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    CHAPTER ONE: Beginnings in Art Writing

    In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Genesis 1.1

    describes an absolute beginning, that moment before which nothing

    existed. All other, more parochial narratives pick out some starting point

    in time. Identifying the first painting made by an individual is simple, for

    that merely involves chronology, but identifying the first art of a tradition

    can be complicated.2 When, for example, does Islamic art originate?

    Robert Hillenbrandt notes that its genesis3

    is customarily linked with, indeed often attributed to, the whirlwindmilitary conquests of the Arabs following the death of the ProphetMuhammad in AD 632. Such an idea is plausible enough. The creationof a world empire, the proclamation of a new faith, the formation ofan art that bears its nameall seem to belong together. But do they?

    Since Islamic art develops older traditions, its origin need not be identified

    with the origin of Islam. The link of this art to religion was complex, for

    there was, Oleg Grabar observes, a Jewish Islamic art, since large Jewish

    communities lived within the predominantly Muslim world and there is

    also a Christian Islamic art. . . .4. And so it is difficult to say exactly when

    or why Islamic art originates.

    These concerns about origins can be generalized. Since no school of artists

    starts or ends quite at any one moment, Michael Baxandall urges that5

    if we are to perceive art in an active way, some sort of selection andarrangement must be made. The historian . . . thrusts his way into thecavalcade and waves an expository placard. . . . One would not denyC

    opyright

    2003. Allworth. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or

    applicable copyright law.

    EBSCO Publishing : eBook Collection (EBSCOhost) - printed on 11/19/2011 1:56 PM via RADFORD UNIV9781581153286 ; Carrier, David.; Writing About Visual ArtAccount: s8447490

  • 32

    Writing About Visual Art

    or even wish away the subjective or culture-bound element in theprocess.

    Each object in a series is different, if perhaps only slightly different, from

    those immediately before and after. Thought breaks what otherwise would

    be a continuous series, imposing conceptual frameworks on reality, draw-

    ing lines where experience reveals only continuity. Where in art writing

    does the contribution of the mind end, and that of the world begin? To

    what extent do the structures we identify belong to the objects being

    described, and to what degree are they merely features of our narratives?

    Comparing beginnings in art writing with those in literature helps

    answer these questions. The first sentences of a novel often signal its

    central concerns, posing questions that the entire narrative will answer. It

    is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a

    good fortune must be in want of a wife.6 Jane Austens fine irony depends

    upon demonstrating that in the course of events leading to the triumphant

    marriage of Elizabeth Bennett, no one initially acknowledges this

    truth. Like Elizabeth, we readers need to be educated by experiencethe

    experience of reading Pride and Prejudice.

    Dominique Aurys Story of O begins very differently. One day her lover

    takes O for a walk, but this time in a part of the city . . . where theyve never

    been before.7 Her life, we correctly infer, is about to change dramatically. And

    Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita shows still another way of beginning a love story:8

    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: thetip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, atthree, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

    Read aloud and you replicate that kiss. Muriel Sparks Prime of Miss Jean

    Brodie begins using objects to define relationships:9

    The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stoodon the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which estab-lished a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impres-sion that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

    Like Bovarys hat, the Princes golden bowl, and Ecos library, these bicycles

    tell a story.

    Copyright 2003. Allworth. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or

    applicable copyright law.

    EBSCO Publishing : eBook Collection (EBSCOhost) - printed on 11/19/2011 1:56 PM via RADFORD UNIV9781581153286 ; Carrier, David.; Writing About Visual ArtAccount: s8447490

  • 33

    1: Beginnings in Art Writing

    Opening sentences in literature and art writing put the narrative in

    motion and set the tone. There really is no such thing as Art.10 The first

    sentence of Ernst Gombrichs Story of Art makes a strange impression, for

    the body of the book is devoted to denying this counterintuitive claim.

    How could there be a story of some thing that does not exist? Gombrich

    rejects Hegels view of art history, in which arts history is the bildungsro-

    man of Spirit, and so this polemical remark effectively sets the stage.

    Gombrichs story of art is not a narrative of Spirits development. As if in

    homage, the first sentence of Craig Clunass Art in China reads: Chinese

    art is quite a recent invention, not much more than a hundred years old.11

    That claim, too, seems paradoxical, for most of the objects Clunas discusses

    are much more than one hundred years old. He begins with this paradox

    because he rejects the attempts of earlier historians to assimilate Chinese to

    European art, arguing that only when we recognize that the very category

    of art is European, can we properly understand the artifacts discussed in

    his book. Elsewhere, Clunas explains his reservations about the account of

    Chinese art in The Story of Art:12

    That Gombrich chooses to treat the Islamic world and China inthe same chapter is the clearest possible symptom of his Hegelianroots. The two cultures have nothing in common except for being notwestern. . . .

    Resolutely anti-Hegelian in his view of Western art, Gombrich is all too

    Hegelian when looking outside Europe.

    An artists oeuvre begins with his first significant work of art, but often

    art writing is concerned with fictional subjects whose identity is explained

    in the narrative. By the subject I mean that entity whose origin and devel-

    opment are described. Thus the Baroque, Impressionism, or Abstract

    Expressionism are the subjects of art histories in the same way that Poussin

    is the subject of a book about his painting. The subjects whose origin and

    development are described in The Story of Art and Art in China are identified

    by the books titles. When Leo Steinberg starts Michelangelos Last Paintings,13

    The opening chapter of this book tells once again the story ofMichelangelos lifenot as we normally trace it, year by year, project

    Copyright 2003. Allworth. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or

    applicable copyright law.

    EBSCO Publishing : eBook Collection (EBSCOhost) - printed on 11/19/2011 1:56 PM via RADFORD UNIV9781581153286 ; Carrier, David.; Writing About Visual ArtAccount: s8447490

  • 34

    Writing About Visual Art

    by project, giving each season its duebut as though from the artistsseptuagenarian vantage, looking back over decades of servitude;

    when Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock begin their splendid feminist

    polemic by asking,14

    Have there been female artists? If so, what have they created? Why didthey produce what they did? What factors conditioned their lives andworks?;

    when Norman Bryson introduces his account of still life,15

    The first difficulty facing any book on still life painting lies in itsopening move, in the assumption that still life exists;

    or when James Elkins opens his account of perception,16

    At first, it appears that nothing could be easier than seeing. We justpoint our eyes. . . . Nothing could be less in need of explanation. Theworld is flooded with light, and everything is available to be seen;

    then, like Austen, Aury, and Spark, these art writers pose problems which,

    when solved, permit narrative closure.

    Rosalind Krausss magnificently original beginning of The Optical

    Unconscious

    and what about little John Ruskin, with his blond curls and his bluesash and shoes to match, but above all else his obedient silence and hisfixed stare?

    is as adventuresome as the French writing which has influenced her,

    Michel Foucaults famous evocation of Las Meninas, for example:17

    The painter is standing a little back from his canvas. He is glancing athis model; perhaps he is considering whether to add some finishingtouch, though it is also possible that the first stroke has not yet beenmade.

    In their beginnings, Krauss and Foucault do not so much raise questions

    that will be resolved as make unwillingness to achieve resolution their true

    subjects.

    The subject whose origin and development is presented in Tim Clarks

    Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism also is elusive.

    Copyright 2003. Allworth. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher, except fair uses permitted under U.S. or

    applicable copyright law.

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