There’s too many quotes and not enough explanation in the following post, but I’m moving houses this weekend and I’m not certain when I’ll have internet access again, so I’d like to post it as it stands and return to it when I’m back online.
Following a reading of Gombrich’s The Story of Art, I want to draw some parallels with Arthur C. Danto’s After the End of Art, my main subject-matter being the idea of progress in art.
I originally thought I could see a conflict between the two writers, but I realised that actually they seem to complement each other instead.
I came to The Story of Art with a very sceptical attitude, regarding it as a rather a forced distillation of the subject. The premise of a single volume presenting the complete history of art seemed to create more problems than it solved by demanding that everything fall into place in an overarching structure. On a practical note, I also found the form of the book off-putting – the size and weight mean that casual reading is impossible, requiring a reader who is willing and able to devote time and effort to the book – not necessarily a bad thing of course, but it prevents it from being an easy read.
Being an (imminent) art-history student also skewed my reading of the book. I was not so much interested in the subject matter (although I found I learnt a lot from these) as in the connecting dialogues – the justifications for the movement from one chapter to the next, the explanations of the reasoning behind the actions of the individuals or groups treated in the text. It was here that I felt I would find the real meat of the book, the foundations of Gombrich’s system made clear.
After the first reading I went back over the book, pulling out quotes in preparation for this piece, and at the same time I happened to read Arthur C. Danto’s After the End of Art which revised my view of Gombrich’s work, ultimately making me feel much more generous towards it.
Progress is a ubiquitous concept in art history. But how is it defined? With respect to Art we could say that over time one artwork influences another, and when looked at from a historical perspective the resulting collection of works can be seen to have a development.
Gombrich: . . . I have tried to tell the story of art as the story of a continuous weaving and changing of traditions in which each work refers to the past and points to the future.. . . a living chain of tradition . . . (p.595)
Danto: . . . if earlier work were not preserved and studied, there would be no possibility of a progressive developmental history, only a kind of natural evolution. (p.62)
The question of the destination of this progression remains open, whether there is a goal or not; whether this progression is in terms of quality or some other characteristic; or whether progress just carries on forever with no purpose.
Danto: . . . the progress has to be in representations that look more and more like visual reality, and hence is a matter of painters handing down their craft from generation to generation. (p.49)
Gombrich’s ambiguous stance over progress
Gombrich is often at pains to distance himself from a concept of art history defined by progress. So, although he says at one point (in the context of artists seeking to be different in their works):
Gombrich: I have tried to make this constant change of aims the key of my narrative, and to show how each work is related by imitation or contradiction to what has gone before. (p.9)
. . . which gives an impression of progression based on supercession, he tempers this by saying a few sentences later:
Gombrich: There is one pitfall in this method of presentation which I hope to avoid but which should not go unmentioned. It is the naïve misinterpretation of the constant change in art as continuous progress. (p.9)
There is a recognition of change specifically as quantitative progress coupled with warnings of the dangers of seeing that as also qualitative.
Gombrich: . . . we must realize that each gain or progress in one direction entails a loss in another, and that this subjective progress, in spite of its importance, does not correspond to an objective increase in artistic value. (p.9)
Gombrich: But we must not forget that art is altogether different from science. The artist’s means, his technical devices, can be developed, but art itself can hardly be said to progress in the way in which science progresses. Each discovery in one direction creates a new difficulty somewhere else. (p.262)
Later in the book this becomes a fait accompli for Gombrich:
Gombrich: We know very well that in art we cannot speak of progress in the sense in which we speak of progress in learning. A Gothic work of art may be just as great as a work of the Renaissance. (p.341)
Alternative reasons for change
Gombrich: It has often been said that ancient art declined in these years [of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire], and it is certainly true that many secrets of the best period were lost in the general turmoil of wars, revolts and invasions. But we have seen that this loss in skill is not the whole story. The point is that artists at this time seemed no longer satisfied with the mere virtuosity of the Hellenistic period, and tried to achieve new effects. (p.131)
Gombrich: If the picture looks rather primitive to us, it must be because the artist wanted it to be simple. (p.136)
Gombrich: The great works of the Italian Quattrocento masters who followed the lead given by Masaccio have one thing in common: their figures look somewhat hard and harsh, almost wooden. The strange thing is that it clearly is not lack of patience or lack of knowledge that is responsible for this effect. (p.300)
Gombrich: . . . we may find Reynolds disappointing. But it would hardly be fair to expect of him an effect at which he was not aiming.. . . we may find it difficult fully to appreciate the originality of Reynolds’s treatment. (p.467-8)
Gombrich: It is easy to point to faults in [Blake’s] draughtsmanship, but to do so would be to miss the point of his art. (p. 490)
Gombrich: In former times, the style of the period was simply the way in which things were done;. . . In the Age of Reason, people began to become self-conscious about style and styles. (p.478)
Development from basic to advanced
Gombrich: But, if we compare it with the countless representations of the same theme which preceded it, we feel that they have all been groping for the very simplicity that Raphael has attained. (p.316)
Gombrich: The atmosphere of the lagoons, which seems to blur the sharp outlines of objects and to blend their colours in a radiant light, may have taught the painters of this city to use colour in a more deliberate and observant way than other painters in Italy had done so far. (p.325)
Gombrich: . . . the painters of the Middle Ages were no more concerned about the ‘real’ colours of things than they were about their real shapes. (p.326)
As an alternative to the idea of progress:
Danto: . . . Erwin Panofsky, according to which [art’s history] consists in a sequence of symbolic forms that replace one another but do not, as it were, constitute a development. (p.65)
There is the suggestion that Art doesn’t progress so much as that at any one time any artistic style is possible, with social, and some technical considerations dictating which styles actually happen.
Danto: . . . we live and produce within the horizon of a closed historical period. Some of the limitations are technical . . . And some of the limitations are stylistic . . . (p.44)
Wölfflin: Even the most original talent cannot proceed beyond certain limits which are fixed for it by the date of its birth. Not everything is possible at all times, and certain thoughts can only be thought at certain stages of the development.
Danto: . . . what is a work of art at one time cannot be one at another . . . (p.95)
Danto draws on the narrative as the defining characteristic of modernist art history, of which Gombrich is a part.
Danto: Both theorists [Gombrich and Sir Karl Popper] are concerned with what Popper speaks of as the “growth” of knowledge, and hence with an historical process representable via a narrative. (p.50)
Gombrich: When people talk about ‘Modern Art’, they usually think of a type of art which has completely broken with the traditions of the past and tries to do things no artist would have dreamed of before. Some like the idea of progress and believe that art, too, must keep in step with the times. Others prefer the slogan of ‘the good old days’, and think that modern art is all wrong. But we have seen that the situation is really more complex, and that modern art no less than old art came into existence in response to certain definite problems. (p.558)
Gombrich: The day’s events only turn into a ‘story’ when we have gained sufficient distance, to know what effect (if any) they have had on later developments.. . . the story of artists can only be told when it has become clear, after a certain lapse of time . . . a story that dealt first and foremost with the solution of certain artistic problems, solutions, that is, that determined the course of future developments. (p.599-600)
And, according to Danto, since the mid ’60’s that narrative has ended, with the consequence that ‘art’-as defined by that narrative-has ended:
Danto: . . . the end of art—a somewhat dramatic way of declaring that the great master narratives which first defined traditional art, and then modernist art, have not only come to an end, but that contemporary art no longer allows itself to be represented by master narratives at all. (p.xiii)
But that is not the end of art as such:
Danto: It was not my view that there would be no more art, which “death” certainly implies, but that whatever art there was to be would be made without benefit of a reassuring sort of narrative in which it was seen as the appropriate next stage in the story. (p.4)
Danto: My only claim on the future is that this is the end state, the conclusion of an historical process whose structure it all at once renders visible. So it is, after all, very like looking at the end of the story to see how it came out, with this difference: we have not skipped anything, but have lived through the historical sequences which led us here: that this is the end of the story of art. (p.46)
Danto: . . . the end and fulfilment of the history of art is the philosophical understanding of what art is . . . (p.107)
So, what happens outside of history?
The “era of art” begins in about A.D.1400, in Hans Belting’s view, and though we consider the images made before then “art,” they were not conceived as such, and the concept of art played no role in their coming into being.
Danto: It was not that those images were not art in some large sense, but their being art did not figure in their production, since the concept of art had not as yet really emerged in general consciousness, and such images—icons, really—played quite different role in the lives of people than works of art came to play when the concept at last emerged and something like aesthetic considerations began to govern our relationships to them. (p.3)
At first I was tempted to decry Gombrich’s ambivalence (?) towards treating his book as a story of progress. But having read Danto I can see that the history of art as continual develpment and progress towards representative quality is not so out of the question. As has obviously been the case, it demands or a treatment like Gombrich’s (?).
Where it seems to fall down is at either end of the account – exiting the narrative of history we cross over into pre-art or post-art/history as described by Belting and Danto respectively.
Danto’s view make sense to me. And it’s given me a less judgemental view of Gombrich. It suggests that existing theories of artistic progress in ‘historical’ times are still sufficient and don’t necessarily need to be rethought, allowing us to concentrate on developing theories for the other periods.
- Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon, 1950; 16th edition, 1995; reprinted 2005)
- Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art
- Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: the Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, trans. M. D. Hottinger (New York: Dover Publications, n.d.), ix. Quoted in Danto, After the End of Art, p.44