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Art & artists

Telling fact from fiction

— July 2014

Article read level: Academic

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Cover of Fictions of Art History

This book throws light upon our assumptions about what we see, what we read, and what we believe, says Louis Byrne

Fictions of Art History (Clark Studies in the Visual Arts) edited by Mark Ledbury

A photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt's from Life Magazine August 1945 is usually recognized as an image of joy. Spontaneous celebration breaks out on the streets of New York City as victory over Japan in the Pacific is declared and the Second World War ends. Two of its protagonists are caught in a rapturous moment: a brave sailor, a lucky survivor of the conflict, steals a kiss from an angelic nurse all in white, safe in the arms of her liberator. But this picture, taken just days after atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hides its own history and belies a harsher truth. As celebration spread across the United States so did an orgy of violence and public disorder: including assaults upon women, of which this picture is in fact an example – a fiction crafted by its producer for one meaning but hiding another.

Roland Barthes, the great French critic and semiologist covered the lies behind images like this one in his bookMythologies (1957) but the 2010 Clark Conference ‘Fictions of Art History’ and this collection of excellent, insightful essays has gone much further in revealing the witting and unwitting deceits within both art and art history. Mark Ledbury has brought together a collection of essays written by some of art history's leading academics who all share an interest in the intermingling of art history, the making of art, and the writing of fiction. This is a challenging topic, as most of us would assume a wide separation of history and story; of fact from fiction. But this book throws light upon our assumptions about what we see, what we read, and what we believe.

There is a certain fallibility in art historical writing since there is always a vested interest lurking, whether in making an aesthetic or political point, or in justifying a piece of research. For who among us would accept wholly as the truth Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, for example, the tale of Giotto's O: the perfect circle produced on a whim to impress a Pope? But this apocryphal story has been recounted in numerous forms; from dull prose to blank verse, and Cole Swenson's essay here lays open the use of ekphrasis – the ancient art of describing inanimate objects in words. This is of course what much art historical writing aims to do; producing written accounts of objects already one remove from nature. What this book certainly succeeds in doing is showing how varied such writing can be.

Collections of essays from international conferences of art historians do not often make for compelling reading – even for art historians! Yet the Clark Conference brought together a diverse group including art historians, artists, poets and authentic writers of what is commonly known as fiction. One hopes that the conference itself was more diverse than the writers gathered here, who are overwhelmingly academic. Their task was to examine how history, fiction writing, and the making and viewing of art might be linked. What becomes apparent is that thankfully there is no set standard for art historical writing, which can vary from turgid academicism to poetry and even pulp detective fiction! 

Ledbury has tried to divide the essays into broad themes, looking at the experience of the art viewer, then at the object itself, and lastly at the artist; and it is here that we tackle the most comprehensive of the essays. Mariana Torgonovick's final entry captures the whole thrust of the book. She deals with a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2012 by the now internationally famous performance artist Mariana Abramovic. MOMA itself, we must recall, is the creator of one of the grandest of fictions; the story of modern art and the sanctification of those who are deemed to be worthy of the museum's attention and patronage, as indeed Abramovic is now. Nonetheless, she, as a performance artist, ought to, and earlier in her career did, challenge the limits of the white-walled spaces of the modern art museum and subvert the commodification of art - its transformation into an object for bourgeois consumption and sale.

Yet Abramovic is herself objectified, marketed, and canonized by the exhibition. Bright young New Yorkers are her stand-ins for the roles she once occupied, and photographs, like those on the cover of the MOMA exhibition catalogue, and video recordings project many of her past works. Most significantly, the viewer is left to build a narrative, filling the gaps and constructing her autobiography – Abramovic’s apparently traumatic upbringing in Yugoslavia and her later often violent experiences as the artist and object, for example in Rhythm 0. One event that became the talk of the city was the artist Abramovic herself sitting motionless opposite visitors to the exhibition and their emotive descriptions of that experience. As Torgonovick states, these accounts and narratives can run away with themselves if not substantiated by third-party evidence, without which they can become pure fiction.

The overarching theme of this book is a degree of alienation from traditional art historical writing, which still hooks onto the grand narratives such as antiquity, the Renaissance, and modernism; and so easily settles into an academic discourse. Projects like this try to counter this tendency and promote a solution through a more creative style of writing. The most engaging essays are the ones that specifically explore this, in particular those by Thomas Crow and Paul Barolsky. Yet the editor’s optimistic conclusion, citing Alexander Nemerov’s essay, is that the drag of ‘scholarly gravity’ on moments of ‘airborne levity’ produces a ‘force-field’ that stimulates art history and those who write it. But whether we are art lovers or art historians we must never accept art, the object of our gaze, as the truth. So this book forces you to look again and yet again at an image, often a photograph, the supposed paradigm of artistic truth, to find falsehood and even fraud.

Fictions of Art History will find its home mostly among academics and students, which is a pity as some of the essays could open up to the art lover what it is art historians do and how they try to do it. The volume is well illustrated with no more and no fewer monochrome images than necessary [unfortunately it was not possible to obtain permission to reproduce any of them here]. Each essay is fully annotated with a biography for its author; a lesson to other publishers in how to package and present a varied and eminently readable collection like this.

Fictions of Art History (Clark Studies in the Visual Arts)  edited by Mark Ledbury is published by Yale University Press. 256pp., 90 monochrome illus, £16.99.


Louis Byrne
Open University, UK

Editor's notes

We regret that we have been unable to obtain any images from this book. Blame copyright law!

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