The Art Museum
“Compared to other art history texts on the market, The Art Museum is very readable.”
Visiting any liberal arts campus bookshop, there does not seem to be a dearth of art history textbooks. From Janson to Stokstad, attempts at encyclopedic overviews on the history of (mostly Western) art is a tried-and-true genre that has resulted in dozens of editions of canonical texts. Phaidon decided to join that milieu in 2011, with the publication of The Art Museum, a weighty tome of nearly 1,000 pages. That effort has now been re-edited at a far more reasonable 584 pages, containing upwards of 1,600 images.
As an art historical textbook, The Art Museum is perfectly fine. However, that is not how Phaidon’s marketing team wishes the reader to interact with it. Instead, the inside flap notes that this is no mere book, but an “imaginary museum [that] houses the greatest collection of art ever assembled.” This is about as delusional as a Sears catalog claiming to be the finest appliance showroom of all time.
The text leans into this idea of the book being a museum, referencing its “440 rooms” that “display thousands of works,” and that it is the “only museum” in the world to house both Botticelli’s Primavera and Dalí’s Persistence of Memory. As the Primavera is currently at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and Persistence of Memory is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one might wager that no museum contains both. Yet each does appear in at least a dozen art history books, so it’s unclear what rationale led the editors to draw this conclusion. How does this book qualify as a museum but the others that present comparable information do not?
This conceit proves more distracting and annoying than helpful. The first page presents a gallery map of this imaginary museum, with Art of the Stone Age starting near the arrow-marked “entrance” in a pale terra cotta (noted as containing rooms 1–3) and ending with Art Since the Mid-20th Century in a tiny cerulean square (rooms 367–440). How the shapes of these galleries have been determined we know not, nor is it apparent how a gallery with three rooms should be larger than one that contains upward of 73.
Within most “galleries” and their corresponding “rooms” are also “exhibition” sections, denoted by a broken color-coded line at the pages’ edges. In truth, these exhibitions are just a juxtaposition of a few related pieces, often accompanied by a story of, in the case of art of the ancient world, how they were discovered. Later, exhibitions like “The Nineteenth-Century Body” simply show four nudes and summarize how the body was a popular subject at the time. As with any text of four paragraphs or less written for general audiences, do not expect massive insight or analysis. These are not so much exhibitions as highlight reels.
Compared to other art history texts on the market, The Art Museum is very readable. While it notes it is written by a variety of art historians and scholars, it is not as jargon-filled as many similar attempts, and even contains a decent glossary at the back covering everything from sfumato to Visigoths. For the novice, each section also provides a solid introduction to a time period and why it resonates today.
A major reason to go to a museum is to experience art in person. Scale, color, texture, and atmosphere are heightened in the real. There is no comparison to viewing a photograph of Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat and realizing that the red paint still appears wet on the actual canvas, no way of replicating the slight disappointment one feels observing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and seeing that it’s smaller than most reproductions. To call The Art Museum an “imaginary museum” is to cheapen the actual experience of coming in physical contact with art—and claiming this book is a suitable substitute does actual museums no favors.
This issue is compounded by the fact that the reproduction quality in The Art Museum is universally muddy. For example, the “room” dedicated to The Persian Empire shows the reliefs at Persepolis, but the image has the grainy quality of a 1970s magazine. Individual cutouts are also lackluster, as the heavily Photoshopped outline of each piece renders the objects unnaturally two-dimensional against their off-white backdrops. With the amount of money presumably put into this publication, higher resolution images should have been sourced.
The Art Museum also has a representation issue common among most art historical texts, but a bit bizarre to see still happening in a re-edited edition. As with its predecessors, the majority of art presented is Euro-centric with dashes of non-Western works sprinkled throughout (20 pages dedicated to China and Korea, 10 to South Asia, and a paltry nine to the entire continent of Africa). Surely, if the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in the process of revamping its physical galleries to attempt to be more inclusive, a paper-bound imaginary space can afford to do it, too. The introduction to the Africa sections seems self-conscious of this point, but blaming a lack of representation in a new book on a lack of scholarship from which to draw feels suspect as, presumably, any number of the 28 curators, critics, and historians who edited this tome could have been specialists on styles and genres outside of the traditional canon.
While many of the earlier reviews of this book call it “ground-breaking” and “unprecedented,” enthusiastically claiming that it contains “things you don’t often see reproduced on this scale,” the reality is that The Art Museum is just another take on Art History 101.