Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Art Crime and Textbooks

I was surprised to learn recently that Monet's famous painting Impression: Sunrise (dated 1872, shown right) was stolen from the Marmottan Museum on October 27, 1985. Seven armed men forced museums visitors and a guard to lie on the floor while they stole this painting and eight other works. Impression: Sunrise was recovered in December of 1990 and went back on display at the Marmottan in April 1991.

Although the actual theft doesn't surprise me that much, I was taken back that I wasn't aware of this aspect of the painting's history. I feel like I know this painting pretty well - it is the work of art that is often seen as the "kickoff" point to the Impressionist movement. The title of this painting, Impression: Sunrise led hostile critic Louis Leroy to first use the term "Impressionists."

As I've thought my surprised reaction, I've realized that much of my knowledge about Monet's painting comes from art history textbooks. And, on the flip side, I've realized that most of my knowledge about art crime doesn't come from standard art history textbooks. I usually learn about art crime from online sources (like the blog "Art Theft Central") and popular history books like Lopez's The Man Who Made Vermeers or Charney's Stealing the Mystic Lamb. (And, speaking of Charney, I look forward to reading his new book on the thefts of the Mona Lisa).

So, why does art crime not get included in art history textbooks very much? Undoubtedly, such crime (theft or otherwise) becomes part of an art piece's history. Here are some related questions that have been muddling about in my brain:
  • Is there something about art crime that doesn't appeal to academia at large? 
  • Is art crime too closely related to popular history? (Perhaps this topic is really an issue of popular history and academia, an idea that will be explored in an upcoming conference by The Historical Society.)
  • Is art crime too base of a topic for art historians? Will a work of art be demystified if it is connected with crime? Isn't it okay if a work of art is demystified?
  • Art crime is intrinsically linked to the art market. Does art history want to disassociate itself from the art market?
  • Do scholars (and their book editors) feel like there isn't room for a discussion of art crime in survey texts?
  • Am I just looking at the wrong kinds of art history textbooks? Are there textbooks out there that incorporate a good discussion of crime along with other general aspects of art history?
I feel like there are a lot of art historians and art history students that are interested in art crime, but I don't feel like there are enough academic publications to support my hunch. I definitely feel like there is a place for art crime in the classroom, though. I get very positive feedback from class lectures that include some information about theft, forgery and looting.

Maybe art crime is like crime itself - it needs to be learned "on the street" or by word of mouth! From what I can tell, it looks like Noah Charney's program for a Master's in Art Crime involves a lot of classroom discussion and lectures from experts on the topic, not a lot of textbook reading.

Thoughts, anyone?