Bild-Anthropologie: Entwurfe Fur eine Bildwissenschaft

By Wood, Christopher S. | The Art Bulletin, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Bild-Anthropologie: Entwurfe Fur eine Bildwissenschaft


Wood, Christopher S., The Art Bulletin


HANS BELTING Bild-Anthropologie: Entwurfe fur eine Bildwissenschaft Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2001. 280 pp.; 180 b/w ills. 25.20 Euros

Hans Belting's recent collection of essays on effigies, masks, mummies, ancestor portraits, cult statues, tattoos, anatomical models, photography, film, video art, and digital art is also a manifesto, a set of "drafts for a science [Wissenschaft] of the image," as the subtitle has it. The revisionist rhetoric is sharp throughout the book. Belting is dismissive of "the current discourse" (p. 30), "art history" (p. 26), "today's theories" (p. 87), and "today's debates" (p. 90). The book is Belting's response to the question he himself posed in 1983, namely: What happens when the history of art comes to an end?1 By that he meant: Whither art once it no longer believes in the narratives that have sustained it since the Renaissance? He also meant: What will the academic discipline of art history do now that the final pages of art's once-suspenseful plot have been written? The answers are condensed into this book's title. The idea of art, according to Belting, must give way to the concept of Bild (best translated, for the time being, as "image"), and history writing must give way to an anthropological approach.

What does Belting mean by "anthropology"? In the English-speaking world, anthropology is an exceptionally self-sufficient, one might even say self-absorbed, academic discipline that deals with symbolic behavior, classification systems, and power sharing within the framework of social life-an aggregation of structures and practices described as "culture." Early anthropologists conducted research almost exclusively among "incompletely" civilized peoples, and later ones have spent a great deal of energy extricating their field from the conceptual trouble such a project invited. That discipline's monopoly on the word anthropology, which simply means "study of man," is widely accepted. It has become difficult in the English-speaking world to use the term anthropology without rousing the household gods of the academic discipline that bears it as a name. Art history's openings onto anthropology are limited mostly to the so-called non-Western fields.

In Europe, the words Anthropologie, anthropologie, antropologia, and so on, are still available for general use, in much the same way that psychology or logic are for English speakers. That is, they are terms that denote organized academic fields and yet at the same time are easily detachable from those contexts. European historians, for example, have developed a "historical anthropology" that finds symbolic and structural patterns in medieval or early modern societies. American historians like Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Caroline Bynum have contributed to this paradigm. Points of convergence with art history are rare. Exceptions are usually in the medieval field, where the work of anthropologically minded historians like Bynum or Jean-Claude Schmitt can closely resemble work done by guild art historians. The complex scholarly project of Aby Warburg must also be mentioned here. Warburg, a contemporary of the pioneering anthropologists, sought much as Belting does to pry a transhistorical constant out of the grip of the art historians, in his case, the representation of gesture. The often-cited book by David Freedberg, The Power of Images (1989), must also be mentioned. Freedberg, without especially engaging anthropological theory, surveyed a vast range of mostly nonartistic cultural uses of pictures and statues, flattening the historical landscape in favor of a universal model of almost instinctual "response" to the image.

Art historians might have even more to learn from the German paradigm of "literary anthropology," as invoked in the subtitle of Wolfgang Iser's book The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (1993).2 By this term Iser means not the empirical study of the bookmaking and bookselling industries or structural analysis of the ritualized behavior of literary subcultures, but something like speculative analysis of the deep psychological and social functions of storytelling and listening, writing and reading in human life. …

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