Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany

By Verstegen, Ian | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany


Verstegen, Ian, Journal of Art Historiography


Persistence of vision - Blind Spots after ten years

Review of:

Frederic Schwartz, Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany. Yale University Press, 2005. 300 pp.

Ian Verstegen

Nearly ten years ago, Frederic Schwartz published Blind Spots, an important book for both critical theory and art historiography. The book has become a handy reference, opening up surprising links in Weimar German culture and advocating for the role of art history in cultural critique. The initial impetus for this review is the fact that the book, although acknowledged as a sophisticated intervention in critical theory, has not had an adequate impact on art history. Most of the reviews of Blind Spots came from German studies,1 and the one prominent review in art history was in a more theoretically-oriented journal with which Schwartz was affiliated.2 Either there was no interest in, or ability to process, Schwartz's insights within art history.

This is less true with regard to studies of the Vienna school where authors, myself included, have used Schwartz's work to discuss figures like Hans Sedlmayr.3 Schwartz's evenhandedness with regard to the problematic Sedlmayr, a Nazi party member, speaks precisely to the value of the book. For it is only with the correlation of art discourse, theory and politics that one can come to understand the strange convergences in Weimar Germany that enabled Walter Benjamin, for example, to read Sedlmayr seriously.

The book is really a series of studies in coordination, how principally left critical theorists said things remarkably like traditional artists and art historians. The critical theorists are historicized, contextualized, while political potential is found in art and art historical approaches. In general, we get to know the theorists better, and perhaps that is why the book has been more appreciated by those interested in the Frankfurt school. We get to understand the mental furniture of a critical theorist as he uses available metaphors for conceiving problems. Thus Adorno and Horkheimer portray the dialectic of Enlightenment in terms of art historical terms of style and fashion found in art theory, Kracauer looks at the Tanner girls like a Rieglian, Ernst Bloch uses Wilhelm Pinder as a departure point for political action and, again, Walter Benjamin seeks to learn from the latest efforts of the Vienna School. Yet Schwartz's title, Blind Spots, reveals the overall intent of his project: to expose overlooked areas, lapses, where in many cases the heroic critical theorists falter.

It is delicate trying to review a book ten years after its publication. Rather than review it in a traditional way, I will revisit its major commitments to see what we have learned from Schwartz and we have still not taken account of. Then I will turn to what I see to be lingering problems in its overall conception, which for me is emblematized in his critique of physiognomy and leads to a series of exaggerated oppositions. In conclusion, I find that some of Schwartz's arguments are too content with making points that in their deconstruction can be allied with a common sense approach closer to liberal democracy than Frankfurt school Marxism. In most cases, this change of viewpoint reflects the shifts in intellectual life in the last ten years. Therefore, reviewing the book becomes an occasion to take account of the tasks of regarding art history and critical theory today.

The Book

Before engaging in a larger discussion of Schwartz's arguments, it pays to summarily review each of the book's chapters. As noted, each chapter is largely an exposition of a central topic through a major personality of the Frankfurt School and related artists and more typically art historians. In the first chapter, Schwartz explored how debates on style and fashion informed the construction of one of the most impressive critiques of mass culture, that of Adorno and Horkheimer. …

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