December 2003


Carol Strickland
The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History From Prehistoric to Post-Modern
Andrews and McMeel, 1992. Paperback, $22.95

Not Smart about Art

by Louis Torres

Want to be "smart about art"? Or, to put it in non-hip language, would you like to learn more about painting and sculpture, to increase your understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of art? One way to do so is to study its history, both to discover hitherto unknown works and to deepen your knowledge of works already familiar. The standard surveys--hefty hardcover volumes of a thousand pages or more--amply reward both casual perusal and systematic study of the art of each major era, from prehistory to the near present, but their sheer size can be daunting to readers accustomed to more easily digestible fare. It is no surprise, therefore, that in this age of MTV-cultivated attention spans and diverse books "for Dummies," a 198-page paperback book entitled The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern, has found a broad audience.

I do not mean to suggest that a brief survey of art history could not serve as a legitimate introduction to, or reminder of, the rich legacy of visual art. But is this one any good? I have elsewhere suggested that the contents of some books can be judged fairly by their cover alone. The Annotated Mona Lisa (which is not about Leonardo's Mona Lisa, annotated or otherwise) is a case in point. Its cover features a color image of "the world's most famous painting," bordered by a series of mostly inane, and often misleading, annotations, among them:

Note Gauzy Veil. Leonardo pioneered sfumato, or the layering of thin translucent glazes "in the manner of smoke without lines or borders." / Great Eye Contact. Contrast with coy smile helps create the mystery. / Leonardo DaVinci. Painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, inventor, scientist. Good idea man but bad on follow-through. Most works unfinished. . . . / Great Hands. Leonardo studied anatomy. Dissected bodies to reproduce human form precisely.

On the back cover, under the heading "How to Be Smart about Art," the reader is told that The Annotated Mona Lisa "takes art history out of the realm of dreary textbooks to a world of dynamic design, succinct page-length essays, and instructive sidebars." These "graphic devices" are said to "heighten the reader's ability to retain an impressive amount of information, even through a cursory reading."

Who would turn to such a book? Lots of people, it seems--from well-meaning elementary-school teachers seeking to introduce their students to the world's great art, to high-schoolers prepping for Advanced Placement tests, college students looking for quick fixes, and unwary bookstore browsers seeking self-improvement. Even the Forbes magazine book club urges "the world's business leaders" to read The Annotated Mona Lisa, and be "smart about art." After eleven years in print, the book still attains an impressive four-figure ranking on the website. Were it not for this apparently enduring popularity, it would not warrant mention here, much less an in-depth critique.

Rather than attempt a comprehensive review of The Annotated Mona Lisa, I will focus on select portions dealing with topics of particular concern to Aristos--namely, Strickland's notion of what art is, and her treatment of architecture, photography, abstract painting and sculpture, and work falling under the rubric "postmodernism," as art.

What Is Art?

Unlike the authors of the art historical surveys I alluded to above, Strickland does not begin her text by asking What is art? Instead, she poses the question near the end of the book, in the heading of a sidebar related to her brief discussion of Abstract Expressionism. She herself does not attempt to define the term art, preferring instead to quote, as authoritative, "some attempts by a number of people"--including the robotic Pop icon Andy Warhol--who, "when asked if his six-hour-long film of a man sleeping [entitled Sleep] was art," replied: "'Well, first of all, it was made by an artist, and second, that would come out art.'"

Strickland introduces this and three other non-definitions with the following assertion: "For centuries, a debate has raged over what art is." One would be hard pressed to find a more blatantly false claim in a work of purported art history than this. Can she be unaware of the meaning of the term debate? Since the advent of abstraction in the first decade of the twentieth century, avant-garde work has indeed generated much controversy. But debate requires proponents on both sides of a controversial issue, and in this case virtually all art critics and scholars are of a single mind--art, in effect, is whatever anyone in the artworld says it is. By this measure, there has been no public debate at all on the question, What is art?--much less one that has "raged."

Even more egregious is Strickland's claim that such a debate has been under way for centuries (by which she must mean as far back as, say, the Renaissance). Her "stretcher" (as Huck Finn might put it) is reminiscent of that of philosopher Marcia Eaton, who once asked a class of art teachers whether hanging a cake pan in a museum and calling it Women's Destiny would make it art (it would, to her way of thinking) and claimed that people have been struggling with such questions for "thousands of years." Are we to believe that ancient Egyptians, for example, engaged in such speculation?

Architecture as Art

Strickland's confusion over the nature of art is especially evident in her treatment of architecture. In the Introduction of The Annotated Mona Lisa the unsuspecting reader is told that "like music, art is a universal language." Since the Mona Lisa, pictured on the front cover, is a painting, and the back cover illustrates one work of sculpture, three paintings (one abstract), and a building that appears to be covered by scaffolding (identified inside as the Centre Pompidou [more] in Paris) one is likely to assume that by the term "art" Strickland means painting, sculpture, and architecture. Her discussion is marred by inconsistency and contradiction, however. The first signs appear early on:

Art was born around 25,000 years ago. . . . With greater intelligence came imagination and the ability to create images in both painting and sculpture. Architecture came into being with the construction of ritual monuments.

So, does art include architecture, or is architecture something different? Strickland moves unthinkingly between the two views without skipping a beat. She says, for example, that "for thousands of years . . . these three art forms--painting, sculpture, and architecture--embodied the ambitions, dreams, and values of their cultures," and that "the history of art is . . . a story of the varied forms the imagination has taken in painting, sculpture, and architecture." Yet she also observes that "artists became increasingly accomplished in representing the human figure," and that "the human figure was the principal motif of Greek art." Subsequently, she refers to "an unparalleled level of excellence in art, architecture, poetry [and] drama" in ancient Greece--again implying that art and architecture are different pursuits. Likewise, her reference to "Greek art and architecture" implies a distinction between the two. Pity the poor reader who has inferred that "art" encompasses architecture.

Strickland begins by asserting that architecture "came into being with the construction of ritual monuments." Under the heading "First Architecture," she further explains that when "early human beings emerged from caves . . . they began crafting the first monumental 'sculpture,'" and that "as early as 5,000 B. C., colossal architecture of massive, upright stones appeared." She cites as examples the megaliths in the Carnac region of France, most likely "associated with worships of the sun or moon," and Stonehenge, in England (that country's first "rock group," she quips). Finally, she refers to the ancient Egyptian builder of pyramids, Imhotep (often considered the first architect), as the "first recorded artist."

Photography as Art

Strickland's discussion of photography is as problematical as her treatment of architecture. "In the early nineteenth century," she claims, "scientific discoveries in optics and chemistry converged to produce a new art form: photography." Not so. Photography began as a strictly scientific invention. As Susan Sontag observes in On Photography, it was "a means of easing the burden of ever-accumulating information and sense impressions," and the photographer was thought of as "an acute but non-interfering observer--a scribe, not a poet." Claims for photography as an art form came later.

Strickland traces the early history of photography in a mere four paragraphs, citing and illustrating the first surviving photograph (from 1826), by the French chemist Joseph Nicephore Niépce, as well as examples by two of its two most eminent pioneers--the Frenchman Louis Daguerre (whom, she notes, "inadvertently took the earliest known photograph of a human being" in 1839) and the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot (who invented the photo negative that same year). Following her account of photography's early years, Strickland devotes three pages to its uses as a would-be art form. Even casual readers may wonder, however, why photography is art, when they read her account of various "types of popular photography"-- which include travel photography (documenting the pyramids of Egypt, "Old Faithful," the Grand Canyon, and so on), war photography (on Matthew Brady, whose 7,000 negatives "brought home the horrors of the Civil War"), documentary photography (exemplified by the work of police reporter and "muckraking photojournalist" Jacob Riis (his photograph of three sleeping children is illustrated), portrait photography (that of Nadar [more], who captured images of such French luminaries as the actress Sarah Bernhardt), and, not least, what she refers to as art photography, as in the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. But is not all photography art in her view?

Near the end of her book, in a section entitled "Photography Comes of Age," Strickland discusses such iconic works as Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage (1907)--"the first time a documentary photo reached the level of conscious art in America." According to her characterization, the photograph shows an ocean liner's upper-class passengers (in the top half) as "mostly in the dark . . . formal and faceless," and the poor immigrant families below "with strong light spotlighting their humanity." This is sheer rubbish. Rich people are no less possessed of "humanity" than the poor. Stieglitz captured the scene exactly as he found it--merely varying the exposure ever so slightly in different prints. The poorly reproduced photograph in The Annotated Mona Lisa indeed suggests that the first-class passengers are "faceless," shrouded in darkness, but, in truth (as anyone who has seen original prints knows, and as online images indicate), these passengers are no less brightly lit than the immigrant families in its lower portion.

Another photograph illustrated is Children Playing in Ruins (1933), by the acclaimed French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson. "Some of his images are so startling," Strickland gushes, "they seem to be the result of pure chance." Seem to be? In truth, they are largely the products of chance, notwithstanding the fact that Cartier-Bresson's "odd croppings were carefully composed," and that he made split-second decisions just when to snap the picture (to capture what he famously called "'the decisive moment'"). Ironically, Strickland's view that his photographs are art flies in the face of Cartier-Bresson's own emphatic declaration that photography is a craft--"an artisan's thing."

"Abstract Art"

Strickland's first reference to so-called abstract art in The Annotated Mona Lisa is in the context of her account of the great nineteenth-century English painter J. M. W. Turner--which she entitles "Turner: A Turn towards Abstraction." She asserts that the artist's style "gradually became more abstract as he attempted to make color alone inspire feeling." Her claim is belied by her description and illustration of one of Turner's paintings, however--Rain, Steam, and Speed--The Great Western Railway (1844), "in which he "eliminated detail to concentrate on the essential form of a locomotive speeding over a bridge toward the viewer." Hardly "color alone," yet Strickland persists:

Although Turner never considered himself an abstract painter, paintings discovered after his death contain no recognizable subject whatsoever, just swirling masses of radiant color. . . . Turner pushed the medium of paint to its expressive limit. His last works anticipate modern [abstract] art in which paint itself is the only subject.

Of course Turner did not think of himself as an "abstract painter"! How could he, when the idea of abstract painting was conceived some six decades after his death? Not surprisingly, Strickland cites no examples of paintings by him in which there is no recognizable form, only color. Instead she perpetuates one of the more notorious myths of contemporary criticism--the notion that the work of some acclaimed pre-twentieth-century artists was a precursor of abstract painting.

In sharp contrast, Simon Wilson--a curator at the Tate Collection (London), the major repository of Turner's work--offers this view of Turner's late style:

Even in the most private, least-finished pictures there is never that detachment from outward reality that is now called abstract. On the contrary: he evolved with poetic freedom the real quality of the world. In the sumptuous style that reached its height in the mid 1830s, the material of nature was translated into resounding chords of colour. Then, particularly in the pictures that remained in Turner's studio, specific colour gradually dissolved into a general medium of vision, like a bright vapour--the hue of lucent air. There is rarely any doubt about the things represented, but they are formed out of a common elemental medium that washes over and through them.

Inexplicably, Strickland does not use the term "abstract painting" as a subheading in the chapter entitled "The Twentieth Century: Modern Art," though an image of Mark Rothko's aptly named Blue, Orange, Red (1961) is prominently displayed beside the chapter's title, which just happens to be set in red. (The poor reader does not learn who painted it or what it is called until thirty-eight pages later, when the image is repeated under the heading "Color Field," a term used to characterize a style of abstract painting.) The first abstract painter Strickland discusses, in a section also devoted to the "distorted, exaggerated" realist forms of Expressionist painters, is Wassily Kandinsky--the "first to abandon any reference to recognizable reality in his work"--whose work is illustrated by Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle) (1913). (See "Kandinsky and His Progeny," by Michelle Kamhi, for more on this abstract pioneer.)

Though the section on Kandinsky is entitled "Inventor of Abstract Art," Strickland oddly does not use the term "abstract" at all in her discussion of that other pioneer of abstract painting, Piet Mondrian--who rates his own page and images of three paintings (including one similar to Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, from 1921). Strickland instead uses the arcane term Neo-Plasticism for the "severe art of pure geometry" that Mondrian practiced--a term which would have little meaning for the beginning art history student (see ArtLex for a definition).

Strickland's discussion of Abstract Expressionism is marred by clichés and unsupported assertions. She claims, for example, that this type of painting "is to conventional artistic technique what jazz is to 4/4 time," and dismisses the ordinary viewer's skeptical view of such work with the following patronizing gibe:

While one might look at a painting of Jackson Pollock [1912-56] . . . and say, "I don't get it," that would be like criticizing jazz great Charlie Parker for not following a tune.

No, it would not be like that. No one "gets" Pollock's work [see, for example, Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)], not even so-called experts. New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman reflects the view of most of his fellow critics when he says that "pure abstract painting, which [Pollock] brought to a peak, remains the most difficult art for many people to grasp." Kimmelman unwittingly reveals his own inability to understand Pollock's work when he asks "What is a Pollock about?" and answers with this lament: "The question troubled even him."

Virtually everyone gets the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, however. Both his interpretations of others' music and his own compositions make sense to most listeners, who grasp the music, even if intuitively, because recognizable "tunes" (to quote Strickland), or melodies, are an integral part of it--and "follow" these tunes he did, even in improvisation, whether in standards such as "All the Things You Are" (1939), with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II [sample, first, a rendition by the incomparable jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, then one by Parker and "friends"], or in his own works, as, for example, "Parker's Mood." As one critic notes: "While the solos do contain much melodic [improvisation], Parker's ear was still engaged by the melody of the original song." Another observes that "his music reached . . .a high level of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic sophistication."

Among the other "best known, most widely appreciated" Abstract Expressionists cited by Strickland is Willem de Kooning--who, she states, had a "solid background in academic painting and an ability to draw like [Jean Auguste Dominique] Ingres" (1780-1867). To judge the absurdity of this claim, one need only compare drawings by de Kooning and Ingres. One painting by de Kooning--Woman 1 (1950-52)--is illustrated in The Annotated Mona Lisa, none by Ingres.

"Contemporary Art"

In the final chapter of her book, entitled "The Twentieth Century and Beyond: Contemporary Art," Strickland covers such topics as Pop Art and Minimalism ("The Cool School")--as well as conceptual art, which she explains as follows:

In simple terms: if a creative idea is fundamental to art, then producing an actual object provoked by that idea is superfluous. Art resides in the core concept, not the practical work. . . . Conceptualists . . . eliminated the art object altogether.

Not quite. "Conceptual Artists do create works," Strickland acknowledges, "but they barely resemble traditional art." Anyone learning about such work for the first time is bound to be confused by her account. And what is the hapless reader to make of Strickland's further explanation that "any action or thought can be considered conceptual art" (emphasis added)? A few examples might help. One person she cites "ran a Canadian Kosher restaurant as an artwork"; another "obsessively records how she spends each moment of her life"; still another "[roamed] SoHo streets [in New York City] wearing nothing but a loin cloth and mud"; Joseph Beuys [more] [more] "held a weeklong conversation with a coyote"; Vito Acconci "crushed live cockroaches on his belly"; and Walter de Maria once mused as follows about an imagined project of "Process Art" (in which the process, not the final product, is important), discussed by Strickland as a type of Conceptual Art:

I have been thinking about an art yard I would like to build. It would be sort of a big hole in the ground. Actually, it wouldn't be a hole to begin with. That would have to be dug. The digging of the hole would be part of the art.

Strickland omits the rest of de Maria's fantasy, which I quote here from a 2001 MFA thesis by a student at the Parsons School of Design:

"Luxurious stands would be made for the art lovers and spectators to sit in. The[y] would come to the making of the yard in tuxedos. . . . Then in front of the stand of people a wonderful parade of steam shovels and bulldozers would pass. Pretty soon steam shovels will begin to dig. And small explosions would go off. . . . From here on out what goes on can't easily be said. (It is hard to explain art). As the yard gets deeper and its significance grows, people will run into the yard, grab shovels, do their part, dodge explosions. This might be considered the first meaningful dance."

"Art Yard" was never realized by de Maria--what a spectacle its premiere would have been!--but other less theatrical works by him have been, such as The New York Earth Room (1977) and The Lightning Field (1977).

It is indeed "hard to explain" these sorts of demented projects, and Strickland does not even try. Like most contemporary writers on the arts, she is acutely aware that in the real world, conceptualism (like abstraction) is a hard sell. As she observes, "much of the public's you-call-that-art? skepticism has been in direct response to the extremism of some contemporary art." Yes it has, and that should tell her something. Perhaps it does, for she earlier made this unwittingly candid remark: "A lot of what is called art is so outlandish, it stretches the credulity and sabotages one's appreciation of it."

Its clumsy syntax aside, this is a remarkable statement. That Strickland explicitly refers to "a lot of what is called art," rather than "a lot of art," is an implicit acknowledgment that such stuff is not art. In truth, it is not the outlandishness of bogus art that disturbs so many ordinary people, but the fact that the work is called "art" by the artworld.

"What's Happening Now"

The final page of The Annotated Mona Lisa, entitled "What's Happening Now," begins with Strickland's observation that "art in the 90s, like life in the 90s, reflects the unsettled twilight of the twentieth-century. It offers questions more than answers, challenges more than certainty." In the words of the contemporary painter Mark Tansey, whom she quotes by way of elaboration: "A painted picture is a vehicle. You can sit in your driveway and take it apart or you can get in it and go somewhere."

Thus enlightened, the reader is left to peruse an annotated list of some twenty-six of "the Up-and-Comers on the scene today, and the style that put them on the map"--including, oddly, old-timer Nam June Paik [more], the father of so-called video art. More than a decade has passed since Strickland compiled her list, and I still have not heard of ten of the future art stars she cites, though they may be known to contemporary art critics who follow such matters more closely than I.

The publisher of The Annotated Mona Lisa says that Strickland is "uniquely qualified to conduct this layman's tour of art history" (which, tellingly, devotes a third of its text to twentieth-century modernist and postmodernist movements). That may be the case if all one aspires to is being hiply "smart about art." But anyone seeking more than superficial and misleading information about the history of art, especially that of the twentieth century--not to mention a deepened appreciation of the history of art of all previous centuries--would do well to invest the extra time and effort, and look elsewhere.

About Strickland

Aside from reporting that Strickland holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, in an unspecified field, her publisher notes only that she has written "regular feature articles" in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, Art & Antiques magazine, and "numerous other popular publications." In 2001, she published a second book--not surprisingly entitled The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture, also published by Andrews and McMeel.