Given the wild historicist philosophising to which historians of the old school were inclined, it is small wonder modern-day historians eschew theory-making as such. It is also regrettable because it is an act of over-compensation: an exaggeration in the opposite direction. After all, history is supposed to teach us something about the world: trying to draw conclusions about general mechanisms of how things work really should lie at the heart of its inquiry.
C. V. Wedgwood does this rather well. Her way of interpreting some mechanisms of history is ambitious and thought provoking, without being wild — perhaps because it is couched in economic and psychological terms rather then the vague “civilization” or “progress” or “gender construction” or “Orientalism”. The author’s seemingly “sweeping” observations strike us with their profoundly common sense. Such as her observation that the cause of the decline of the Catholic church in the Netherlands in the 15th century was a brain-drain from the church to the professions, a brain-drain caused by… the rapidly improving opportunities in trade and industry. She thus suggests the existence of a fascinating cultural/economic mechanism (also proposed by someone else to explain America’s cultural decline during the Gilded Age): that a society’s economic success can be bad for its art.
One can see the mechanism at work in our own time: the last 50 years in the “first world” have seen fantastic opportunities in banking, finance, technology, real estate and marketing and that’s where all talent went; by contrast, the fields of artistic production (painting, sculpture, literature) and art management (museum directors, theater directors, critics, scholars) have failed to attract the best talent; which has resulted in the sort of production we have seen: uninspired, shallow, derivative, technically poor, gimmicky. In culturally more successful periods (such as the Renaissance) artistic production attracted talent which may equally well have been deployed in science or engineering (and often was: Leonardo was a anatomist, Michelangelo a builder, Cellini an engineer). By contrast, twentieth century art looks like something produced by people whose alternative economic options were on the scale of selling pimple remedies via mail order in small town newspapers.
Perhaps when at last the true (economic) “decline of the West” finally sets in, talent will begin trickling back to art.
Embrace the crisis.