Portrait of the art historian

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The Independent Online
TODAY I am pleased to welcome Kenneth Impasto, art historian extraordinaire, to answer your questions about art history.

What exactly is an art historian?

An art historian is someone who, although he may not know very much about art, and next to nothing about history, knows an awful lot about art history.

What exactly is art?

Art is anything that Saatchi and Saatchi can persuade the public to believe is art. Art is that which justifies the existence of the art historian. Art is a hedge against inflation. Art is something hanging on the wall at Sotheby's. Art is what distinguishes us from other animals . . .

In what way?

Well, I never heard of dogs or cats bidding against each other to spend all their money on a bit of canvas with some paint on it.

What is history?

History is the art of finding another period more interesting than your own, and trying to explain why.

What exactly is an art historian extraordinaire?

He is an art historian who has not yet been found out.

Does an art historian tell people what they should like, or does he tell them what he likes?

There is no difference. They are the same thing.

What does an art historian do?

He writes books. He gets teaching posts. He is paid to advise television programmes. He attends opening nights. He advises publishers. He allows his name to be used. He authenticates paintings that are about to be sold for a lot of money . . .

What happens if they are not authentic?

I think you will find that if he says they are authentic, they become authentic.

Film is an art. Ballet is an art. Jazz is an art. But when we say art, we almost always mean painting and sculpture. Why is that?

Because you can buy and sell paintings and sculptures for a lot of money, but there is no resale value in a jazz solo or a print of a film. When someone says to an art historian, 'What do you think of this painting?' what he really means is, 'How much is this painting worth?'

Why are old paintings worth more than new ones?

Because the supply has dried up.

Why is Manet's picture called 'Dejeuner sur l'Herbe'?


I mean, why do we always refer to it by its French title and not call it 'Lunch on the Grass'?

Because it sounds much more valuable in French.

Then why do we not call 'Sunflowers' by Van Gogh 'Les Girasols de Van Gogh'?

Because nobody in England knows what a girasol is. Because that is not the name Van Gogh gave to it - that is the name given to it by an art dealer later. Because Van Gogh always gave his paintings Flemish titles, and nobody speaks Flemish. Because Manet called his painting Dejeuner sur l'Herbe for a very special reason. Because . . .

Which explanation is true?

Does it really matter? It is my job as an art historian to come up with as many theories as possible. You, the customer, choose the one you want.

How do you, as an art historian, view contemporary art?

With horror.

Is it wise to say so?

Good heavens, I never say so.

What do you object to about contemporary art?

Apart from its ugliness and triviality, you mean? Well, my main objection to contemporary art is that there is no such thing. Most of it is not art at all, but questions about art. The contemporary artist is not saying: 'Here is my painting - enjoy it.' He is saying: 'Is this a painting? Is this an artistic experience? Do you accept me as an artist?' My answer is always no.

Shouldn't it be your job to say so?

Dear boy, I am far too busy. Why, only this afternoon I have to fly to the United States to authenticate a wonderful Italian painting which an American millionaire has recently had stolen from a church in Italy.

He must be very rich.

Rich? Not as rich as the last millionaire I went to work for. He had a whole Italian church stolen for him]

That must have been difficult.

I'll say. There were 10 old ladies and a priest inside at the time of the theft, and do you know, they never noticed a thing till the end of the service, when they walked out and found themselves in Dallas airport]

I almost believe you.

I almost believe myself. But then, that's one of the occupational risks of being an art