Art History at the Art School: Revisiting the Institutional Origins of the Discipline Based on the Case of Nineteenth-Century Greece

By Vratskidou, Eleonora | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Art History at the Art School: Revisiting the Institutional Origins of the Discipline Based on the Case of Nineteenth-Century Greece


Vratskidou, Eleonora, Journal of Art Historiography


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Scholarly courses at the art school: a blind spot of research

The elaboration of a theoretical discourse on art has been a main concern of art academies since their creation in the sixteenth century. This concern was nurtured by the need to regulate artistic production through the establishment of specific norms and values, and, at the same time, it was intricately linked to the promotion of the artist's status and the legitimization of the artistic profession. The articulation of theoretical discourse in the academies took place mainly in the framework of conferences among peers - by and for an elite of peers - where multiple alternating voices could engage in fruitful debate. However, towards the end of the eighteenth and during the early nineteenth century the plurivocal structure of the conferences was, in many cases, gradually replaced by actual courses offered by a unique professor. Along with practical training, courses of history, archaeology, art history, art theory and aesthetics were systematically incorporated into the academic curricula in the context of larger pedagogical and institutional reforms. This is the period in which Ancient Régime artistic structures were reformed, while new art schools were created, and the academic system of art education expanded in the recently founded nation-states of Europe and the Americas.

A series of questions arise from this development. Whereas courses in art theory and aesthetics could be seen as a further pursuing of old concerns, courses in art history were less expected. Why did artists need to study the history of art? Engagement with the art of the past was certainly a salient aspect of academic training, through the copying of art works of antiquity or of the Old Masters. But what did this new kind of knowledge on past art - scholarly, systematized, often with a claim to exhaustivity, codified in a course - have to contribute to artistic practice? What were the artistic, political or economic grounds for the utterly novel claim that art has a history, and this history has to be taught to artists? Another major issue related to the introduction of scholarly courses in the art school has to do with the fact that artists seem to gradually abandon the control over the discourse produced on art to non-practitioners, to scholars who form gradually a community of professional specialists. In this regard, how was the introduction of art history courses in this particular moment related to the arising discipline of art history?

I will focus here on the case of nineteenth-century Greece and the scholarly teaching offered in the Athenian School of Arts, the first art institution of the country, founded in 1837. The development of art institutions in Greece followed very different trajectories from those observed in most western European countries. The inception of the Greek art world coincides with the creation of an independent Greek State, in 1830, in a small territory sliced from the Ottoman Empire. The very notions of 'fine arts' and the 'artist' actually had no equivalent in the Greek-speaking world of the Ottoman Empire. These categories, and the cultural practices to which they are linked, were shaped mainly through the foundation of a state institution, the School of Arts, a development that had a lasting impact on the conception both of artistic activity and the role of the artist. The interest of the Greek case lies precisely in the fact that it represents a new art world formation, where all the fundamental questions around the social production of art had to be thought anew. Constructed almost ex nihilo, the Greek art world may be envisaged as a kind of historical laboratory, permitting one to observe the very institution of practices and concepts that one often tends to naturalise (or let their historical specificity be blended away by anachronisms).

The founding of the School of Arts, and more generally the creation of an artistic culture in Greece, was the outcome of a complex set of cultural transfers: the School introduced art education based on Western European models that were mediated by foreign professors and Greeks who had studied abroad, particularly in Italy, France and Germany. …

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