Thursday 6 March 2014

Wise words on art history from Ernst Gombrich

Picture: Guardian
I happened upon a copy of Gombrich's 1973 Romanes Lecture at a second hand bookshop. It's a short pamphlet called Art History and the Social Sciences, and it's full of marvelous nuggets of wisdom that seem even more relevant to today's debates than to those of the 1970s. Parts seem unconvincing to me - his discussion of Karl Popper is superficial and I think he misses the point, and his brusque dismissal of critical approaches is rather caricatured. But mostly I cheered as I read these fabulous lectures. He is wise, and also kindly. His criticism is sometimes sharp (and rightly so), but he is constructive and admirably pragmatic. He makes the case for the kind of art history that I especially appreciate, but he avoids dogmatism and sees the value in letting a thousand flowers bloom. 

Rather than offer a review, I just want to share some of the juicy bits. So here are some quotations I liked: 
"rivalries between the Arts and wrangles about their pecking order have accompanied the life of learning from time immemorial, and I must disclaim any wish to join in the slanging match that is going on in the academic world about the barbarous jargon of sociology or the irrelevance of the humanities. I am a peace-loving person, and I shall be quite content to lead you gently to the conclusion that all the social sciences from economics to psychology should be ready to serve as handmaidens of Art History. Only, I have no faith in settling such matters in the abstract. Whenever I read disquisitions about the method proper to one of the disciplines my reaction tends to be pragmatic: Go ahead and do it, and we shall be able to judge" (p. 6)
"[the basic skill of art history is] the ability to assign a date, place, ad, if possible, a name on the evidence of style. I know no art historian who is not aware of the fact that this skill could not be practised in splendid isolation. The historian of art must be a historian, for without the ability to assess the historical evidence, inscriptions, documents, chronicles, and other primary sources the geographical and chronological distribution of styles could never have been mapped out in the first place" (p. 7)
"Why cannot the art historian emulate [the archaeologist] and treat all images simply as artefacts of a given culture? I think the answer is simple. Such pretended scientific objectivity would rapidly lead to the suicide of our subject. On a purely practical level the archaeologist is saved from the agony of selection by the relative scarcity of his evidence. We are in a very different position. Once we decided not to make any distinctions between painting ceiling or, for that matter, assembly halls, we would be so swamped with material that Michelangelo's or Wren's creations would be lost in an ever-swelling card index" (p. 35)
"From an anthropological point of view the old masters are something like culture heroes, but heroes whose achievements are not only remembered in legend, but preserved by society as a continuous challenge to those who come after" (p. 38)
"The feeling has grown up that the canon was set up by pedantic critics, but this view vastly overrates the power of professors. There is no developed culture which lacks a canon of achievements handed down in tradition as a touchstone of excellence, though cultures differ in the kind of mastery they value." (p. 43)
"[the canon] offers points of reference, standards of excellence which we cannot level down without losing direction. Which particular peaks, or which individual achievement we select for this role may be a matter of choice, but we could not make such a choice if there really were no peaks but only shifting dunes." (p. 54)  

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