ARTS / Toe the line, don't draw it: To you, this may be a lovely pointilliste painting. To others, it's 'a critical Realist picture of the artifice and alienation of modern class society'. Tim Hilton plods through the latest word in art history

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The Independent Culture
YOU MIGHT not think that the publication of a textbook was a noteworthy event, but the appearance next month of Nineteenth Century Art: a Critical History will in truth mark a turning point, for it represents the triumph of 'the new art history'. The book is the lead title in the Thames and Hudson spring list, and for obvious reasons. Britain's biggest art publisher believes that the book will be required reading in art schools, colleges and universities both here and in America.

This textbook is combative. Old attitudes to painting and sculpture are to be replaced (in the case of sculpture by allowing it only 21 of the book's 368 plates). Connoisseurship, formal analysis, quality, individual taste and artists' biographies have been banished, as though in disgrace. We must now talk of ideologies, class struggle, political and social contradictions, the constant battle between elitist and popular cultures. If art is not discussed in these terms, we are given to understand, everything we say about it is bound to be frivolous.

The book is edited and largely written by Stephen F Eisenman of Occidental College, Los Angeles. Other contributors from American universities are Brian Lukacher, Linda Nochlin and Frances Pohl, while Thomas Crow is the Professor of the History of Art at Sussex University. Here is Professor Eisenman, writing about the way these academics have transformed their discipline:

'Although based on empirical research, this book . . . rejects the interest-free claims of empiricism in favor of an approach that recognises and highlights the ideological links between present and past . . . simultaneous familiarisation and alienation has two functions: first, it is to heighten our understanding of the human choices and cultural contingencies that shaped past art . . . art history that seeks to understand causes cannot be content to let the historical record speak for itself . . . we believe that if our texts raise contemporary political questions concerning representation, whether of class, gender, ethnicity or sexuality, they will have succeeded in more closely approaching a 19th-century art in which there emerged a new historical and critical consciousness of society and culture.'

If you think that's a bit long-winded, try reading the whole book. It was clearly not written to persuade, still less to please. The tone is that of a new academic orthodoxy, obsessed with its own rectitude. One wonders how old Eisenman is. He may dislike the world, its governors and most people who have written on art before him, but he lacks the spark that comes with rebellion. He wants to force art into line. Since cliche is the language of correctness, his prose is inert. And since correctness is so difficult to impose on art, Eisenman has to ignore a multitude of opinions and simple facts that do not fit in with his way of thinking.

Hence the omissions, the crude summaries, lack of narrative and unbalanced emphases. The book is less a history than a series of unconnected chapters on topics deemed suitable for political exegesis. The two best are by Thomas Crow. He writes on French neo-classical painting and on Goya. He ably summarises recent work on the Spanish artist, most of which has been written by convincing rather than tendentious left-wing scholars. After these initial chapters, however, the content and the manner of the book decline.

Brian Lukacher's essay on English landscape declares that 'the cult of the picturesque, of such popular appeal precisely because it appeared to democratise the elitist cultural pretensions of landscape appreciation, could not overcome the social divisions of class, profession and gender'. Then the scene changes to America, and Frances Pohl writes chapters on the depiction of Red Indians and blacks. Linda Nochlin's chapter is on 'Issues of Gender in Cassatt and Eakins', and all the rest of the book is written by Eisenman.

He therefore has to cover much ground - 100 years of European and American art - but he has one principle to guide him. His belief is that in the 19th century 'the best art was critical'. He means that it's amenable to his own ideological interpretation, but 'critical' has to be a term elastic enough to include, for instance, Cezanne. So, having quoted Merleau-Ponty and Adorno, Eisenman states that 'Cezanne strove to achieve totality in his art, and in doing so insinuated his criticism of society in the very form of the artwork itself'. He appears to refer to a late painting of the Mont Sainte-Victoire. The sentence typifies the author's approach: ritualistic incantations of Marx and later theoreticians, wishful thinking in the form of assertion, and disdain for any artist's aesthetic purposes.

Monet's famous Waterlilies finds Eisenman in especially rich form. The conception of nature that we see in this and similar paintings 'arose from the desire to evade social contradiction, history, and contemporaneity, to evade, that is, the dispiriting forces of 'universalizing civilization'. The antagonism of nature and society that is described here occurred specifically at the moment in history when the colonization and commodification of nature and society had progressed so far that the earlier dialectic conception was ideologically unsustainable.' I think that speaks for itself.

'The new art history' is now dominant in many art colleges, and staff who have 'elitist' feelings about art appreciation are reviled. I feel for the students. It's not just that this writing is so mistaken, intolerant and boring. Nineteenth Century Art: a Critical History does not treat students as people with minds of their own, but as the mere recipients of their teachers' theories. I suspect that Eisenman feels similarly about artists, and I hope that art students who are given his book will see that there is more to creative life than correctness and ideology - almost everything more.

'Nineteenth Century Art: a Critical History', published 28 Mar, hardback pounds 35, paperback pounds 19.95.

(Photograph omitted)