Another survey history of art?


This blog is not so much intermittent as worse than occasional. Sorry. I always intend to respond to events in the news. But rarely do so in time. This one is unashamedly advertising my new book.

This month (Jan 2015) sees the publication of Art in History as a print book (for £8.99!) and an animated e-book (2 devoted to the technical issues of space and colour, and 3 with a cartoon Kemp pontificating). I will post the link to the e-book when it becomes available. I discourage potential purchasers from using Amazon, which I am boycotting because of their employment and tax policies.

Below is the intro. to the book, to give an idea of how I have tackled the barmy task of treating 26 centuries in 40,000 words. This came about as the result of an invitation from Michael Bhaskar of Profile Books. There are no works discussed in detail that are not illustrated, and each illustrated work is given a kind of traditional ekphrasis – a set-piece of word painting in the Ancient and Renaissance manner.

I wonder if overarching surveys still have a role to play. I hope so. In any event, I’m doing the round of the Lit Fests, including Hay, Edinburgh and Oxford.



The artists and works of art in this book have transformed how art affects us. Over the ages, painters and sculptors have invited us to do radically new things. To take just one example, we do not know how the first viewers of Diego Velásquez’s Las Meninas reacted to his mighty canvas, but we can be sure that they had seen nothing like it before. It is recognisable as a group portrait, but does not conform to the norm. The artist is there, but we see only a portion of the back of his painting. The young princess and her entourage have assembled in the grand room. But at whom are they looking? At someone more important than us, we imagine. The king and queen are visible in the mirror. But where are they? They are the absent subject of the picture. Velásquez, in common with other great artists, presents us with a field for interpretation in which we can all play our part.

Art in History concentrates on the triangular relationship between art, artist and spectator – frequently in the context of God and nature. This is how the present book differs from the numerous previous histories of ‘Western Art’. It looks at the varied historical notions of art and artists as categories within which art is produced and consumed. What art required of the spectator and what the spectator required of art changed radically over the ages. We will see the artist emerge as an individual who makes a distinct contribution to the development of art in ancient Greece and again later in the Renaissance. Subsequent centuries witness the evolution of the categories until they assume their modern meanings. The developments often embody the idea of ‘progress’, a powerful concept in the forging of modern economic and political systems. Indeed, every aspect of the rise of art and artists is deeply involved in material and conceptual shifts in society.

In setting art in history, a big question looms into view: is the maker of artefacts a subservient agent or an autonomous hero of creativity? Or to frame more subtle questions: how far is the art work first and foremost an expression of a series of social imperatives; and how far does it depend on the direct and timeless communication of human values from one individual to another? Can it be both of these things? I will argue that the power of images depends on both, in a wholly integrated manner.
How a work of art is embedded in history varies as widely as the works and the artists vary. A medieval Madonna and Child is directly concerned with a kind of spiritual beauty that lies beyond this world, while Goya’s painting of a contemporary massacre speaks of violent contention. What we call the ‘style’ of the work is integral to its effect. The suave grace and high polish of the Madonna would not serve Goya well. The violent colour contrasts and incendiary brushwork of Goya would not exercise the right effect on a medieval worshipper. All the works here demonstrate a compelling unity of style and content. Each of them posits their own special relationship with the spectator in the context of the society from which they emerged, and they ‘speak’ to us in a period voice. Although we can still hear them speak, we gain enormously from attuning our ears to their very varied accents.

We will be encountering our key works in a broadly chronological order, because what each artist does is articulated in relation to what went before, and affects our view of the past. As the great poet T. S. Eliot wrote in 1921, ‘what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it’.

Until comparatively recently, works of art that have emerged from the changing frameworks tell the story of big blokes – whether artists or their funders – and play to what is a familiar story of canonical masterpieces that stood at the centre of new developments in European and North American art. There are of course other stories, but the narrative I follow, looking at European and North American art, is a real and massive one, not least in terms of where the international art world is now, in China no less than in the USA. It is also the story that I am best equipped to tell but I don’t claim that it is definitely what the history of art is about. As one of the possible stories, not the least of its attractions is its focus on some of the most enriching works human beings have produced. It is also closely related to what we experience when we step into major galleries and museums.