Gombrich, Again

A PAINTER ON FACULTY SOMEWHERE emailed me to regret that Gombrich had become:

. . . a voice that is little heard at the schools in which I’ve taught. . . . “The Visual Image:  Its Place in Communication” is particularly good in throwing students for a loop; “On Art and Artists” is nice, too.  There’s only one other instructor at [Anonymous U], as far as I know, who introduces Gombrich to the students.  Otherwise, his books are gathering dust in the library.  A shame and a loss.

Just so. A shame and a loss. What accounts for it? Could it be that Gomrich is simply too accessible, too readable for an academy dedicated to impenetrable jargon? For all his high scholarship, Gombrich is aways intelligible. His writing is democratic in the best sense of the word. He never patronizes by lapsing into a crude demotic. But he does forswear all hint of pretension or what he considers the “vice” of bogus sentimentality:

I have striven sincerely to . . . use plain language even at the risk of sounding casual or unprofessional. Difficulties of thought, on the other hand, I have not avoided, and so I hope that no reader will attribute my decision to get along with a minimum of the art historian’s conventional terms to any desire on my part of ‘talking down’ to him. For is it not rather those who misuse ‘scientific language,’ not to enlighten but to impress the reader, who are ‘talking down’ to us—from the clouds?

That last sentence is critical. It should be copied out and pasted over the desk of every art writer and every consumer of cultural stuffs. What is forgotten in the avalanche of cant and high-sounding fustian that passes for art “discourse,” that clear thinking and clear language are twins.



I keep returning to the comment, also from the preface to The Story of Art, in which he explains his reasons for selecting what he writes about. First, he limited himself to those works he could illustrate. Then:

This led to my second rule, which was to limit myself to real works of art, and to cut out anything which might merely be interesting as a specimen of taste or fashion. This decision entailed a considerable sacrifice of literary effects.

Implicit here is an undisguised judgment that much of what passes on the contemporary scene [His was 1960.] is not real art. You can take issue with that if you like. But it is refreshing to have a contrarian stance boldly enunciated. And, of course, a stance that suited Gombrich half a century ago, is even more to the point today. Lastly—and this is the part I like best—he acknowledges the unspoken fact that so much artwriting is nothing more than a variant of belles lettres. It is creative writing under another name. This is true of reviews, of catalogue essays, monographs, theological and sociological reflections on the role of art, and even run-of-the-mill artist’s biographies. Gombrich’s acknowledgment of the falsity of  applied belle-lettrism—those literary effects—is oblique but it is there.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey

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