Durability

Peter Lamarque

  • The Critical Historians of Art by Michael Podro
    Yale, 257 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 300 02862 8
  • A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming
    Macmillan, 639 pp, £17.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 333 23583 5
  • The Test of Time: An Essay in Philosophical Aesthetics by Anthony Savile
    Oxford, 319 pp, £20.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 19 824590 4

The idea of development, either in the work of individual artists or in terms of ‘schools’, ‘movements’ or styles, is a dominant feature of our conception of European art. There is no theoretical problem more pressing in art history than that of explaining such development. How do we get from Cimabue’s Madonna Enthroned to Raphael’s Alba Madonna, or even from Brunelleschi to Bramante? And why do such changes occur?

Of course development need not imply progress. Progress must by its nature be relative to a specific end or goal, and although we might speak of an artist or group of artists progressing within a style or in the use of a technique, the idea, optimistically advanced by Pliny and Vasari, that the history of art is itself a linear progression towards some ultimate ideal can be afforded little credence. Development, though, is different; the implication is at most that of structured change. It is this concept that permeates our art-historical vocabulary – in general terms like ‘influence’, ‘tradition’ or ‘period’ as well as in terms of value: ‘original’, ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’.

Things might have been otherwise. Development in art is not inevitable, nor of necessity desirable; and its course is rarely predictable. Think of ancient Egyptian art, with its extreme conservatism and conventionalism, prompting Plato to remark, admittedly with some exaggeration, that it had remained unchanged for ten thousand years. Novelty and originality were simply not merits in the Egyptian aesthetic and it was just such austere conservatism that Plato himself so admired. Yet in spite of Plato, and in spite of recurrent bouts of neurotic nostalgia, European art, over a mere 2500 years, has been characterised by a relentless pursuit of change, of new forms and materials and meanings.

There is no shortage of explanations for the historical evolution of European art. For some it is obvious that the social and economic turmoil of these two and a half millennia – how different, they observe, from the relative stability of the Nile valley – was sufficient as a determinant of artistic restlessness. Pursuing this line, others will insist that the very forms and styles themselves are merely predictable reflections in the superstructure of a changing economic base. There are yet others who see the individual ‘genius’, with a creativity transcending historical determinism, as the ultimate thrust behind artistic innovation. And in turn suitable psychological theories are at hand to gobble up such explanations into an all-embracing and scientific Kunstwissenschaft.

But there is nagging resistance among art historians to any such reductive explanations of their subject-matter. Social history and psychology might illuminate, but they can never usurp, the explanatory task of art history. For must there not always be at least a residue from any reductive theory which calls for an explanation internal to the institution of art itself? Isn’t the relation between Giotto’s Raising of Lazarus and Ghiberti’s Raising of Lazarus a century later, or between the abbey church of St Denis and Amiens Cathedral, at least partially a relation reflecting an autonomous development within an artistic tradition, a development irreducible to non-aesthetic determinants?

Michael Podro, in his difficult, scholarly and condensed book The Critical Historians of Art, carefully charts a debate on just these issues among a group of German art historians in the century between 1827 and 1927. By no means all of his selected group are household names, even in the houses of art historians: Schnaase, Semper, Göller, Riegl, Wölfflin, Schmarsow, Frankl, Springer, Warburg and Panofsky. But the problems they address and the aims they espouse will strike a chord in anyone interested in the explanation of development in art. Podro invites us, not so much to endorse their conclusions, of which he is often sharply critical, but to assess the strengths and weaknesses of certain lines of thought. We soon recognise the complexity of the issues involved. What makes the book difficult is that detailed exposition of the theories tends to be sacrificed in favour of critical comment. Podro is too anxious to engage in the debates himself to linger behind with the reader who hasn’t done his homework. The condensed style, the assured scholarship and the uncompromising presupposition of background is reminiscent of the author’s The Manifold in Perception: Theories of Art from Kant to Hildebrand (1972), of which this book is a direct successor.

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