Monday, September 12, 2011

Ruskin to art history: "I am your father."

Art historian Henry Maguire on the persistence of John Ruskin:
Ruskin [through his interest in Byzantium] was a prophet of modernism, by which I mean the abstract, nonfigurative movements in twentieth-century art. But Ruskin, who was nothing if not full of contradictions, was at the same time a prophet of post-modernism. For Ruskin was above all else concerned with the moral dimension of art and its history, and, if there is one chord that unites postmodern discourses of art and art history, it is to give art and its criticism a grounding moral, or, as we would now say, ethical attitudes. Today both artists and historians of art are more engaged with political and social issues than was the previous generation. To many people now, modernist art an art history, with its emphasis on purely formal values, is at best irrelevant and lacking a social consciousness, and at worst playing into the hands of a corrupt and mercenary system of artists, connoisseurs, and dealers.
Hence the high modernist's luxuriance in form (which is bound for a comeback) is Ruskinian; and the more contextually-focused contemporary art historian's need to drive home some kind of multicultural moral may be inescapably Ruskinian as well.  Which is to say, the father of art history in the Anglophone (an important qualifier) world, who anticipated its many possible futures, was an evangelical (and a lifelong one at that).  Which is also to say, in art history, there is no scandal.

Such news felt strange at first, but I'm getting used to it.  For others, the reaction to such paternity has been something more like Luke's.