March 9, 2006

Janson gets a facelift

Via iSteve, news from the NYT that one of the most widely used encyclopedias of western art, Janson's History of Art, is new and improved.

On the one hand, it's good news that the new Janson will showcase more representative works of established painters, for this dampens the influence of epochcentrism -- the tendency to overemphasize the importance of the recent past -- since a painting which was fashionable when it debuted might not have best encapsulated the artist's oeuvre. On the other hand, it may be that the new editors have changed works not to dampen epochcentric bias but to select a work that fits in better with the "social and political narrative" of the time period -- despite the fact that visual art (and music more so) rarely sends political shockwaves throughout society, though literature certainly does (that's how we communicate, not by gesture or whistling).

Lamentably, one of the new editors bragged that he beefed up the new Janson with Duchamp and Rauschenberg, which only increases epochcentric bias. I can see some Duchamp paintings still holding people's attention 500 years from now (though not many and not so greatly), but Rauschenberg? It doesn't pass the "Really?" test. "Will Michelangelo be studied 500 years from now?" Yes. "Really?" Yes. "What about Rauschenberg?" Yes. "Really?" Well, come to think of it, probably not.

And as for the greater inclusion of women artists -- Steve nailed it by pointing out how this dilutes the narrative of art history, leaving a haphazardly concocted stew of Names and Paintings. Cassatt for sure doesn't pass the "Really?" test. The most deservedly famous female artist is Artemsia Gentileschi, and we can be sure that isn't due to epochcentric bias or feminist fancy, since she's been dead for over 350 years. (You might remember her as the painter of the gruesome Baroque painting Judith Slaying Holofernes.) Still, her index score in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment is just 3 (from 1-100, with greater numbers indicating greater eminence). The reason is that, though she mastered chiaroscuro and used it to great effect (as in Judith), she didn't pioneer the technique, nor lead the Baroque charge. That's why a trailblazer like Caravaggio rightly gets more attention (HA index score = 35).

Steve correctly points out that the methodology of HA can partially mask the greatness of a female figure if she influenced no one else, assuming her male peers thought her work too feminine to take seriously, such as male writers paying less attention to the trials and tribulations of the female characters in a Jane Austen novel. This may be somewhat true for literature, but I don't see it playing much of a role in visual art, as one of the central images in western art is the Madonna and child. This is even less true in music, which is too abstract to tell a realistic story, girl-friendly or otherwise. Sure enough, there is only one female in the HA inventory for Western Music, with an index score = 2.

But even within literature, there is a discernible pattern which applies beyond literature: that is, female figures become increasingly underrepresented as the level of creativity and abstraction increases. So, most great female writers are novelists rather than poets, and most great female artists are writers rather than painters or composers. One can imagine that the mean of each sex's creativity distribution is the same, but that the variance for the male curve is greater than for the female -- i.e., males will be overrepresented both at the astounding out-of-this-world genius end, as well as the boorish completely-closed-to-creative-thought end. If one spouse complains to the other that, "You're just too much of a dreamer, and I need someone who's got both feet planted firmly on the ground" -- who is more likely to be the complainer and who the dreamer?

The same is true for the sciences, where females are less represented the more abstract the field, and within a field the more theoretical (rather than empirical) the work becomes. Just as the Janson facelift will result in what Steve referred to as a greater melange of Names and Paintings, as opposed to a coherent story of geniuses and their novel points-of-view, greater inclusion of women in encyclopedias of the sciences leads to greater emphasis on figures whom Charles Murray calls "brick-layers" rather than "system-builders" (referring to both males & females). So, as crucial as Rosalind Franklin's work on X-ray crystallography was, she was too conservative and not as intellectually nimble and daring as Francis Crick. Most college graduates will remember that Marie Curie did something or other in the hard sciences, but if they took an intro physics or chemistry course, they won't have any phenomenon or law to attach her name to, unlike Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Bohr, and so on.

People just have to get over the fact that, at present, some groups have contributed more to the history of human accomplishment than others. Perhaps 200 years from now, we'll have an updated roster of influential geniuses who were female or black -- just as we may have an updated roster of basketball stars that will include a proportional amount of east Asians -- but that will have to wait until then, when epochcentric bias will have dissipated. As things currently stand, the political move to include more people from marginalized groups only serves to make human excellence in the arts and sciences look like Everybody Gets a Trophy Day in elementary school, rather than the awards ceremony at an Olympic sports event.


  1. It does sound highly likely that the main developmental thrust of a field will be obscured and fogged over with an atomizer of tiny names sprayed all over it. Students are supposed to learn a subject under study, not tolerance and patience with antimerit quota programs, as if these were new and had a chance of achieving the equalizations which were promised.

  2. Mary Cassatt's paintings aren't so bad. Better than Cezanne.

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  4. Does it not enter into your assesment that the lack of opportunities and education afforded members of "other groups" may have lent to their lack of contribution? The fact that even a great talent, if seen in a female or minority race, would have been discouraged or ignored?

    I understand your argument that there have been fewer significant contributions from some "groups" and do not think lesser work should get undue notice. Unfortunately, that just won't fix the wrongs in humankind's collective history. At the same time, I think it is important to recognize that it took a great deal more effort for a woman or minority to have their work recognized in the past. That any work by a female artist has survived, like Artemsia Gentileschi's, for 350 years and is now getting recognition - is remarkable.

    Your argument neglects to at least acknowledge the impact societal restrictions and outright prejudices of the past may have had on this state of affairs. I do not believe women to be inherently less creative or intelligent - after all, I am one - so I think those influences and the inequalities of the not-so-distant past should at least be noted when discussing the lack of female impact on the history of art.

    Incedentally, I also find beefing up Rauschenberg's representation questionable. But then, I'm no expert.


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