Canon Fodder

What’s wrong with art-history textbooks? As publishers churn out revisions, the College Art Association is asking if the old standards are relevant to today’s students.

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1979, makes it into Janson’s upcoming seventh edition.

Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, 1979, makes it into Janson’s upcoming seventh edition.


Cassoni, the richly decorated bridal chests used in Italy during the Renaissance, will make an appearance in the seventh edition of H. W. Janson’s History of Art, the best-known art-history textbook in the United States.

A few paragraphs on painted furniture inserted into a survey of 30,000 years of world art might not seem like a major development, but it’s big news in the academic community: the decorative arts, hitherto almost universally ignored, have finally made the cut.

College art-history textbooks are undergoing an extreme makeover. Publishers and editors, stung by criticism that they have lost touch with their young readership and driven by market forces that may have little to do with fresh artistic scholarship, are literally rewriting art history—more often and more aggressively than ever before.

Recent revisions of major textbooks as well as those still in the works give greater historical significance to a long list of subjects from Islamic sculpture to pre-Columbian art to photography to video. And forget art for art’s sake: the editors of the twelfth edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, a 1,179-page tome that came out last year, said that they sought to include the intended purpose of every work of art featured, the physical environment for which it was made, its historical context, and even the patron who commissioned it.

While some professors applaud the changes, others argue that they are merely cosmetic and don’t address the difficulties of teaching Art History 101 today. Critics say that the revisions endorse a “what’s in/what’s out” culture of art history, anoint undeserving contemporary stars, overwhelm students, and endorse what may turn out to be fads in art scholarship. Is “contextual analysis” the new “deconstructivism”? they ask.

To consider these problems, the College Art Association (CAA) is about to begin an assessment of as many as 40 or more textbooks. In a break with tradition, some will be reviewed by a student as well as by a scholar. The project, which will be announced this month at the group’s conference in Boston, is already creating a buzz and is likely to raise eyebrows—and hackles.

In a preliminary salvo—a sweeping review of a handful of leading textbooks titled “Quo Vadis, Hagia Sophia?”—former CAA president Larry Silver, of the University of Pennsylvania, and David Levine, of Southern Connecticut State University, argue that Janson’s “tasteful page layouts… exude a Martha Stewart elitism” and that the book lacks social and historical references. The report faults other major textbooks for “terse and dry” writing, “paltry coverage of non-Western” themes, and “turning art history into an arid affair.” The “available array of art history surveys leaves us wanting,” the report concludes.

Janson’s book, first published in 1962 by Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, and by far the most widely used art-history text during the baby boomers’ college years, has long been the best seller in America. But a number of rivals that pre- and postdate Janson are battling for a larger share of the lucrative market. They include E. H. Gombrich’s classic The Story of Art, first published in 1950 by Phaidon and now in its 16th edition; Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, first published by Harcourt Brace in 1926 and still going strong for Wadsworth Publishing as the recent recipient of two awards for textbook excellence; and Marilyn Stokstad’s Art History, first published by Prentice Hall in 1995, which has become popular as the “anti-Janson,” with its inclusion of female artists and its colorful magazine-style design.

The most influential text was Janson’s. It was Janson (1913–82) who, more than any other art historian, pioneered the “in and out” celebrity model of art history. There were artists who mattered, he argued, and those who didn’t. Among those who didn’t matter in the first edition of his textbook were women and photographers. Asia was relegated to a chapter uncomfortably titled “Postscript: The meeting of East and West.”

Janson’s patriarchal model of art history, in which style and innovation descend from one great artist to the next, became the model for all textbooks, along with his arrangement of artists in chronological, encyclopedia-style entries. His book, with its passionate prose about art, spurred a revolution in the teaching of art history.

The State of Art History 101

Today, professors say, Art History 101 is a popular class, filled with students, mostly female, who think that newer media, outsider art, and their own cultures are underrepresented in their texts. These students tend to know less about history and classical mythology than the students of Janson’s era, and they are telling their professors that they feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of material they have to memorize.

“The standard textbooks do not begin to address our needs,” says Silver. Despite the reprintings and the minor changes to the canon, “the art-history survey text has remained virtually unchanged for half a century or more. In the meantime, students who take art history have become increasingly diverse—with interests more engaged with gender or social issues than a generation ago—and they have wider backgrounds.” At Penn, the art-history survey class has been reworked to include not only painting and sculpture but prints, maps, photography, and cinema, “to highlight the rise of a public sphere of visual culture, culminating with TV and the Internet,” Silver says.

Some schools, such as Columbia and Wesleyan, have thrown out art-history textbooks altogether. Other schools still use them, although they find them seriously lacking. “Over the past 12 years, we have worked with, and been dissatisfied with, almost all of the major survey texts—we flood our students with too many places, titles, subjects, and dates,” says Levine.

We hear you, say the textbook publishers. The upcoming seventh edition of Janson, for example—Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition—which will be released in time for the fall semester, was written by a team of six authors. It will have “a lot of changes” beyond the added discussion of cassoni, says Ann M. Roberts of Lake Forest College, Illinois, one of the coauthors. For example, it seeks to put works “in cultural context in a more profound way.” She adds: “I don’t know how much of the original Janson prose will survive.”

Is that good? Consider Janson on Jackson Pollock in 1962: “Pollock does not simply let go and leave the rest to chance. He is himself the ultimate source of energy for these forces (within the paint), and he rides them like a cowboy might ride a wild horse, in a frenzy of psychophysical action. He does not always stay in the saddle, yet the exhilaration of this contest, that strains every fiber of his being, is well worth the risk.” The planned redo of the text may or may not include this passage. According to Eve Sinaiko, CAA director of publications and a former editor at Abrams, the new edition may discuss Pollock in the context of the cold war—even though Janson deliberately chose not to include that kind of analysis. Would he mind the revisions? “I
don’t speak for Janson,” says Roberts.

People are always critical of surveys, says Marilyn Stokstad, a professor at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. By their very nature, they exclude some objects and ideas and anoint others as important. Nevertheless, criticism and, more important, feedback from her own students have prompted Stokstad to try “reinventing the wheel” in the new edition of her book, which is due next year. Changes include a greater presence of “Indian—not ‘Native American’—artists” in the book, she says, and a magazine-like format with colorful sidebars, a direct response to student requests for a “not New York Times but a USA Today approach” to art history. “They want something lively, instant,” she says.

History’s History

The United States has been the acknowledged center of art-historical scholarship since the middle of the 20th century, which is when it became the center of the art world as well. Until the onset of World War II, the intellectual headquarters of the field were in Germany and Austria, where the first art-history surveys were written in the 1840s and ’50s. Hitler drove many of the finest European art historians abroad. In 1935 Erwin Panofsky led the exodus of art historians from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe when he was fired from his position at the University of Hamburg and immigrated to the United States, settling at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.

The high priest of the group was Janson, who is credited with bridging the gap between European and American art history with his influential textbook. His chief rival was the Vienna-born E. H. Gombrich, who immigrated to England and taught at London University. Gombrich (1909–2001) had a gift for clear, conversational language, a narrative approach, and an interest in pop culture—he included mass media and cartoons in The Story of Art. The book, which receives high praise in the CAA report, is today the world’s best-selling art-history textbook, with total sales of 8 million copies.

Helen Gardner, a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, predated both Janson and Gombrich. Shortly before her death in 1946, Gardner radically revised her book, organizing the material by period rather than by country, and bringing together European and non-European developments. That scheme didn’t last. A subsequent revision issued after her death returned the chapters to “a more normal order,” according to the editors of the fourth edition in 1959. Gardner’s choices had “obscured the intrinsic qualities” of different artistic styles, they concluded.

Stokstad—a specialist in Spanish and medieval art, a former CAA president, and a prizewinning teacher—is a newcomer to the party. After market research showed that art historians wanted an alternative to Janson written by a well-known midwestern female professor, she was approached by Pearson/Prentice Hall in the early 1990s to write Art History.

Publishers decline to disclose sales or royalty figures, but these four authors and their coauthors together have sold more than 17 million copies of their books.

Writing the History of Now

All textbooks are revised and updated from time to time, but in recent years the pace has picked up markedly for art-history texts. Stokstad’s contract, for example, calls for an entirely new edition of her book every three years. New editions make earlier ones obsolete, stimulating sales of new books at the expense of the used-book market.

Market forces are behind a surprising number of other changes in art-history texts. If you have room for one German Expressionist, explains Sinaiko, the nod may go to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner rather than Max Beckmann, in part because the Beckmann estate usually charges more for reproduction rights.

Nowhere has the fickleness of art-history texts been more conspicuous than in their treatment of contemporary art. Consider Janson on Don Eddy, for example. According to the 1991 edition, the California-born painter saluted Matisse in his New Shoes for H (1973–74), a view of reflections in a shoe store window, which was cited as a prime photorealist work. But Eddy is gone by the sixth edition, a decade later, to be replaced in almost the same section of the text by Kay WalkingStick, the first Native American artist to make the cut. She in turn is omitted from the current edition.

So who’s in now? David Hockney, Barbara Kruger, Maya Lin, and Mark Tansey entered one or more of the textbooks more than a decade ago and remain in most or all of the new editions. Judy Chicago will be included in Janson for the first time in the new edition. Larry Rivers and Robert Indiana were grouped prominently with Lichtenstein and Johns in the 1991 Janson, with Rivers credited for the transition from action painting to Pop art. Rivers and Indiana were both passing mentions by the 21st century. Richard Long and Douglas Hollis are out. Photographer Annette Lemieux was featured in the 1991 Janson but lost page space to David Wojnarowicz in 2001. Audrey Flack made the fourth through sixth editions of Janson, but is missing from the seventh. And almost all of the historians agree that Cindy Sherman is the most important female artist of the postwar era.

One final proof that art history is mutable, if not outright cruel: in a 1981 speech at the Washington University Gallery of Art in St. Louis, Janson singled out two “younger” artists as important—William Baziotes and Rufino Tamayo. He had died by the time the next revision of his text, the 1986 version, came out, and neither Baziotes nor Tamayo was included.

Alexandra Peers writes on art, culture, and New York for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

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