealism, Pattern, Decoration, and the New Imagery, to Neo-Expressionism and, finally, a resurgent, albeit radically altered, abstraction.
The third edition incorporated new research and, in particular, took the chronological narrative deep into Postmodernist (or in Wheeler's preferred term Post-Minimalist) territory, pointing up the nature of late-twentieth-century artists' and architects' reactions to the modernist legacy.
Another new element was the introduction of photography, which had presented itself as a modern art form almost from its first development in the mid-nineteenth century, although it had taken much longer for it to be accepted as such in the academic view of what qualified as art. Photography, said Wheeler, was now included,
not only to acknowledge the aesthetic importance of the work realized in the medium of photography, but also to provide a background for photography's current ubiquitous presence among the mix of media increasingly favored, by all manner of artists, for their endless capacity to yield new figurative, formal, and expressive effects.
In other ways, Wheeler followed Arnason's lead in placing the direct, face-to-face experience of art at the heart of the book. He sounded a more tentative note about this approach, however, since by the eighties it could no longer be presented as entirely ideologically neutral:
I have attempted not so much to present new material as to discover it, as the curious viewer/reader himself might in the act of following contemporary art through its present and ongoing processes of unforeseeable, yet ultimately logical, development . ... Moreover, in discovering, studying, or revealing works of art and architecture, I have carefully avoided the role of critic, as well as that of theorist. Rather than engage in speculative value judgments, or some narrowly defined ideological approach, I invariably find it more rewarding and instructive ... to remain open to the distinctive qualities of each work or trend, to learn its special language, and to allow the particular truth this conveys to unfold.
Wheeler maintained that art is like poetry, in that it "almost always seeks a deeper, less obvious reality." No longer a confident, imperative exploration of space, art was presented here as the doorway to inner, subjective reality. In terms that evoke, but do not entirely assent to, the distinctively Post-modern fracturing of meaning, "criticality" was seen not as a search for truth but as a balancing of competing interests and interpretations. "The challenge of that reality," Wheeler continued,
can be further enriched by the findings of those who have interviewed the artist, observed his work at length, and commented upon its possibilities in a knowing, constructive manner. Once the art has been experienced from these several perspectives, criticality emerges, as problems are posed, resolved, and assessed, like a cat's cradle of checks and balances, woven by the competing interests of time, place, personal circumstance, and sociocultural context. Thus, what I have wanted to offer is a balanced view of recent events in the visual arts—a view balanced, that is, between the subjective vision of the artist himself, an objective, informed consideration of what that vision produced, and my own keen sense of identification with both.
History of Modern Art, it will by now be clear, is itself a monument to a line of art historical and educational thinking that relies on the primacy of experience, guiding but not prescribing, and welcoming the new on equal terms with the old. At the same time, the pressure to look again, to reconsider and update, has continued. Twelve years after Wheeler's revision, Marla F. Prather prepared a fourth edition, bringing subsequent scholarship in a number of fields to bear on the task while attempting "to cut or shrink the old text in order to permit the inclusion of another fifteen years of art, in addition to the history of photography, without making the book an object that only a weight-lifter could handle." Prather rewrote the chapter on Cubism, and added coverage of work in newer art media, such as video and performance art, and by women artists.
The Fifth Edition—Fresh Perspectives
For the fifth edition, the entire text—made up of Arnason's original, Wheeler's and Prather's contributions, and specialist material supplied by numerous other scholars—has again been overhauled from start to finish. Peter Kalb thoroughly recast chapters 24 to 27, taking the story of modern art up to the year 2000 with in-depth coverage of artists and art movements of the last twenty years. He also contributed to the revision of earlier chapters, with Michael Bird who revised chapters 1 to 24, restructuring and subdividing much of this compendious material into a more manageable sequence as a reference source.
Parts of the narrative have been realigned so that, for example, where the fourth edition included a number of important women artists in its survey of the "pluralistic seventies," the new chapter 24 has a section on Feminism, explaining how this wider social and cultural movement interacted with existing trends in art such as installation and performance. Throughout, the new text incorporates the work of women artists as important and integral to the history of modern art. The design of the text has also been greatly enhanced by the use of color throughout the book. Art historians are today much more at home with the concept of the collaborative making of art than in earlier days when the notion of the lone genius prevailed. In its evolution through successive editions, this book has become a richly collaborative project. But it would also be true to say that it holds to its original aim, concisely stated by Arnason in his Preface:
This book is intended for the general reader and the student of modern art ... Aside from being a broad, analytical survey of modern art and architecture, the book is conceived as a dictionary in which much factual information is included. This is particularly true of the latter part which is intended to suggest the main directions of contemporary art and architecture rather than to pretend completeness.
If we take a mid-nineteenth-century start date, "modern" art is now entering its third century. Sometime, someone will draw the line. But it is a fair bet that serious students of the modern era in art will continue, whatever their critical perspectives or cultural allegiances, to reach for this book on the shelves.
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