Projecting the Future in German Art Historiography of the Nineteenth Century: Franz Kugler, Karl Schnaase, and Gottfried Semper

Article excerpt

Hegel's provocative concept of the end of art - or, more precisely, of the retrospective character of art - has generated much reflection and controversy since the early nineteenth century. Most discussions of art's end take Hegel's philosophy as a starting point, but the context in which Hegel developed his theories about art was quite different from that of today.

The main source for this famous concept comes from a passage in Heinrich Gustav Hotho's introduction to Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics, which Hotho edited and published in 1835, after Hegel's death:

Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has instead been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.2

This formulation doesn't appear in Hegel's own publications, but its general authenticity is guaranteed by the responses of a number of contemporaries. The composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy, for instance, was surprised by the philosopher's opinion that the art of his time was 'mausetot' ('stone dead') - given his simultaneous passion for the living theatre.3 The German philosopher (fig. 1) didn't really assume, of course, that the art of his time would come to an end, but he noted a decisive break between the natural presence of the art of older times and the reflexive character of contemporaneous art: 'Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.'4

This is the starting point for the modem discussions of the 'end of art' promoted by the philosopher Arthur C. Danto, who has been publishing on the subject since 1984.5 In his book After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (1997), he tied the artistic epoch of modernism, beginning with Van Gogh and Gauguin, to Hegel's concept of modem reflexiveness. Danto emphasized 'that mimetic representation had become less important than some kind of reflection on the means and methods of representation. [...] In effect, modernism sets itself at a distance from the previous history of art.'6

Whereas this conception may be applied - in a somewhat simplified manner - to the leading currents of twentieth-century modernism, it doesn't go well with the complexity of contemporary art. In her book The Past is the Present; It's the Future, Too (2012), Christine Ross demonstrates how deeply the art of the present is concerned with archives and the relics of the past, with memory practices and reenactments, with history and archaeology, detecting a 'temporal tum' in contemporary art (fig. 2)7 Tt is the case that artists today have adopted a more historiographical outlook on time and conversely a more temporal outlook on history [...]/8 Referring to Dieter Roelstraete's essay on the 'archaeological imaginary in art', Ross points out the problems of this artistic trend: 'The current historiographic preoccupation in art has in fact become an aesthetics of compensation for art's "inability to grasp or even look at the present, much less to excavate the future.'"9

All questions of time are experiencing a renaissance in contemporary thought. Aspects of the present are being combined with those of the past in imagining the future. In leaving behind the historical amnesia of twentieth-century modernism, the art and architecture of today recall strongly the complexity of historicism in the nineteenth century.

The topicality of history among twenty-first-century scholars and artists adds fresh weight to the question of how those of the century before last conceived interrelations between past, present and future. The starting point shall be again Hegel's idea of the end of art, precisely speaking: of the past-time character of contemporary art.

The core of this concept is the assumption of a fundamental difference between former epochs and the present regarding the importance of art in society. …