The 'Second' Vienna School as Social Science

By Verstegen, Ian | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The 'Second' Vienna School as Social Science


Verstegen, Ian, Journal of Art Historiography


Although the notion of a Kunstwollen excited the likes of Walter Benjamin and Karl Mannheim, most effort has not been spent on putting it to use but rather contextualizing and historicizing it. When Otto Pächt treated the concept in his celebrated article on Alois Riegl in 1962, he saw it less as a hermeneutic concept awaiting interpretation than a social scientific construct that helped solve historical problems surrounding art. In the same way that Pächt looked past Riegl's changing terminology to the ideas of purpose and function, I want to do the same for him, and Sedlmayr).

Switching to Kunstwollen as a social scientific idea and limiting its historical reference makes understanding it more tractable. Considering what Sedlmayr meant in 1929, when he published his Introduction to Riegl's collected essays, or Pächt in 1962, is easier than Riegl in 1902. While written only a little more than twenty years after Riegl's death, Sedlmayr's idiom is closer to our own. If Riegl's Kunstwollen begs for deep historicization, Seldmayr's and Pächt's instead calls for common sense informed by categories of thought. In fact, in the following I will read these essays through the lens of Gestalt-theoretical ideas. Sedlmayr and Pächt cite these but instead of taking him at his later actions, I take him at his word. What new meaning is provided taking Gestaltism into consideration?

In the following, I outline a model of the Kunstwollen as a signature of formative processes at any given time. The shape of history in this model is not organic and Hegelian but monistic and empiricist. It is not that history at any moment is governed by a singular Geist but rather that each of its parts co- determine each other. The first part of this paper is to contextualize the Kunstwollen and the second is to understand it as an evolving concept, first through Sedlmayr's interventions in the late 1920s and then through those of his colleague Otto Pächt in his writing and lecturing in the 1960s and 1970s. Both Sedlmayr and Pächt treated the Kunstwollen as an evolving, naturalistic concept, and not as a category of formal philosophy, a la Hegel) and relied on the findings of psychology to inform it.

Riegl and Kunstwollen

There is a strong tendency, represented above all by ?. H. Gombrich, to assimilate Riegl to Hegelian theorizing. Gombrich rejected Riegl's highly abstract approach, which can be seen in the following quote from 1901:

The transformation of the late antique world-view was a necessary transitional phase for the human spirit in order to arrive from the idea of a, in the narrower sense) purely mechanical, serial, connection of objects projected on to a plane to that of an omnipresent chemical, space pervading connection. Whoever wants to regard this late antique development as a decline arrogates to himself the authority to prescribe today to the human spirit the road it should have taken to come from the ancient to the modern conception of nature.1

Riegl could find cultural continuity in both the philosophy of Plotinus as well as a late Roman fibula, which Gombrich called 'portentous nonsense.'2

'Kunstwollen' has been interpreted in a number of ways, as 'artistic volition' or 'aesthetic urge.' Pächt pointed to the form of the verb, that which is willed by art. Fortunately, thanks to the scholarly efforts of Margaret Olin, Margaret Iverson, Diana Reynolds, and most recently Mike Gubser, we are increasingly able to contextualize Riegl's thought within the Austrian milieu in which he wrote.3 Reynolds' in particular has argued for a recontextualization of Riegl that includes attention on Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and the Brentanist philosophical tradition best known in Austria.

Riegl is perhaps clearest in the conclusion to the Late Roman Art Industry, where he wrote that:

All human will is directed toward a satisfactory shaping of man's relationship to the world, within and beyond the individual. The plastic Kunstwollen regulates man's relationship to the sensibly perceptible appearance of things. …

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