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STORIES OF ART by James Elkins


by James Elkins

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 2002
ISBN: 0-415-93943-7
Publisher: Routledge

An investigation into the way art history is shaped by the culture compiling it.

Elkins (Art History/School of the Art Institute of Chicago) focuses on the various ways the history of art can be presented, each with its strong points and failings. He begins with what is considered by many to be the canon of art history texts, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a hefty tome first published in 1950 and continually updated with ever more full-color plates. Using sketches of his own and those of his students to illustrate alternatives to the standard chronology of the historical time line, Elkins proposes a number of thought-provoking ways to organize the stories of art that are not based on a strict adherence to dates, many of which can only be surmised. This approach seems at times merely a deft preemption of a summons from the PC police to whom the only proper story of art is one that literally includes all art. While such a volume would sidestep the pitfalls of the male Christian Eurocentrism that has purportedly subjugated art history since its inception during the Renaissance, the author points out that not only would no bookshelf be able to support “the weight of pedagogy” of an absolute multiculturalism, but without some organizing principle, no one would be able to distinguish among the “cacophony of isms” that would result. Among the viable models Elkins covers: oscillating history of alternating classical and baroque periods, the customary outline style, and an organic approach, proposing that a culture’s art history emulates the stages of human life: infantia, adulescentia, maturitas, and senectus. Yet despite our “continuous reshaping of the past” through psychoanalytical approaches, deconstructionism, semiotics, historiography, and “even more abstruse doctrines,” Elkins admits “how deeply Western the discipline of art history still remains.” One wonders, ultimately, whether the debate may not be rendered entirely moot by the current globalization of the art scene.

An intriguing series of thought experiments that begin to wear a little thin.