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The End of the History of Art? by Hans Belting and Christopher S. Wood
Review by: David Carrier
Source: History and Theory, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 1988), pp. 188-199
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ThE END OF THE HISTORY OF ART? By Hans Belting. Translated by Christopher
S. Wood. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
This short book by an extremely erudite art historian contains two essays: a dis-
cussion of the relation between contemporary art and art history and an account
of Vasari and his influence. As Professor Belting correctly observes, for many
art historians encounters with contemporary art play a small role in their profes-
sional life. But this situation, he feels, is unsatisfactory, for it is no accident that
the currently fashionable chiliastic belief in the end of the history of art comes
at the same time as widespread dissatisfaction with the methodologies of tradi-
tional art history. An historical perspective, he believes, will help us to under-
stand the origins and importance of these beliefs. In his account of this dilemma,
the three crucial figures are Vasari, Winckelmann, and Hegel.
Vasari is important here because his way of thinking about the development
of art is a model, still, for art history. Unlike the typical modern art historian,
he both participated in the development of the art of his time and wrote its his-
tory. Winckelmann, who also is discussed in both of these essays, inherited Vasari's
organic model of art history. For him too, art
- like a living organism - is born,
develops, reaches maturity and then perishes. The apparent problem for art his-
tory today with this model is that it provides no way of understanding the on-
going history of art. For Vasari, Raphael and Michelangelo were the culmina-
tion of the tradition that began with Giotto. But what then could remain for
artists of the next generation to do? This is not a problem for Vasari himself;
his goal is to explain the development of art up to his own time. And Winckel-
mann effectively avoids this issue by concentrating on the cycle of the birth, de-
velopment, maturity, and decay of art in antiquity; he had no developed theory
of art of his own time, which interested him less than Greek and Roman art.
But Belting's third key figure, Hegel, answers this problem by giving an altogether
different turn to the analysis. Hegel offers an account of the art of antiquity, the
Renaissance, and his own day, and concludes that in his own time the history
of art has ended. It is this last claim which is of central importance for Belting.
For a decade or two, art critics have been fascinated with the possibility that
perhaps now the history of art is concluded. The debates about what is fashionably
called postmodernism centrally involve this conclusion. If art has now reached
the end of its development, what follows is that present day artists are condemned
to repeat the past, producing mere variations on the work of their precursors.
Perhaps we live in what Clement Greenberg once described as "a motionless Alex-
andrianism ... in which ... all larger questions [are] ... decided by the prece-
dent of the old masters."' What gave new life to art in "Western bourgeois so-
ciety," he adds in this account originally published in 1939, is something novel:
"avant-garde culture." But if now that tradition of modernism, whose history
he tells, is concluded, then indeed we may today have reached this condition of
1. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston, 1961), 4.
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stasis. And such a situation, Belting adds, will in turn be reflected in the writing
of art history. Modernists like Greenberg claimed that the art they admire con-
tinued, and advanced the tradition. And if now art can no longer do that, then
it seems that we have indeed lost our historical bearings.
Hegel wrote: "art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us
a thing of the past."2 The classic modern development of this Hegelian theme
is Edgar Wind's Art and Anarchy (1963), which draws attention both to Hegel's
explicit concern, the loss of art's traditional social function, and to two more
recent developments: the corrupting belief, as Wind thinks of it, that artworks
should be perceived in a disinterested way and the vulgarizing influences of pho-
tographic reproductions of artworks. "As art withdrew into itself and receded
toward the margin of life," Wind writes, "it began to lose touch with learning,
as it lost touch with other forces that shape our experience."3
I mention these anticipations of Belting's views because, as he himself recog-
nizes, there is a tradition of prophecies that the end of art is at hand. These ac-
counts have not stood the test of time. Hegel's experience of early nineteenth-
century German art could scarcely have prepared him to anticipate Impressionism,
Post-Impressionism, and cubism; Wind's account of Abstract Expressionism gives
no sense of the marvelous vitality of that movement. So why should Belting's
account be judged as anything more than yet another variation on these now
familiar Hegelian themes? One answer to this question is that he has a different,
more measured view of what has ended. Today, he writes, "the artist and the
art historian have lost faith in a rational, teleological process of artistic history,
a process to be carried out by the one and described by the other" (ix). That
sort of ending of art's history is compatible, he recognizes, with the creation of
new art forms. Just as a reader of Vasari who knew Renaissance fresco cycles
could barely have anticipated the storytelling devices our filmmakers have dis-
covered, so perhaps novel art forms which are developed today will be difficult
to understand as growing out of the art of the past. A second answer to this
question is that Belting is concerned less with art alone than with art in relation
to art history. And since his book contains neither a single reproduction nor a
sustained account of any individual art work, his analysis of contemporary art
relies almost entirely upon the claim that there is this link between the concerns
of the artist and the art historian.
The very brevity of this volume means that its analysis is extremely sketchy,
and so often involves easily questioned claims. The three paragraphs devoted
to Gombrich give little support to Belting's conclusion that it is "an error to re-
duce the entire problem of artistic form to an act of imitation. Imitation is only
measurable when art imitates nature" (23). This distinction between imitating
nature and imitating reality is really unhelpful; Gombrich has, after all, had much
to say about the social function of imitation. Similarly, the brief discussion of
such difficult figures as Riegl and Woelfflin will only make sense to someone who
2. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, transl. T. M. Knox (Oxford, 1975), I, 11.
3. Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy (New York, 1969), 58-59.
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has already studied them; and that reader is likely to have serious problems with
Belting's claims. For example, he twice (14, 35) says that Woelfflin's principles
appear simultaneously with the first abstract paintings; but since those principles
were first presented in Woelfflin's Renaissance and Baroque (1888), while the
earliest abstract paintings appear just after 1910, I am unsure what to make of
this "connection."4 Apart from the discrepancy in dates, it is hard to see from
Belting's account what Woelfflin's theorizing has to do with abstract art. Woelfflin
did not write much about contemporary art; Roger Fry, who was heavily influenced
by Woelfflin, did, but his account of Cezanne, originally published in 1927, shows
how little connection he found between Woelfflin's formalist analysis and ab-
stract art.5
At its worst Belting's historical summary is merely journalistic; nineteenth-
century art, he tells us, "found itself estranged from ordinary experience and
perception and so sought new ways of seeing reality" (25). His summary is always
rushed. Hermeneutics is dismissed as irrelevant in two pages; the semiotic the-
ories of Barthes and Nelson Goodman are mentioned in passing; and we learn
that "psychology . .. cannot investigate the cultural communication of reality
with its own means, because then it would have to define first what reality was"
(22). It is easy to be bewildered by such an eclectic account, in which so many
diverse theories are touched upon so briefly. While Belting's bibliography shows
that he has read widely, the reader who seeks an analysis of present day art his-
tory will find his claim that Michael Fried, Wolfgang Kemp, and Norman Bryson
(28) are three modern theorists interested in style as unhelpful as the tantalizing,
undeveloped suggestion - it is made in the last sentence - that George Kubler's
work provides a useful "anthropologically grounded conception of artistic produc-
tion as a paradigm of human activity" (94).6
The problems with this book, furthermore, are not merely due to its brevity.
The body of the text of Art and Anarchy is hardly much longer, but Wind's vivid
examples permit him to present his thesis clearly. What, by contrast, is frustrating
about The End of the History of Art? is the use of these art historical references
without discussion of concrete historical examples. It is hard to have faith in an
account which asserts that "art history's difficulties with modern art date back
to the early nineteenth century, when art lost its traditional public functions"
(40); surely, every reader of Diderot's art criticism would think that development
dates back at least to the middle of the previous century and the development
of the French Salon.7 Nor does it help when, three pages later, Belting instead
locates this "major crisis" in seventeenth-century Protestant Europe (43). Even
4. See the discussion of Woelfflin and Riegl in Michael Podro, The Critical Historians ofArt (New
Haven and London, 1982), 98-116. Woelfflin, Podro observes, does in his later work modify that
account presented in Renaissance and Baroque; but Belting's account gives no reason to think that
this change has anything to do with the development of abstract art.
5. See Roger Fry, Cezanne: A Study of His Development (New York, 1958).
6. The reference is to his The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven, 1962).
7. The most complete recent account appears in Thomas C. Crow, Painters and Public Life in
Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven and London, 1985).
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when Belting touches on the German literature, it is hard to gain from his book
much of a feel for the philosophical issues.8 Hegel, he asserts, treated "art his-
tory as contemplation of past modes of human expression, modes which no longer
. . .suggest a model for the future of art itself" (12). I am no Hegel scholar,
but since Hegel's key claim, as I read him, was that the history of art was con-
cluded in his time, I cannot understand what it could then mean to note that
his account of art's past offers no model for the future of art.
Still, there is in Belting's book the sketch of an original, extremely important
argument; and so, leaving aside these problems with his exposition, I want to
concentrate my attention on three key claims. First, the ultimate goal of writing
about art is to understand contemporary work in relation to earlier art; and if
art history now fails to do this, it cannot achieve its real goal. Second, Renais-
sance art has a privileged role in art history because in Vasari's account theorizing
about art and art making are united. Third, the failure of modern art criticism
to play a comparable role in relation to art today must lead to a loss of self-
confidence within the discipline of art history. These claims, we will see, are closely
What does it mean to understand contemporary art in relation to earlier art?
The suggestion repeatedly made in Belting's account is that either contemporary
art continues the tradition or it does not. In this all or nothing way of thinking,
these are the only alternatives; either the tradition continues, or it is broken. But
consider some examples. Giotto can be viewed both as the first great Renaissance
master and as an heir to the Byzantine tradition.9 Leonardo seems an heir to
the quattrocento traditions, but his belief that frescoes should not depict more
than one scene on a single wall marks his rejection of the achievement of Piero
della Francesca.10 Poussin in many ways looked back to the Renaissance, more
so than did his baroque contemporaries; but his exclusive concern with easel
painting and his interest in landscapes distinguish him from those Renaissance
artists. Chardin's still life works could not have been made in the Renaissance,
but his interest in illusionistic effects links him with the masters Vasari discusses.
Manet's image-quotations have been viewed as both a continuation of a Renais-
sance tradition and as a distinctively modernist innovation.1I Matisse formed
his style prior to the era of cubism, and so in some ways seems an early moder-
nist figure; but the late "cut-outs" from the early 1950s, which develop directly
out of his earlier concerns as colorist, anticipate American color field painting
of the 1960s.
Willem de Kooning is usually placed within the Abstract Expres-
8. Here his analysis compares unfavorably with Michael Ann Holly's Panofsky and the Founda-
tions ofArt History (Ithaca and London, 1984) which, by focusing on one key figure, explores methodo-
logical problems in depth.
9. On his connection with Byzantine art, see Otto Demus, Byzantine Art and the West (New York,
1970), 225-230.
10. See E. H. Gombrich, Means and Ends: Reflections on the History of Fresco Painting (London,
1976), 10-11.
11. For discussion of both claims, see my "Manet and His Interpreters,"ArtHistory 8(1985), 320-335.
12. On this connection, see Lawrence Gowing, Matisse (New York and Toronto, 1979), 142-157.
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sionist tradition developed in the 1940s, but his painterly female figures are recog-
nizable descendants of works by Titian and Rubens.13
In short, everywhere in the history of painting from Giotto to de Kooning we
find both continuity and discontinuity. Once we see that what is called "tradi-
tion" involves both continuity and constant change, then questions about whether
new art continues the tradition will seem less interesting. The same point can
be made about contemporary art. Much postmodernist New York art of the 1980s
plays with ideas developed early in this century by Marcel Duchamp. Similarly,
the recent much discussed rejection of the abstract expressionist tradition in favor
of a return to work containing figurative images and the still more recent revival
of abstraction show that right now artists both have new concerns and are in-
volved in tradition. This is not to say that there is nothing new in contemporary
art, but that today, as in the Renaissance, what is new can also be seen as de-
veloping the traditions of earlier art.
Historians are perhaps less likely to find this claim surprising than are art
historians, for in dealing with political and social institutions it is clear that usu-
ally we can observe both continuities and discontinuities. When did the Renais-
sance begin? What was the first capitalist society? Did the French Revolution
destroy the system of centralized political authority established by Loiuis XIV?
Adequate answers to these questions must recognize this fact. Sometimes, I grant,
in both art history and history in general there are genuinely new developments
or irreversible historical changes. Although landscapes appear in the background
of Renaissance altarpieces, in Western art landscape painting as such appears
only in the seventeenth century. 14 And it is hard to find any genuine pre-twentieth-
century precedents for abstract painting. Similarly, barring unimaginable changes,
we are no more likely to observe the rebirth of the Venetian Republic than we
are to see a revival in Rome of the baroque paintings of martyrdoms. But in many
cases relevant to Belting's analysis, such breaks with tradition are, I believe, less
important than continuities.
How we understand such continuities and discontinuities essentially depends,
I believe, upon how we choose to narrate our history. 15 For once we understand
that continuity or discontinuity are not facts about the world somehow given
by the events themselves, but are defined by the text which describes those events,
then we can recognize that to talk about "tradition" or "a break with tradition"
is, in large part, to refer to the structure of those texts. Harold Rosenberg's ac-
count of Abstract Expressionism focuses on its break with tradition; Clement
Greenberg's discussion on its link to the tradition defined by cubism, early French
modernism, and old master art. And since we are here dealing not with a matter
of fact, but with two different ways of interpreting the same works, both these
13. A brief, very suggestive discussion of representation in his art appears in Richard Wollheim,
Painting as an Art: The A. W Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1984 (Princeton, 1987), 348-353.
14. See E. H. Gombrich, "The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape," reprinted
in his Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London, 1966), 107-121.
15. Here I draw on the well-known work of Hayden White and upon Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche:
Life as Literature (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1985).
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accounts are worth considering.16 We can frankly recognize that the success of
such an account, given that it is true to the facts, is measured by its plausibility,
originality, and suggestiveness. '7 Belting hints at this point when he observes that
just as visual art works "reproduce either something which was considered real
... or a truth," so the writer "was supposed to reproduce the work by describing
its relation to the content or model it reproduced" (59). Like representational
art, art history too is a form of representation; for as such paintings represent
the world, so the texts of the art historian represent art works. And, to continue
that parallel, just as there are different truthful ways of representing the world,
so there is more than one correct way of representing an art work.
What does the argument tell us about the privileged role of Vasari's history of
Renaissance art? What is unique about his account is that in Italy in 1550 it really
was possible to narrate an account in which the story of painting from Cimabue
to Michelangelo involved progress towards greater naturalism. This unity of theory
and practice, it is important to observe, is hard to find elsewhere in the history
of European art. Giotto's contemporaries had little to say about his work; van
Eyck and his fellow Flemish painters also lacked a similarly gifted commentator';
and although their contemporaries presumably saw that Caravaggio and Rem-
brandt were doing something new, their accounts seem to us hopelessly inade-
quate descriptions of what is original in this art.'9 Nor, to take examples from
the history of modernism, do the discussions of Cezanne or cubism by art critics
of their time explain what today interests us about this art.20 Only rarely have
artists been able to count on intelligent contemporary commentators on their
work. And once we recognize this fact, then we may be less tempted to follow
Belting in concluding that today there is some special link between art and the
situation of art history. If artists in the past have not been able to depend upon
historians or critics to provide a theory guiding their practice, why should artists
today expect, or need, such aid from contemporary art critics?
What was special about Vasari's account, then, was that because he focused
on a period in which it was plausible to narrate art's development as a story of
progress towards even better naturalism, he could describe all of the art he cared
16. See Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," Art News 51 (1952), 22-23, 48-50;
and Greenberg's response, "How Artwriting Earns Its Bad Name," Encounter 18
(1962), 66-71.
17. This is a controversial claim. The postmodernists see in that movement a irreparable break
with the past; for such an account, see Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and
Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1985). In his Painting as an Art, Woliheim
argues that painting from the Renaissance to de Kooning manifests a common human nature.
18. On Giotto and van Eyck, see Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers
of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition 1350-1450 (Oxford, 1971).
19. On Caravaggio, see my "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: Caravaggio and His Inter-
preters," Word & Image 3 (March, 1987), 41-73; on Rembrandt, E. Havekamp-Begemann, Rembrandt:
The Night Watch (Princeton, 1982), which provides a summary of contemporary commentary and
a history of interpretations of that work.
20. On Cezanne, see Richard Shiff, Ce6zanne and the End of Post-Impressionism: A Study of the
Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art (Chicago and London, 1984); on cubism,
Mark Roskill, The Interpretation of Cubism (Philadelphia, 1985).
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about in one unified narrative. Gombrich's Art and Illusion, I have argued else-
where, is best read as an extension of that analysis; now the history runs not
just from Giotto to Michelangelo but from Giotto through to Constable and
Impressionism.2" But the price that Gombrich pays for thus extending the tradi-
tion is that his narrative must accommodate more diverse artworks. Whatever
their other differences, Giotto and Michelangelo both are concerned with nar-
rating sacred scenes; Constable is not, and so to compare his pictures to theirs
requires a more subtle theory of naturalism than Vasari knew. The great achieve-
ment of Clement Greenberg's Art and Culture is to extend such a narrative to
encompass modernist abstraction, which for him becomes the latest stage in that
tradition which begins with Giotto. And, just as Gombrich revises Vasari's anal-
ysis by developing further the concept of naturalism, so Greenberg is able to
place Giotto, cubism, and Pollock within one narrative because the features
common to their art are described in a still more general way. Now we are con-
cerned not with naturalism, but with pictorial illusionism, a quality which
representational old master works can share with Pollock's abstractions. Unfor-
tunately Belting has nothing to say about Greenberg's very well-known account,
whose claims are more relevant to his own than the account of Abstract Expres-
sionism he does discuss, Harold Rosenberg's analysis. This perhaps is one reason
why he fails to grasp this essential point about art historical narratives.
My analysis has borrowed from Arthur Danto's visionary essay, "The End of
Art."22 Where for Gombrich the history of art is marked by the gradual perfec-
tion of naturalism and, for Greenberg, by that self-consciousness which mod-
ernism achieves about the nature of artistic illusionism, for Danto the history
of recent art is characterized by a succession of theories of art, each of which
in turn becomes inadequate when artists produce "counterexamples" to those
theories. Art need not represent, as the existence of abstract painting shows; nor
be expressive, as the minimalist work of the 1960s demonstrates. Rather we recog-
nize that any object, the bottle rack of Duchamp or the Brillo Box of Warhol,
can be an artwork. When thus "the whole main point of art in our century was
to pursue the question of its own identity while rejecting all available answers
as insufficiently general,"23 then it became clear that the activity of making art
had become so closely dependent upon developing a theory of art that art and
the philosophy of art ultimately were indistinguishable. It is no accident that
Danto too turns to Hegel's account of this problem. Once there is no longer a
distinction between "knowledge and its object," in that stage of history in which
Spirit contemplates itself, all that remains, Danto argues, is for the philosopher
of art to reflect on its now completed history.24
21. The discussion in this paragraph and the next one summarizes the analysis in my Artwriting
(Amherst, 1987), chap. 1.
22. Reprinted in his The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York, 1986), 81-115.
23. Ibid., 110.
24. Ibid., 113. Another question, which I cannot take up here, is whether this Hegelian account
is consistent with Danto's well-known view of historical explanation now republished in his Narra-
tion and Knowledge. Including the Integral Text of Analytical Philosophy of History (New York,
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Like Belting, Danto links the end of art with the crisis in art history. "It is
possible that art history has the form we know because art as we knew it is
finished."25 But in his account these are, possibly, independent developments;
though he is "impressed" with this coincidence, it is with a certain diffidence that
he links his Hegelian view of the end of art with Hegel's theory of art history,
which he describes as "bizarre . . . in every possible respect."26 My own study
of contemporary art, Artwriting, borrows very heavily from Danto, but my view
of this particular problem, we will now see, is very different.
This account of the role of art historical narratives prepares us to answer our
third question; does the failure of present-day modern art history to play the
role which it could play in Vasari's culture lead to a loss of self-confidence within
art history? "It is a sad fact; art history lags behind the study of the other arts."27
A number of commentators have recently made this claim, which is plausible.
In the past several decades, literary criticism has been radically transformed by
the influence of structuralism, poststructuralism, reception theory aesthetics, and
a whole host of Marxist approaches; nowadays, a long discussion would be needed
to explain the history of criticism since Northrop Frye. By contrast, most of the
articles appearing in The Art Bulletin employ the methodology Erwin Panofsky
and his generation of art historians created. When iconographers offer ever more
elaborate interpretations of much discussed works and minor artists are written
about at length, it is easy to feel that art history lacks that excitement which
can come only when a discipline is engaged in actively seeking methodological
innovations. On the other hand, such different art historians as Svetlana Alpers,
Michael Baxandall, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Mark Roskill, and Richard
Shiff- many but not all of them are mentioned in Belting's bibliography - are
involved in thinking about art history in new ways. Maybe, then, art history has
been slower to innovate merely because its traditional methodology was firmly
established, because there are fewer art historians than literary critics, or because
visual artifacts differ from texts. And perhaps in another decade or two, revi-
sionist art history will be well established.28
What is unclear, still, is the relation between contemporary art and these de-
velopments within art history. In literary criticism, the primary emphasis upon
methodological innovation has come, I believe, not through the study of recent
fiction, but from the influence of French and German theory. What has mattered
most to recent literary critics is not the need to develop an adequate account
1985), or with the epistemology developed in his Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge (Cambridge,
1968). Danto himself writes: "it astonished me that I was accepting [Hegel's view of art history]
since my ... Analytical Philosophy of History ... had pretty much taken a stand against its possi-
bility in principle," Ibid., xiv.
25. Ibid., 114.
26. Ibid., 205, 204.
27. Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven and London, 1983),
28. My discussion here is influenced by an important survey article by Richard Shiff, "Art History
and the Nineteenth Century: Realism and Resistance," to appear in the Art Bulletin.
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of the texts of Beckett, Pynchon, or Ashbery, but the realization that Barthes,
Derrida, Foucault, and other theorists challenge the traditional ways that the
history of literature has been understood. In art history, similarly, most of the
innovative writers mentioned in the previous paragraph are not primarily con-
cerned with contemporary art. Need there then be any connection between con-
temporary art and art history? Maybe the techniques of the social historian and
iconographer-originally adopted to study Renaissance art-are essentially ir-
relevant to postmodernism. Perhaps, also, the belief that there can, or should,
be a unified theory of art of all times (and places) is an Hegelian idea which
is best now discarded. Only the practice of art history-not, I believe, a
philosophical argument
can permit us to choose between these alternatives. Still,
a philosophical discussion suggests some ways of thinking about these questions.
The social role of art, the system of patronage, the beliefs about the function
of representations, the view of pre-Renaissance art, religious ideals, all have
changed so dramatically between Vasari's time and our day that it is reasonable
to ask whether there is sufficient overlap between his conception of art and ours
for there to be a theory of painting which deals with both the works he knew
and all those works we preserve in the museum. Perhaps Panofsky and the other
art historians who defined the present methodology of that discipline said most
of what can interestingly be said about old master art; maybe, however, a semi-
otic analysis, or deconstructionist or poststructuralist account, or a theory which
is as yet unimaginable will in the future utterly transform the way that we under-
stand that art. Until such a discussion is presented and tested, it is hard to give
more than a wildly speculative answer to these questions. What is difficult to
understand, then, is why the success or failure of such a theory should depend
upon what contemporary artists accomplish. Maybe art will continue to advance,
and art history will stagnate; perhaps art history shall flourish and in another
century the works of our postmodernists will be of merely sociological interest,
as nineteenth-century Salon painting is today. The truth is, we can only wait to
see what happens. But why should we think, as Belting does, that there is a neces-
sary connection here between art history and contemporary art?
If I understand his book at all, Belting sketches an astonishing argument which
answers this question. "The phrase 'work of art'," he suggests, "has come to sig-
nify an understanding of the work as incomplete and thus historical" (67). This
highly abstract claim becomes clearer if placed here, in context, in Belting's dis-
cussion of Vasari. What Vasari's cyclic theory implies, if we accept this argu-
ment, is that the understanding of Giotto's art necessarily remained incomplete
until Michelangelo's work was created. Only when it was possible to see how
Michelangelo finished the process which Giotto began was the full significance
of the earlier master's art clear. Analogously, our understanding of Raphael is
transformed by Manet's appropriation in Le
sur l'herbe of a motif from
his precursor's work; and our -understanding of Manet, in turn, is incomplete
until we see how in the 1960s Robert Rauschenberg's collages deal with his con-
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cern, image appropriation.29 And if we are uncertain whether the history of art
will continue, then we must also be unsure how to understand art of the past.
For since one task of art today is to complete those earlier works, if art cannot
advance, then our understanding of those earlier works will remain incomplete.
On this view, the art work is not merely something the artist makes and so
gives a meaning which the historian seeks to reconstruct; rather, insofar as that
art work influences future artists, it comes to acquire a new significance which
its creator knew not. The individual art work, we might say, is incomplete until
it is placed in relation to the history of art. Thus, just as, if we accept Hegel's
view of "the cunning of history," it was only possible in 1900 to understand that
one consequence of Napoleon's wars was the creation of a unified Germany, and
only possible after 1945 to recognize that one consequence of Hitler's rise to power
was the creation of a Jewish state, so art works too acquire meanings unforeseen
by their creators.30
If we accept this holistic view, then the unit of discourse in art history is not
the individual work, but the whole system of art works. My own belief is that
this is a plausible view of history, but a confused view of art. To say that
Michelangelo finished what Giotto began, the development of Renaissance
naturalism, is to present Giotto's art as it was described by Vasari. Vasari's Lives
would be incomplete did they not include both Giotto and Michelangelo. But
this does not show that Giotto's works were somehow incomplete until they were
so described. Rather, the problem with this argument is indicated by my move-
ment, in the preceding two paragraphs, from saying that new works cause us
to understand older ones
to concluding that the older works are there-
fore incomplete until related to the new ones. The former claim is correct, for
Vasari does need Giotto to begin his cycle; the latter is not, for since Giotto could
not know what his successors would accomplish, it is misleading to say that his
works are only fully comprehensible in relation to Michelangelo's.
Here the differences between history and art history are important. We are in-
terested in Napoleon's and Hitler's intentions; but we are also concerned with
the ways in which they set in motion processes which brought about results they
did not intend. Historians' narratives represent those processes, those events in
the past; but all that exists today is the end product of those processes. By con-
trast, the art work, though also created in the past, is today a self-sufficient ar-
tifact which we can contemplate. When visiting the Bardi Chapel, what I recall
of Vasari's account of Giotto may, it is true, influence how I see those images.
But I can also seek to understand Giotto's work unanachronistically. His paintings,
unlike the events caused by Napoleon or Hitler, do not now exist only as repre-
sented in an historical narrative.
29. See Douglas Crimp, "On the Museum's Ruins," reprinted in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on
Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash., 1983), 42-56.
30. The political significance of Zionist interpretations of the holocaust -an instructive example
because of the partisan passions it arouses - is interestingly discussed in
Hayden White,
The Content
of the Form (Baltimore and London, 1987), 77-81.
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Once we thus recognize that there is a basic distinction between the art work
itself and that work as it is represented in a developmental history of art such
as Vasari's, then what follows is that the argument Belting gives for linking the
history of art to the development of contemporary art is not plausible. Perhaps
modernism or postmodernism will get us to see old master art differently. Influenced
by abstract art, connoisseurs of the future, Greenberg suggests, "may . . . find
in the concreteness of color and shape relations more 'human interest' than in
the extra-pictorial references of old-time illusionistic art.""3 Even so, one essen-
tial task of the art historian will be to understand those old master works as they
were seen by their creators. For unless we can understand them thus, how indeed
could we even know that we understood them differently from earlier viewers?
In a very brilliant discussion, Leo Steinberg has made a related, but different
claim; perhaps a precondition for our capacity to articulate a correct interpreta-
tion of some old master works is our experience of contemporary art.32 According
to his account, which is too elaborate to summarize here, only this experience
of recent art gives us the interpretative skills needed to understand the old master
works as they were intended to be seen. Steinberg's account gives reason to ques-
tion the special authority of Vasari's history; but it provides no support for
Belting's view of the relation between contemporary art and art history.
Still, even if Belting's argument does not support this conclusion, it is clear
that it touches on a belief which is significant, if only because it now is so widely
shared. As Noel Carroll notes in a highly suggestive account of postmodernism,
this fascination with endings "has hit some sort of nerve" in our culture.33 Since
he is as unwilling to take at face value the argumentation of the postmodernists
as I am to accept Belting's claims, I welcome his appeal to a sociological expla-
nation of the importance of such beliefs. "The fixation with postmodernism may
be simply a poignant manifestation of latent anxieties about the decline of the
American imperium." In fact, I believe, there need not always be such a tight
connection between the development of painting and the culture in which it was
created. The decline of the Venetian Republic in the eighteenth century may have
had little to do with the work of Tiepolo and Guardi. But maybe the belief that
the end is at hand, which in our culture is reinforced, ironically, by the apparent
end of the tradition of Hegelian-Marxist visions of history, really does influence
painters and art historians as well. Here indeed some further historical perspec-
tive is helpful.
Alexandre Kojeve, whose interpretations of Hegel is one source for Danto's
"The End of Art," first thought, on the basis of his trips to America and Russia
between 1948 and 1958, that "la period post-historique" was concluded by what
he calls "l'American way of life"; in 1959, when he visited Japan, he came to
"radicalement change d'avis sur ce point."34 But just as the prophecy that the
31. Greenberg, Art and Culture, 137.
32. For a discussion, see my "Art and Its Spectators," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criti-
cism, 45 (1986), 5-17.
33. Noel Carroll, "Illusions of Postmodernism," Raritan 7
(1987), 154-155.
34. Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction a la lecture de Hegel (Paris, 1947), 437.
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world will end this year seems silly when life continues the next year, so now
these claims seem merely amusing. For even if we believe that the post-historical
phase of human history began some decades ago, still our historians of the present
must find some way of telling the history of life after 1959.35 Eighteenth-century
aestheticians were fascinated by those intimations of disaster provided by what
they called the sublime; so we like to believe, it seems, that history is near its
end. And whether this belief reflects awareness of the possibility of a nuclear
catastrophe, as Danto has suggested, or just that weariness which comes from
knowing too much about the history of the arts, this belief, with which it is hard
to argue, plays a very real role in contemporary intellectual life. Vasari's contem-
poraries inherited from antiquity elaborate accounts of the history of art but
very few of the paintings described in those accounts; perhaps Raphael was lucky
to be unable to see the works of Apelles, since that permitted him to work without
the burden of knowing the art of his precursors in antiquity. But in our museums,
we can see all the surviving art from the past; and that may be unfortunate for
our artists who want to do something new.
Just as even superstitious people are likely to think of New Year's Eve as a
special occasion, though they know that this way of dating the beginning of the
new year is arbitrary, so there is a collective need today, it seems, to believe that
the end of many things is at hand. Walking in an unfamiliar city, many of us
are more comfortable if we have a map in hand. Similarly, what was comforting
about a developmental narrative like that provided by Vasari and his successors,
Gombrich and Greenberg, was that they gave order to our experience of art,
providing a map which placed each individual work within an historical frame-
work. The present recognition of both the limitations and the ultimate arbitrari-
ness of such narratives is thus likely to leave us feeling disoriented. We have learned
that such texts are not records of an objective order which exists out there in
the world, but are merely our ways of imposing an ordering on that world; but
this knowledge does not comfort us. The real importance of Belting's confused,
often confusing, book lies less in his argumentation than in his articulation of
this elusive, highly significant feeling.
Carnegie-Mellon University
35. Here I have learned from a review of Danto's The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art
by Alexander Nehamas, forthcoming in The Journal of Philosophy.
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