Art History Posthistoire

By Vidler, Anthony | The Art Bulletin, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Art History Posthistoire


Vidler, Anthony, The Art Bulletin


The dilemma between a metaphysics of art and a history of objects has been a continuing preoccupation of art history, a discipline that pretends to insert "the work of art" (a spatial object conceived, and often judged, ahistorically and aesthetically) into a temporal continuum (whether progressively or dialectically construed). Numerous intellectual strategies, from the Hegelian Zeitgeist to Riegl's Kunstwollen have been developed to overcome this division, one that Panofsky characterized in his critical assessment of Riegl, as caught between "art" and "history."(1) On the one hand, history, with its emphasis on causes and effects, relations among different kinds of knowledge, political and social as well as artistic, explains the work of art by referring to external phenomena. On the other hand, the art object, subject as art to internal aesthetic criteria that establish it as unique, demands appreciation and criticism from an ahistorical standpoint, from that of aesthetics or the philosophy of knowledge. Thus political history, the "history of human action," would be interpreted according to a purely historical mode, but art history, "in that its productions represent not the expressions of subjects but the informing of materials, not the given events but the results," requires its own criteria. "A purely historical study," Panofsky concluded, "whether it proceeds from the history of form or the history of content, never explains the work of art as a phenomenon except in terms of other phenomena. Historical stud does not draw on a higher source of perception."(2) An extreme case of this dilemma has traditionally been represented by architectural history, with its spatially defined monuments resting uneasily on the shifting narrative ground of their temporal historicization.

Such a version of "art history," of course, relies on a predominately historicist model of history--one framed by Hegel, and only slightly reconfigured by the optical and symbolic adjustments of Riegl and Panofsky--and with the demise of historicism, discredited by structuralist and poststructuralist theories of culture, it would seem that the problem might have been resolved. So much so that many critics have theorized the possibility of "the end of art history," as if the incursions of theory have made it impossible, any more, to practice what from Vasari to Winckelmann, Waagen to Wolfflin, Worringer to Warburs, Riegl to Panofsky was considered, in Panofsky's elegant definition, "art history as a humanistic discipline." By thus dissolving history, it is thought, art history might attain a new status in postmodernity as an interpretative, interdisciplinary, relativistic member of a group of domains all concerned with the general question of "visual studies."

In positing "the end of the history of art" (the title of a recent collection of essays by Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art?), art history is not alone.(3) Indeed, there seems to be a general mood of "ending" in this fin de siecle that uncannily echoes that of the last century. Two examples, selected at random, include The End of Modernity by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo and a recent architectural symposium in Vienna published under the title The End of Architecture?(4) Now, admittedly, two of the publications cited add a question mark after their disquieting titles, to soften the blow, so to speak; but overall a certain pessimism would appear to have overtaken the humanities in the late twentieth century. Thus Vattimo explores the connection he sees between nihilism and postmodernism that announces, in his terms, the "dissolution of history"; the architects gathered in Vienna under the aegis of the radical group Coop Himmelblau proclaimed the "end of architecture" at least as we have known it since antiquity; and Belting (who, as an art historian, grudgingly admits that some form of art history will inevitably continue) is convinced of the end "of that conception of a universal and unified 'history of art' which has so long served. …

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