PRINT October 1969


History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture

History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. by H. H. Arnason, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1968

H. H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art is guaranteed to become a bestselling textbook. In terms of the college market, the book has all of the “proper” ingredients: it is generously illustrated with black and white reproductions and colorplates of the highest quality; it contains more information on more painters, sculptors and architects from more countries than any other single volume published to date; it pursues its subject from the beginning of the 19th century to the late 1960s; finally, it faces virtually no competition—there simply are no high-quality textbooks for the modern period of art history. Arnason’s contribution does not alter the latter situation, but the majority of college teachers will probably find it irresistible nevertheless: it seems an ultimate in comprehensiveness, something which many professors still desire for their courses and their students.

If Arnason’s History of Modern Art was conceived as a commercial product aimed at students, I guess it should be judged an eminent success. But what it does with its subject must also be considered, and in this connection I would like to raise a question: if a student (or any reader) knew everything in this book, what would he know? That is, what would he know about the genesis, development, character and meaning of modern art, or about the discipline of art history which tries to make sense out of that subject? My own conclusion is this: at best, the reader might find that modern art is interesting—certainly not meaningful; and art history will emerge as a sort of idle cataloging enterprise, also without meaning.

First, the art. Arnason admits in his preface that his book has no thesis. As he says, “The thesis of this book, insofar as it has a thesis, is that in the study of art The only primary evidence is the work of art itself.” This confusion between a methodological assumption and a personal interpretation of one’s subject is characteristic of the ambivalence which pervades the text. For instance, Arnason never comes to grips with the question of what characterizes modern in relation to pre-modern art, of what we mean when we say “modern” in the first place. Nevertheless, certain features of “modern art” do emerge indirectly, and a few of these ought to be cited.

Above all, modern art seems to be terribly complicated. Within its complications, moreover, is couched its interest value. The reader is constantly reminded of the international scope of modern art, of its internal relations involving past, present and future, of the new media it has spawned, of the vast number of artists who compose its fabric, of its experimentalist tendencies, and of the difficulty of organizing it into any comprehensible or clearly-defined units. In other words, modern art represents a challenge—which is fine, except that the reader of this text is apt to come away with the impression that modern art came into being in order to provide him with that challenge, and that it continues to develop in order to keep him on the defensive. Any thought that the modern artist may share with the modern viewer certain experiences, feelings, or concerns with being is therefore bypassed in favor of humble astonishment at how complicated the subject is.

Arnason deals with the complexity of modern art in a manner that is reminiscent of family-tree diagramming. And as he pursues his subject toward the current moment, its complexity becomes more than a challenge: it becomes an obsession. Mondrian’s The Red Tree (1908), for instance, is relatively simple: it “combines the tortured expression of Van Gogh, the non-descriptive color of the fauves, and the linear pattern of art nouveau in a work that is still individual and structural in a plastic sense.” Forty years later, however, Arshile Gorky is a thicket of interrelations: he “illustrates most specifically the line between Picasso, European surrealism, and American abstract expressionism.” As if these ingredients did not represent enough of an accomplishment on Gorky’s part, the artist is cited as having been influenced by Cézanne, as also being a friend of Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, and Frederick Kiesler, and as “bringing together aspects of Kandinsky’s free Abstraction, Miro’s and Masson’s organic surrealism and residues of Picasso.” In such terms, neither Gorky, nor Gorky’s paintings, nor the study of Gorky’s paintings (not to mention Mondrian’s), emerges as a human phenomenon. Arnason tries to defend himself against a conclusion like this, usually by pointing out that all artists cannot be studied “in depth” in a survey such as History of Modern Art. Unfortunately, however, the treatment of Gorky is typical of the kind of treatment given to “major” as well as “minor” artists; verbiage is the only feature distinguishing “superficial” and “in depth” study.

Actually, Arnason does subscribe to a kind of humanism, but it is a humanism related more to the popular notion of the mysteriousness of art than to the actual business of making or experiencing art in terms that characterize modern sensibility. His inability to grasp those terms is revealed in the opposition of what are called “formal” and “expressive”values. This is particularly clear in the discussions of Cubism. Duchamp, for instance, used “cubist faceting and simultaneity for expressive rather than formal purposes” (italics mine); the Nude Descending a Staircase “is not simply a cubist painting: it is a painting in which cubist means are used for some peculiarly personal expressive effect”; after 1913, Picasso and Braque affected a “reintroduction of subject, of personality-in the figures, arid of mood in the picture as a whole.” In his effort to interpret art humanistically, Arnason leaves his reader wondering what a Cubist painting is that is “simply a Cubist painting,” or what Picasso and Braque did before 1913 in terms of “subject,” “personality,” or “mood in the picture.”

Comments like the above reveal Arnason’s fundamental uneasiness in the face of abstract painting, an uneasiness rooted in the false assumption that formal means function decoratively rather than expressively. In a book that is largely about abstract art, the consequences of such an assumption are tragic. To continue with Cubism: the style is described as representing a profound change in Western painting, but it emerges as “a discovery,” after which “there was only a short step to the realization that a painting could exist, independent of figures, landscape, or still life, as an abstract arrangement of lines and color shapes integrated in various ways on the picture surface.” This alarming sentence, implying that abstract artists essentially make “arrangements,” undermines about half a century of painting and sculpture expression.

The mistreatment of Cubism is only one of countless mistreatments that recur throughout Arnason’s History of Modern Art. Occasionally, these mistreatments assume a scope that reaches beyond one artist, style, or movement. In his discussion of Pollock, for instance, Arnason mentions the large size of the drip paintings and their departure from the easel tradition. From this, he concludes: “This was the final break from the Renaissance idea of painting detached from spectator, to be looked at as a self-contained unit. The painting became an environment, an ensemble, which encompassed the spectator, surrounding him on all sides.” In this case, both the Renaissance and the modernist traditions of painting (again, not to mention Pollock as an individual) become totally confused. Renaissance painting sought an extension of viewer space, while modernist painting has sought to create objects with an integrity that is separate from the viewer’s. In other words, Arnason mistakes the two sensibilities for one another on the most profound level of their respective aspirations and formal means.

Art history fares no better than art in this survey. The notion of historical significance is a case in point. Numerous artists and architects are presented as being significant: Cézanne, Picasso, Brancusi, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mondrian, and so forth. But what does it mean to say that an artist is significant? In terms of this book, it apparently means that he somehow “anticipated” what will happen after him, provided a “bridge” to the future: “The significance of Seurat’s technique . . . in great measure resides in the creation of an ordered, geometric structure closely approximating the pure abstract art of the twentieth century”; Matisse’s Joy of Life “was an ancestor of abstraction in modern painting”; the Fauves “established a precedent for the whole series of revolutions that have characterized the history of art since the beginning of the century”; Picasso’s bronze Head of Fernande Olivier “is historically of the greatest significance as the first step toward an entirely new kind of sculpture—that of construction or assemblage”; Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe “gives one of the first sculptural expressions to the passion for the ‘found object’ which . . . reached its climax in the junk sculpture and pop art of the 1950s and 1960s”; in Rousseau’s Carnival Evening, “the picture plane controls the design and the organization of depth to a degree that is prophetic of a major concern of art even in the 1960s.”

Arnason’s type of history presents art as forever looking ahead, destined somehow to relate to the future instead of possessing identity or meaning in the present. His system presupposes evolution in art in a dangerously misleading way—that is, by implying that art has a goal toward which it is striving, some pointwhich, once reached, will somehow mark it as a success or justify its struggle. But art doesn’t work that way; it knows only where it has been and, in its most conscious moments, where it is in its present. Hence, art history can describe how an artist has evolved from one situation into another. To suggest that he is evolving toward the future, however, is to deny the human limits of both art and art history.

The assumption that art evolves toward the future is, I think, the most serious methodological flaw in Arnason’s book. The others are more annoying than misleading or distortive. For instance, the study depends heavily on the concept of one artist influencing another: “Pollock departed from the tradition of Renaissance and modern painting before him and, although he had no direct stylistic followers, he affected the course of experimental painting after him.” And so forth. This kind of statement occurs throughout the text, but it never comes to mean anything. Certain paintings are said to “recall” other paintings or to be “reminiscent” of them, but the encounter that takes place when one artist looks at the work of another is never investigated with any precision, nor with any thought about how this encounter has changed in modern as opposed to pre-modern art. Likewise, Arnason fails to investigate how the concept of “style” as a methodological tool has changed in the case of modern art.

Nor is there any effort in Arnason’s book to make sense out of artistic quality. Like so many art history texts, this one implies that quality somehow results: that is, when an artist does enough things in one picture—like bringing together Cubism and Surrealism, abstraction and primitivism, or creating a new kind of space, a new awareness of his medium, and so on. In other words, quality emerges as an effect of art historical description rather than its stimulus. After all, the union of Cubism and Surrealism does not make a picture good; it matters for art history only because it is contained in good pictures. But Arnason never examines this aspect of the discipline; thus, his book can only help to prolong the confusion regarding how art history is “objective.”

I could go on: a book as faulty as this one presents endless problems. Even the writing style is ponderous and vague, riddled with phrases and terms that simply do not make sense: how is Mondrian’s Red Tree “still individual”? What are “residues of Picasso”? What does it mean to say that Rousseau’s painting is prophetic of a major concern of art “even” in the 1960s? Although I have concentrated primarily on the treatment of painting, my comments apply to the considerations of sculpture and architecture as well. Through it all, I experienced a feeling of desperation: no wonder so many artists and students of art history despise art history! But then I realized that Arnason’s History of Modern Art only appears to be a history of art.

Carl Belz