Reviewed: Surveying British Art

Posted in books, reviews by Editor on August 12, 2010

Recently added to caa.reviews:

David Bindman, ed., The History of British Art, Volume 2: 1600–1870 (New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art and Tate Britain, 2008), 248 pages, ISBN: 9780300116717, $50.

Reviewed by Brian Lukacher, Department of Art, Vassar College; posted 21 July 2010

In his magisterial survey of British art, commissioned for the gold standard Pelican History of Art and first published in 1953, Ellis Waterhouse paused in his discussion of Thomas Gainsborough and made the following admission: “Unpleasant as it still is for some of us to introduce the shade of Marx into the history of art, it may contribute to the understanding of Gainsborough” (261). This passage attests to the anxiety of the art historian in introducing even the most innocuous hint of social analysis into the study of art during the post-war period. Waterhouse’s colleague and contemporary Anthony Blunt would find another, more furtive, way around this problem. This squeamishness over allowing “the shade of Marx” to haunt so fleetingly the pages of his survey book itself shows Waterhouse’s sensitivity to one of the most powerful and renowned images in Marxist political discourse—the “specter of communism” with which the Communist Manifesto opened and that would later be exorcised through the deconstructive logic of Derrida’s “specters of Marx.”

A couple of generations later and the history of British art finds itself still contending with “the shade of Marx.” But this shade has become considerably more tangible and omnipresent—in fact, it has now become mainstreamed. This is surely evident in the second volume from the recent three-volume survey entitled “The History of British Art.” Under the capable and expert editorial direction of David Bindman, who is also a contributor to this volume, which covers the Restoration period to the Victorian age, the series seeks to incorporate recent currents in art-historical academic research and cultural theory in its sweeping overview of large swathes of British art and society. Co-sponsored by the Yale Center for British Art and Tate Britain (not exactly cultural bastions of revolutionary discontent), this new survey wants to shake off the dusty tedium associated with older forms of British art history that were structured around the chronology of royal patronage, the tyranny of genre, and the evolution of artistic style. The challenge, which is not without peril and contradiction, is to present a more theoretically complex and politically engaged art history of the kind that has been flourishing in academic circles for the last two decades in a manner that would be accessible to the museum-going public visiting the Yale Center and the Tate.

It is a difficult balancing act, but one carried off with admirable success in volume two of this series. . . .

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