Paul Johnson's ART A Conservative's Twist on the Arts

Reply Thu 2 Oct, 2003 12:47 pm
Paul Johnson who wrote the editorialized history of the United States, "A History of the American People" and an Englishman who converted from Liberalism to Conservative has published a book on art that is summed up by the Publisher's Weekly review (and likely kinder that some other book reviewers I could imagine). I wonder what he thinks of Kincaid?

From Publishers Weekly
Having produced in a fairly short span equally weighty histories of the Jewish diaspora, the modern world and America, as well as a number of smaller books and a stream of articles, near-septuagenarian Johnson, historian, journalist, conservative gadfly and Sunday painter, has produced a massive and contentious history of art. Johnson (Intellectuals) is a product not of the cloistered academy but of the rough-and-tumble world of British journalism (before his conversion to Toryism he edited the left weekly New Statesman). While his narrative is for the most part a conventional journey through the canon, his headlong pace, quirky views and pungent prose make it anything but dull. The quick, forceful judgments Johnson makes on the art and artists he encounters are always amusing and sometimes enlightening, particularly his attention to the undervalued "regional" realist traditions of the 19th century. But the tone of constant bluff provocation can become wearying, and the book's putative polemical mission-to help develop an appreciation of art that would help "society defend itself against cultural breakdown"-doesn't really make itself felt until the book's last and weakest section, a rather scanty section on modernism and postmodernism that is pure New Criterion-style cultural conservatism. All writers of single volume art histories must contend with the rightly ubiquitous and magisterial Janson and Gombrich, and despite its wealth of free-flowing ideas and 300 handsome reproductions, Johnson's book (which also lacks a bibliography and footnotes) simply cannot compete. But as a passionate amateur's personal survey, the first seven-eighths of Johnson's history bring a refreshing sense of bluntness to an often staid tradition.
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Reply Thu 2 Oct, 2003 01:22 pm
Mr. Johnson should have stopped after publishing the Birth of the Modern. That was, to my mind, one of the best overview books on the subject.

However... his American history is so filled with errors and sloppy scholarship that it is almost worse than no history at all.

Not to provide extensive footnotes, notes, bibliography and a detailed index is unforgivable in serious non-fiction work. Oh well.
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Reply Thu 2 Oct, 2003 01:41 pm
Agreed -- he is a journalistic writer and it shows through. His perchance to digress in his American history needed the hand of a good editor. It was a long commentary on American history, not a history. I would expect the same out of this book and I've heard it all before.
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