I have no formal education in art, and my knowledge of Art History boils down to what I’ve gleaned over years of visiting museums, watching documentaries and taking free online Art History courses.
One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about the online courses is that they focus a huge percentage of their resources to teaching us about art that, to put it delicately, is not the kind of art people queue up to see. So we get to learn about modern Caribbean art, feminist political art or the art of under-appreciated Latin American communists.
Meanwhile, in the real world, anyone who’s wandered the Louvre knows that it consists of huge, empty halls where you can spend hours admiring some of the lesser-known pieces (the last time I was there, a marvelous exhibition of traditional African art was on display… I spent forty minutes there, and saw only four other people… on a Saturday) while a chainsaw is required to cut through the crowds to view old Leo’s Gioconda – which is reached from a corridor full of Italian renaissance masters which is almost as crowded as the Mona Lisa room.
Clearly, modern academia, as usual, seems to have lost touch with what’s important and is focusing on its political preoccupations. Nothing new there, nothing particularly objectionable, either–we all know that academics are not tastemakers, they just record what they think is important during their own little slice of time while wearing blinders–but it does put us in a quandary: what to do if one desires an overview of Art History without wasting time on nonessentials?
An easy answer appears to be to pick up any Art History book from before the dawn of political correctness. Those will focus on Western art and ignore everything else except for those traditions that fed directly into the canon.
But those books have a problem. They can be stuffy as hell. What is the layman who wishes to become an educated layman to do?
Four words: Hendrick Willem Van Loon. As the name implies (can we call it an implication if it’s such a dead giveaway? Let’s) he is a Dutchman, who, for professional purposes was based in the US. He led an interesting life (banned from entering Germany by the Nazis, for example), but most importantly for our purposes, he wrote a book entitled, quite simply, The Arts.
My own copy, of course, does not have the dust jacket and is the 1946 edition (the book is from 1937), which I bought at the jamboree at my local anglican church (a veritable cornucopia of unexpected books) for a small price.
It was worth every penny. Van Loon is what, today, we’d call a popular historian, and he makes the history of art both accessible and interesting. He doesn’t just tell us about the works, but goes into the society around the artist and into the artist’s foibles deeply enough to give us an idea of why things were produced.
Better still, the book is heavily illustrated, by Van Loon himself, mostly. So, despite there being zero photographs of paintings, the book never becomes a dull read. I found myself intrigued by his descriptions and googling artwork continuously as I read, a luxury the original readers didn’t have, which makes this book even better for today than it was for its own age.
The volume doesn’t limit itself to the more traditional study of painting, sculpture and architecture, but also includes quite a number of chapters on music, which was both a surprise and a treat. Van Loon clearly felt very strongly that music, in addition to those other forms of expression was central to cultural life.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, this book hasn’t been reprinted since 1974. That’s not surprising. Entire art movements have sprung up in hope and died in obscurity (with a few exceptions) since it was written. Newer thinking has superseded it. But that newer thinking was precisely what brought us to this book in the first place, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, as it were. We don’t want the newer thinking.
What we want is to see the art that has given countless generations past and present pleasure with more education. If you truly want to catch up on significant posterior trends, you could always complement the Van Loon with this volume. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but you could.
But the Van Loon will do more to teach you about art people actually care about than any Art History course I know of for the same price.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. The title story of his collection Virtuoso is about an artist, which means that he has to read up sometimes. You can buy the collection here.