History, Textbooks, and Art: Reflections on a Half Century of Helen Gardner's "Art through the Ages"

Critical Inquiry 4 (2):285-297 (1977)

Because of their basic level, textbooks show the assumptions and biases of art historians more clearly than does advanced, and therefore more restricted, scholarship. Textbooks are the rock, as it were, within which lie the strata of historical method. They bury, and so preserve for the good and ill of students , not so much individual historical data, which can be picked up or rejected rather easily, as those things which give the appearance of intellectual grasp to historical writing: its generalizations, its interpretations, its sweeping perspectives. The successive editions of Helen Gardner's Art through the Ages can tell us much about the assumptions that have pervaded art historical education in America over the past century. The first edition, published fifty years ago last year, is worth looking at in some detail, because for all its seminal importance in the teaching of art history it is by now little more than a deposit in library stacks. A mere glance will show that it is not ours. Indeed, the distance we have gone since then is exactly measured by the gaucheries it displays. It is half the length of modern surveys, and it makes no pretense either to completeness or to objectivity. It is arranged by period and style until we reach the Renaissance , at which point, in keeping with the interest of an earlier age in national characteristics, each country receives its due chapter. The Italian Renaissance, as befits the central position of the primitives in American taste then, has four chapters to itself. Thereafter, except for a final, brief section on contemporary art, each national school is taken to the period of its decline. This, of course, will vary. France is taken through Cézanne; England through the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris; Spain, thanks to Goya, into the early nineteenth century; and Dutch and Flemish art only through the seventeenth century, but without Bosch or Bruegel. As for Germany, though the chapter heading promises us "From the Gothic Age to the Nineteenth Century," in fact it is on Durer and Holbein. What fulfills the promise of the title appears in its entirety thus: "After the death of these two masters, largely on account of exhaustion from wars there was very little production, until the second great manifestation of the German people came in the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."1 No pretense here at dutiful compilation; high points, after all, are high points. · 1. Helen Gardner, Art through the Ages: An Introduction to Its History and Significance , p. 345. Marcel Franciscono is the author of Walter Gropius and the Creation of the Bauhaus in Weimar. He is associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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DOI 10.1086/447938
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