A Sculpture, a Column, and a Painting: The Tension between Art and History

Article excerpt

I encounter nearly every day the instability of the equation "Art > < History." Around the corner from where I work, I pass a Henry Moore sculpture standing at the center of a large square base of marble with deeply cut, radiating lines. Made of bronze, the smooth, rounded, abstract shape rises to memorialize and monumentalize in artistic terms the historic act and place where, on December 2, 1942, the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction was achieved. Called Nuclear Energy in the techno-poetic language of modern history, the sculpture often conjures up for me, when I stop to look at it, to think about it, the "ground zero" of a city several thousands of miles away where other metal was reconfigured fifty years ago into twisted, toxic, abstract shapes and left to consecrate the act. Art is greater than or art is less than history, but they are never equal, never the same thing. Somewhere in between them, I am reassured that the still very vivid apocalyptic nightmares of my youth have a reality. In that reassurance and somewhere in between art > < history, the historicism of modernism in all its various meanings is for a moment arrested, calling forth an opportunity for historical materialism.(1) The two terms, art and history, are set in perpetual tension and brought together anew at the moment of the present.

Art as a material form, no matter how recently made, appears before us in the present as the presence of the past and asks us, among many other things, to engage with history in particular ways. We must consciously or unconsciously respond, and I choose to respond as a historical materialist. In doing so, however, I recognize that the categories of art and history are not fixed and that their relationship is a permanent state of tension, as already implied by the equation "Art > < History." Equally I recognize that neither history nor art have always, everywhere been thought to exist among all cultures of the world. History and art constitute the defining gap between Europe and the peoples without them, to paraphrase Eric Wolf.(2) They are also Europe's ongoing "gift" to those peoples.(3) I would add, however, that history and art as conceived within the terms of historicism are always given and received and that the relation between Europe and not Europe is only the extreme of this exchange, an exchange that begets an indebtedness to an originally past from which progress emanates, a past locatable only within the elite history of Western culture. To avoid the hierarchy implied in the exchange does not mean looking forward in anticipation of future progress. It means making both art and history present while remembering that things actually did happen, were made, that it is all not just a "text."

"There is," writes Walter Benjamin, "no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another."(4) As I drive to the Art Institute of Chicago, I pass by Soldier Field where the great spectacles of the end of "the century of progress" (football games, rock concerts, religious meetings, and political rallies) are staged. Soldier Field takes the form of ancient amphitheaters and, like so many other neoclassical buildings in the United States and Europe, it recalls the prodigious debt owed to our classical heritage as the foundation of Western civilization. Across the street, on the waterfront, is an actual work of classical art, a fragment that gives material presence to the past. An 18-foot column from Ostia, Rome's port of call, stands in erect solitude, a monument both from and to our Western heritage, topped by a fine Corinthian capital. At the corners of its square base are sculpted four groups of bound sticks. On the dedicatory plaque is written in both Latin and English, lest anyone not understand the relationship between this particular base and its superstructure: "This column Twenty Centuries old . …