My earliest childhood ambition (at least in response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?") was to become a paleontologist. This fascination with prehistory arose in part, as it must with many children, in response to some well chosen dinosaur toys. I learned to say and spell the names of the various species and staged mighty, improbable battles on plateaus made of sofa cushions. At some point, a field trip to the La Brea tar pits catalyzed my interest and I began to read whatever I could find not only about Mesozoic megacritters but also about the Pleistocene scene. I was particularly interested in the edge cases — misapprehensions such as "brontosaurus" and mysteries such as the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon nexus.
Eventually, this obsession gave way to another (and then another, and then…). I never returned to it in a serious or specializing way, but I continue to feel the allure of prehistoric artifacts and the poorly understood cultures that produced them. Interpreting art historical objects unaccompanied by textual or verbal cues — interpreting them only in relation to site-specific material factors and explicitly speculative cultural models — has a way of infusing complex questions of methodology with simplicity, clarity, and humility.
I recently received a copy of the latest (8th) edition of Janson's History of Art and since I happened to have an earlier edition (4th) on hand, I took interest in what had changed in just shy of twenty years. The quantity of color photographs, like the price, has increased dramatically. The production values are better. The earlier text was Anthony Janson's adaptation of his father's famous work. In the preface, the son embraces Horst Janson's traditional historiography and (with a profession of sympathy if not regret) fends off the encroaching "new art history". In contrast, the new volume has been revised or rewritten by a committee of six specialists; after a score of years the vitality and value of the (by-now-not-so-) new art history is a settled matter. Continue reading Prehistoric painting