The Crisis of "Art History"

By Lavin, Irving | The Art Bulletin, March 1996 | Go to article overview

The Crisis of "Art History"


Lavin, Irving, The Art Bulletin


When I entered graduate school in the history of art at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in the early 1950s, theory was the farthest thing from my mind. In fact, for me and for many of my cohorts, theory was a rather suspect concept, tainted as it was by theories of race (which classified human beings hierarchically) and theories of quality (which classified works of art hierarchically). We read the classic works of the founding fathers, especially Alois Riegl and Heinrich Wolfflin (always on our own, never as part of courses). But no one sought to follow them in their quest for the foundations of the discipline--an enterprise that in any case seemed uninspiring compared with the joy and excitement of working with the "objects." Moreover, theoretical structures risked limiting the range and depth of individual creativity, or even collective creativity in the case of regional or period styles.

The crisis of my generation was not of theory, but of values. We were embarked on a mission of redemption, to discover, or recover, domains of art that our much admired predecessors, focused elsewhere, had neglected, undervalued, or misinterpreted. This salvific exploration took essentially two distinct but often interconnected directions, one formal, the other intellectual. The formal revolution was devoted to rescuing artists and styles found guilty of vacuity or ineptitude by the mainstream of art-historical tradition. The most egregiously aggrieved victims stood at opposite ends of the cultural scale. On the one hand, there was the epigonic sophistication of Mannerism, and its later, even more despised ossification Maniera, which famously found no place in Wolfflin's theory of perceptual modes. Impassioned reclamations were made by the first postwar American scholars trained by the German immigrants, especially Walter Friedlaender and Richard Krautheimer: Sydney Freedberg on Parmigianino, Frederick Hartt on Giulio Romano, John Coolidge on Vignola, Craig Smyth on Bronzino. The qualities of ambiguity, anxiety, and crisis (such were the terms of understanding that permeated these reevaluations), following hard upon the noble equilibrium of the High Renaissance, had personal resonance for the members of that generation, many of whom had experienced the war firsthand. Another province to be conquered was late antiquity, the period whose very name, like Mannerism, expressed the idea of decadence and deficient originality. It came to be realized that the crude, disjointed, sometimes patently archaizing and aggressively simplified "late antique" style represented not an unconscious disintegration but a deliberate rejection of classical ideals, an act of volition that played a seminal role in the genesis of a new spirituality in which medieval art took root. The immediate source of inspiration was Ernst Kitzinger, also a refugee scholar, whose little handbook for the British Museum--the very title of which, Early Medieval Art, emphasized the creative legacy of the period--became a primer for me and others of my age who followed this path.(1)

This zealous rediscovery of disaffected aspects of the past had the earmarks of a religious crusade; there was even an element of political consensus--never articulated, to be sure--since, consciously or not, the plight of Mannerism and late antiquity was somehow analogous to that of the victims of Fascism. Remember, too, that those were the heady days of Abstract Expressionism and the exaltation of primitive art, which seemed equally defiant of attitudes that sought to limit, rather than expand, the freedom of the psyche. The point was to appreciate the self-sufficiency, validity, and meaningfulness of these aberrant stylistic phenomena.

Meaning, in fact, links the formal to the conceptual revolution of my contemporaries, which might otherwise seem antithetical. Our other mission was the discovery that works of art have meaning beyond their purely formal significance as expressions of visual culture.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Crisis of "Art History"
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.