On Scholarship

Cornelis Bloemaert II after Hendrick Bloemaert, An Owl with Books (ca. 1625), engraving, 22.2 x 18.1 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the international word of the year. Two thousand seventeen kicked off with Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” (which many assumed was a gaffe, but now appears to have been a policy statement). We are in free fall. The notion of information as entirely fungible seems to have overtaken any broadly shared consensus about reality. To some degree this situation has been created by purposeful and nefarious manipulation, but it is also the inevitable price of a world awash in more data than any one person can process: how to know whose facts to trust? Which stories have been reported firsthand and which came off a Macedonian fake news assembly line? Or which—like the story of the artist selling invisible art for millions of dollars—were spoofs, picked up and repeated by people and organizations too lazy or credulous to do their homework?1

The solution to this quandary is the same as it always has been: putting aside theory and ideology; learning to look with precision at what lies before us; maintaining unrelenting curiosity about sources and evidence. In a word, scholarship. Anchored by a major, unpublished lecture by Leo Steinberg (1920–2011), this issue of Art in Print celebrates scholarship, as both a social virtue and a source of pleasure.

We launched this journal almost seven years ago with a quote from Steinberg: “Without prints you don’t understand the culture of the world.”2 He was talking about a 16th-century Indian Descent from the Cross made on the model of a Marcantonio Raimondi engraving; both are reproduced in these pages. Steinberg found prints both intriguing in themselves—visual objects whose workings on the mind of the viewer were worth taking apart bit by bit—and as loci for tracing the effectiveness and alteration of ideas across time and space. In 2003, a year after donating some 3,200 prints from his personal collection to the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas, Steinberg gave a lecture titled simply, “What I Like About Prints.” The simplicity was a feint; the lecture was an erudite slalom course that ranged across five centuries and three continents, and drew connections between items as diverse as a Jasper Johns drawing and a 15th-century manuscript illumination. Repeatedly, he pointed out how our fixation with painting has blinded us to essential artistic habits of mind and realities of invention, and he took evident delight in exposing error after error of dating, attribution and explanation, all traceable to an ignorance of prints. Steinberg remains one of the most discussed and provocative art historical thinkers of the 20th century, but—as he might have predicted—his fascination with prints has drawn relatively little attention. We are indebted to Sheila Schwartz and Prudence Crowther for helping us make this important text available to readers.

The other lead article in this issue—Juliet Wilson-Bareau’s discussion of Édouard Manet’s Le Buveur d’Absinthe (The Absinthe Drinker)—is similarly the result of a lifetime’s erudition. It extends our last issue’s theme of art and inebriation into the new year, while digging deep into the history of Manet’s great image in its many iterations—in painting, etching and drawing—illuminating its plangent hold on the artist.

The prints and books of Louise Bourgeois have been the focus of decades of study by MoMA curator Deborah Wye, culminating in the exhibition “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait,” its attendant catalogue and an online reference to the artist’s complete books and editions. Faye Hirsch considers all three, and the intertwined careers of artist and curator.

Adam von Bartsch, the 18th-century artist and librarian often crediting with inventing (and perhaps perverting) the field of print scholarship, is the subject of the multi-author volume Copy.Right: Adam von Bartsch: Kunst, Kommerz, Kennerschaft, reviewed here by Jesse Feiman.

In other essays, Nadine Orenstein offers an overview of contemporary printmaking activity in South Africa, and Catherine Bindman reviews “World War I and the Visual Arts” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibition that united art and artifacts to build a sense of material realities and of their interpretation for purposes of art and politics. Finally, in this issue’s Prix de Print, Christina Weyl selects Nathan Meltz’s dystopian take on John Steuart Curry’s 1942 paean to rural America, Our Good Earth?

The question Nathan Meltz appends to Curry’s original, unquibbled title, is as clear a statement as any about our current situation. Certainty and simplicity like Curry’s make us suspicious; they are the stock-in-trade of propaganda. But incessant uncertainty leads to paralysis. What to do?

Look carefully. Read broadly. Check the footnotes.

  1. In November 2014 the CBC radio show, This is That, broadcast a story, “New York artist creates ‘art’ that is invisible and collectors are paying millions.” Numerous blogs and websites repeated the story in full righteous outrage mode, although the website for the show explains that “This is That is an award winning satirical current affairs show that doesn’t just talk about the issues, it fabricates them”: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thisisthat/new-york-artist-creates-art-that-is-invisible-and-collectors-are-paying-millions-1.2847219. []
  2. Leo Steinberg in Holland Cotter, “Critic’s Notebook: An Audacious Thinker With a Passion for Prints” New York Times, 10 Sept 2002. Quoted in Susan Tallman, “An Introduction: Art in Print,” Art in Print 1, no. 1 (May–June 2011). []