L: Carlo Maratta, The Assumption and The Doctors of the Church, 1689; R: Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, 1670.
Historia est vitae magistra. (History is the tutor of life.)
"Alessandro Allori who flooded all Tuscany with his insipid pictures..."
Walter Friedlaender (1)
Allori was derivative, attempting to formulate art out of pre-existing art. So awed was he by the heroes of the Renaissance that he petrified their discoveries, never daring to stray away from prescribed paths. Highly touted and well-selling in his day, he worked for a time under Giorgio Vasari, a well-intentioned but even less imaginative painter who went on to found art history. Sound familiar?
The lessons of art history are that they are lessons. That is a tautology, but an illuminating one worth elaborating upon. The phrase "learning from (art) history" is often mouthed, yet mostly no longer believed, and is even actively gainsaid by artworld pundits. It is necessary to know history as personal empowerment for artists: first, to test the present with the often surprising facts of the past, to note how and why "official" history has often changed, in order to put temporary claims of omniscience into perspective; second, to discover one’s own personal, vital ancestry; and finally, in order to criticize and change it.
Now and then, curators have suggested to me that the old chestnut of hope for artists, being discovered in the future although unknown or underappreciated now, is no longer possible. They also say that those now in positions of power know best and indeed know everything, right now; there is a consensus of what is important and that agreement is accurate and everlasting. Of course, such people do not express this thought as candidly as I have here; rather, they indirectly portend that all information is known and under their control, pronouncing such statements as, "Well, discoveries of unknown artists can't happen anymore, because of mass media (or the school system, or the pervasiveness of information, or whatever). All truly remarkable art would come to my attention."
Philosopher Arthur Danto calls this stance "Glimcher’s Theorem." It is named after a gallerist who claimed that "there are no unrecognized artists; that all deserving work receives attention; that the market always gets it right," as critic Raphael Rubenstein explains this smug notion. Such a conviction conveniently excuses lack of knowledge of anything not already pre-chewed by one’s colleagues – a vicious circle of self-justification attempting to pass as reasoning. Looking back even a few short years at art magazines, catalogues of award winners and the like, one finds vast arrays of the disappeared. As Rubenstein goes on to say in the same article, "no victory is forever; critical reputations fluctuate.... We can therefore be certain that some – if not most – of the artists who are today enshrined ... will be consigned to deep storage and market oblivion...."(2)
I agree, and do not think the consensus or "Glimcher’s Theorem" is true – nor personally would I ever be so bold as to proclaim that my own knowledge is the be-all and end-all of erudition now or (especially) for the future. Even if I were to grant truth to the notion that unanticipated and astounding discoveries will not be made (which I do here merely for the sake of argument), sweeping and harsh re-arrangements of the level of importance of individual artists and movements would still be plausible. Those Neo-Conceptualists, or whoever are now valued, may indeed still be in the collection, but may wind up in basement storage next to William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Carlo Maratta.
Many of us practicing artists have weathered various peaks and valleys in our careers, and this continues after death. Joseph Beuys was far too ballyhooed by many of us during his life, so that now his art is unjustifiably disparaged. It will undoubtedly settle in at a higher but more reasonable level than it currently enjoys. Raphael has scarcely recovered from his many years of being an academically worshiped and enforced prototype. Painter Wesley Kimler contends a similar fate is in store for Marcel Duchamp, as the Dadaist appears to be indelibly tarred by his position as obligatory model in late Postmodernism. (3)
Artists in particular should learn art history. Such knowledge does not give rise to fear, to a burden of the past, as is frequently fretted by Europeans, but rather the opposite. One has more of a burden of the past when one knows nothing of history. A vaguely threatening cloud hangs over your thoughts and your work. When you know it you can respect it by wrestling with it. Artists develop their own, perhaps idiosyncratic, inheritance by knowingly, actively re-writing the timeline. Creators are able to discover their preferred precursors, find their own artistic fathers (and fortunately, ever increasingly, mothers). The friendship and conversation with the dead that Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset saw in history allows creators to find as much sustenance in Goya as in their contemporaries. Yet such conversance also imparts opportunities for antithetical, critical historical and cultural awareness.
Furthermore, knowledge of art history empowers artists in that it reveals lies currently foisted upon them as the mendacity that they are. Those involved in the current artworld know of that deluded assertion so common among recent graduates of art schools that the painting of the 80s was "late Abstract Expressionism" or "emotional," and that it was overcome by something called "Conceptual" artwork. But in fact, the 80s stuff is called Neo-Expressionism (as in Neo-German Expressionism) by art historians. At the time it was called Neue Wilden in Germany and the Transavantgardia in Italy. After Abstract Expressionism (which flourished in the 40s and 50s) came Pop, Op, Hard Edge/Formalism, Kinetic, Minimalism, Fluxus/Neo-Dada, Conceptual Art, Performance/Body Art, Photo-Realism, Installation, Earth Art/art povera/Post-Minimalism, (the beginning of Postmodernism), Feminist Art (beginning), New Image/Bad Painting, Pattern, Neo-Expressionism, various other short-lived Neos, and Neo-Geo/Appropriation. After all these came Neo-Conceptualism/Video Installation, followed by Conceptual Painting/New Painting. And who knows what else lies ahead.
The style being promoted by the collapsed history I decry is called “Neo-Conceptualism” for obvious historical reasons. In its attempt to make a genre out of a style, as well as its attempt at complete identification of a latter, retrograde mode with an earlier movement, Conceptualism, is an artworld political ploy, fueled by the ignorance of art history (thus my extended Cliff Notes-style list above; please forgive me).
Some proof of the surprises of history? Consider the case of Carlo Maratta (1625-1713). He respected Raphael, perhaps too much, lacking any passion of his own. His great achievement was to be a friend of Giovanni Bellori, "a writer ten years older than himself, and the dictator of art theory of his age." (4) Bellori wrote about artists who he claimed were the most important of his day. Some he named are indeed still treasured. However, he left out Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and was thoroughly scandalized by Caravaggio, attempting to discredit him in every way possible, including the use of a purposefully insulting portrait etching of Caravaggio in his book. Bellori began a life of Maratta, left incomplete at his death, wherein he suggested that art had reached its highest summit in Carlo Maratta. (5) Maratta was indeed highly popular among viewers and cognoscenti of his time. "By 1680, Maratta was universally hailed as the greatest painter of the age." (6) In my eyes, and those of most viewers today, he was a pedantic producer of dreary, orthodox art emphasizing then-"correct" notions. Ring any other bells?
Then there is the father of the Baroque, Caravaggio. He had an enormous effect on the works of Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velazquez. Yet, Caravaggio’s fame among art historians scarcely survived his death. Within a few decades, his works were being disregarded. His reputation suffered under two mean-spirited assaults, first by Giovanni Baglione, a rival painter and author with a personal grudge against Caravaggio, and Bellori, as mentioned. Fortunately, in the early twentieth-century critic Roberto Longhi revived Caravaggio's forgotten name. (7) This painter’s fame and influence are prominent today as a model of artistic individuality in place of conformity, personal direct observation of life in opposition to academic memorization, the creation of works of power rather than mere cunning, and the amelioration of sickly mannerist tendencies.
Another historical example is Johannes Vermeer, known as Jan Vermeer. He was a barely successful provincial painter in his lifetime, but, shortly after his death, was ignored for two hundred years. In the mid-nineteenth century, art critic Thoré Bürger published an essay attributing paintings to him and bringing Vermeer back onto the art historical stage. Since that time the painter’s reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest painters. (8)
So prominence and rank ain’t necessarily so. History is written by future scholars; those currently in power cannot force any reading upon unborn generations. We do not and cannot know their value judgments. We have no choice but to leave these future art scholars as much as possible and let them research and decide for themselves. They will of course be entangled in their own power-plays and mêlées with spurious taste-czars and so on, yet these factions will not be ours, nor even, most likely, derived in any way from our own cliques and coteries. Why should they be?
Thus, while it is true that no time period is truly objective, the disappearance of direct immediate gain, local political advantage and simple antipathy creates a situation of fresh appraisal and even of purposeful questioning of “compulsory” opinions. This amounts to a calculus of desire approximating circumstances resembling a more objective state. Seeing how this function has worked in the past and imagining it at work in the future is an important imaginative implement. Lessons as illustrations, examples, and tools – as possibilities for making analogies. As many thinkers, including Albert Einstein, have pointed out, the ability to make analogies and associative play are the keys to creativity. (9)
Consequently, the lessons of history are neither retrograde nor conservative nor threatening. Indeed, the contraries of all of these are true. The lessons are touchstones and litmus tests for contemporary life and art – ways to glimpse around the blinders others attempt to enforce upon us in the present.
Artists: Learn art history. Contest it. Build your own. And thereby refuse the state of "given" to any perceived present. Every "is"contains many a "was" and many a "could be" or even "ought to be." History offers illustrations for use as tools to work on the present and build the future.