I would like to recommend Paul Johnson’s “Art – a new history” to anyone who enjoys well-written thought-provoking books, treating elevated or even daunting subjects (and world art history belongs to one of them) from an adorably challenging, personal perspective.
Johnson’s essay-like reflections are likely to make your brows rise highly, when – for example – he slides unashamedly through ‘big’ names and ‘important’ art movements paying attention to only few chosen ones and ridiculing or ignoring the rest; sometimes you cannot help smiling when this critic’s wit and an unique world (should write art-) view makes you think twice if he is not, by a chance or his genius, right in his bold or challenging hypotheses.
Generally, it’s a refreshing, pleasant lecture; one of those few titles when a brick-like considerable volume just melts down under your excited perusal. And there is no worry that yet another author fascinated with an artist A or a style B will try to establish some new hagiographies or just to repeat the old ones, as dozens of polite, academic records on art history do. Only universal category here for art to be one is its ”fineness” and without a wishy-washy talk about the beauty lying in ”the eyes of a beholder” (this is quite modern view, based on a belief in the omnipresent relativity and subjectivity of everything) – there is a magnificence, grace and mystery in the finest examples of artworks as old as tens of thousands of years or just new-born, that appeal with a big force and immediately to any ‘ordinary’ individual. For Paul Johnson nothing less than these awesome and very rare productions of human spirit and hand can be called ‘fine art’ and be worthy of a deeper consideration.
I find his concept of “Fashion Art” especially stirring. This kind of art (but ‘fine’ only with few exceptions) is focused on the social conformity and novelty for the sake of novelty; it – just like fashion – keeps on changing wanting to be popular and ‘stylish’, all at the expense of its real content and quality/aesthetics. The author understands most of the contemporary art (beginning from Cubism) to be the “Fashion Art”. Disputable? Anyway, it’s hard to ignore the attractiveness of this view.
Obviously I wouldn’t suggest reading Johnson’s on his own in order to obtain an acceptable knowledge on a theme – as clever and as his ‘art history’ appears is just too biased, too idiosyncratic to serve as a compendium, nor it was meant to be.