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6 minute read
Robert Hughes

Anyone who thinks electronic data storage is going to render print obsolete in the near future should consider Grove’s Dictionary of Art, a 5-ft.-long shelf of 34 dark green-bound bricks of scholarship with a 720,000-item index, just published at the rebarbative price of $8,800 and worth every penny. This is, of course, the sister publication to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which, almost since its publication in 1878, has reigned unchallengeably as the authoritative work in its field. After the relentless barrage of propaganda about information that has been growing in recent years, such a project may seem a noble but obsolete gesture, like the last cavalry charge of World War I–print doing what it does best against overwhelming odds. But it’s nothing of the kind. For several reasons, a work like this cannot be done online or on a CD-ROM at present. Analytical knowledge of this order only runs through the pages of books.

It is hard to resist superlatives about the new Dictionary of Art, the idea for which was approved in 1980 by Harold Macmillan, the former Prime Minister of Britain and owner of the family firm of Macmillan Publishers Ltd., just after the 20-volume sixth edition of the music dictionary was published. (Macmillan, which no longer has ties to the U.S. publisher of the same name, is the parent of Grove’s Dictionaries.) If Macmillan had not been a privately owned company, it’s unlikely that the Dictionary of Art would have gone ahead. The shareholders of a public company in these days of quick publishing fixes would almost certainly have got cold feet at the thought of so ambitious a venture.

If this isn’t the most important art-publishing event of the 20th century, coming right at its end, one would like to know what its plausible competitors are. In fact there aren’t any. In 1969 McGraw-Hill brought out its five-volume Dictionary of Art, still useful but a mere dinghy in comparison with this dreadnought. The ur-art dictionary was begun in 1907 by two German scholars, Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker, but since the publication of its 37th volume in 1950, it has tried to do no more than issue occasional volumes of updates. Even that is a task comparable to repainting the Brooklyn Bridge with a nail-polish brush. Thieme-Becker is not, in any case, translated into English.

The big problem for art-dictionary compilers is simple in its essence but in fact appallingly complex: the explosion of art-historical information in the past half-century. If you graphed its quantity, the line would run almost flat from Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century to John Ruskin in the mid-19th. But in the 20th century, and especially in the past 40 years, the line has gone almost vertical.

The discipline of art history itself is an artifact of the past 100 years. The arts of whole continents–Asia, Africa, South America–became the subject of detailed study. Museums and their collections grew exponentially, and a vast specialized literature cascaded from universities. Questions of race, gender and politics came into the study of art history, along with the more familiar ones of iconography, style, subject matter and patronage. The old division between “high” and “decorative” arts ceased to hold. The once “merely” ornamental object came to be as full of meaning as a nude or ducal portrait. The more that was known about the world’s art, the more there was to know. An obvious example, which suggests the kind of shifting sands on which “definitive” edifices of art history are built, has been the ongoing reattribution of once accepted Rembrandts by a team of Dutch scholars since 1982.

How to make an epitome of all this? The overseer of the vast Grove project, editor and curator Jane Shoaf Turner, embraced its complexities and contradictions, and has done an astonishing job of marshaling the talents of some 6,700 contributors. The Dictionary of Art contains more than 41,000 entries, ranging from a few lines to near books in themselves; the section on frames, for instance, runs 128 pages. Spot checks reveal none of the awful jargon that disfigures so much academic writing; all seems clear and readable, and sometimes even dryly witty. And as you browse it, you realize what an unprecedented effort of distilled and integrated scholarship it represents. Every country in the United Nations has its entry, from Afghanistan (27 pages) to Zimbabwe (3); the overview of the cultures of Africa extends to more than 200 pages.

No more complete guide to the world’s art exists; this is especially true of the range of cultures outside the West, both old and modern, such as Aboriginal Australia, Oceania or ancient Egypt. The discussion of Japanese art, from its earliest beginnings to the 20th century, extends to 431 pages, and it is a brilliant feat of compression even at that length, without a wasted word. Moreover, every major subject has multiple entry points: individual artists, schools, national origin, techniques and so on. There’s no art publication in existence that gives the reader such richness of detail and coherence of organization.

Nor have the editors shirked areas of controversy. It will not, for instance, make Greek nationalists happy to find that the dictionary accepts the antitraditional view that ancient Helladic culture was not created by Greek indigenes but by people who emigrated from what is now Turkey.

Will the dictionary turn into a CD-ROM or arrive on the Internet? Little chance at present. Current search engines are not sophisticated enough to work properly with so vast a project on the Internet. And the big software companies with a foot in encyclopedic publishing are not currently interested in risky and expensive ventures on the scale of this project. For instance, Microsoft’s CD-ROM on the collection of Britain’s National Gallery is a once-over-lightly affair, with some useful student-level cross-references but no real scholarly depth; the same company’s Encarta encyclopedia is done with sound-and-image-bite superficiality, with few entries longer than 500 words.

Moreover, no existing CD-ROM disc has the capacity to hold the dictionary’s vast content–26 million words and all those images. It would take two or possibly three discs to accommodate such a mass of information; under such conditions one of the great merits of a single disc–its enormous power of cross-referencing–would be reduced. Thus what the Grove dictionary represents, now and for the immediate future, is the superiority of the printed page over the virtual image when it comes to delivering high-density, accessible, well-written information on the visual arts.

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