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The Absolute Artist

The Historiography of a Concept

1997
Author:

Catherine M. Soussloff

The Absolute Artist

Analyzes the myth of the artist in western culture.

Iconoclastic, temperamental, and free from the constraints of society, the towering figures of the artist-genius have been treated as fixed icons regardless of historical context or individual situation. Challenging this view, Catherine M. Soussloff considers the social construction of the artist from the fifteenth century to the present.

“A learned and insightful inquiry into a central founding myth of the discipline of art history.” --Michael Ann Holly, University of Rochester

The discipline of art history, as well as the public concept of art, has been tied since the Renaissance to unchallenged, basically historicist assumptions about artists, biography, development, and expression. Yet neither the historical roots nor the methodological consequences of these assumptions have received careful analysis. Learned, up-to-date, and well written, The Absolute Artist thus fills a gap that is more like a chasm.

Larry Silver, Northwestern University

The myth of the artist-genius has long had a unique hold on the imagination of Western culture. Iconoclastic, temperamental, and free from the constraints of society, these towering figures have been treated as fixed icons regardless of historical context or individual situation. In The Absolute Artist, Catherine M. Soussloff challenges this view in an engaging consideration of the social construction of the artist from the fifteenth century to the present.

Traditional art history has held that the concept of the artist-genius arose in the Enlightenment. Soussloff disputes this, arguing that earlier writings—artists’ biographies written as long ago as the early fifteenth century-determined and continue to determine our understanding of the myth of the artist. Moving chronologically, Soussloff shifts from fifteenth-century Florence to nineteenth-century Germany, the birthplace of the discipline of art history in its academic form, and considers the cultural historiography of Aby Warburg and Jacob Burckhardt. She discusses intellectual life in early-twentieth-century Vienna, demonstrating the rich cross-fertilization that occurred between art history and psychoanalysis, and scrutinizes the historical situation of Jewish art historians and psychoanalysts in Vienna in the 1930s, considering the impact of exile and an assimilationist ethic on the discourse of art history.

Soussloff concludes with a groundbreaking analysis of one of the earliest and most persistent elements of biography, the “artist anecdote,” demonstrating that it is essential in the construction of the figure of the artist. Singular in its breadth and ambition, The Absolute Artist is the first book to analyze the artist’s biography as a rhetorical form and literary genre rather than as an unassailable source of fact and knowledge.

The Absolute Artist

Catherine M. Soussloff is associate professor of art history and visual culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Absolute Artist

Put simply, Soussloff wants to bring art history up to speed with other contemporary forms of historiography.

New Art Examiner

The discipline of art history, as well as the public concept of art, has been tied since the Renaissance to unchallenged, basically historicist assumptions about artists, biography, development, and expression. Yet neither the historical roots nor the methodological consequences of these assumptions have received careful analysis. Learned, up-to-date, and well written, The Absolute Artist thus fills a gap that is more like a chasm.

Larry Silver, Northwestern University

Soussloff’s major premise is that the myth of the artist and its textual embodiment in anecdotal biography have changed little since the Renaissance. She asks whether the biography of the artist can be held in privileged and isolated status from other written sources without profound consequences for the institutional nature of the discipline and the tenets of its more basic beliefs concerning art and art history. Obviously, a big no is the answer, and Soussloff shows us why. A learned and insightful inquiry into a central founding myth of the discipline of art history.

Michael Ann Holly, University of Rochester

This densely textured, perceptive study of the ‘artist’ as a variably construed, transcultural entity is a distinct accomplishment. Soussloff seeks to locate the ‘artist’ in the discourse of history to establish the conception of his/her role as a significant cultural figure and its subsequent evolution as a protean concept, thereby revealing changing attitudes about the nature of artistic creativity and its reception. . . . An excellent work of critical analysis.

Choice

The Absolute Artist makes an important, if sometimes unsettling, contribution to the expanding field of art historiography. As Soussloff makes clear, art historiography cannot proceed until the political, economic, and philosophical origins of the discipline have been acknowledged and analyzed. We may hope that the appearance of The Absolute Artist marks the beginning of an overdue inquiry into art history’s disciplinary history.

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

An important book about which much is going to be said; The Absolute Artist is a significant work because it undertakes an analysis of one of art history’s central notions through one of its foundational genres. Soussloff explores how our concept of the artist has been constructed through the genre of the artist’s biography.

Canadian Art Review