We share this planet with an enormous number of other life forms. Artists in turn have depicted these creatures in isolated portraits and in relation to ourselves and each other throughout known human history. Ecologists, in a different form of appreciation, study the many relationships these life forms have with each other. One such relationship is diagramed with food webs that show who is eating who within a given ecosystem. These schematics generalize very complex interactions and are useful in helping characterize “primary”, “secondary” and “tertiary” consumers of energy.
Oddly, art historians have used similar “food webs” to characterize the “development” or “transformation” of artistic production. Traditional histories of art using this “Enlightenment” model narrate changes in art as if one generation of artists feed off their predecessors in an unending upwards march. Alfred H. Barr’s “The Development of Abstract Art” in 1926 (see below) is a diagrammatic example of this theoretical praxis. Post-modernists have rightfully debunked this form of “Meta-narration” as simplistic and exclusionary. They argue that history has never “advanced” in a grand linear manner nor advanced towards any “enlightenment” end point. Rather, history is a collection of “mini” narratives that jumble
The philosopher, Thomas Kuhn, proclaimed that “(t)he answers you get depend on the questions you ask.” I wondered if asking a different question of art history my yield novel answers and information about the art and artists of the past. what information might be available if I used one system (the ecosystem model) to explore the data of the other (art history).