Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Yes, it is possible to write a single-volume general history of art, if you narrow the definition and focus on your own enthusiasms. Paul Johnson is best known for his large-scale histories, written in the Burkean tradition of moralizing conservatism. He is also, however, a serious painter himself, and the son of a professional. He suggests that he might have made art his career, but his father warned him that the future would belong to charlatans such as Picasso. Actually, what’s remarkable about Art: A New History is that it’s mostly about what the author likes. This is a commendable approach that all conservative cultural critics should emulate, especially with regard to twentieth-century material.

You can put only so much into a profusely illustrated 777-page oversized book (with still not nearly enough illustrations). “Art” here means physical art objects: painting, architecture, and sculpture, in about that order of emphasis, but also mosaic, stained glass, landscaping, and even tattooing and body painting. For the most part, it’s Western art; the rest of the world enters in as it affects the art of the West.

The author has his theories; or better, his standards. Art, we learn, is part of the essential human search for order and pattern. The highest art, in Johnson’s view, tells the truth about life, which generally means that it is figurative. Still, all art is editing, whether the result is highly formalized or photographically realistic. The healthy norm for art throughout history has been a continuous tension between a canon of technique and the need of individual artists to express themselves. The tension takes the form of long waves, in which generations of complication and refinement alternate with generations of simplicity and classicism.

Johnson deplores the modern prejudices against drama in figurative art, and even against mere size. What the Renaissance called terribilit is not so different from what Burke meant by “the sublime.” The author also insists on the reality of “fine art.” Such works can be created only with notable skill. They repay a second look, and many looks thereafter, as one of the characteristics of fine art is a capacity to delight that outlives its period. In this, as in other ways, it differs from what Johnson calls “fashion art,” in which the level of novelty exceeds the level of skill. Fashion art’s capacity to please is soon exhausted, thus generating the demand for more fashion art, and yet more. When fashion art crowds out fine art, that is a bad thing.

Johnson moves with due caution through the intimidating specialties of Paleolithic art and ancient Near Eastern art, and into the time of the Greeks and Romans. Here the story begins to deal with known artists and acknowledged masterpieces, mostly sculptures of the human figure. Johnson follows the sad story of Greco-Roman painting: little of it has survived (none of much merit) and there is no reason to suppose that the lost works were much better. As for the decline of classical art, all we really learn is that something snapped in the second century a.d. A century later, emperors were reduced to stripping ornaments from earlier monuments to use on their own memorials.

Johnson emphasizes the continuities, both chronological and geographical, between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Northern Europe drove the transition, especially in drawing, more than the Italians have ever been willing to admit. Interesting as all this is, Johnson is obviously chomping at the bit to get to artists who typically did what he does, which is to paint in oils on canvas (or later, on paper with watercolors). Johnson laments that artists of Giotto’s skill were still restricted to the fresco, an awkward and notoriously fragile medium. When we get to Caravaggio (1573-1610), there is a virtual sigh of relief: at last we are talking about oil painting, with chiaroscuro, dramatic subject matter, and a complete grasp of perspective and lighting. Art had achieved the mature form from which it would not begin to decline until the end of the nineteenth century.

No sooner was the paint dry on Caravaggio’s canvases than the first of a series of classical revivals set in to correct what were seen to be his excesses, a dialectic that continued throughout the long climacteric of art in the West. The chief theater of creativity shifted from Italy (where cultural life never quite recovered after the decline of papal patronage) to the west and north. Johnson has a merry time explaining how French governmental interference spoiled French academic painting, particularly by disparaging landscapes. The best portraiture in history was, of course, done in the Low Countries, in an unexampled tradition that continued until the economic eclipse of the Netherlands by England. The rise of the private market for art made that tradition possible. (The same pattern manifested itself in architecture in England, where Whig grandees built fine country homes to rival the tawdry splendor of Versailles.)

Johnson is keen on nineteenth-century landscape painting, chiefly the American Hudson River School (“Illuminist” is the term that later art criticism prefers for this episode), and he also surveys similar work in the rest of the English-speaking world. His nominee for best painting of the nineteenth century is a disturbing interior scene from Russia: Ilya Repin’s “They Did Not Expect Him.” The painting brings the viewer into the story of a man just returning to a middle-class home from exile in Siberia. For my money, though, the truly jaw-dropping illustration in the book is John Sargent’s “Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose.”

The conjunction of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the new treatment of light by J. M. W. Turner marked the great turning point in the history of Western art. Turner was trying to implement Goethe’s theory of sight as the perception of color rather than of shapes, but he had no intention of moving away from figurative art, quite the opposite. As for the Pre-Raphaelites, they were the first “movement,” complete with a manifesto and the will to shock. What surprises now is that they were, as Johnson reminds us, part of a Christian revival, a revival that affected all the arts in the nineteenth century. A string of unintended consequences ensued.

It was in Paris, of course, that things started to go off the rails. The Impressionists were actually a pretty conservative bunch, fine draftsmen for the most part. Like Turner, they thought that the most important aspect of painting was color. They experimented with abstraction as a type of foregrounding. Manet introduced some technical innovations that made painting “faster.” All this was to better represent immediate experience. The real trend, however, was to represent what the artist knew was there, even if that meant abandoning perspective and accurate figure drawing. So the Cubists increasingly did. Soon surrealists learned to treat the artwork simply as an object. Both tendencies moved away from representation. Novelty became easier to produce and found a ready market. Thus the fashion-art engine was ignited, and flights of imposture took off.

Johnson finds much to commend in the twentieth century’s fine arts, including all the major representational artists he can find (not an enormous number, really). He is tolerant of abstractionists such as Kandinsky, whose work can be enjoyed without knowing his theory. Even the theory-minded Mondrian had integrity. For the most part, though, Johnson finds the fine art of the twentieth century cynical, ephemeral, and repetitive. The last point is important: the installations and performance art of the last third of the twentieth century simply repeated the Dada of the early decades, but without the humor of the original. Too much twentieth-century art was perpetrated by great impostors. For Johnson, the arch-impostor was Picasso, a manufacturer of fashion objects on an industrial scale. The fine arts at the beginning of the twenty-first century still suffer from systemic distortions. A cartel of fashion artists, gallery directors, and art dealers contrives to bid up the price of new fashion art and to unload it on the public galleries. (Aren’t people who sell corporate stocks in this manner subject to arrest?)

The fashion artists had entertainment value, and even a kind of skill: people who tried to reproduce Jackson Pollock’s effects, for instance, generally found that they couldn’t. Still, the best measure of Johnson’s contempt for the art of the century just past is perhaps this faint praise of Andy Warhol: “He was not so much an artist, for his chief talent was for publicity, as a comment on twentieth-century art, and as such a valuable person, in a way.”

In product design and in architecture, the original impulse of the Pre-Raphaelite movement had good effects until almost the middle of the twentieth century. It lasted only a few years, of course, but it begat the Arts & Crafts movement, which begat Art Nouveau, which was really just an early form of Art Deco. Johnson loves Art Nouveau down to the last futon, and grieves that so much was scrapped by 1950. (The White House was extensively decorated by Tiffany, Johnson reports, but Theodore Roosevelt got rid of it all: Louis Tiffany, Roosevelt said, had “laid his hands on other men’s wives.”) Louis Sullivan’s skyscrapers were in this tradition. Sullivan actually laid down the principle that “form follows function,” by which he meant that decoration should relate to the purpose of the building, not that buildings should not be decorated. This philosophy produced several decades of fine buildings, from cathedrals to railway stations. (There has yet to be a fine airport, in Johnson’s estimation.)

Unfortunately, by the middle of the century Germany had done for architecture what France had done for painting. Walter Gropius, we are told, suffered from a physical handicap that made it impossible for him to manipulate a pencil, but he was a master of ideology, most of it wrongheaded. Gropius’ Bauhaus sought “a new architecture for the machine age.” This ignored more than a century of experience with industrial design and new materials, much of it as good as building has ever been. Then there was the Bauhaus preference for straight lines over curves, based on the bizarre notion that straight lines were “scientific.” The theories may have been comical (especially when Le Corbusier got hold of them) but their results were unfunny”the three most dismal decades in architecture since the fall of Rome.

In the age of the “machines for living,” according to Johnson, glass-walled libraries baked their books, hospitals killed their patients, and the people forced to dwell in glass-and-concrete boxes showed a marked tendency toward homicide. This assessment is a caricature, but certainly the official architecture of the third quarter of the twentieth century was often both banal and uncomfortable.

Happily, the ice began to break in the 1970s. Major buildings were again free to be ugly in an interesting way. Public works, particularly bridges, were often stunning. Johnson looks benignly on the “Lower Frivolity,” the riotous mixture of styles that such places as Las Vegas exemplify. Such structures are temporary, and they are fun. The problem is the “Higher Frivolity” represented by buildings like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao: they are fun, too, but the joke gets old. In addition, painting and sculpture are reviving, after decades in which art schools made a point of not teaching their students how to draw. Johnson is sanguine: “Human life is short but the life of art is long and the best is yet to come.” Still, the advances in the art of restoration on which Johnson dwells are not the stuff from which Renaissances are made. Perhaps we are looking toward a period whose work will be chiefly the recovery of the great tradition. This book shows that succeeding in that task will be no small glory.

John J. Reilly is the author, most recently, of The Perfection of the West (Xlibris Corporation, 2003). He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.