- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

The odd claims and transformations that pop up in the cultural marketplace these days as a result of modern marketing pressures can be amusing or annoying. Take, for example, the marketing of “Art: A New History,” the by turns anachronistic, screechy and sensitively written new book by Paul Johnson, a British journalist turned best-selling historian.

Mr. Johnson’s publicists have, as they must, positioned his book to appeal to many potential buyers: culture vultures (“glorious parade of world art”), contrarians and cultural conservatives (“often controversial, always intellectually challenging,” “scales the high points of Western art … and wades through the artistic mire of the 20th century” ) and mainstream readers (“trademark perception and narrative prowess”).

For bad boys, the publicists have included a rather negative 1998 profile from the New York Times in their press packet, demonstrating once again the belief that all publicity is good.

But beware: the gap between “Art: A New History” and its marketing is rather pronounced, even by marketing standards. Ostensibly a survey history of Western and non-Western art from cave painting to the present, it is instead a highly selective and eccentric but ultimately weak defense of what Paul Johnson likes best — illustrative art, most often figurative. Along the way, you do learn something — Mr. Johnson is apparently one of those people who inhale books like air — but it’s a roller-coaster ride and, in the end, its eccentricities vitiate what is praiseworthy. Most art innocents — American undergraduates, for example — will be at sea.

Mr. Johnson’s account is a chronological narrative through which his theories of art run. He thinks the impulse to make art is so primal that it predates language, is sure that a desire for “order” is at its root (hardly a noncontroversial proposition these days) and views art as essential to human happiness. He expresses here and there very old-fashioned ideas about progress and decline in art. His narrative is built around the development of “realistic” art and its glories. To enliven the story — and anybody who has read an art-history book lately will be grateful — he fancifully speculates about the lives, minds and motives of artists down through the centuries, with often ludicrous results. At the end, he even injects Victorian uplift. (“[A]rt [is] our guide and solace, our delight and comfort, our clarifier and mentor.”)

But the central problem is Mr. Johnson’s willful refusal even to try to understand modernism and the development of art in the 20th century. His hatred for Picasso in particular seems to be an opinion he has clung to since he was 6 years old, when his father warned him about Picasso and begged him not to become a painter. This hatred is perhaps the motivating force of the whole book and what sinks it, too. Mr. Johnson’s anger pours forth because of it, and he rails against the conniving, fashionable, lionized, rich, oversexed Spaniard; against the credulous art establishment that supported him; against the lures of the Parisian luxury merchants that weakened everybody’s moral fiber and allowed it all to happen.

Whatever your opinion about Picasso, to deny him and other modernist painters serious consideration distorts the history of painting. We can stipulate that most of the public has little liking for huge chunks of modernist art, which is often rebarbative, difficult to understand, and surrounded by the mystifications of specialist jargon. The divide between art professionals and the public on this question is so far unbridged. Unfortunately, Paul Johnson does little to make the public’s case, so the question of the appreciation of modernism in history goes unexamined in the book. This is a pity, because it’s a question that has important real-world ramifications for artists, museums, patrons and, ultimately, the public.

There is often some emotional component in taste, but Mr. Johnson’s preference for English art, Victorian art and watercolor — all of which are given as examples of the “right” (mimetic) sort of art — and his loathing of Picasso et al. are presented as objectively reasoned, absolute opinions. In fact they are sentimental in origin, down to his father’s cherished admonishments.

Interestingly, the British reviewers of this book have tended not to be in the least respectful, in striking contrast to their American counterparts. Some of this can be attributed to the difference between American and British journalism, but perhaps, too, the Americans are just grateful to find in Mr. Johnson someone who is interested in art objects.

For Mr. Johnson’s strength — we reach it at last — is his sensitive attention to works of art, at a time when much of professional art history seems to be uninterested in the actual objects that are at the center of its field of study. Mr. Johnson is passionately interested in them, their makers and how they were made. He gives lucid accounts of painting and painting technique that illuminate his subject, and his attempt to restore the artist to the center of the equation is serious and commendable, even if he goes off the rails in places.

Mr. Johnson wants it both ways: to render the marvelous particular qualities of the art he knows so well and loves so much while at the same time forcing them to prop up and satisfy his preconceptions about the function, workings and evolution of art. He does his cause no good in this irresponsibly retrograde book. However, he does offer one bit of very good advice, which is to go look closely at quantities of real works of art and decide for yourself.

Darcy Tell is currently working on a book about Times Square.

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