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27 March 2017

Dr Great Art New Podcast, Episode 10: "Why Art History?"

The newest podcast episode (Nr. 10)! Dr Great Art: "Why Art History!" What are the lessons art history can teach us? The lessons of art history are that they are lessons. That is a tautology, but an illuminating one worth elaborating upon. It is necessary to know history as personal empowerment for artists: to test the present with the often surprising facts of the past, to note how and why "official" history has often changed; second, to discover one's own personal, vital ancestry; and finally, in order to criticize and change art history.


Here is the script (NOT a transcript as I change elements when recording).

Dr Great Art Podcast Ten
"Why Art History?"

Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the tenth "Dr (Great) Art" brief podcast. I hope you enjoy it and come back for each and every one.

Today we have a short Artecdote. Why Art history? What good is it?

Why Art History? What are the lessons art history can teach us? In short, Historia est vitae magistra. (History is the tutor of life.)

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 art history.

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 called 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...."

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 artists, 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, say, 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.

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." 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. Maratta was indeed highly popular among cognoscenti of his time. In my eyes, and those of most viewers today, he was a pedantic producer of dreary, orthodox art emphasizing then-"correct" notions. Ring any bells?

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.

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.

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.

That was "Why Art History?"

Thanks for listening. That was "Dr (Great) Art" podcast number 10. If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.

I take viewers inside visual art and art history. Entertainingly, yet educationally and aesthetically, I analyze, underline, and discuss the reasons why a work of art is remarkable, or I go through entire eras, or indeed through the entirety of art history, or look at your desired theme through the lens of art history. The lectures often take place with painted background screens and even in my painting-installations. My next one is on the image of Social work in Art History, "Kunstgeschichte in Schnelldurchlauf, Sozialarbeit in der Kunst."

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