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The main task of art history is to collect, preserve, classify, appreciate, and mediate historic artworks of all periods. It deals with materialized forms of historical interventions that shape the concepts of time and thereby continuously change the character of the present. Art history is continuously in conflict with modernism and defines it in the same moment. ‘Globalization’ can count on a prehistory that goes back before the age of imperialism, but at the same time the traditional concept of art history as ‘Image history’ (Bildgeschichte) is in danger, caused by the separation between art history and visual studies.
- The Character of Time
- Space: Globalization
- Image: Art History as Bildgeschichte (Image History)
- Material, Language, Visual Studies
The Character of Time
In the year 1983, the artist Bogomir Ecker had the idea to create an artwork that would not only last for the centuries to come, but would be realized over the inconceivable time span of 500 years; he hence began to search for a place that promised to survive so far into the future. His search was by no means trivial: his artwork, the so-called Tropfsteinmaschine (Dripstone Machine), required an incessant supply of dripping rainwater for its apparatus to create a sculpture that, through mineral sedimentation, would grow 1 cm every 100 years (Ecker, 1999). Not only the place but also the maintenance of the apparatus had to be warranted for the next 500 years. The first building that came to the artist’s mind was the house of parliament in Bonn. However, in 1987, he decided by intuition that even the future of this center of the West German state was too uncertain for it to serve as the site for his installation. History proved him correct, as the Reunification put an end to the ‘Bonn Republik’. In his search for a lasting establishment, the artist ultimately decided against a political building and instead chose a museum, the safekeeper of art: With his choice of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, he incorporated his generation-spanning production space into the institution that to him held the highest promise of surviving all future changes, even over the next centuries (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Bogomir Ecker, Dripstone Machine, Installation, 1996, Kunsthalle, Hamburg.
This example puts in a nutshell the main tasks of art history, shared with archaeology, namely, to collect, preserve, classify, interpret, and mediate historic artworks of all periods. In doing so, art historians instantiate a concept of time that counteracts the passing of the present. Already the decision to allocate or withdraw means for this expansive task touches a community’s identity at the heart. Also oral, textual, and musical tradition provides a space for reflection; but the sphere of visual art confronts the viewers and their projections, which stem from the present, in the unique form of a counterreality that can be scrutinized in its material presence. Therefore, the concept of time developed and maintained by art historians carries a profound social dimension.
Museums at the same time reveal the paradox endeavor of art history. Since the discipline was systematically included in an academic curriculum for the first time in 1810 at the University of Berlin (Bredekamp and Labuda, 2010), art history, through its museums, has left an imprint on modern culture only comparable to the spread of hospitals through the progress of medicine and the erection of temples of transportation, such as train stations and airports, through engineering science. Since the opening of the Altes Museum in Berlin in 1830 (Figure 2) – the first autonomous building of modernity constructed for this specific purpose – the permeation of the history of art by art history has exerted an eminent influence on metropolitan life. Through museums, art history contributes to the urbanity even of small- and medium-sized towns, but also of metropoles such as Berlin, London, Madrid, Paris, Mexico, New York, and Beijing. Whenever newly developed centers wish to document their supraregional relevance, these claims find expression in the erection of museums: recent examples are Abu Dhabi (Figure 3) and Hong Kong. As a hard factor contributing to the attractiveness of human communities, museums in their paradoxical construction have remained unchallenged over almost 200 years; and even presently, the continuing increase of visitor streams conveys no trace of fading appeal. The 100 most visited art museum range between the Palace Museum in Beijing (c. 12 million visitors per annum) and the Istanbul Modern (c. 666 000 visitors). The 100 most frequented exhibitions of the year 2012 range between c. 10 500 (Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum) and c. 160 000 (Stockholm, Moderna Museet) per day (Source: Visitor Figures, 2012). The numbers for Europe can be checked regularly through the European Group on Museum Statistics (http://www.egmus.eu/en/statistics/).
Figure 2. Friedrich Alexander Thiele, View of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s museum of Berlin, colored etching, 1830.
Figure 3. Frank Gehry, Model of the museums in Abu Dhabi, 2007.
As a warrantor of the diachronic development of art, however, art history stands in conflict with a modernity that it brought forth itself. Modernity calls for acceleration, presentism, and creative destruction, which in the Futurist Manifesto of 1909 comprised the destruction of all museums as a prerequisite for further development. The fact that art history, by having integrated Futurism into the historical conditions of the Modern Canon, bears this conflict within itself, is evidence for the paradoxical disposition of the discipline in the modern world.
This conflict affects all aspects of art history’s presence in our days. Because art history has a century-old history, it has to reinvent itself by providing new answers in conflicting fields, of which the problems of globalization are perhaps the most pressing.
The criteria for form analysis, comparison, and the history of form development and the search for iconological semantics, which has been differentiated into a variety of within themselves highly complex stylistic periods, have been developed and refined since the age of the so-called ‘father of art history’, Giorgio Vasari, mostly with regard to European art; however, over the centuries, the criteria have been tested and improved in most diverse ways.
From this, two possibilities arise for the future. According to the first, these methods hold a similarly objective status as Euclid’s geometrical laws, able not only to transcend time but also to operate transculturally. This precludes their continuous discussion and repeated adaptation to new subject matters. According to the second possibility, these methods must be defined as historically determined skills that will be transformed in an undetermined future within a new framework, in which they will unfold their meaning in a different way. The future beneficiary of such a process would then have to compensate possible losses of the historical methods.
This fundamental question is related to the European origin of the discipline. The Western industrial countries have brought forth by far the most art historians. However, from the beginning, it was considered a sign of quality not to confine arthistorical studies to the art of one’s own culture but instead to explore the congruent as well as antagonistic intertwinings between different cultures. Regarding the artifacts of the so-called ‘Third World’, the colonial aspect of this phenomenon is not far to seek; but the interest in foreign cultures was, albeit less frequently, also motivated by curiosity and high regard for other domains. For this reason, those museums that stem from the tradition of the Kunstkammer had to deal with the internal conflict that their collections were predominantly the products of colonial overthrows, but also of a non- or anticolonial interest and admiration (example of a scholar, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc: Miller, 2012; feathers as an example of shaped materials: Russo, 2002; Penacho, 2012; in general: Götterbilder, 2012). In this lies the second open question that the discipline is confronted with today.
An early, liberal answer to the problem is Franz Kugler’s magnum opus of liberal globality, the Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (Handbook of Art History), published in 1842 (Kugler, 1842; Franz Theodor Kugler, 2010). Written in the climate of Johann Gottfried Herder’s definition of the Weltbürger (world citizen), the text tries to unite all artworks from the Stone Age to the present in a non-hierarchical narrative. Through the deepening of nationalisms in the second half of the nineteenth and above all in the twentieth century, this global orientation was lost for the most part. A fortiori, the non-colonial interest in foreign art today has become a driving impulse in most of the contemporary debates worldwide (Crossing Cultures, 2009).
It was a programmatic decision of the founders to locate the Getty Center as one of the most ambitious research institutes for art history and material culture worldwide, not on the East coast of the United States, but instead in Los Angeles, to make strong its pacific perspective (Figure 4). The process of transcending borders regarding materials and cultures is spurred by the umbrella organization Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art (CIHA). The CIHA was founded after the Second World War to counteract the mental and material destructions of fascism and National Socialism. Until recently, all world congresses, which are organized by the CIHA every 4 years since the first Vienna congress in 1973, had taken place in Europe and the United States. In 2008, the first congress to take place in the Pacific Rim was held in Melbourne, as a statement regarding the spread of art history throughout the world. While 50 nations convened there at the time, the CIHA-congress in Nuremberg 2012 brought together art historians from unprecedented 82 nations. The congress of the year 2016 will take place in Beijing. Further, no less telling symbols of this global orientation are two encyclopedias: the Dictionary of Art (1996) and the Germanlanguage Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon (General Artist Lexicon, 1991ss.), dedicated to the artists of all times and peoples (the online-edition already contains over 1 million entries (http://www.degruyter.com/view/db/akl)).
Figure 4. Richard Meyer, Getty Center, Los Angeles, 1991–1997.
In view of this comprehensive documentation of artists and artworks of all times, the methodological globalization of art history lies not merely in adding new fields or ordering existing ones but in developing perspectives that emphasize tensions and differences and thereby produce criteria for assessing the respective strengths and weaknesses. The study of perspective in different cultures can function as an example for this (Is Art History Global? 2007; Kritische Berichte, 2012) as well as the reformulation of crossing cultures in larger areas like the Mediterranean (Wolf, 2009).
An attempt was made to increase this problem awareness also institutionally by internationalizing the directorship of major art-historical institutions. Hence, in the year 2013, an Australian art historian is the director of the Norwegian museum in Trondheim, while a Norwegian art historian directs the National Museum in Mombasa; a German ethnologist and art historian is the head of the Victoria and Albert Museum, while – the perhaps most historic example – a curator educated in Herder’s sense, who was born in Nigeria, worked in Africa and the USA, and curated the documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002, since 2011 heads the Haus der Kunst in Munich – a museum that was inaugurated by Adolf Hitler in 1936. This tendency was pushed to an almost Dadaistic extreme at the Venice Biennial in 2013, where France and Germany exchanged their pavilions and Germany featured foreign artists, among them the Chinese Ai Weiwei (La Biennale di Venezia, 2013). Taking all of these answers to the question of globalization, it appears that the universal self-definition of the discipline has been sealed also for the future.
Image: Art History as Bildgeschichte (Image History)
One of the conditions of this process is the reactivation of a wide definition of ‘art’ as developed mainly in the German-speaking realm of Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and several eastern European countries throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century until the fatal year of 1933. ‘Art’ was not understood as an autonomous, self-obliging form of creativity, but in the sense of the Greek techné and the Roman ars. This meant that not only the products of high art but also all forms of applied arts lay in the responsibility of art historians. The museums of art and design have lived up to this standard worldwide.
Important representatives of this direction were Franz Kugler, Gottfried Semper, Alois Riegl, and Aby Warburg. Namely Riegl (1985) and Warburg (Warburg, 1998, 1999) set a still relevant example for the ability of art historians to overcome the inner paradox of the discipline, i.e., to stand in the present and simultaneously secure the timeless quality of the artworks, to be devoted to every kind of form (Gestaltung) by emphasizing the unique character of the visual arts while also realizing the finesse of the applied arts.
Within this framework, art historians appropriated new media such as photography and film not only as parts of a new corpus of visuality but also as methodological enrichments. The early theory of film by Rudolf Arnheim (1931) became a landmark in film studies that were founded through the continuous activity of Erwin Panofsky (Bredekamp, 2006). What is more, all forms of video (the earliest attempt was: Film als Film, 1977) and digital media – such as web art – were quickly analyzed and adopted. The medias of video and digital art are included in many museums, and the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe (1996) has for the first time devoted an entire complex to these new media, consisting of both an art museum and a laboratory. As the response to a media revolution encompassing the world but remaining ephemeral in its production, museums as the primary seats of art history remain the fixed points of a locally accessible but materially permanent realm of experience, one that also incorporates the products of the art-technological revolution.
Against common intuition, art history was one of the first humanities to support the use of computers as an auxiliary means for archiving and searching (Kohle, 2013). One of the oldest and most successful digital programs within the humanities may be the Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known to the Renaissance, whose presentation in Pisa in 1983 and in London in 1992 set the course for the discipline as a whole (Nesselrath, 1993). The search engines of the image archive Foto Marburg (http://www.fotomarburg.de/), the Prometheus Image Archive (http://www.prometheus-bildarchiv.de/), Digitale Diathek (http://www.digitale-diathek.net/), and the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation’s ARTstor (http://www.artstor.org/) have achieved in the field of images what the Getty Research Portal of the Getty Research Institute has developed for digital research in art-historical literature (http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/portal/index.html) and what other institutions have created for the documentation of national art (e.g., in the Netherlands: https://rkd.nl/en/) or national collections (e.g., France: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/documentation/joconde/fr/pres.htm). Nearly every larger museum has in recent years made at least parts of its collection accessible online as digital reproductions, and the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum set an example regarding the free use of images in the sense of open access (http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx).
Furthermore, the products of everyday culture have been and continue to be a systematic subject of this type of art history. Already at the beginning of the twentieth century, Warburg suggested the use of the term Bildwissenschaft (image science) to better describe the subject matter of the discipline.
After National Socialism severed this tradition, it has been successfully reestablished since the 1960s (landmarks: Freedberg, 1989; Belting, 2001; Didi-Huberman, 2002). If today the image worlds of the natural sciences and medicine (Das Technische Bild, 2008; The Technical Image, 2013) and most notably political iconography (Handbuch der Politischen Ikonographie, 2011) belong to the natural areas of arthistorical analysis, then this is an effect of the renaissance of a once dominant tradition.
A part of this revival is also the close relationship between art history, philosophy, and linguistics as it was developed at the cultural historical library Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, the work of whose members gave some of the most important impulses that ever came from art history. Attempts have been made to resuscitate this tradition as well, which was mostly destroyed after the library’s emigration to London in 1933. If the present period has been placed under the terms pictorial turn (Mitchell, 1992) and iconic turn (Boehm, 1994), this by no means implies playing off images against language. Instead, what is at stake is to radically question the interpretive predominance of language championed by the linguistic turn. Both turns are related to the conviction that in a highly technologically advanced civilization in which communication takes place for the most part visually it becomes all the more necessary to develop a philosophy of the image that is equal to the present task.
The collaborative effort between Embodiment Theory (Krois, 2011) and Picture Act Theory (Theorie des Bildakts, Bredekamp, 2010) has tried to answer these demands. Also in this endeavor, artifacts have been examined in their entire breadth, from automatons to diagrams.
Material, Language, Visual Studies
However, at the same time, these achievements are threatened by the breaking away of visual studies from art history in the English-speaking realm (Elkins, 2003; Bredekamp, 2003; Art History and Visual Studies in Europe, 2012). This has had the effect that Anglo-Saxon art historians tend to feel relieved of the pressure to face the entire breadth of the discipline as it was conceived by Riegl and Warburg. This contradicts their own tradition that tried to embrace the whole frame, as developed from most different perspectives by scholars like George Kubler (1962), David Freedberg (1989), Barbara Stafford (1991), James Elkins (1999), Whitney Davis (2011), and Neil MacGregor (2011). Although representatives of visual studies have succeeded in opening up everyday visual culture to scholarly research in a remarkable way, they also have to account for dire losses. By distancing themselves from art-historical methods, the sensitivity for the value of each individual form becomes less developed.
This process creates the third profound problem, strengthened by developments in language policy. While up to the year 1933 the dominant language of art history was German, the CIHA committee chose English, French, Italian, and German as the official congress languages. In 2004 Spanish was added. So far, each language, independent of nationality, has brought forth specific modes of thought that defy immediate translation. Conjointly, the five internationally defined languages, to which, depending on context, must be added Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Netherlandish, Russian, Portuguese, and all other languages in which the respective artworks have been reflected, have generated methodological diversity and a fruitful wealth of perspectives. The globalization of science in general, however, has also caused art history to increasingly sacrifice its plurality of languages to the predominant use of English. Despite all the advantages of facilitated mutual understanding, a danger is involved that threatens art history at its core; in this lies the major problem and potential of art history today.
With the global transition toward English as the universal language of art history, the danger of a methodological reduction of the discipline lights up and could cause its marginalization. Art history will continue to be responsible for the high arts inalienably and for indeterminable time to come. With regard to the deeper-lying battlefields of coming to terms with a visually dominated contemporary culture, however, art history could be pushed into a minor role, or even worse, cease to play any role at all. Its future disciplinary as well as social reputation depends on the solution of this conflict.
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