Painting of an art room by Willem van Haecht, circa 1630

Mauritshuis, The Hague

Willem van Haecht: Apelles Painting Campaspe, circa 1630

In recent months dozens of artworks have been defaced, damaged, or pushed into the drink during the protests initially set off by the murder of George Floyd. Directed at first toward monuments to the Confederacy, the rage expanded to encompass a swath of imperialist or genocidal Europeans, from Christopher Columbus to Junipero Serra. The response of local authorities has frequently been pragmatic and accommodating. The response of the Trump administration has been a bellicose (and perhaps unconstitutional) executive order and aggressive intimidation of those who would “impede the purpose or function of the MMS” (monuments, memorials, statues). The response of the art historical establishment—beyond a flurry of now standard expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter—has been almost inaudible.

This might seem strange, given that art history serves to preserve and elucidate art objects, and that neither museum people nor academics are averse to a good public scrap. Where is the fury that greeted, for example, the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas in 2001? Of course, there is a world of difference between Bamyan and Birmingham—to begin with, most of the “impeded” statues are being moved indoors, not blown up. They are also, from an art historical standpoint, fairly expendable. While the Buddhas were ancient, colossal, aesthetically sophisticated masterpieces, the monuments that spread like a rash across the South at the turn of the last century were largely undistinguished and sometimes mail-ordered from factories like the Monumental Bronze Company in Connecticut, which supplied the same standing soldier to towns on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, changing only the engraving on the belt buckle. Even works by name-brand artists, such as Providence’s emphatic Columbus by Frédéric Bartholdi (of Statue of Liberty fame), belong to a Beaux-Arts costume-drama mode of sculpture that leaves most contemporary art historians cold.

For the people who erected them and for those who continue to venerate them, the message of these statues is delivered by whom they represent, not how they do that representing. Art history, on the other hand, is all about the how—about style and form and the shaping of perceptions beyond obvious subject matter. Divorcing content from presentation is what art history does.

The social consequences of this way of thinking are at the heart of two recent books: Christopher Wood’s A History of Art History and Éric Michaud’s The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art (originally published in French in 2015). Neither is a history of art; what concerns the authors are the flurries of ideas and value systems that blow around and settle on art in the Western world. (Wood’s occasional nods to non-Westerners such as Dong Qichang, 1555–1636, and Dust Muhammad, active circa 1510–1564, remind us that Europeans were not the only or the first people to write histories of art.) Wood’s ambitious survey whisks us through centuries of multivalent theorizing and advocating by artists, poets, connoisseurs, philosophers, and, eventually, people calling themselves “art historians.” Michaud’s more focused volume is an exposé of how certain tools, originally developed to distinguish one batch of European art from another, have lent themselves to unhelpful and sometimes catastrophic visions of “race.”

There is an old saw that if you want to sound smart in the social sciences or humanities, just ask, “But isn’t it different in the south?,” because it’s always different in the south, whether the subject is global economy or religious affiliation in the Netherlands. The gambit works not just because human behavior differs from place to place, but because accounts of behavior assume a default, a geographic norm against which other ways of being are identified by deviation. The default gets taught first, the deviations later.

Actually, it’s not always different in the south. In art history, it’s different in the north, thanks to the tenacious legacy of what happened in Southern Europe a thousand years after the fall of Rome. We all know about the Renaissance: heroic Italian artists leading Europe out of smoky medieval piety and crude credulousness into the light of rational space and human-interest stories. We know this tale so well because writers at the time perceived the art being made around them as evidence of change—there was a before that looked one way, and an after that looked different, better. Most of the predecessors of the Tuscan painter Giotto (1267–1337) had toiled anonymously, copying images of Christ and the Virgin putatively painted by Saint Paul. But Giotto innovated, and it made him famous. Dante gave him a shout-out in the Purgatorio, and two centuries later Giorgio Vasari wrote in The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects that Giotto had “alone succeeded in resuscitating art, and restoring her to a path that may be called the true one.”


This stress on resuscitating and restoring affirms the “true” path as the old, long-lost road of Greco-Roman Classicism. The fall of Rome, commonly blamed on barbarians from the north, had meant the end of art, in the view of Vasari and his peers. Nothing made in the intervening centuries—not the enormous cathedrals, gilded icons, illuminated manuscripts, intricately carved saints or crucifixes—counted.

Wood begins his account in the year 800, not because people were writing art history then—they weren’t—but in order to explain Christian Europe’s long aversion to the lovely pagan artifacts littering its backyard: it was only in the late Middle Ages, when Christianity was finally secure in its hegemony, that it could adopt a stance of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” or at least her statue. Mary could start to look like Demeter. Severing pagan forms from pagan content was the critical maneuver that made Renaissance art—and all that followed from it—possible.

Vasari’s Lives is celebrated as the start of European art historical writing, but the text reads less like history than like a collection of unusually well-researched Yelp reviews—you learn who is good at what, in what locations, and which neighborhood is best overall. (Spoiler alert: it’s Florence.) Vasari’s descriptions of artworks are cursory, his analysis almost nonexistent. But he established a canon—Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, et al.—and through it a sense of what makes good art: naturalism (making things look like real life) and disegno, a principle that Wood neatly defines as “the correct ratio between the real and the true.”

Vasari acknowledged some art made on the other side of the Alps: Jan van Eyck got a pat on the head for inventing oil painting, rather in the manner of an offscreen technical-achievement Oscar,1 and Albrecht Dürer moved Vasari to muse on the greatness that might have been attained if only Dürer “had been a native of Tuscany instead of Flanders [sic].” The canon was clearly Italian.

By the seventeenth century, however, writers outside Italy were writing local equivalents of the Lives, such as Karel van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck (1604) and Joachim von Sandrart’s Teutsche Academie (1675–1679). In France, Roger de Piles sought to cultivate the taste and ambition of native-born artists in hopes they might come to rival the Italians. He instructed readers in what was good and bad, and made a new case for the looser, more expressive manner of painters like Rubens or Rembrandt. But the necessity of learning from ancient Rome and Greece remained axiomatic. Five hundred years on, this Alpine divide still burrows deep into our language, manifest in the use of “classic” to mean something essential, enduring, and above reproach.

No one fell harder for the Classical ideal than the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764, two centuries after Vasari, constituted the first systematic analysis of style and culture. Like Vasari and de Piles and everyone else, Winckelmann believed there was a right and a wrong way to make art, and that the right way had been modeled by the ancient world. But where other authors offered anecdotal accounts of individual artists, Winckelmann provided a taxonomy of styles and used them to assign objects a time and place of origin. He then went further, linking those styles to aspects of culture that had no necessary relation to art—literature, politics, habits of mind. He was convinced that Greek art was completely original, uninfluenced by contact with Egypt or anyplace else, and his faith in the absolute reciprocity of nature and culture in Ancient Greece led him to conclude that the smooth, idealized sculptures he saw recorded the actual perfection of real Greek bodies.

Winckelmann set in play two crucial concepts for art history: style as the basis for attribution, and art as the reflexive representation of a people. This, for Michaud, is where the trouble starts. He quotes the Austrian art historian (and facilitator of Nazi art-looting in Poland) Dagobert Frey: “It is with Winckelmann that, for the first time, ‘national character’ was seen to lie at the origin of differences in art.” And in Winckelmann’s equation of real bodies and fictive statues, Michaud identifies a pernicious equation between biology and culture:

Once Winckelmann had established this intimate and organic link between a people and its art, it became customary to see art not simply as a social activity…, but as a peculiarly natural function of the body of a people: i.e., as a sort of bodily secretion of the nation as a whole.

Winckelmann’s approach was to prove profoundly influential, but the hegemonic hold of Classicism on the European imagination was already crumbling.


In 1772 the twenty-three-year-old Goethe visited Strasbourg Cathedral and was moved to write what Wood describes as “the first modern expression of wholehearted admiration for a medieval work.” In the piled-up excess of Gothic, disdained for so long, Goethe claimed to recognize “the strong, rough, German soul.” Later he concluded that beauty is never universal:

The man who emerges from childhood and raises his eyes does not find nature, as it were, pure and naked around him…. He is so enclosed within imposed acclimatizations, conventional usages, favourite customs, venerable traditions, treasured monuments, beneficial laws, and so many splendid products of art that he never learns to distinguish what is original and what is derived.

If this were so, then the north should not attempt to equal the south by imitating Classical formulae, but by embracing its own atavistic origins. Michaud’s title calls up the “barbarian invasions” not because of anything that actually happened during Rome’s decline but because of the spin put on those events in the nineteenth century, when the “Germanic” hordes—broadly and imaginatively defined—were reenvisaged as energetic engineers of modern Christian Europe.

Pergamon Museum 1, Berlin

Thomas Struth/MCA Chicago/Nathan Keay

Thomas Struth: Pergamon Museum 1, Berlin, 2001

One consequence of this shakeup of hierarchies was a dramatic expansion of the types of artworks and objects that could be considered important, meaningful, and possibly even beautiful. The crunched up, goggle-eyed figures in Romanesque cathedrals, like the busy and irrational illuminated manuscripts, could now be seen as signs of a distinct and ingenious imaginative universe, and as artifacts of two great Victorian virtues: industriousness and Christian thought. In 1852 John Ruskin, aptly described by Wood as “the polymath and barely secular preacher,” urged his readers not to mock the Gothic’s “ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid;…they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone.”

Art history finally emerged as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century, with scholars studying form and appearance as expressions of particular times and places, and plotting them on larger historical arcs. (Hegel helped.) Connoisseurship—the kind of close looking that reveals the origin of a watermarked paper or how an artist habitually tapered a pencil stroke—provided an ever-expanding stock of forensic evidence, which could then be yoked to much grander narratives about a society’s rise and fall, and its place in the larger realm of human events. Public museums proliferated across the continent, and for the first time it became common to hang galleries according to “national schools” and eras. Baedekers began delivering art history to the traveling middle classes. Wood details the century’s busy bustle of cataloging, publishing, and educating by both professionals and amateurs.

At the same time, Europe’s colonial marauding was delivering a bounty of curiosities from Africa and Southeast Asia, the Americas and Oceania. The old trick of separating form and content, so useful in adapting pagan aesthetics to Christianity, now opened the world to Western analysis and collecting. Were these things art? For Europeans, instinct and habit pointed one way, logic pointed another. It was not enough to try to pare painting and sculpture away from household goods—Greek kraters once held water and wine, and as Wood notes, Raphael “lived in a world in which an altarpiece was still essentially a supplement to a ritual sacrifice.” Every handmade object involves decisions of style and form that can be categorized and that may be meaningful, and the fence posts between archaeology, anthropology, and art history were never clearly marked. In 1919 the Austrian architect Adolf Loos claimed:

If nothing were left of an extinct people but a single button, I would be able to infer, from the shape of that button, how these people dressed, built their houses, how they lived, what was their religion, their art, their mentality.2

It is this sort of cultural phrenology—measuring the lumps and ridges of objects so as to diagnose the mental and moral characteristics of the people behind them—that Michaud finds so alarming. He senses the moral peril of viewing cultural differences as hereditary and immutable, and of understanding individual makers as mere instruments of biological destiny.

He pays close attention to the terms used to distinguish modes of artistic execution—from “taste” (which can be learned), to “manner” (perhaps innate), to “style” (a collective agreement)—and he charts a similar nurture-to-nature slide in taxonomic categories from “school” to “nation” to “race.” He takes us down the slippery slope from Winckelmann’s claims about the nobility of Greek profiles to pro-slavery engravings of the putative development from apes to Africans to the Apollo Belvedere, and from the trope of the Jews as a people without art to that of the Jews as the destroyers of culture. He confirms and expands upon an observation made in 1936 by the American art historian Meyer Schapiro:

The racial theories of fascism call constantly on the traditions of art…. Where else but in the historic remains of the arts does the nationalist find the evidence of his fixed racial character…. Only the artistic monuments of his country assure him that his ancestors were like himself, and that his own character is an unchangeable heritage rooted in his blood and native soil. For a whole century already the study of the history of art has been exploited for these conclusions.

There is no doubt that, across disciplines, European thought of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries was self-servingly racist, and Michaud effectively illuminates art history’s own contributions to “Aryan” aggrandizement. Wood’s book has no such coherent thesis, and as a result the two are helpful complements to each other. While Michaud funnels everything toward one conclusion, Wood suggests the panoply of ideas that might be derived from the same sources. Michaud anatomizes the discipline’s preoccupation with “peoples” and “races,” while Wood reminds us that the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries were marked by a fascination with individual creative “geniuses.”

Wood’s chapter on the mid-eighteenth century places Winckelmann in a quartet of contemporaneous thinkers, including the eclectic English revivalist Horace Walpole, the printmaker and historical fantasist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and the encyclopedist Denis Diderot, who, in addition to his other activities, “invented modern art criticism.” Each represents a different understanding of the relationship between art and history, ripples of which still reverberate today. The teeming cast of characters and caroming arguments that fill Wood’s pages can be confounding (especially given the book’s baffling avoidance of footnotes), but they offer a salutary reminder of how messy and inconclusive intellectual history actually is.

The arguments batted around by long-dead chroniclers of even longer-dead artists may seem indulgent or immaterial in the midst of a global pandemic, economic subsidence, and existential political jeopardy for our democracy. Who, beyond the halls of academe, really has any need of Winckelmann? If we learn anything from these books, however, it should be that systems and schema have a way of leeching out from their original domains into the actual world.

One of the monuments injured this summer depicted, of all things, an elk. Part of the David P. Thompson Fountain in Portland, Oregon, the bronze elk had been sculpted by Roland Hinton Perry in 1900. It had been vandalized during the Occupy Wall Street protests and was removed in July of this year after fires damaged its stone plinth. The elk had taken no part in the preservation of slavery or the slaughter of indigenous peoples. It may just have been in the wrong place (at the nexus of government buildings) at the wrong time. But its materials and manner of execution, as well as its urban position, testify to its origins in the white male power-base of turn-of-the-twentieth-century America. Had it looked like a Tom Otterness sculpture—goofy and friendly rather than Teddy Roosevelt–epic—would it have been targeted in the same way? Perhaps the protesters, like Winckelmann, recognized a style and, through it, an entire worldview.

Roland Hinton Perry’s Elk in the undisclosed location where it has been stored during the protests against police brutality in Portland, Oregon

Brian Libby

Roland Hinton Perry’s Elk in the undisclosed location where it has been stored during the protests against police brutality in Portland, Oregon, August 2020

The truth is, we are all making art historical judgments all the time, and it is worth giving thought to how those judgments are formed and whom they serve. For two hundred years now, each generation of professional art historians has proposed new metrics, elevated the despised, and learned, in Wood’s words, to “include ever more and censure ever less.” But as he also acknowledges, agnosticism about form is not the same thing as indifference to content: “Relativism on the level of style is relatively easy; relativism on the level of custom, ritual, and belief is hard to achieve.”

Earlier this year, Yale University became the latest prominent school to announce changes to its introductory art history courses to make them more globally inclusive. Conservative critics rallied to the flag of Eurocentrism with outrage: Spectator USA published an essay by the New Criterion editor James Panero titled “Stalin at Yale: Art History for the Age of Identity Politics.” Stalin aside (Yale’s art history chair, Tim Barringer, noted, “Stalin murdered nine million people, while our Department is offering four, rather than two, 100-level courses. The parallel is imprecise”), what is most revealing about the title is its implicit assertion that an art history focused entirely on Europe and North America is somehow not about identity politics.

Art history is, inevitably, a story imposed on a selected group of artifacts by people who, consciously or unconsciously, have predilections and agendas. Ideally, the story grows from the objects, and the question of which objects is what animates both conservative critics and the protesters in the streets. As Wood and Michaud demonstrate, the canon has never been static. New things come in, old things get weeded out and sometimes come back. As for the current row over monuments, memorials, and statues, a few things are clear. We cannot limit public art to works whose subjects and styles are in lockstep with our own ethics; our museums would be empty if we did. Neither, however, can we ignore the reality that certain forms of public display act as endorsements of the values of those who erected them. Classical sculptures could only be loved by Christians once the gods they represented had died. Robert E. Lee is not yet a dead god.