Art Historians make mistakes. It goes with the territory, paintings like The Massacre of the Innocents get attributed to the wrong artist, new evidence comes to light and completely turns received wisdom about a sculpture on its head; it all part and parcel of dealing with a subject that attempts to knit together a coherent story out of a mass of uncertainties, contradictions and, on occasions, downright lies. (The dates that Kasmir Malevich inscribed on his Black Square paintings being an example of the latter – though to be fair he was as mad as a bag of badgers in a spin dryer.)
Since the discipline took lessons from the likes of Foucault and Barthes and developed doubt into a valid ideological position, negotiating the potholes and chicanes of art history is slightly easier – in the first year of study, the student art historian learns the magic word ‘problematic’, a useful means of tying up the flailing loose ends of a tricky paper. You can even use it as a verb, “This is of course problematicised by…” It’s a cop out really, but a necessary one, without it you’d never finish an essay.
Sometimes the repercussions of these mistakes only affect the rarefied circle of art history itself, tiny ripples in a small pond, a few papers may have to be re-written, some textbooks and monographs may fall out of favour and conferences will be arranged. Other times these ripples can have wider implications changing the direction that art and culture take and influencing the nature of public taste.
For centuries, art historians and theorists held up Classical Sculptures as exemplars or quality and ideal beauty; painters copied figures from them, sculptors worked hard to reproduce their style in their own work and the young men of wealthy families were sent off on Grand Tours to view them to distract them from deflowering the chambermaids for a few months. If the philosophers and politicians of Athens and Rome favoured such sculpture, so should younger societies aiming for a return to the artistic glories of those once great civilisations. Almost subliminally the notion that the very best sculpture was carved from white marble sank into the Western cultural consciousness. And even by the time that Modernists, like Barbara Hepworth were making abstract sculpture, white marble was still seen as a prestige material.
Yet recent scientific investigations of sculptures such as the Parthenon Marbles have revealed traces of pigment and there’s now a consensus that they were extremely brightly painted and adorned with all manner of jewellery and accessories. So it seems that a few hundred years in the development of ideas of what is beautiful, sophisticated and above all tasteful were in a large part based on a whopping great art historical mistake.
We still feel the influence of this mistake today. Take a look at Antonio Canova’s Cupid and Psyche and imagine how different about it you might feel if it was more like Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Even though I know that there’s a great big misunderstanding lurking at the heart of Canova’s aesthetic decisions, I can’t help thinking it would look hideous if it was a gaudy as the Koons. The association of white marble with grace and beauty remains so deeply ingrained that even a few colourful revelations can’t shift it.
Marc Quinn made great use of this association in a series of sculptures he made in 2000. Take a look at Stuart Penn above, it seems at first glance like any other classically influenced sculpture, and when the series were exhibited in the sculpture rooms at the Victoria and Albert museum, they seemed right at home amongst the 16th to 18th century figures, if anything a casual viewer might have been led to believe they were in fact older than Canovas and Bolognas by virtue of the missing limbs.
It’s the missing limbs here that are key. Quinn’s models for the series were sitters who had either been born missing limbs or had lost them due to accident or disease. So used are we to seeing classical sculpture fragmented and damaged that an absent arm or leg is part of our expectations of work like this. We edit out the vacant limbs of the Venus De Milo to look at her beauty, and that’s exactly how we react to Stuart Penn. Among the stone pantheon of gods, athletes and heroes we look past his physiological differences and see his beauty.
Quinn’s marbles are overwhelmingly positive and uplifting. It’s a stunningly clever trick to mobilise the centuries-old prejudices of history and taste to both defeat and draw attention to those of the present and to subtly use our expectations of art to challenge our perceptions of real people.
So here’s raising a glass to the mistakes of art history (no matter how problematic they are).