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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Art's Non-Pocket Dictionary

You cannot count the trees that were felled and pulped to produce The Macmillan Dictionary of Art, but the reader will be able to appreciate the scale of this Sisyphean publishing project by hacking through a thicket of statistics. Fourteen years and $50 million have been spent in the creation of the first comprehensive dictionary of world art, architecture, sculpture, calligraphy, design, decorative arts and photography as well as new multimedia installations.


The 30,000 pages, comprising 720,000 entries (or 41,000 articles) written by 6,700 contributors from 120 countries -- not to mention the 15,000 black-and-white illustrations included within the text and the color supplements at the back of each issue -- fill 34 giant volumes with more than 23 million words. The entire dictionary weighs in at 84 kilograms, and takes up 1.72 meters of shelf space. Put another way, if you stack the volumes on top of one another they make a tower which literally dwarfs the project's general editor, Jane Shoaf Turner.


For the 11 years during which she has been involved in the project, Turner, an American art historian who was originally brought in as an area editor for early Dutch, Flemish and German art, has tenaciously toiled to fulfill the publishing commission of the former prime minister of Britain, Harold Macmillan. He is reported to have casually suggested the idea of a dictionary of art to the managing director of his family publishing company, Macmillan, at a party celebrating the publication of the "New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" in 1980. And the rest, as they say, is history. And a slow, laborious history at that.


First there was the vast administrative problem of selecting subjects and commissioning essays, not just on individual artists and schools of the Western tradition, but also on the artistic manifestations of the innumerable cultures which did not prize individual creativity, from the cave paintings of the stone age to the pre-Columbian civilizations of the American continent. The next task was to force the notoriously peevish and unreliable academics to stop arguing about the choice of contributors and subjects, and instead focus on submitting their own essays on deadline. Ian Jacobs, the publishing director of Macmillan, took on the job of chasing the 3,500 contributors who failed to deliver by their due dates.


While some academics simply hid from Jacobs (one professor famously took refuge in the ladies toilets of his faculty building) others were even more creative than their students at coming up with excuses for why their copy was late. One Romanian art historian called to explain that his essays would unfortunately be delayed because he had just seen his life's work go up in flames during the December Revolution of 1989. Turner was about to respond acerbically when she realized


that indeed Bucharest was in the grip of revolution.


It was the break up of the Soviet bloc that caused the biggest revisional headaches and delays. The editors unpropitiously approached the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1986 just days after the Chernobyl explosion for a list of the artists (and the corresponding academic experts to write about them) who they deemed worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. "We realized we were losing objectivity, but this gave us access to information otherwise not available," Turner told The New York Times.


And indeed, KGB headquarters was the first stop for the Soviet editor in chief, Dr. Mikhail Sokolov of the Institute of Fine Arts in Moscow. In a Thursday interview from his Moscow office, Sokolov recalled how KGB officials sat him down and told him what was acceptable to the authorities and what was taboo.


"Everything in the past was allowed, but the 20th century was a battlefield. I was relieved to learn that the classic Russian Avant-garde had with time become politically correct," said Sokolov, 50. "But all post-modern trends were viewed as subversive and dangerous ... it was a deadlock."


However, everything changed with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Sokolov was able to give each of the former republics the freedom to deal directly with the editors in London and have autonomy over their own entries. He then concentrated his attention on Russian art alone. "Ten or so official painters, whose importance in the U.S.S.R. was not primarily artistic, were dropped from the dictionary, such as leading academician Mikhail Sovitsky," he said. "And instead we included a number of contemporary artists who were previously banned such as Ilya Kabakov and Eric Bulatov, leading exponents of the Sots Art school which combined pop art with socialist realism to satirical effect."


While Sokolov is infinitely proud of the finished dictionary, it is a source of great sadness to him that Russian scholars are unlikely to have the chance to use it. "The problems for art historians in Russia are now no longer ideological, but financial. No Russian academics, who earn an average salary of $200 a month, will be able to afford it, and even our libraries are starved of funding ... I am dreaming now for some sort of Marshall Plan for the distribution of the dictionary in Russia."


But if you are lucky enough to get close to this lexicographic giant, what is it like to use? A close reading of the 18-page entry on Moscow creates a distinctly dry, but thorough picture. The history and urban development of Moscow is dealt with in three sections (pre-1700, 1700 to 1917, post-revolutionary) and is succinct, informative and seemed admirably objective to this reader, at least. It is followed by short, broad-stroke descriptions on the historical artistic development of metal, ceramic and glass, which seemed too brief to be truly useful. And, by contrast, the very lengthy and technical description of the Kremlin Cathedrals and St. Basil's that followed made even the Blue Guide seem like entertaining reading.


Helpfully, however, the editors have provided a comprehensive system of cross-referencing along with short bibliographies for further reading. Useful too is the systematic inclusion of both Soviet and post-Soviet place names.


But all this information does not come cheap. And if you cannot wait for future editions that will almost certainly be issued much more cost-effectively on CD ROM, you can sink your teeth into one of the 6,000 sets now available of "The Dictionary of Art" for a meaty $8,000.