Origins of the Art History Survey Text

By Schwarzer, Mitchell | Art Journal, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview
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Origins of the Art History Survey Text


Schwarzer, Mitchell, Art Journal


The universal and developmental presumptions of art history are nowhere better expressed than in the global survey text. More than any other genre within the discipline, the survey text embodies the nineteenth-century vision of history to unify the art of the past into a coherent and relevant story for the present. In its. grand tour through all five continents and over thousands of years, the survey text asks us to believe that the immeasurable diversity of art can be brought together into a great chain of meaning. The survey text is art history at its most grandiose, promising to reveal the complex truths of humanity through art. It is also art history at its most political, reducing cultural and individual differences to questionable hierarchies and generalities.

Some of the earliest attempts to position art on a vast developmental scale occurred in nineteenth-century Germany. They followed Johann Joachim Winckelmann's groundbreaking history of the art of antiquity and Gustav Friedrich Waagen's and Carl Friedrich Rumohr's contextual histories of Renaissance artists. During the 1840s and 1850s, the first survey texts that can truly be called global were written by Franz Theodor Kugler, Carl Schnaase, and Anton Springer.(1) Alongside philosophers like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and political historians like Leopold von Ranke, these art historians discovered the meaning of their own time through connections with the whole of human history. Their surveys tell us about the construction of history according to ideas of progress and linearity, and the division of world culture through rankings of artistic quality.

The early survey texts were part of a greater struggle to create modern German identity. They were anything but an isolated, academic endeavor. Quite unlike the commonplace use of the art history survey text for university education in the twentieth century, the survey texts were written in an era when there were no university art history departments. They were intended for the educated public--scholars, artists, travelers--and especially cultural officials and art's administrators. It is likely that the survey texts were first used for university teaching only a generation later, after 1871. Not surprisingly, none of the texts I discuss were written while any of their authors held university professorships.(2)

The early survey texts represent the birth of a new literary genre of cardinal relevance for the emergence of the discipline of art history. Today, an examination of their methods and assumptions tells us a great deal about the standard survey texts of the twentieth century and helps us rethink and reconsider the genre.

Pioneers of Historical Context

I begin with Winckelmann's History of Ancient Art (1764) because its contribution to the formation of visual connoisseurship in art history has been immense, its impact on the development of the survey text in Germany equally momentous. Like Giorgio Vasari, who narrated the history of art as a developmental movement of style toward perfection (in his case, Michelangelo), Winckelmann conducted the history of ancient art from the achievements of fifth-century B.C. Athens. To describe the penultimate meaning of classical Greece for eighteenth-century Europeans, he laid out a three-stage developmental pattern for all world art: (1) necessity, (2) progress toward perfect beauty, and (3) decay into superfluity.(3)

In most other ways Winckelmann differs greatly from Vasari. Already in the preface to The History of Ancient Art, he was adamant that his art history depart from mere chronicles of epochs or histories of individual artists. A decisive contribution by Winckelmann to the art history survey text was his attention to the contextual factors (i.e., climate) that underlay beauty in Greek art. Rarely mentioned are the names of individual artists. Nations are what matter. They are the discrete examples of the universal potential of art to move within its three stages.

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