Journalists on the Guardian books desk recently killed some time by compiling ‘The 100 greatest non-fiction books’ using various standard sub-headings – Politics, Culture, Music, etc. Assuming that ‘non-fiction’ equals ‘factual’ – does it? – their introductory blurb claimed that their candidates represented ‘the very best factual writing’. How did the visual arts do?
The ‘Biography’ category opened with Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550), long been recognised as a mix of fact and fiction and a book that I would certainly class as a serious exercise in art history. What is more, it took an extraordinarily leap of the imagination to identify the need and to put the text together.
The best parts of the Lives – almost certainly a multi-authored compilation – are second to none. I would single out some remarkable passages of descriptive writing and the way that Vasari’s different narratives conjure up so vividly the struggle to find work, the challenge of dealing with patrons and of responding to the physical and social circumstances which Renaissance artists found themselves in. Alongside this, Vasari never lets a shortage of fact get in the way of a good story and his authors revert to fiction whenever necessary.
I am not sure that Vasari belongs on a non-fiction list but since it is not squeezing out any books on the ‘Art’ list, it can stay where it is.
As for the Guardian’s ‘Art’ list proper, it makes sober reading for anyone working in the art history business, especially academics who are increasingly encouraged to address a broader and diverse public and not just their own peers.
Of the three choices, nothing more recent than 1980 is included although you might argue that a book has to be available for a good long time before it can be seen to be ‘great’. It is also the case that the Guardian choices are not books that are the results of professional art-historical practice (compare this with the ‘History’ list).
Unsurprisingly, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950) is included on the grounds of its continuing popularity and its suitability for updating – but it is still weak on anything after Picasso. Gombrich was, of course, trained and practised as a professional art historian but wrote this particular book as a side line, because he needed the advance. If lists like this have to include an introductory survey – and the other Guardian categories don’t – I would recommend Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art (1982).
The final two Guardian choices are by professional critics and both – and this is really revealing – are derived from TV programmes: John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) and Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New (1980). I used Berger in teaching for many years and he deserves great credit for demanding that his audiences engage closely with works of visual art and for stressing the social context of viewing.
But were you trying to identify a work of really serious historical purpose that does the same thing I would argue for Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience (of about the same vintage), which does everything Berger attempts but from a more sophisticated historical standpoint. It is usually the case that having read Painting and Experience Baxandall’s readers see familiar works of art in a completely new light.
If we read Hughes’s The Shock of the New as a product of its own time it remains quite interesting but it lacks the essential transformative quality that a great book should have. For me, a candidate to replace Hughes would be John Gage’s Colour and Culture (1984). I would be interested to read other people’s choices: any thoughts?