Why Study Prints Now? Or, The World According to Bartsch

Over the last half-millennium prints have found their way into every corner of the pictorial and plastic arts and in many ways can be understood as a binding medium in the history of Western art from the early modern period to the present. Thus, it is striking that especially in the museum world the study of prints has become a relatively esoteric corner of art history. Many years ago I was sitting in an audience composed mainly of curators when an esteemed colleague took the podium and addressed us as “those who love prints and other works on paper.” I recall being a little disconcerted at the time, even though in some respect I have an affection for prints and even a love for certain of them. But is it fair to presume a collectively held emotion such as love, even allowing for its debasement in informal conversation? Most remarkable, this often declared passion for the print has been around for centuries.1 What accounts for such extraordinary allegiance to a medium among those who study and acquire its products, and is it after all a good thing?

Consider the implications of structuring a history of art according to the various mediums in which works of art have been realized. There is no necessary or inherent reason why curatorial assignments should adopt this arrangement as their primary model, knowledge of materials and techniques notwithstanding. It is a scheme that descends ultimately from the early preferences of collectors to favor one medium over others, a topic in the history of taste but not a principle for organizing artistic cultures. As students of art history we are trained first in a period and a geographical area, not in a medium; we acquire certain languages and not others as a result of this; and we are expected to understand the history of a time and place in a spectrum of ways and with considerable thoroughness, whether it be southern Europe, 19th-century England or Edo Japan. In short, we have been taught to be cultural historians with a specialized interest in objects, not the other way around. There is every reason to respect the collector’s devotion to a particular medium, be it glass, prints, shoes or whatever, most of them represented by museums in one place or another. But our task as art historians, whether writing about objects or taking charge of them as custodians, is to return them to the larger context of their history. The practice of art history should ultimately be one of re-integration, not parceling out.

This matter has become more urgent in recent years as pressure is applied to traditional curatorial responsibilities and staffs have been contracting due to administrative reorganization or financial constraint. Among the issues involved here is the necessity of maintaining specialists assigned to care for an individual artistic medium rather than, say, an historical period. I shall return to this later on, but it is best to make clear from the outset that my remarks are meant as a caution about what it means at this stage to defend that policy above all others. There are indeed a great many reasons to be studying prints now, but needless to say some of them are more consequential than others.

German, St. Veronica with the Sudarium (ca. 1450–75), colored woodcut on parchment, 7 x 4.2 cm. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, H 5.

German, St. Veronica with the Sudarium (ca. 1450–75), colored woodcut on parchment, 7 x 4.2 cm. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, H 5.

It would be reasonable to dismiss the question of doing art history by medium as merely academic or sentimental were it not for the fact that prints inspire such a curiously intense brand of loyalty. From our perspective, however, we need to take into account that any current consideration of the status of printmaking, not to say printing, must bear the weight of what has occurred in digital communication over the last generation. The much-acclaimed introduction of printmaking by European craftsmen, now 600 years behind us, is in the process of giving way to a digital world that portends the imminent displacement of the printed text and, by extension, the printed image as well. Whether or not we consider either eventuality to constitute a revolution, that is the rhetoric being employed. Historians such as ourselves—whether revolutionists or evolutionists—have something at stake in this discussion. Thus it is useful to consider how our thinking about the history of printing and printmaking has evolved.

Revolutionary Road—Pro and Con

The impact of printing on Europe and the Americas has been recognized as having both positive and negative consequences. It has been a force for liberation and free expression and an aid to populist movements. It has provoked censorship, but then contrived the means to circumvent it. Its impact on the dissemination of knowledge is self-evident. On the negative side we find, among much else, the encouragement to anonymous public slander, the invention of new forms of state propaganda, and the sensationalist press. This litany of positives and negatives is now being mirrored in very similar terms in discussions of the Internet: the distraction and consequent anesthetization of the population, the creation of a means for spreading vicious ideologies, and the development of a so-called global community being orchestrated by often invisible powers that have yet to deliver the bill. These dangers have been worried about before although not on the same scale as they appear to be now.

The European Renaissance, in one of its famously self-congratulatory moments, proclaimed the printing press to be among the three greatest achievements of modern civilization. In this pantheon of “discoveries,” printing sat alongside gunpowder and the magnetic compass. No one in Europe yet fully understood that all three had been developed in China many centuries earlier, or saw that in European hands each would become an instrument for the extraordinary exercise of state power. Given what followed as a result of the voyages of discovery, the claim made for their importance was hardly an idle boast.

How did it all get started? No single catalyst explains the development of printing in Europe.2 Paper had been introduced to Spain by the Arabs at least by the 10th century, but paper manufacturing seems only to have come to Germany at the close of the 14th century shortly before the earliest known woodcuts appeared.3 Whether paper came to Germany because prints were already being made, or whether prints began to be made because of locally available paper, we do not know. Literacy seems to have risen gradually throughout this time, but did not spike at any one point. Likewise the demand for books increased, yet there was no sudden effort to develop a means of mechanical reproduction. Building a simple printing press once its purpose was clear required no more than available skills and materials, and the makers of the earliest woodcuts did not need presses. A sufficiently refined means of casting metal type was a considerable achievement, but there too the basic techniques were familiar. Whatever it was that finally provoked the development of an efficient means of printing images and texts remains a classic chicken-and-egg problem.

What was a “print” in 15th-century Europe, really? Consider the anonymous German woodcut of Saint Veronica. Smaller than an average business card, it seems hardly prepossessing as an object. On the other hand, neither is it just a knock-off postage stamp of a saint to pin on your hat. Veronica’s veil with the imprint of Christ’s face invoked one of the many stories surrounding the Passion and sponsored several much-venerated miracle-working icons. I will not go into detail here, but suffice it to say that the dark silhouette of the holy face calls up a particular tradition among the many medieval images of the face of Christ, probably a specific relic, something that might or might not have been recognized by this woodcut’s first recipient. The highly charged subject may explain the abrasions on the surface, which probably indicate repeated touching, perhaps also kissing. The simple woodblock is not printed on paper, but on the more costly medium of parchment, and was then embellished with paint as well as gold and silver leaf. It reveals rather little if anything of its initial making; it is a very special, quite obviously individuated object. Whoever it was that first acquired it probably pasted the leaf onto the inside cover of a prayer book to give it a safe, accessible and also venerable place. Its auratic power we can only imagine.

To what extent does calling this object a print and attempting to understand it in relation to its mechanical production tell us anything at all about its status as a religious artifact of personal significance? The fact of its multiplicity must have had little or nothing to do with how it was regarded by whoever first possessed it. Neither uniqueness nor multiplicity had much bearing on its subjective value. From another perspective we can suppose that owning something of which there are many examples allows one to imagine being part of a community of sorts whose members, probably unknown to one another, are nonetheless able to conceive a kind of fellowship. Hence, the fact of being multiple affects the value of the thing by choice, not by ontology. In the beginning prints were likely never considered as multiples in the way we think of them now.

The Chroniclers—John Evelyn, Jean Michel Papillon, Karl Heinrich von Heinecken

The historiography of printmaking acquired its first significant landmark in 1662 with John Evelyn’s remarkable and insufficiently studied treatise on engraving, Sculptura, or the history of the art of chalcography.4 Best known as a diarist reporting on the mundane activities of his class, Evelyn was in fact a polymath (an “amateur”) and a founding member of the Royal Society in London—he wrote about air pollution, forest trees, numismatics, horticulture and much else. Sculptura, however, is a landmark, for it is the first concerted attempt in the West to provide a comprehensive history of a single artistic medium.5 And I do mean comprehensive: from antediluvian times to the present, from Egyptian inscriptions to the finger of God inscribing the tables of the law, and onward to New World hieroglyphs. Evelyn rooted around furiously in lexica and thesauri, through classical, rabbinical and early Christian texts, inferring dubious etymologies and improbable terminology wherever necessary to explain the origins of a tool or a technique.

Although Sculptura is in many ways an encyclopedic concoction of erudite pedantries, it is surprising to find, for example, discussions of Chinese and Indian printing practices and Mesoamerican reliefs. Evelyn also had a substantial collection of several thousand prints of his own, and held strong opinions about artists and techniques—the Carracci are great, but Rembrandt too gloomy and depressing. Furthermore, Evelyn wrote about the larger cultural and societal ramifications of the print: its effectiveness in educating the young; its service to antiquarians and the new science; its capacity for transmitting visual records. He did not, however, regard the invention of printing as a revolution, either in technology or in thought. On the contrary, it was by his lights the result of a glacial development traceable to the very fogbank of pre-history.

German, Buxheim Saint Christopher (ca. 1450), woodcut copy of the original. Reproduced from Journal zur Kunstgeschichte, part ii (Nürnberg: Johann Eberhard Zeh, 1776), 104.

Evelyn was interested only in intaglio—what he collectively termed engraving—the technique he judged to be the most prestigious. Even though the earliest works he knew about were woodcuts, they receive almost no attention. It would be over a century before something comparable was done for that medium.6 The lineaments of modern print scholarship, freed from the mythologies of Evelyn’s text, began to emerge in a pronounced way only later on. The ground rules for what constituted rigorous historical study were debated throughout the Enlightenment and, accordingly, by the 1770s, Edward Gibbon completed his masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of Rome; Denis Diderot’s richly illustrated Encyclopédie moved to its unstable completion amid opposition for its progressive views; and, less notably, Karl Heinrich von Heinecken published his summary but scrupulous history of early printmaking.7 A student of literature and law, Heinecken became librarian to a powerful figure in the Prussian court and was charged with compiling a collection of art and natural history along with a substantial print collection—his special expertise. For these efforts, in 1746 he was appointed head of the Dresden Kupferstich-kabinett, a separately founded civic institution dedicated exclusively to prints, and to this day one of the finest collections of European graphic art.

Like Evelyn, Heinecken was essentially an antiquarian preoccupied with discovering the origins of printmaking. His ambitions were modest and involved practical matters, chiefly when and how printmaking got going and who was the first to print books and book illustrations. It was generally agreed that rag paper was the key to the origin of printing, but there was little information available on the subject. It was assumed, however, that the earliest prints were woodcut playing cards, and thus that a demand for frivolous attractions lay behind the whole world-changing enterprise. As to concrete evidence, it was Heinecken who published the famous woodcut St.
Christopher
discovered in the Buxheim monastery near Lake Constance, and identified it as the earliest European print to bear a credible date: 1422.8 This discovery met with great acclaim, especially in Germany, quick to secure its reputation as the inventor of printing. Two generations later, Heinecken’s claim for the priority of this woodcut was vigorously challenged, and it is now agreed to have been created some 30 years later, well into the documented history of the medium.9 Needless to say, thorough research does not always prevail over wishful thinking. Despite more than 200 years of evidence to the contrary, the Buxheim Saint Christopher is still touted on the Web and in basic textbooks as the first dated print—a good example of the tenacity of misinformation once printed.

The invention of moveable type—the uncontested blockbuster in the history of the press—was likewise subject to rival claims: Gutenberg of Germany, Laurens Coster of the Netherlands, and even William Caxton in England have all been promoted as the first to solve the problem. This dispute had gone on for centuries as a matter of local pride when in 1775 Gottfried von Murr, the editor of the first true art history journal, confidently declared that Heinecken’s researches had “served excellently to gag the mouth of those defenders of the mythical Lorenz Koster.”10

And so it went. When assessing the significance of printing in general it is important to keep in mind that the subject itself has an obvious advantage as an object of historical study. Due to its very nature, printing is by far the best-documented medium in the early modern period, and accordingly its importance is guaranteed. But that self-fulfilling prophecy—one that now applies to the Internet—does not make the impact of printing on the course of human history proportionate to all that we happen to know about it.

The World According to Bartsch

Despite the local spats and love of self-mythologizing, the 18th-century investigation of the origins of printmaking was in many respects a model of historical method. It made refined use of stylistic, philological and codicological evidence, entailed library and archival research, and employed all of it to good effect. The study of early printing became a well-contextualized account of a new technology—to some degree an exemplary history of scientific innovation. Then, in the midst of it all, there appeared Adam Bartsch (1757–1821) and his Le Peintre Graveur, the giant mouse that would eventually consume the field of print studies. Bartsch’s 20 volumes (issued over fewer than 20 years) constitute one of the most astonishing accomplishments in the history of cataloguing works of art.11 Bartsch described what he regarded to be, with notorious inconsistency, “original” prints—namely those made by painters, thereby “proper” artists, from the 15th through the 17th century. An accomplishment yet to be fully surpassed in print studies, Le Peintre Graveur remains the most inclusive compilation in the history of any artistic medium—all of it done by hand without the help of photography, not to say a computer.

Following in the wake of the dealer and collector Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694–1774), and greatly dependent upon his efforts, Bartsch organized the basic map of European print production, completing the corpus in 1821, at which point he retired from the planet. Pan-European in scope, Le Peintre Graveur determined how prints would henceforth be classified and shelved in most public collections, and for this herculean accomplishment Bartsch is rightly regarded as a hero to our profession. In practice, however, his catalogue is a well-scaffolded finder’s aid and in due course it would help flatten the landscape of print studies for more than a century, rendering it largely fallow as a medium for social and cultural investigation.

The market and its clientele—private collectors along with museums—also came to be driven largely by the pursuit of masterpieces, especially of rarities, in a field defined primarily by its capacity to multiply images with maximum uniformity. The quest for particular states (ideally undescribed), the preference for wide margins, proof impressions and other largely anachronistic traces of artistic production came to drive the collector’s market for intaglio prints. Bartsch, who is typically vilified for his murky distinction between original and reproductive prints, might better be critiqued for helping to encourage rarity itself as a defining aesthetic category. Of course, in many respects all this was a good thing. It salvaged oddities and helped reconstruct micro-histories that would otherwise have gone unattended. And indeed Bartsch was only recording what the market—with the urging of Mariette—had already begun to seek out on its own. As a dealer in drawings Mariette certainly understood the value of rarity, and by the late 18th-century publishers were issuing impressions “avant la lettre” (occasionally faked), with little treats appended in the form of remarques in the margins as a way to boost profits.

Taken as a model, Le Peintre Graveur expounds a narrower art history, cleaving to the satisfactions of current taste and curiosity more than to mainstream cultural history, that arena in which print studies has often been a pioneer and at times a powerhouse. Although we can all think of exceptions, a cursory survey of collecting and writing about prints from the 1850s to the 1950s would tend to confirm the following profile: a marked restructuring of print collections previously ordered by topic into collections of masterpieces ordered by artist and national school; a bibliography of exhibitions, books, articles and dissertations especially inclined to the study of individual techniques; and a plethora of monographic surveys dedicated to specific artists and regions. Add to this an intense concentration on the more limited aspects of print connoisseurship: discovering new states, chronicling plate and block deterioration, and debating the aesthetics of the ideal impression. These are problems of a largely centripetal nature so far as the historical study of the medium is concerned. At worst, Bartsch’s catalogue pointed us in the direction of turning print curators into taxonomical filing clerks. The more contextually driven investigations of the woodcut with its populist allure took a somewhat different course and in the early 20th century became a field of social and cultural studies. But overall, the study and exhibition of prints—the most widely diverse and broadly interconnected of the many pictorial arts—became ever more concertedly self-interested.

Living Memory

Of course it is neither easy nor comfortable to recognize ourselves in this picture, and there are a good many reasons for that. I would like now to look quickly at three cases that bear on the more recent historiography of print studies where it regained its greater dimension. Let us begin in the auspicious year of 1936, when the philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin, then living in exile in Paris, published a preliminary version of the essay that would eventually make him a household name among print scholars. I mean, of course, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which first appeared in Paris in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung under the editorship of Max Horkheimer at the Institute for Social Research, later known as the Frankfurt School.12 Relatively difficult to find in the United States, Benjamin’s essay did not enter the discussion of prints until 1969 when it first appeared in translation.13 The date is worth noting, as it is no accident that Benjamin’s writings emerged in translation in the immediate wake of the uprisings of 1968 and coincident with a marked turn to the left in the humanities and social sciences.

Adam Bartsch, Self-Portrait (1785), etching, 16.8 x 12.6 cm. The British Museum, London. 1851,0308.947. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Nonetheless, Benjamin’s essay has interest for us as a crucial moment in the historiography of the printed image. There is no space here to discuss the substance of his complex thesis but only to make two points about it. The first is to recognize that Benjamin saw profound social and political implications in the mechanically reproduced image as a medium he identified as an anti-elite form of communication and thus a challenge to the established cultic, literary and artistic canon. Still more important, at the moment he was writing he saw mechanical reproduction as subject to co-option by the disenfranchised, and more specifically as a potential means of subversion within the fascist state. Far from understanding the replicated medium as constituting an independent category of creative expression with its own internal imperatives, he perceived its historical significance as thoroughly embedded in society and politics. And in his own tortured moment it seemed a possible means of creating a sense of common purpose and common identity among the powerless. It bore the potential for revolution. The second point I want to make regarding Benjamin’s thesis is merely a clarification. Contrary to the way in which his essay is usually read by historians of prints, one must not forget that Benjamin’s primary example of replicated imagery is film, not the conventional printed image. He was invoking the notion of art for the masses (Massenkunst), which had become something of a buzzword since the 1920s in Germany. The “mass media” promoted and feared by cultural commentators on the left and the right became a force to reckon with, principally as a result of the perceived effect of printed propaganda during World War I.14

Not quite simultaneously, but strikingly apposite, in 1939 the Partisan Review published Clement Greenberg’s now classic essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” As his career progressed, like many other leftist intellectuals confronting the reality of Stalinism, Greenberg would eventually modify his socialist convictions in line with Trotsky and later the emerging neoconservative views that would gradually come to dominate the Partisan Review in the 1950s.15 In any event, Greenberg’s first major piece of published criticism appeared more or less at the center of that arc. It was during the brief and politically charged years of 1939 and 1940 that his essential ideas began to take shape. In those years Greenberg’s political feet remained firmly on the left and, like Benjamin, he was a fervent and outspoken anti-capitalist.16

Greenberg’s major contribution to modernist art theory for our present purpose can be summarized in the briefest possible terms as follows: the defense of an elite culture against the corruption of popular taste, and assertion of the formalist axiom that an artistic medium should be pursued and evaluated according to the dictates of its own structural imperatives. It is the latter proposition that, for a time, modern painters famously adopted in their acknowledgement of the flatness of the surface and the restrictions of the frame.17 These two premises—the need to maintain the free practice of high art and the pursuit of integrity to medium—served perfectly as justifications for abstraction, Greenberg’s main cause as a critic and defender of American modernism. Both principles also served as an argument for a disinterested aesthetics that divorced art from politics, which is to say a segregation from all explicit content external to itself.

This suddenly presents us with an odd picture, as if Kant were to walk into the room wearing Marx’s greatcoat and sporting a long white beard to announce that the eventual triumph of socialism was at hand, but, for the sake of its own survival, the fine arts should be careful not to get involved. The story of the de-politicization of postwar American modernism has been debated often and cannot be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that a choice was on offer regarding how art should be approached and interpreted in both scholarly and public settings. It is certainly the case that Greenberg, like Benjamin, thought about art in its sociopolitical context even as they came to radically different conclusions. In the end Greenberg seemed to be a kind of isolationist who saw the fragility of high culture and sought to protect it rather than enlist its influence in a subversive cause. He encouraged a retreat into self-containment, and in so doing he also provided a theoretical undergirding for the separation of curatorial responsibilities. The museum preference for the administration of objects by medium is certainly not Greenberg’s doing, and I doubt anyone turned to his criticism as a justification for something that was more or less set by the time he was writing. Nonetheless, one can legitimately claim Greenberg’s formalism as theoretical support for this division of art history even though, as far as I am aware, he never wrote a word about a print.

Greenberg’s proposition about integrity to medium did not exist in a vacuum. There were a number of other theoretically acute arguments for the discrete consideration of works of art according to formal criteria, not least the practice of New Criticism, which likewise extolled self-referentiality as the objective of modern art, indeed art in general.18 The impact of these analytical strategies was profound in American higher education from the 1950s well into the 1970s, and I think it fair to assume that pedagogy in the humanities is still deeply immersed in the close reading of individual texts or works of art. It is an unsurpassed means of providing students with a vocabulary for looking, and it was certainly a constant in my own teaching. But in principle, close reading is meant to establish an acquaintance with a work of art preliminary to talking about it in some larger sphere. This seems to be the part that too often gets lost.

Considered retrospectively, studies of “the media” around the middle of the last century bore a lot of intellectual weight. From Benjamin to André Malraux, William Ivins, Vance Packard, and Marshall McLuhan, contextual analyses of the media took on the popular press, political caricature, photography, advertisement, technical illustration and other ephemera, making a good case for having laid the ground for what—along with its European counterpart Bildwissenschaft—we now refer to cumulatively as “visual culture.” And print studies were once again actively stirring up the historical landscape. Instrumental to this development in America was, of course, William Ivins, the first curator of the print department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the days when it was still called a print department. However much we might disagree with various of Ivins’s often provocative observations, there is no doubt he was among the writers who made the subject of printmaking intellectually gripping, at least for those of us who have worked seriously on prints in recent decades. He is in many ways our local champion. Ivins’s best-known proposition arose out of his interest in scientific and technological progress, by any measure an overwhelming factor in America’s self-image between and after the two world wars. Ivins made accessible the argument that having the same image of the same object simultaneously in the hands of many people in different places was essential to technological advance. That simple proposition (ultimately descending from John Evelyn), together with Ivins’s concept of pictorial syntax, anticipated by a decade Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message.” Ivins’s book Prints and Visual Communication also encouraged the emergence of information theory, something of a vogue both before and after the advent of personal computers.19 Ivins was interested in replication as a form of knowledge.

So Where Are We Now?

Let me now venture into more troubled waters by returning to my query about specialization according to medium. What I often told my interns was that they should think of themselves not as committed to works of art made in a particular medium but rather as art historians with a special interest in these things. Although one can say the distinction is purely rhetorical, there is nevertheless an attitude underlying the emphasis on medium, one that I believe tends to be limiting rather than expansive. Another thing I have noticed is an inclination not only among students but also among curators in other fields to believe that there is something inherently mysterious about dealing with prints, an intimation that they have not been let in on the secret handshake. I have been approached on a few occasions by recent graduates seeking a museum career who felt that they “didn’t understand prints” and wanted to learn more about a field that they openly regarded as somewhat obscure. I think as “print people” we bear some responsibility for encouraging this perception, or at least for not actively discouraging it.

When I entered the field of art history as a graduate student, works on paper were something that one took an interest in mainly in order to find out something else: what Raphael used for source material, how designs got transmitted across the Alps, how popular a particular saint’s cult was, why Degas cropped his compositions the way he did. Almost nobody wrote dissertations on prints, not least because so much of what had been written about them was restricted to catalogues raisonnés and sections of monographs otherwise focusing on “more important” subjects. Now the situation is very different. There are dissertations aplenty as well as exhibitions exploring all manner of historical, social, cultural, economic and political topics through works on paper, along with monographic and thematic installations of the more familiar sort. And the insertion of works on paper into displays of other kinds of objects has become common practice in museums despite the conservational difficulties and additional labor involved. The difference is that in a variety of ways works on paper have been steadily integrated into the larger history of art.

This is crucially important for how curators and art historians understand their role in museums and the academy. As I am sure everyone would agree, defining art history as though it were a running track with the lanes divided off by medium is not a good way to approach the history of artistic production or museum pedagogy. Speaking to the Association of Print Scholars last year, I questioned why no such organization exists for painting or sculpture, although comparable groups do exist for the history of the book and the history of film, domains that have no long tradition of academies to support them. Should we be concerned that the various mediums of replication—those with a history of collusion with the “popular” arts, those that have come last to the hierarchy of artistic practices, those with the taint of secondariness about them, indeed those with a subtle inferiority complex, or perhaps a superiority complex hiding as its opposite—now find a need to organize a union? Is this a progressive or a reactionary move? This is my question, and of course the answer is that it depends on how one goes about it.

Title page from Le Peintre Graveur (Vienna: J.V. Degen, Libraire Place St. Michel, 1802). Collection of the Heidelberg University Library.

Title page from Le Peintre Graveur (Vienna: J.V. Degen, Libraire Place St. Michel, 1802). Collection of the Heidelberg University Library.

To be sure there is a marked satisfaction in being among those who love prints rather than those who would rather look at the things everybody else looks at. The appeal is genuine and infectious. I have experienced it many times myself and, in fact, have deployed the argument that institutions should not hold print exhibitions to the same expectations for viewership that more mainstream productions are expected to attain. I too have argued that prints are typically small things requiring close attention, that they may be ignored altogether and that they should be mounted with the anticipation of a more exclusive audience, a more patient audience, even a more informed audience and therefore an audience that can also be expected to gain more from the experience. But a limited number of viewers is not a reason to construct a limited menu of exhibition topics. Any significant print collection already has, in-house, a much greater range of historical and thematic possibility than is likely to be found in the collections of painting or sculpture. It is simply a matter of numbers. Therefore, if print exhibitions are too often dull, it is not the fault of the medium itself but rather how the medium is interpreted and presented.

We are now at a crossroads in the museum profession, or should I say at yet another crossroads, one that involves constant battling for resources while resisting attempts to lower the bar on scholarship and, by extension, on what we are able to require of the public. To a greater extent than the academy, museums are under pressure to offer more entertainment, although it would be a mistake to say that the professoriate is not experiencing similar pressures. Yet, intentionally or not, the pressure to become generalists is also a pretext to extend our range of thinking, to cross boundaries and to be expansive without risk of professional irresponsibility. Breaking down the curatorial boxes is only one tactic for doing this, although in many situations it may be the most important. Special knowledge of a medium is essentially a post hoc rationale for a scheme that was already in place by the 17th century, long before curatorial staffs became necessary components of museums, and art history departments necessary components of universities. Medium as a basis for curatorial alignments has little foundation in the realities of artistic production. Descending primarily from the preferences of collectors it is an emotional rather than a historical criterion—a matter of love.

Recent developments in professional art history tend to support not just an integrated approach to the study of objects, but an exploding field of materials and kinds of things, including the culture we now loosely refer to as “the media.” One could reasonably argue that in such a universe a primary concern of our field should be the defense of its traditional boundaries: What constitutes a work of art? Where should the limits of a public collection begin and where should they end? What sorts of things are legitimate topics of study? We must acknowledge that these boundaries have, for evident cultural reasons, become much harder to discern, and the old arguments for doing art history by medium are therefore less persuasive. Either way a detailed knowledge of the replicated image and its intricate and widely implicated history is a rich basis for centrifugal thinking.

It is not my intention to diminish the importance of expertise and the considerable education and experience required to gain it. Professionals have rightly insisted that the knowledge of prints is a complex and ever-challenging territory, and that print collections by their very nature require curators who understand the full extent of their holdings, and above all that print curators, in particular, are at risk in the competition for funding. Although these arguments can be applied to every field, they bear especially on prints, which after all are mainly sequestered in their boxes. But the prints in those boxes did not emerge in isolation. The history of prints is part of a much larger field of study and if exclusiveness is used to make a case for standing alone, the battle may well be lost. Among the great strengths of doing art history in a museum is that the nature of a museum is to encourage catholicity.

When I began writing this essay I was bent on composing a sermon on the perils of dividing up the history of art according to medium. I still maintain that concern, but as I went along I found myself talking more and more about the ways in which prints, for credible reasons and almost since the beginning of the art form, have long been granted special status. Nonetheless, we are in an age of cross-disciplinary thinking, and in discussions of “the media,” the replicated visual utterance sits right at the center. This comports with a longstanding inclination of printed matter to be the most sensitive among the arts to respond broadly to its environment, and accordingly to be the most resistant to Kantian appeals for disinterestedness. The history of the replicated image is one of engagement, not exclusivity. That may sound grandiose, but what I mean by it is modestly pragmatic. Most art historians in the academy, at least those concerned with the post-medieval era, now recognize an obligation to acknowledge the replicated image as a forceful dimension of their field. This is the case not just for European art, but also for that of South and East Asia, and Latin America as well. Meanwhile in museums up and down the block, in institutions small and large, public and private, much is being said about the decreasing authority and effectiveness of curatorial staffs, the redistribution of their traditional responsibilities and the diminishment of their ranks. One way to respond to these contractions where they occur is to cross the boundaries of medium and find common cause with one’s fellow art historians—both curators and academics alike—and retain the museum as a place for doing serious art history.

This essay is a revision of the inaugural lecture delivered to the newly founded Association of Print Scholars at the Graduate Center, City College of New York, on September 25, 2015. I would like to express my gratitude to Britany Salsbury, Christina Weyl and their colleagues for the invitation to speak, and also to Susan Tallman for encouraging me to publish the lecture along with responses to its case.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page


  1. Most famously, Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères, ou les moeurs de ce siècle, notes by Louis Van Delft (Paris: Larousse, 1992), 415–16. For further discussion of the peculiarities of print collecting: Peter Parshall, “A Darker Side of Light: Prints, Privacy, and Possession,” in The Darker Side of Light: Arts of Privacy, 1850–1900 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2005), 3–39. []
  2. For a properly skeptical account of speculations about the origins of the print: Peter Schmidt, “The Multiple Image: The Beginnings of Printmaking, between Old Theories and New Approaches,” in Origins of European Printmaking. Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and their Public, compiled by Peter Parshall and Rainer Schoch, et al. (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2005), 37–39. []
  3. Dard Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (2nd ed. rev. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1967). []
  4. Antony Griffiths, “The etchings of John Evelyn,” in Art and Patronage in the Caroline Courts. Essays in Honor of Oliver Millar, ed. David Howarth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 61: “the first manual for the print collector in any language.” []
  5. The biographies of artists compiled by Giorgio Vasari and Karel van Mander are more restricted in their historical and geographical scope, with Vasari presuming to offer a history of all the major arts in modern times, and Van Mander a history of modern painters. Pomponius Gauricus’s treatise on sculpture (1504), though devoted to a single medium, is a theoretical and practical text with limited historical dimension. []
  6. Jean Michel Papillon, Traité historique et pratique de la gravure en bois, 3 vols. (1st ed. 1738; rev. and expanded ed. Paris: Pierre G. Simon, 1766). []
  7. Idée générale d’une collection complette d’estampes (Leipzig and Vienna: J.P. Kraus, 1771). []
  8. Heinecken, Idée générale, 235–52; and Christoph Gottlieb von Murr. Journal zur Kunstgeschichte und zur allgemeinen Litteratur, pt. II (Nuremberg: Johann Eberhard Zeh, 1776), 104–106. []
  9. Schmidt, Origins of European Printmaking, 153–156. []
  10. Murr, part ii (1776), 179. The Renaissance obsession with ingenuity had already put such a premium on the historical importance of invention over necessity that the development of moveable type, so revered in the popular mind, was attributed not just to human intelligence alone, but to the assistance of satanic powers. Peter Parshall, “The Demon in the Press,” Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 2009, 135–147. []
  11. Adam Bartsch, Le Peintre Graveur (Vienna: Imprimerie de J.V. Degen, 1802–21). See most recently Rudolf Rieger, Adam von Bartsch (1757–1821): Leben und Werk des Wiener Kunsthistorikers und Kupferstechers unter besonderer Berücksichtigung seiner Reproduktionsgraphik nach Handzeichnungen, 2 vols. (Petersberg: Michael Imhof, 2014). []
  12. Walter Benjamin, “L’oeuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproduction mécanisée,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, 5 (1936), 40–68. []
  13. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. with an intro. by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217–251. Ivins apparently never encountered this essay, which would have held great interest for him as it contains ideas about medium more fully realized in Prints and Visual Communication (1953). Ivins’s view of photography as the definitive medium of realism is close to Benjamin’s understanding of cinema. Each publication represented a watershed in the history of imitation, and each acquired an authority that seemed unsurpassable. Most recently on Ivins see Peter Parshall, “The Education of a Curator: William Mills Ivins Jr. at the Met,” in The Power of Prints (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), 13–25. []
  14. In the introduction to his 1922 book on the origins of the newspaper, the Reformation historian Karl Schottenloher explains that he was moved to undertake the subject because of the decisive impact of printed propaganda in the prosecution of the war. Schottenloher’s perspective was that of a conservative reacting to what he saw as the pestilential influence of Bolshevism, and in due course his sentiments would fall into line with the National Socialists. Two years later, in 1924, the leftist art historian Hans Fehr published a catalogue of 16th-century broadsheets titled Massenkunst. His view was that the early woodcut broadsheets flooding Europe in the mid– to late–16th century were a form of folk art made for the uneducated. See Parshall, introduction, Origins of European Printmaking, 1-6. []
  15. In effect, the Partisan Review was undergoing an ideological renovation from its opening years as an organ of the American Communist Party to the later, Cold War period of the fifties when it was being secretly underwritten by the C.I.A. This move was sealed by the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, the year “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” appeared. Among his colleagues at the Partisan Review were Philip Rahv, Dwight Macdonald, and Sidney Hook. Greenberg became an editor in 1940. On Greenberg’s political evolution see John O’Brian, introduction, in The Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986–93), vol. 1, xxii–xxiii. []
  16. Greenberg was provoked to write in response to an article on Soviet cinema by Dwight Macdonald, an editor of the Partisan Review, arguing that the Russian avant-garde was being suppressed in favor of a state-sponsored film industry dispensing government propaganda. See Greenberg, “An American View,” published in Horizon (Sept. 1940), O’Brian, vol. 1, 38-41. []
  17. “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” published in Partisan Review (July–August, 1940), O’Brian, vol. 1, 23–38; and “Modernist Painting,” first delivered as a lecture on “Voice of America,” 1960, O’Brian, vol. 4, 85–93. []
  18. A most influential contributor to this arena was Erich Auerbach, a close friend and correspondent of Benjamin’s, who emigrated to the U.S. immediately after the war. The New Critics (Cleanth Brooks, T.S. Eliot, William Wimsatt) were a brand of formalists who set themselves in opposition to Romantic (subjective) modes of appreciation on the one hand, and traditional European philology on the other. Moreover, the theory of genre proposed to great acclaim by the literary critic Northrop Frye in The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957) provided a compelling parallel argument for medium-based criticism. []
  19. Estelle Jussim, Visual Communication and the Graphic Arts: Photographic Technologies in the Nineteenth Century (New York: R. R. Bowker Co., 1974), esp. chap. 1; and Gordon Fyfe, “Art and its Objects: William Ivins and the Reproduction of Photographic Art,” in Picturing Power: Visual Depiction and Social Relations, ed. G. Fyfe and John Law (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 65–98. Jussim’s study is essentially a commentary on Ivins from the perspective of “information theory,” which she regards as initiated by Ivins. Lewis Mumford’s ideas about technology and civilization offer some precedent, as do Marshall McLuhan’s studies of the popular media, although they address sociological and semantic problems not central to Ivins’s purpose. []