Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Forgotten Artist File: An Introduction

     Art history doesn’t proceed in a straight line.  You wouldn’t know this from looking at an art history book, though.  Every historical survey tells basically the same story, a grand tale of important artists and artistic movements that have become the canon of art history.  This history continues to evolve on a daily basis, and every year sees more artists create art, and every decade produces important artists worthy of inclusion in official art history narratives.  As time passes, authors seem to compress more and more art history into the same number of pages.  Historians can’t include everything.  If they tried that, art history textbooks would be unwieldy tomes thousands of pages long, and nobody would attempt to read them.  Historians instead have to come to a consensus on what the most important art movements were, and whose work is reproduced and recorded.  Masters like Rembrandt and Picasso will most likely always be included in art history books, and art movements like impressionism and surrealism continue to inspire new generations of artists.  Art historians are forced to create an “official narrative” of sorts, deciding what is generally believed and accepted to be the most important timeline.  It’s inevitable that things get left out of this official narrative.  As time passes and art history grows, historians get fewer and fewer pages to devote to an important period or artist.  Many artists get left out entirely.  These artists run the risk of becoming cultural ghosts.  Their works are relegated to dark museum storerooms (museums often promote an official timeline as well), and their stories are only told through old books and journal articles that might not get seen by anymore.
Like Lisa Simpson, I get excited by periodicals.
     But, art is never as cut and dried (or as logical and orderly) as might be depicted in a book.  Important art movements rarely have easy start and end dates.  They overlap and compete with each other for dominance.  Differing movements contradict each other or build off movements of the past.  A movement may be incredibly important only to eventually lose its hold on history.  Conversely, an underground movement or individual artist may be barely reported in their day but later go on to make a comeback years later.  Artists may have incredibly bright, successful careers only to fizzle out and be forgotten a few years later.  There’s so much more to art history than what you might read in an art history textbook, but unfortunately that information often get buried in old books and magazines.  The Internet is where most of us get our information from these days, but reliable chronologies can be even harder to track down there.  Another thing that often gets lost on the web is context.  It can be hard to get a sense of the society an artist lived and worked in from only looking at pictures on a screen.

     Old art journals and magazines are amazing repositories of art history, but I fear this reference is underutilized by art history students today.  When I was in college, the internet (at least the internet as we know it today) was in its infancy and hardly a useful research tool.  If I wanted to research art (or any subject for that matter), I had to go to the library.  The old issues of Art in America and Artforum kept in the Alfred University library was where I received a large portion of my art history education.  Pouring over these old volumes between classes I was able to see art history in the making.  In these pages, the official timeline had not yet been written.  Artists who would go on to become world famous held their first solo shows in small galleries.  Artists who were once considered masters (but may now be forgotten) had their work interpreted by important critics.  Galleries and museums, now long closed, advertised upcoming shows.  Holding those old magazines, I was holding the exact publications that previous generations of artists had read and been influenced by.  To read them is to make a physical connection to art of the past, and art history in general.  It was (and still is) so much more personable then researching articles online.  Looking at old journal articles puts you in contact with the culture of the time period.  Everything about them, from the advertisements to the layout styles to the font choices puts you in the head of artists and graphic designers of past generations.  In short, old journals (art or otherwise) are a record of human communication.  Reading cold, unadorned text on a computer screen just doesn’t have the same effect.

     There have been many artists throughout history who have been unfortunately forgotten or marginalized.  Many times the internet presence of these artists is small or nonexistent.  It doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them or be inspired by their work, though.  Over the next few weeks I plan on rediscovering some of these artists and presenting some of their work here, letting these cultural ghosts see the light of day once more.

Next week, the first entry in the forgotten artist file.  It might be someone you’ve never heard of.

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