. . . Today I should just like to draw your attention to one of the courses you will be attending, namely the Core Course – Histories of Art, which will introduce you to approaches and concepts in the History of Art and to the newer developments in the field described as Visual Cultures.
In preparation for the Core Course I’d like to ask you to read Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art. This is a widely available survey of the history of art and has been translated into many languages. . . . Let the book inspire you to look at art works, to go to museums, to read other texts. But read the book from a critical distance. Please keep a kind of notebook or diary while you are reading. . . .
Letter from Astrid Schmetterling, Programme Leader, Postgraduate Diploma in Contemporary Art History, Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths College, University of London, 19 July 2006
It surprises me that I’ve only read one piece by Ernst Gombrich, and none of his books. I’m sure that he must have been on the reading lists for the courses I’ve taken, but something like arrogance has meant I’ve avoided him. I was probably thinking I had surpassed his writings. However, beginning this course has encouraged me to closely study my knowledge with a critical eye and I’ve come to realise it has some rather large holes and Gombrich is one of them.
So now I hold it in my hands and the sheer size of this brick of a book causes me to make certain pessimistic projections about the time it will take to read. I’m quite a slow reader, and I tend to want to read books twice, once skimming and then again with a more intense concentration, marking and annotating as I go. All this takes time. And I feel like time is precious on this course, so I may have to develop new ways of reading to speed things up.
On a related note, the conversational tone of the book makes me impatient. The storytelling conceit in itself slows the pace.
It’s also difficult to get away from the narrative style presenting the information as a seemingly natural progression from the past to the present. It implies a development towards fulfillment or completion, relegating past art to a rôle of support act to the latest works (I’m out of my depth here but would ‘teleology’ describe this accurately? Hegelianism?). Gombrich, in his preface to the first edition of the book guards against many of the criticisms that have been raised against the work, and says this regarding narrative:
. . . the appreciation of this intentional difference [the urge to be different] often opens up the easiest approach to the art of the past. 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. . . . 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 a continuous progress. . . . But 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.
Also, the title on the dust-jacket carved in stone – are these meant to be the tablets of Moses? Or is that just popular culture telling me that’s what they should look like?