Sunday, April 13, 2008

Book Review: Rick Steves' Europe 101--History & Art for the Traveler

Art history classes, as I understand them, are supposed to provide the attendees with a survey of the different styles and subject matters that artists have used over time. Having never taken Art History 101, I don't know if the classes also provide a broader historical context for the works in question, but I would like to think that the good ones do. If they don't, they should, and Rick Steves' book on the subject might serve as a jocular textbook.

The important thing to know about this book is that Rick Steves is, for all practical purposes, a travel guy, not an art aficianado. He and his cowriter Gene Openshaw write the way a somewhat-more-knowledgeable friend might talk to you about art history so that you know what to look for when you get to Paris, Rome, etc. Steves' writing is chatty and easily read. I got through its 500ish pages in about three evenings' reading. It does, however, have its drawbacks. In his attempt to make history and historical art forms accessible to 21st century American audiences, the book will age badly. Already his references to Gerald Ford and Joan Rivers would probably leave people under 30 stumped.

Also, if you do have more than a scholarly interest in art and architecture, Steves' book will leave you aching for more and feeling more than a little condescended to. It's as if he's saying, "This is as much as you can handle and as much as I care to write to fit European history into 500 pages. Anything beyond that, you're on your own." In which case, I'd highly recommend you pick up a few more books on European art history, because Steves only scratches the surface. However, given the interest and breadth of his topic, perhaps this can be forgiven and understandable.

Another mild point of disagreement I have is Mr. Steves' unabashed love and admiration for European socialism, which comes up as he describes "Europe Today." He glosses over things like declining birthrates, long lines for health care, and the politically correct unwillingness of Europeans to assimilate or confront the hostile Muslim populations in their midst. The Europe of Michelangelo, Martin Luther, and Christopher Wren is dying, and Mr. Steves doesn't seem to understand that their over-regulatory "social safety net" or excessive PC-based desire to avoid confrontation might be among the prime causes.

Those minor quibbles aside, I liked this book. Aside from its engaging style, it makes a solid argument for the connection between political, social, and aesthetic movements, and as such should be commended for educating in this fashion. For instance, the Age of Enlightenment (more or less the 1700s, when the U.S. was born) resulted from discoveries of ancient Roman art and architecture at the archaeological site of Pompeii as well as Graeco-Roman philosophical influences that sprang to life in the Renaissance. This, in turn, led to Greek-style architecture (called Georgian in England, neo-Classical in the U.S.) as well as Roman-style sternness in statues and paintings.

You have to read a few more books to understand some of the other contexts of European history more fully, since Steves is focusing on the art, but I found this book a nice way to round out my generalist's knowledge of the continent. Because, after all, I read the book to help with my vacation. It's not like I read all of the books on my reading list for general-purpose fun, ya know.

Happy travels.

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