Lascaux to Last Week: Art History's Survey Texts by Larry Silver

Bedrock forms a foundation for everything built on it, but it also resists alteration until the forces of erosion penetrate to its very depths. In just this fashion the foundational art-history texts we commonly call “surveys” tend to remain stubbornly similar to each other and to converge on a consensus of objects—what traditionalists have lauded and revisionists have castigated as “the canon.” A canonical roster of artworks reproduced and discussed in these massive introductory books itself remains shaped—usually without explicit acknowledgement-by the expectations of modern museum-goers. We are habituated to seek out easel paintings on whitewashed walls by known and named artists, primarily Europeans. How often do we visit the corners or basements, where “decorative arts” or exotic, often non-literate visual cultures get marginalized?

The Master Narrative and Its Discontents

Out of these expectations two principal currents inform the priorities of art historians who write and use survey books. First, the master narrative posits a single great tradition of history painting and ideality that runs through art academies from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century. This heritage of great art centers on Italy and later France as the bearers and keepers of the flame. Another counter-current of pictorial culture emerges in reaction, to protest against that dominant heritage. One rebellious stream asserts the value of verisimilitude, warts and all, of pictorial genres deemed of less value in the academy, those more worldly pictorial genres without dominant human figures or narratives, such as landscape or still life. The other, modern(ist) rebellions consist of the sequence of “isms” that arose in direct opposition to the Academy and the Salon, from Impressionism to modernist abstraction. And out of such tensions and dialectic come the standard tales of art history, “The Story of Art,” as Gombrich penned his best-selling (still in print) primer, allegedly for his teen-aged niece. 


We also tend to find the ancestors that we most want to claim and eliminate the black sheep. By this construction, “antiquity” emerges retrospectively as the prologue to the revived academicism of the Renaissance, who would define Greco-Roman art as its heirs to be “the classic.” By these same lights, the barbarous intervening period could only be seen as the “Middle Ages,” which were also given their very definition by the Renaissance, as aberra-tion before the “rebirth” of the classic revivified art and culture. After the successful recovery and institutionalizing of an academic model, art could settle into a sense of its own history, first defined by Ghiberti and then Vasari out of a Florentine cultural superiority. At the same time art’s history established a new progress narrative of art’s history, climaxing for Vasari with Michelangelo, thus giving rise to the first survey books of art history, however provincial in their vision. There is a good reason why the leading art history survey text, the best-seller by H. W. Janson, a Renaissance specialist, was first penned for American college students of the post-World War II era of expansion of U.S. cultural ambition and the concomitant assumptions of progress and historical superiority. In just this fashion “Western Civilization” courses (called by the name “Contemporary Civilization” at Columbia) had sprung up after World War I, in the wake of that conflict--fought, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, “to make the world safe for democracy.”


The appearance of a new, seventh edition of H.W. Janson, the first one not written by a family member (later editions had passed to the supervision of the author’s son), occasions fundamental questions for art historians. What are the leading questions of a survey text today, especially if these master narratives are not simply to be repeated in different words? The American college students in our classes have changed since the 1960s, and in turn impose different needs for our teaching of art—perhaps now to be redefined in its own right. Our subjects and materials and purview all seem so different in a world informed by so many new “posts” unanticipated by Janson (or really responded to much by his son in later editions): post-feminism, post-colonialism, post-modernism.


These new ideological critiques have exposed haunting taxonomic questions in the old master narrative, heavily freighted with ideology. For example: Is Egyptian art already “Western,” the seed pearl of later greatness in the Mediterranean, i.e. “classical” world?


Or, as the recent Art in Africa by Monica Visonà et al. (published by the same textbook company as Janson, Prentice-Hall) would assert, is it a distinct phenomenon, immersed in its own separate tradition, to be read as “classical” in its own right for Africa’s own later visual cultures? The spirited “Black Athena” debates from within a late twentieth century Afro-centric curriculum could well, perhaps should, be considered in any future textbook. Janson’s current survey will doubtless have many more black readers than its first edition. And the presence of more students with recent background in India or Spanish America or Islamic traditions puts additional demographic pressure on a Euro-centric narrative that defines art as easel paintings from “the West.”


No field of creativity is more immured in the established canon than architecture. The roster of major building monuments in the large general surveys manifests astonishing consistency. Here the geographical range remains even more limited, the transmission of tradition even more narrowly defined--unfailingly devoted to European architecture from the Greeks to New York (or Chicago, since Frank Lloyd Wright is part of the canon, too). The very material of stone essentially determines the canon until the triumphal introduction of steel and reinforced concrete in the latest era. Egyptian temples (when included) beget Greek temples, which take on arches in Roman basilicas, then evolve into medieval cathedrals, only to be realigned into the orthodoxy of Italian Renaissance palaces and churches by named architects who read the ancient Roman theory of Vitruvius and wrote their own treatises. This is essentially the narrative codified in the standard general textbooks of architecture, led by Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman’s tersely titled Architecture (subtitled From Prehistory to Post-Modernism, also lavishly published by Prentice-Hall). 


When H. W. Janson published his visual anthology Key Monuments in the History of Art (1958; followed by Henry Millon’s Key Monuments of the History of Architecture), or when Gombrich told his Story of Art (1st ed. 1950), this consensus had already formed. Of course, several useful surveys had gone before them, especially the original edition by Helen Gardner of Art through the Ages (long since ghost-written in subsequent editions by teams of authors) or the collaboration by David Robb and J. J. Garrison, Art in the Western World, extinct today. Now, most textbooks are written in separate chapters by teams of specialists and most of them have lost the wonderful coherence and narrative—not to mention vivacity of writing—that Gombrich and Janson imparted to the teaching of their material.


Unbridgeable contradictions are built into any construction of a survey text, dependent as they are on artificial taxonomies to divide up and organize the vast body of world visual art. This is now so much more the case at the turn of the twenty-first century, as a new curiosity impels students to wonder about their own diverse personal backgrounds and about hot spots of world politics, now part of the cable television present. Even Iraq brings new questions about Mesopotamian objects (the loot of the Baghdad Museum) and the mosques of Islam. Issues around international economic pacts put new pressure to attend to cultural heritages from China and Japan and Korea to the other parts of the Americas. Portions of the globe once dismissed as “primitive” or “tribal” now hold currency, and many of their traditional forms are being creatively revisited by indigenous artists, even as their contributions in the most avant-garde international exhibitions also exemplify creative participation in the latest gallery phenomena. Art museums themselves have begun to incorporate traditional art from Africa or the Canadian Pacific or New Zealand into their galleries, essentially transporting them across the street from their earlier marginalized exile in natural history museums as creations of “stone age” cultures in that same progress narrative. For many of these regions art also offers a more accessible cultural gateway than unfamiliar literature or history, but in turn new challenges arise for both museums and survey texts (which usually ignore these artifacts altogether, as does the current Janson). Often the very definition of visual culture in such places defies our museum expectations, as in the importance of calligraphy for Chinese or Arabic traditions, or the emphasis on objects of “craft” or “decoration” in terms of our categories. And how are we to deal with contemporary art from China or Senegal or Australia?


Moreover, besides geographical expansion, the new century has brought an expanded range of visual culture, even in our own current setting. Electronic images, from computer games to cable television and videos, dominate the lives of our students, and even cinema (except for animation or computer effects) begins to seem tamely representational and a quaint vestige of the old twentieth century world. What is a textbook to do with earthworks and site-specific installations, or performance art? Moreover, such works resist display in a conventional gallery or museum setting, and thus are still more poorly displayed in the still photographs of textbooks. In consequence of the broadening of media categories, sculpture has been completely redefined to encompass works that may easily be confounded with sites or spaces. Prints have enjoyed a powerful revival (not that they were ever in eclipse except in survey texts), as have “decorative arts” (the very term is pejorative and marginalizes these objects in the form of crafts, such as fiber arts or ceramics. In similar fashion, architecture now encompasses urban designs, whole civic developments (think of the new World Trade Center projects).


A World History Model?


Examine the Janson or other major textbooks. Even the continent of Europe is very limited geographically, because of political biases and historical limitations. Germanic and Slavic languages have posed barriers to major regions, leading to the omission of Eastern Europe and Russia. Only a few token images represent the Americas other than the United States. “Islamic art” only entered the Janson survey in this latest edition, and it is safely tucked into the section on the Middle Ages. Africa and Oceania still exist chiefly as a means for discussing European artists and trends through “influence.” Their twentieth-century and contemporary ambitions remain unexamined. Compared to Europe, they remain what Eric Wolf so aptly termed “the people without history.”


To date, no survey of art history has attempted to give truly balanced attention to all parts of the globe by providing simultaneous views of artistic developments across continents. In contrast, global historians have written world histories organized along the major epochs of human development and global interconnections, for example, David Christian, Maps of Time (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Michael Cook, A Brief History of the Human Race (New York: Norton, 2003); and J. R. McNeill and William McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird’s Eye View of World History (New York: Norton, 2003). These latter scholars define basic, successive phases of global history through conventional technological divisions, initially featuring the stone tools and carvings of Stone Age caves (40,000 BCE), then agriculture (10,000 BCE), arising in several regions. Art history surveys, chiefly because of preservation of objects, begin in the era shaped by the development of powerful city centers, beginning with Sumer in Mesopotamia (4000 BCE). Old World connections became solidified through trade networks at the beginning of the Common Era, a moment when most of the major world religions were also becoming consolidated (0 CE). Eventually ocean navigation (1500 CE) shifted relations of power and trade toward a new, European assertion within a cosmopolitan nexus that led first to establishing colonies and eventually to imperial rivalries in a global network. Finally, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, an electronic era provided the technology to initiate a truly worldwide interconnected web, whose culmination forms the contemporary world. These world histories have largely abandoned the progress-and-conquest narrative of William McNeill’s earlier classic, aptly titled The Rise of the West (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963, rev. ed. 1991), though subtitled A History of the Human Community.


What would an equivalent survey of art history look like? How much could authors—and, importantly, teachers and students—abandon their focus on framed paintings in museums for wider inclusion of places and even alternative definitions of “art” itself? In what ways would teaching become less straight-jacketed by the standard textbooks’ overall current uniformity? A good antidote to conventional art-history accounts can be found in the revaluation of (no other name currently exists) “non-Western” ways of making visual imagery that can be seen in art and other scholarship over the course of the last four or five decades. In fact, a completely fresh, comprehensive term for “all that other art” is desperately need, though most of us simply describe art outside Europe and North America in bald geographical terms, which lead to misleading composite categories like “Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” Symbolically, these artworks have migrated from natural-history museums, whose nineteenth-century founders had construed them as surviving products of Stone Age technology and defined them as “primitive,” to take their place (albeit seldom prominently) in art museums, where they are displayed as valuable works in their own right, rather than artifacts of tribal authority, kinship, or other anthropological concepts. A marvelous analysis (and witty send-up of the prejudices) of this process can be found in Shelly Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress (Berkeley: University of California, 1998)

Re-evaluating Values

Inevitably tensions dominate any survey-text project—first, to serve the traditional, seemingly inherent interest in Western art, as the Eurocentric older editions of these books did, but also to reach out and encompass a much wider and more diverse range of cultures—an impulse that is increasing the pressure on the canon. Because our current American students come with a variety of cultural literacies and backgrounds, textbook authors can no longer assume that the average freshman student stems from a Eurocentric background and knows basic information about Greco-Roman mythology, the stories of the Bible, or other bodies of Western intellectual tradition on which the old surveys were founded. This is one (if not the only) motive behind the efflorescence of sidebars, boxes, timelines, and other apparatus in the big surveys: to provide capsule explanations of the cultural history on which iconography, styles, and other elements of art history are built.


Part of the problem (as one learns quickly in textbook focus groups, an increasingly necessary as part of the publishing process for such diverse audiences) is that the teachers who typically teach the survey (often the most junior faculty) seldom have a broad background in world art. Graduate training has encouraged them to specialize. Even if a professor has the full spectrum of art history at hand, to ask him or her to teach world religions as well as art, to demand familiarity with the political history of every region of the globe, and to be versed in the ethics and anthropology of colonization and liberation is a tall order. The survey teacher today who aims to present art as a fully international experience must be able to shift adroitly from the painting-centered visual culture of the West to calligraphy or metalwork or weaving, and this too imposes new analytical skills, even in defining art and its values for particular audiences. These problems are made all the worse by the paltry coverage and poor integration of non-Western (that infelicitious term again!) themes in the textbooks. Little wonder that this material is seldom taught in survey courses.


Another problem, of course, is (over-) specialization. Most professors had to do serious and intense dissertations on a narrow field of expertise just to get their jobs, so most feel very uncomfortable expanding their responsibilities to encompass the entire world. Ironically, the bravest of the teachers of survey classes I have met are those who are not in dominant or mainstream fields. Usually the non-European specialists realize early on that they have to take on huge fields that they were not trained in, and even those who do contrarian or less celebrated fields usually have to master adjacent fields that do receive the most attention. For example, in East Asia, China is the big dog, so those who study Korea, Japan, or South-east Asia simply have to know about China, though the reverse is seldom the case. Ditto for Italy in the Renaissance, as opposed to any other part of Europe. And Impressionism rules the day for the nineteenth century, so those who want to study England or eighteenth-century France had simply better know how to teach Impressionism. Thus the real heroes in the trenches who regularly teach surveys acquire breadth of learning as well as the courage to take on unfamiliar regions and periods to present to their novices, and the more they stand outside the prevailing Western and post-Renaissance center of the textbooks, the more they seem willing to risk this wider venture in today’s world.

There is no guarantee that a forward-looking, conceptually sophisticated text will necessarily be useful in the classroom. Indeed, it is easy to imagine an inherent conflict between the impetus to be cutting-edge in scholarly terms and the drive to be clear and persuasive to novice students. New ways of doing things are often intellectually messy and experimental. A new or wider textual approach can cause confusion and anxiety, emotions not usually associated with effective learning. Even too much revision of content or familiar canon might well cause panic even for experienced instructors, who already feel pressed by limitations of time and training. Consider, for example the furor raised about the new edition of Janson, which replaced “Whistler’s Mother” with “Woman in White,” which raises more clearly such contemporary issues as Japoniste influences and gender issues, while still showing Whistler’s new aesthetic of “art for art’s sake” and his bold experimentation with the elements of form. Any new survey text must combine reassuring treatment of the known with an expanded field of coverage and issues. For this reasons, survey texts tend to be the last bastions of received wisdom, with a powerful inertia to make only the smallest, most incremental changes. Any new text will have to help guide reluctant faculty to try out, and eventually to incorporate, new regions and more media.

An Authentic Voice in a Room of One's Own

When I wrote a textbook of my own, I tried to follow the rhetoric of Gombrich’s Story of Art as my model. That dazzlingly clear exposition, free of almost all technical jargon or special-ist vocabulary, featured a warm, personal tone. Rather than adopting the emotionally detached, faceless writing style typical of much art history these days—particularly in textbooks, with multiple authors and editors and peer reviews--Gombrich presents the history of art as a personal narrative that speaks directly to the reader, a compelling story in a compelling voice. The same sense of coherence and gracious sharing of a delight in the variety of art forms over time was also shared by the original edition of Janson. The fact that both books were written by leading scholars of their generation (and in both cases in a second language) makes such successful exposition all the more astonishing and endearing.


But both Gombrich and Janson texts did lack attributes that have become indispensable components of art-history survey books. They offered no coverage of non-Western subjects, no non-white or women artists (for which later editions of Janson were castigated and revised accordingly, and the new Janson seventh edition is emphatically interested in such artists). They paid scant attention to topical social issues, though again here the new Janson is far more conscientious. Social purposes of art have become one of the driving questions in this new, more contextual primer. Although these authors clearly admire art from all phases of Western development, they still essentially adhere to that classicist model, which prizes the achievements of the Greek fifth and fourth centuries and the Italian Renaissance above all else. Ultimately, all survey texts must make choices, and usually their major monuments and significant sites depend on their values, even if not explicitly based in Greco-Roman and Renaissance norms. Perhaps a bit more explicitness in an authorial voice would clarify the reasons why certain images and cultures are foregrounded as “great moments” for student attention. The hope here is that future authors of textbooks will give the same kind of sympathy to less familiar, more diverse objects and localities. 


Visual Culture and Its Discontents


The current crop of art-history survey books perform well in a number of critical areas. Nearly all of these texts offer the student with a wealth of up-to-date factual and interpretive information in accessible, convenient presentation. Nearly all include an extensive corpus of large, high-quality color illustrations, closely keyed to the text. Many come with potentially useful ancillary products, such as CD-ROMS and study guides, although a recent workshop on this material at the College Art Association revealed that students seldom make use of these expensive bonus features, which drive up production costs. Almost all are interspersed with user-friendly tools, such as timelines and colored historical maps. Furthermore, the available titles offer a range of complexity of discussion. Some, particularly The Visual Arts: A History by Honour and Fleming, seem more appropriate for advanced learners with a back-ground in humanities. Others are clearly intended for complete novices. The texts also provide choices of methodology. Janson’s History of Art and its main competitors—Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (note the franchise author brand name included in both titles) or Stokstad’s Art History—advance contextualized approaches to their material. 


In other respects, however, the available array of art-history surveys, including the new Janson, still fall short of current needs. Most critical is their consistently monocular perspective on the definitions of art and the established boundaries of discussion: none of the texts provides a true alternative to a particular vision of artistic development that first originated in Europe a century ago and has prevailed ever since. We are all familiar with that vision: one where art originated as an amorphous intercontinental affair (Gombrich’s “Strange Beginnings”) but eventually nested in the Mediterranean basin and western Europe, restricted itself mainly to painting, sculpture, and architecture, and became the province of men licensed by their societies and paid by the rich. Even those volumes that incorporate extensive chapters on non-Western subjects and integrate women and other traditional outsiders into their accounts do little to shake the underlying message of that old narrative: namely, that the “great” painting, sculpture, and architecture (in that order and with almost no other media options) of western Europe (and the United States--as an extension of Europe), our valued cultural patrimony, is the natural culmination of centuries-old traditions of noble art.


The current array of texts does very little to foster the kind of critical thinking and skills acquisition essential to providing a sense of a non-verbal discipline. Most of these books inundate their readers with information from the first page. Objects are described and learned explanations offered at a rate that can overwhelm even the most able students. Very little attention is paid, however, to the processes through which this information came to be acquired, or to helping the students gain those skills themselves. The assumption seems to be that the students have already learned how to look or else can acquire thoughtful analytical tools from a brief, learned introduction (which has almost never been read by either professor or students, and which remains fundamentally disconnected from the historical progression of the rest of the book). As a result, most students think that art history is all about memorizing facts—a status quo that derives from both current textbooks and classroom pedagogy. By no means does the current survey text correct that misapprehension. On the contrary, the books form a powerful phalanx supporting that very notion, reinforced by supplementary CD images without commentary but with caption data.


If one might wish for the next generation of survey art history textbook, it would encompass an outlook that takes close note of political, religious, or cultural history, or makes more thematic interpretations of individual works, or one that encompasses more of the world’s regions than the basic European and American art survey of half a century ago. It would give new emphasis on a wider range of art forms, such as architecture, prints, or cinema, rather than the standard emphasis on paintings. A few lines might add a reflexive note about scholarship, museums, and other institutional discourses about art history—not always easy to bring into a lecture hall by the “sage on the stage,” but still valuable for more analytical students. In addition (at the risk of nostalgia for a lost past), such a book ideally would have a clear authorial voice like those single writers, Gombrich, early Janson, or the true collaborators, Honour and Fleming. Personal passion and insights, even principal preoccupations (sometimes idées fixes) spiced their enterprise, added consistency and conviction, as well as evident personality and intelligence to their writing. Sometimes current collaborations by teams of scholars, especially in the hands of successive authors within a short period of time (e.g., Gardner, though this book is chiefly by a pair of authors) or else a kitchenful of cooks (e.g., Stokstad’s team and the forthcoming Janson), show their seams of construction all too clearly. As the saying goes, “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.”


As noted in the prefatory remarks, survey texts tend to follow rather than to lead. There is much call in the discipline as a whole for diversity and inclusion—of other continents, of women and artists of color, of kinds of objects and materials, of subjects, of contextual issues or interpretive conflicts, and of hidden or overlooked histories. Current survey texts fail where they remain too cast in stone to respond to changing questions presented by the needs of broadening, heterogeneous audiences. It remains true that no introductory survey text can truly claim yet to have a world art portfolio. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves. Too many of us were trained as specialists and struggle to expand our reach within a single semester’s materials, even when we remain quite comfortably centered, as usual, on Europe. Though we ask undergraduates to take classes that range across all periods and regions, as individuals we remain intimidated by encounters with the unfamiliar. The imagined world-art text of the future—the one not mired in the habits and traditions of the present surveys—might use a consistent voice and approach to encourage an instructor to try out new materials. Moreover, the use of certain kinds of case studies of certain artists or types (e.g., religious buildings and their variety or decoration) can be as illuminating on first acquaintance for teachers as for students, making the expansion of range of instruction that much easier. In this manner, that analytical awareness of other options and of definitions or assumptions challenged can emerge more clearly.


This might seem like back-seat driving (though I have actually written a survey text), always an easier task than sitting in the driver’s seat and taking the wheel. Nevertheless this remains a case where neither the forward gaze of the discipline nor its new ambitions and questions find an echo in these books that introduce it to most new students. Survey textbooks provide more of a rear-view mirror than a window toward the future. Could some adventurous, well-intentioned publisher produce--at considerable start-up expense--a wholly new survey, global not only in content but in spirit, strong-voiced and opinionated, passionate about art, coherent in presentation and attentive to the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of the discipline? If so, would art historians nationwide toss out their lecture notes, course plans, and slide lists to embrace the new perspective? Over the long run, one might well hope so. At least the effort would be a real change from the lockstep publishing consensus that currently exists.


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