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. …

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The Crisis of "Art History"


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