Recently Seph Rodney, whose art writing I admire, published a remarkably instructive column, “reflecting on the mistakes I’ve made as an art critic.” Probably everyone who writes prolifically will recognize that they have made mistakes. Because art writers deal with revisions of the canon and with contemporary works, it’s unsurprising that they sometimes get things wrong. In the early twentieth-century, Caravaggio’s works were hard to see properly. And so they were much misunderstood. When Jackson Pollock’s great all-over paintings were first shown in the late 1940s, most commentators failed to understand them. You could have known a great deal about recent modernism and still failed to comprehend these revolutionary pictures. When critical standards or taste change rapidly and drastically, it’s not surprising that judgments of taste can go wrong.
In the 1980s I certainly made any number of critical judgments that I now regret, or at least would retract. And I have made occasional errors of fact, which perhaps are inevitable in writing that has to be done and then edited quickly. They are easily corrected in on-line publications. Galleries or museums that don’t otherwise acknowledge reviews complain if you make a seemingly minor factual error. As they should, for the critical record matters. What’s more interesting to me, however, are philosophical misconceptions. Here, then, I look at the mistakes involved in two of my projects, one in a book that I did publish and another in an account that I ultimately failed to finish.
When I was a graduate student in philosophy, half a century ago!, I devoted part of my doctoral thesis to E. H. Gombrich’s classic Art and Illusion, the theory accompanying his Euro-centric art history The Story of Art. Then within a couple of decades, when art historians looked at art from elsewhere and at modernism, it became clear that Gombrich’s account needed to be dramatically expanded. Because I had taught in China, and reviewed exhibitions of Chinese art both there and in the West, I was particularly interested in a Gombrichian account of art from China. And, also, because I had studied some of the literature on ornamentation, including Gombrich’s book on that subject, The Sense of Order: A study in the psychology of decorative art (1994), I was aware that Islamic art posed enchanting conceptual issues. And so when in 2006 I published A World Art History And Its Objects I attempted to extend Gombrich’s basic model to include some non-Western artistic traditions. Whether or not that project can succeed is, I believe, still an open question. Still, two things happened that changed my sense of the project and made me aware of basic problems.
In 2007 Julian Bell published a convincing book length response to The Story of Art, Mirror of the World: A New History of Art. Where my account was a conceptual analysis, Bell actually developed in detail a world art history, with full, nicely developed examples. And when I reviewed his book, a number of problems with constructing the narrative that my own work hadn’t faced started to become apparent. The second thing that happened was simpler. When I presented my book, a number of otherwise well-disposed respondents observed that I had failed to grasp the political dimensions of my project. To set art from Africa, the Americas, China and the Islamic World against works from Europe in such a history is not just to engage in conceptual analysis, but to organize what amounts to the framework for a public museum display. And that activity can have real practical effects. To represent is to control: that’s part of why museums are so highly controversial. These political issues matter.
My second mistake was much more dramatic. With the support of two major publishers, I worked long and hard on a book that proved impossible to complete. Because I had written extensively about contemporary art, for some time I was involved with doing a history of abstraction since 1945. The older canonical accounts, basically developing out of some famously brilliant essays by Clement Greenberg, took the story from French modernism through American Abstract Expressionism and on into some New York artists of the 1960s. But just as it became clear that a world art history starting with pre-modernism needed to include more than European works, so it became apparent to me that this history of abstraction required a more expansive framework, one that I could not find. It needed different theorizing because it had to include a great variety of works. In the later twentieth-century, abstract paintings were made everywhere. And so, when Pepe Karmel’s Abstract Art: A Global History (2020) appeared, I was astonished and so very pleased, for he showed how to do what I had been unable to do, produce a history of this period of abstraction. That I had, still, some problems with his account, didn’t undermine this recognition of his success.
So far as I know Bell and Karmel worked separately, in complete independence from one another. And so it’s very instructive to observe that there is an important, very basic conceptual parallel in their concerns. In a political history one event leads to the next. And in art history, what’s earlier leads to what’s later. That’s what we find in Gombrich’s old master art history and also in Greenberg’s modernist art history. But what happens when we describe events occurring at about the same time in geographically distant, unconnected places? In 1200 the Americas were not in contact with China or Europe. And so the stories of art in those three places were not yet connected. And even recently, when the world is one, it’s simply not the case that, in 1950 for example, that artists in India respond to work in New York or Argentina. What follows is that neither Bell’s account nor Karkel’s are really historical- narratives, like Gombrich’s and Greenberg’s accounts, in which what is earlier leads to what comes later. Rather, in both Mirror of the World and Abstract Art we have webs linking diverse works. How these narrative structures should then be developed is an open question.
It might seem as if this discussion of historiography is an esoteric topic, far removed from the contentious everyday art world practices reported in the press. But that, I think, would be a mistake. The demand is being made that more work by women and men of color be displayed and discussed. The details of the lesson to be learnt from my failure in these two cases no doubt is complex, and so in need of future discussion. But the most prominent source for my errors is now obvious. A few decades ago the focus of the art history I studied was on works by white male Europeans. But now we need to take account of art made by women and men from everywhere. And that means that we need new, more complex ways of writing art history. What I have learned from Rodney is the importance of acknowledging and reflecting upon such mistakes. That’s the only way to advance.
See Seph Rodney, https://hyperallergic.com/563887/reflecting-on-the-mistakes-ive-made-as-an-art-critic/ On Pepe Karmel see my https://hyperallergic.com/589404/the-end-of-art-history/ My account of Julian Bell is Burlington Magazine CL (February 2008): 121. See also my A World Art History And Its Objects (2008).