Art Through the Ages
“Who controls the past controls the future.
Who controls the present controls the past.”
— George Orwell
For most students’ first college-level Art History class, “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages” is the required textbook purchase, now in its 16th edition since first being published in 1926.
Re-editioning textbooks is a typical practice in the publishing industry, sending professors and students always searching for the most up-to-date edition before the start of a semester, providing the latest and greatest information available for coursework. Finding the latest editions in used condition can be a frustrating experience and whether new or used…expensive, typically costing students more than a hundred dollars per textbook.
Is this price gap between editions worth it for professors and students if the gap between editions is only two or three years? Let’s compare the 1st and 16th editions of “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages” to find what nearly a century has done to the style, structure, and communication code of this historical textbook to learn whether all the re-editioning racket is worth the publisher’s time and students’ often borrowed money.
Old & New
We know not to judge books by their covers, but at first glance, the differences between these books are drastic. The 1st edition’s dark teal canvas wrapping the hardback cover is embossed by a small golden oval containing a flying heron, a large local bird of the Midwest. The icon was appropriated from a hand-engraved coin by Dexamenos, a 5th-century Greek coinmaker, which is featured in the book. Gardner’s first edition fits nicely in the hands, is easily portable, and looks like any other fiction or nonfiction book you‘d from the 1920s. In fact, if you were looking at a row of books published in the ’20s on a bookshelf, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from one other without reading the title on the spine.
Helen Gardner (1978–1946) wrote the first edition while teaching Art History at the Art Institute of Chicago. The idea arose while searching for a good art history textbook to prescribe her new students and found a lack of adequate textbooks, so she created her own. Her first edition appears like any other book from its time yet it was the first of its kind. Large, picture-heavy textbooks weren’t common back then because the printing press was a relatively newer invention and there was a limited capability to print color pages in a cost-efficient way.
By contrast, the 16th edition is twice as large at 9 x 12” and 2.2” thick, decorated from edge to edge of its covered with a cropped photo of Johannes Vermeer’s classically painted Allegory of the Art of Painting, antiquated with a clean Helvetica typeface delivering the book’s title, author, and edition number in a block fit together like a puzzle of different weights and sizes. The book is uncomfortable to hold in the hands and impossible to leaf through while holding with two hands. The thought of shouldering the 1,264 glossy-pages plus hardcover in a backpack is cringe-worthy… this book belongs on a coffee table.
Inside, the layouts vary drastically. The first edition features 30 chapters on rich bond paper with spacious margins surrounding each spread. The texture of the paper feels organic with layouts comprised of roughly 60% text, 40% black & white images and diagrams. There’s a group of 4 color photographs obviously created using film photography near the end of the book. The typography presents one serif type in a variety of weights, capitalization styles, and sizes, comprising 5 levels of hierarchy.
When leafing through the 37 chapters of the 16th edition, readers are met with glossy, thick paper featuring a wide range of colorful diagrams, graphs, and photographs presenting the world’s historically significant artworks in context with text composing 40% of the book and images 60%. The typography is varied; a mixture of sans serif and serif typefaces of different sizes, weights, and capitalization styles comprise a dynamic 23 levels of hierarchy.
In effect, Gardner’s first edition is text-driven while the 16th is image-driven, creating two entirely different reading and viewing experiences.
‘The Roaring 20’s’ knew nothing of abstract expressionism, Andy Warhol, or Banksy. It knew nothing of nuclear bombs, postmodernism, the internet, The Dead Sea Scrolls, or Standard of Ur. These milestones were unimaginable to Gardner standing in front of her students. As a result of the era, the first edition describes artworks as they should be understood, complete with diagrams about how to view and understand space, form, and other elements that make a picture to the Western mind.
By design, the 16th edition provides a contextual history for each continent and country; respectful of culture & society from where art originates around the world. Postmodernism, a perspective presupposing hierarchies of values and frames of references is so omnipresent, a student facing such a heap of information faces a void of an author’s narrative. By sifting through timelines diagrams, geographical maps, and vibrant photographs, content must be deciphered and contextualized by the student, placing the responsibility of perspective in the student’s hands. Gardner’s first edition is the opposite—it’s clear she believes herself to be the authoritative voice of Art History who shares a thoroughly researched story to the reader.
Now, Gardner passed away in 1986, so who’s writing are we reading in the 16th edition? None other than Fred Kleiner’s… whose C.V. is decorated with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, over 100 published articles, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a slew of other scholarly accomplishments. To be as decorated as Kleiner in a population that has tripled since 1926, it’s worth nothing academia has become three times as competitive… his perspective of knowledge and history must be as postmodern as the times we live in. After all, his career depends on it.
The bottom line… the latest edition is philosophically more accessible for a student opening up a book instead of a laptop. If the dated authoritative narrative of Gardner’s first edition is preferred against the multifaceted perspective of the 16th, the reader’s perspective would be blunted by comparison.
IPads, Kindles, Audible, and Amazon have uplifted the publishing industry. Both of these books are artifacts from academics who researched, wrote, and collected information intended to be shared on physical paper. In 2019, the average person spends 277 minutes on their phones per day, checking it on an average of 77 times, engaging with media that responds. If the entirety of either of these books’ content were hyperlinked, interactive, and available online, much like Wikipedia (which demolished the need of Encyclopedia Britannica book collections) students would be engaged in a way they’re already familiar with. Further, if a painting could be zoomed in to be viewed more closely, a sculpture rotated to be viewed from a different perspective, and a human voice audibly translating the language of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to English, why has this technology not been created as a resource for students under the name of Gardner?
These innovations would serve every young Art History student in their native technology and provide a richer experience that wouldn’t tear holes in their backpacks by the weight of it being carried across campus.
Value of the 1st Edition
Despite the inadequacies of books in today’s age, it’s easy to argue why the 16th edition is superior. It wins, but there’s a history of Art History in the 1st edition.
When Helen Gardner set out to provide a useful product for students in colleges & universities, she was changing our perspective of the world. She was pioneering what it meant for women to be scholars in a field that was led by men with beards and pipes. She created a book that has been re-editioned 16 times because Art History has proven itself to be a valuable field in the humanities and this series of books has proven itself useful to the professors who prescribe it.
Imagine Professor Gardner standing in front of a room of Art History students at the Art Institute of Chicago. Men in Oxford bags and flappers smoking cigarettes were ushered into a global perspective of humanity by a strong intellectual woman who wrote the book on Art History—a book that is still used a century later by students at Ivy League, Big 10, and community colleges. The 1st edition may not be useful to students today, but to an Art History scholar its historical significance becomes sentimental; thus monumental in value.
Price for Admission
As I write this article in May of 2019, a copy of the 16th edition is listed at $231.95 but runs at a discount of $173.25 on Amazon.com. At that price, students are paying for access to the highest quality printed photographs of artworks delivered with contextual and historical information organized conceptually and historically (as opposed to historically alone, like the 1st edition) with discussion guides and questions to help professors and students learn collaboratively. The style is contemporary, clear, with a layout that doesn’t spare an inch of paper. The same can be said for the 15th edition of the same book only $25 on Amazon.com, which was published just three years ago in 2016. With such minor revisions and insignificant art historical findings in the span of three years, the comparison is infinitesimal.
Turning the Sharp Corner
In the 21st century, we witnessed the fall of Encyclopedia Britannica and the rise of Wikipedia. Hyperlinked, participatory, and interactive content has influenced not just how much information is out there, but how we understand it. If Gardner’s Art Through the Ages is to survive (and, there’s a case to be made for why it shouldn’t), the code of its content must evolve into an application or website that provides value the same way Google and Wikipedia humans all over the world if it intends to keep up with us. Almost a century has passed and we’re in an age when information is free and learning experiences are not valued by the weight of 2.2 lbs. of paper — they’re valued by the level of engaging, interactive, and meaningful content.
Inevitably, the 1st and 16th editions both fail at providing these experience without a professor and the current audience of students will swiftly sell the 2.2 lbs. after the course is over because it’s authored by a white male at the top of his academic game making money off a book that at one time actually meant something more and provided something that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Textbooks should be re-editioned if they’re updated with more accurate articles, better-organized content, and new studies that have changed the field. But, it’s time academic books like this mean something more and impact young students the way they should without breaking the bank.
Imagine a student from 1926 paying the cost of a full-color edition like the 16th. It would’ve cost a fortune and for the target audience of college students to purchase a full-color textbook is ridiculous. So, why did Gardner publish such a colorless book and leave her students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) shorthanded? Because some of the artworks she discussed with them were down the hall at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the largest art museums in the world.
The Art Institute of Chicago. holds one of the deepest and most diverse art collections so Gardner knew her immediate audience of college students who she taught and they didn’t suffer from the lack of color imagery. Students across the country, however, we're limited to this book failing to offer something more… the problem Gardner solved by publishing the first comprehensive book on Art History changed the education of art history. She delivered a take-home version of the most important artwork from her lectures from the galleries in the Art Institute of Chicago and these lectures were spread using the best technology available in 1926 — the printing press.
A Vulnerable Legacy
What will proprietary academics do if their content is not making them as much money, but proved more useful and engaging for students? What will publishing companies do if their content is downloaded and shared without permission?
Well, we don’t have to look far to answer such questions. The sharp corner Blockbuster Video’s 9,094 storefronts took dwindled them to one because of internet streaming. Yahoo’s stock dropped from $118.75 to $8.11 due to internet search engines. And, Border’s 399 bookstores are now extinct due to the digital marketplace.
Despite Encyclopedia Brittanica’s fall, I still found the best information about Helen Gardner on its company’s website. Perhaps her legacy will survive by offering the best information in the same fashion as Encyclopedia Britannica, but these books struggle to maintain Gardner’s integrity and what she stands for. Let’s respectfully put her legacy to rest and let the students of tomorrow discover the field of Art History the way we do things in the Information Age.
- Dexamenos. A flying heron, signed “Dexamenos epoie Chios”. The University of Oxford.
- Helen Gardner. From The Bronze Lion, 1925. “Making History: Women of the Art Institute,” Case 3, Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, July 5–September 5, 2011
- Gardner, Helen, Richard G. Tansey, and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 2018. Print.
- Gardner, Helen. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 1926. Print.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Helen Gardner.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Mar. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Helen-Gardner.
- “Borders Group.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borders_Group.
- “History of Yahoo!” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Yahoo!
- “Blockbuster LLC.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Apr. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockbuster_LLC.
- “World Population by Year.” Worldometers, www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/.
- “Fred S. Kleiner.” BU, www.bu.edu/ah/profile/fred-s-kleiner/.
- Helen Gardner’s Gravesite. Andy Gappa. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/37625101/helen-gardner
- “Derrida — Defining Deconstruction.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Sept. 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgwOjjoYtco.