To What End? Eschatology in Art Historiography

By Musto, Jeanne-Marie | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2013 | Go to article overview

To What End? Eschatology in Art Historiography


Musto, Jeanne-Marie, Journal of Art Historiography


By way of introduction to the following essays it will be worthwhile to consider how the theme of eschatology relates to the historiography of art history, and to outline a few of the varied ways in which these essays address this theme.1 To study eschatology in art historical texts is to study the revelations or the resolution that mark their explicit or implied goals. It is, in this respect, to investigate a feature inherent to any story. To discuss ends with regard to stories about artworks in particular brings to mind recent explorations of an 'end of art' that have been inspired by, and continue, the Hegelian philosophical tradition.2 Those explorations as such do not, however, constitute the purpose of bringing these essays together. The essays presented here focus instead on ends as a component of both the texts they investigate and the interpretive matrix that surrounds them. Empiricists and postmodernists interested in narrative concerns debate the existence of non-fiction - which is what most art historiography purports to be. Prescinding the question of whether historical accounts are necessarily fictional, the narrative techniques employed in writing them tend to be less inventive than those employed in works written as fiction. Perhaps these circumstances account for the relative paucity of narratological considerations of art historiography. All the same, narrative components shape historiographies whether or not they are fictional and whether or not these components are used inventively.

It may be that the conventional nature of narrative leads writers who try to describe events external to their texts (including most writers of art historiography) to overlook their narratives' artifices more readily than do writers of fiction. To counter that tendency, in comparison with art historians, contemporary historians have been placing greater emphasis on attending to the impact of narrative components on their work. Mary Fulbrook, for example, is among those who stress that historians should weigh carefully how emplotment shapes their writing.3 Her work exemplifies a focus on reforming current practice that has grown out of widespread discontent with traditional modes of history writing. While this discontent has led to an abundance of new chronological, geographical and cultural perspectives, close analysis of the narrative components of earlier historiographies and their impact on particular avenues of research has received less attention.

With regard to art historiography, analysis of the ends of art might be framed in more narrowly narratological terms as analysis of the fate of the protagonist. To integrate this conceptualization of the theme with the broader cultural or spiritual significance commonly attributed to art and its ends (including, of course, by Hegel), I have borrowed the essentially theological term 'eschatology'. More than the study of goals and resolutions internal to given texts, this term invokes their aspiration to wider cultural, or even quasi-religious, import. In texts presented and evaluated as non-fiction the aspiration to inform, and perhaps transform, the reader is generally central, and the narrative structure strongly determines the extent to which it succeeds.

Hegel did not use the term 'eschatology7. Because his particular understanding of history, which has been termed 'realized eschatology', still offers a touchstone for this theme, it deserves closer consideration.4 Hegel understood the union of God and humanity - that is, from his perspective, the goal of creation - as having already been fully realized in Jesus. Since that time humanity has been seeking to extend that union and so to achieve perfect freedom for all. In other words, although he viewed the 'end of art' in his day as pointing to freedom's progress, he understood this progress as reaching towards a culmination realized in the past. Several of the essays that follow similarly describe art as struggling to maintain or extend an earlier culmination. …

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