In the writing of history and philosophy, it is increasingly common to find a middle ground between the academic study of the subject and books for the so-called general reader. If this has happened in popular writing about the past by historians like John Brewer and David Cannadine, and works on philosophy by A C Grayling and Alain de Botton, it has so far not happened much in writing about art; or, if it has, it has been left to a historian like Simon Schama, who is sufficiently knowledgeable and self-confident to trespass on the patch of professional art history. I am not sure why this is, except that, as fast as other disciplines have developed a popular (and populist) wing, so professional art history has become increasingly recondite, driven by the demands of establishing itself in the academy, terrified of the legacy of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, and much less preoccupied than neighbouring disciplines with the need to communicate to a mass audience.
I am prompted to make these reflections by Laura Cumming’s book about self-portraits – A Face to the World – because it belongs to a species of writing about art that has become deeply unfashionable. It is not academic art history, but straightforward art criticism – well informed,