Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Riegl and 'Objective Aesthetics'

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Riegl and 'Objective Aesthetics'

Article excerpt

Alois Riegl is well known to the readers of the present journal for having provided the basis of an art-historical approach independent of the other historical disciplines and of pseudo-science. Readers today often have difficulties in understanding his prose, sometimes considering this to be universal, and at times he is even declaring him to have been intentionally obscure. In fact, he wrote fairly clearly to his contemporaries of the 1850' and simply requires the attentiveness he himself observed in art and life.

Riegl himself once used the metaphor of an architectural edifice for historical constructs, and the present review must be admitted to be one of the smaller bricks in his own scheme, but offers a glimpse into a number of his preoccupations. It discusses a popular French publication about art and was written toward the end of his short life - close in time to the publications of his best-known and most celebrated work. It is not particularly opaque in any way, appeared in one of the most widely read daily newspapers in Europe of the time, and conjures up many of Riegl's favorite topics.1 It reminds us how superficial much of the writing of the time was, it evokes the magic term objectivity, refers to philosophical materialism as a thing of the past and shows Riegl's tendency to conceive grand polarities at work in the minutest of phenomena. Here as elsewhere, his adulation of Greek art evokes a potential contradiction to much else in his writings. He ends with the national styles or tendencies and with his conception of ripe moments causing shifts in the preference of one style over another, something like a solo within a piece of music while the other instruments politely recede in volume. He refers to the relation of academic art to nature, and to that of religion to science. He touches on his key idea of 'Stimmung' or 'mood' as a central element in later 19th-century art being viewed at greater distances and providing a reason for the predominance of painting in his time - it is a genre not close to his own specialization and treated far more curtly than the others in his Spätrömische Kunstindustrie which was published just a number of months earlier.2

He stresses the question of movement and emotion which had come to the fore in the studies of baroque art from his last years, and had provided a persistent problem to theorists before him.* * 3 Movement had been an element in Riegl's analysis from an early date, but since his work centred on ornament and he considered the human form and iconographical questions to distract from the more important problems of the historical analysis of art it has not become apparent to many of his readers.4 Although his grander generalizations are not always convincing, even in such a short review written for popular consumption, Riegl manages to evoke an unusually rich array of questions with an originality that is rare and still striking today.

Alois Riegl, 'Objective aesthetics'5

Even those who would deny that contemporaries can form an unprejudiced opinion of modern art will be forced to tentatively admit that it is of great historical importance, since this art for the first time in quite a while sees its role as not merely filling the empty spaces on the walls of the rich, but also in fulfilling a general aesthetic need of humanity. Of course the original goal of modern art was nominally no different than any other artistic trend since the renaissance ? re-establishing contact with nature. Although this has barely been underway for twenty-five years, voices are already being heard calling for a return to nature. In the light of recent art, such as the work of Toorop, those who define nature as the average quality in the appearance of things, as we know it from experience, will not be surprised by such demands. Some will be amazed and wonder how nature can revert to such a pure form of unnaturalness within such a short time of being gained. But appearance is well founded since it is based in our ambivalent conception of nature, those things which the visual arts represent or reproduce. …

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