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Art History and Systematic Theories of Art Max Dessoir The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.

19, No. 4. (Summer, 1961), pp. 463-469.

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Art History and

Systematic Theories of Art

cre- Greeks is investigated as part of archeology ated part of a world made by man, becomes, and the archeologist feels closer to the classilike other fields of intellectual endeavor cal philologist and the historian of antiquity (geistigen Kultur), an object of science in a than to volatile associates who write on Extwofold manner: as an historical fact and as pressionism or the New Realism (Neue Sacha systematically determinable creation. Al- lichkeit). Even a Jacob Burkhardt amalthough the historical approach still holds gamates art so completely to the general ~recedence. there is no basic conflict as to the conditions of the period that he uses the possibility of taking cognizance of art from characteristics of a certain art form, such as these two points of view. Nor is there any richness or poverty of content, to describe doubt that these should be capable of point- the drying u p of national vitality. Dehio's ing to the peculiar characteristics of art. Geschichte der Deutschen Kunst names as Nevertheless, one or the other approach has its real hero the German people.1 Practically often come close to destrovinn or at least ob- every history of literature is rooted in time " fuscating the special characteristic of art. It and in people, even in genealogies and race should be stressed that art possesses an origi- differences, because the works of verbal art nal character of its own which should be ac- are tied to the nature of language and knowledged in either historical. or theoreti- through this to the life of a nation. Thus, according to Joseph Nadler, the supreme task cal research. Art historv can be written in such a wav of literary history would be to clarify the that the plastic, poetic, and musical attain- structure and articulation of the national ments of a people may all be encompassed community. I n this and many other cases , within its intellectual life. For e x a m ~ l ethe art thus appears as an integral part of a music of primitives may be presented as great organism: seen in terms of a certain hisan approximate expression of primitive torical approach it becomes a national charthought in general, and one can speak of acteristic, or it is viewed as a constituent "musical ethnology." T h e plastic art of the part of the general consciousness of a period. T h e premise is that the culture of a nation, MAX DESSOIR was founder and president of the German Society for Aesthetics and editor of the or of a certain period, forms a unity; this Zeitschrift fiir Asthetik und Kunstwissenschaft; may be doubted. T h e result is that the conthis article is reprinted from Vol. X X I , no. 2 (1927), tent and purpose of works of art are stressed, 131-145, with permission of the publishers, Ferdibecause they are visibly connected with the nand Enke Verlag, Stuttgart. It was presented at the Congress on Aesthetics in Halle, 1927, and is goods and needs of a period or people, whereas the form and the structure of the translated from the German by MAX RIESER and R. G . SAISSELIN. works are relegated to lesser importance.
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Not only does such a procedure overshadow a most important trait of art, but also the independence of art is troubled. Every history of every art ought to be based on the conviction that there is an historical subject called art. I n question is the biography of a subject and the development of a specific area of intellectual endeavor and interest. T h e delimitation and separate consideration of this area cannot be avoided because what is classified under the heading of art differs in quality and effect from everything which belongs to the spirit of a people or an epoch. Jlihen Wolfflin writes that "Seeing has its own history and the uncovering of these optical strata must be regarded as the most elementary task of art history,"Z it may be one-sided, as will be shown later, but nevertheless it is basically true. Art forms live their own lives and create their own peculiar tasks. It is precisely through this that they attain a certain inner logic and lift themselves out of the general process of history which remains irrational to a high degree. T h e very preservation of certain works, while others are destroyed or forgotten, depends on points of view which would be hardly relevant to, let us say, the bases of the history of law;3 for the material presented to the art historian is selected by the evaluation of experts and through its impact on the masses, insofar as it is not simply determined accidentally. Even the coherence established between works of art preserved or known for special reasons differs completely from the coherence obtainable in political or economic phenomena. There can thus be no doubt that to subsume art under the general intellectual culture considerably damages its unique worth. Turning to the systematic theory of art, we also find a method which blurs the limits of art. T o be sure there is no need today to combat an all-powerful dialectical method which once aimed at the subjugation of all fields of knowledge to itself; but we must test those mental habits according to which theoretical concepts which have triumphed in a specific field are held to be universally valid. T h e triumph of the natural sciences was for some time ominous to the independence of the science of man, or of his community life and cultural crea-

tions: it seemed as if the methods of the natural sciences were also valid for the Geisteswisse~~schaften(psychological and cultural sciences). Only little by little was it realized that theoretical work concerning cultural phenomena required principles proper to the subject. Such an approach had long been known to theologians, jurists, and grammarians and had come to be called "dogmatic."4 T h e theologians always strove to systematize the living content of a certain r e l i g i ~ n the jurists explained and ordered ,~ maxims of law,6 the grammarians sought the laws of the structure of language.7 These three dogmatic sciences were always determined, as concerns their content and method, by the requirements of the subject and consequently differed absolutely from each other. But when their methodology was transferred to art, the inherent value of the new subject could not come into its own, or did so only in investigations restricted to the purely technical level. One must also consider the fact that the point of view proper to a general prosody or musical doctrine is valid only for special fields of art and not for art in general. T o understand art in its enduring contents and to found its study within the framework of a systematic humanistic science remains to be done. T o day it is no longer necessary to point out that to explain art in terms of natural science evades the core of the problem; but it must be stressed that conceptual structures taken from other humanistic sciences are also insufficient in the field of art. For there must at least follow an adaptation of this manner of thinking to the problems arising from the study of art. This may be required of every philosophical study. Even the phenomenological aesthetics now in vogue deviates from the factual and stresses partly an "essence," partly "something in the object," partly a "value," while nothing or only contradictory things are said about the qualities of these entities. T o subordinate art history to that of a nation or of an entire period of history, or to tie the theory of art to a methodology which has proved successful in another science, must thus arouse our concern, for not enough attention is then given the unique character of art. T2'hat such respect for art

Art History
may mean we shall now show by way of a few examples. First, let us ask ourselves what role personality plays in the history of art. Obviously a much more important one than in the history of law. I n the public mind the creator and his work are, so to say, identified with each other. Even the law protecting artists considers the individuality of the artist incarnate in his creation as essential. Therefore the law protects "the work in its individual form, never the motif or subject matter presented, nor the style or manner, nor the technique or method of the author."s T h e artist so permeates his work with his personality that it seems impossible to contemplate the work from a general point of view. But were this wholly true, art history would be an impossibility.9 Only the second part of this truth makes art history possible, namely the confirmation that even the most individual artistic achievement can be separated from its creator and may be understood as something having an existence of its own. Thus, there are not only relations among artists, of a temporal type or those of a school, but even what one may call the freely-floating works are so strongly and internally connected with each other that we may regard them as forms of the same essence, let us say the poetic, and the change of form of this essence can become the subject of the so-called history of literature. But a question worth putting remains: how can the supreme value of personality be compatible with the objective meaning of the work itself? T h e answer to this question might be that the real value of art has a value other than that of other cultural phenomena, such as a scientific theory for example. Such a theory has a purely objective unit of validity and may be duplicated without regard to another human being, but a work of art is understood only as permeated by a human life: the objectivity of a Beethoven sonata allows us to take it as a whole in itself, and to analyze it as such; but it is so constructed as not to lose the warming breath of the spirit of Beethoven himself. Living experience may thus never be fully eliminated from the meaningful content of the true work of art. What departs from it is either some artistic skill free from personal experience or some experience outside art.10 T h e ultimate reason for this connection lies in this: that just as the attainment of any great man is the result of an activity related to the universal, so the work of an artist rises unwittingly and necessarily from the most purely personal to attain objective meaning. When romantic philosophy called the artistic genius "the point of individualization of the idea," it had in mind the role of personality in the history of every art. Thus far we have dealt with persons really existing. But we may raise the question also about fictitious persons, such as Greek man or Gothic man, the naive or the sentimental man, the Apollonian or Dionysian man. These types also indicate that the objective being of a work of art, considered without relation to a creative personality, was thought insufficient; and that as concerns living persons there is no question of the dependence of art on the vicissitudes of life, but only of an original connection with a subject. Here we shall not discuss whether setting u p such ideal types is necessary; the way opened by Burckhardt and his followers nevertheless has the merit of pointing in the right direction, namely the understanding of the generally subjective conditions of the artistic object. T h e more determinedly we previously stressed the self-existence of a work of art, the more impartially may we now emphasize the core of personality within such a circumscribed form. T h e second example to be examined is the idea of progress in historical events. T h e basis of this idea is the concept of time viewed as an unidimensional straight line stretching itself out into a future. Volkelt quite opposed this concept with a second and more comprehensive dimension of time, and Pinder suggested the idea of a timeplane, time-space, and time-cube.11 T h e simple idea of progress fails because within a single year or decade there live artists on different degrees of the scale of their life or development and who contribute in very different ways to the nearly uniform practice of art reached at a particular time. Furthermore, the idea of perfection in general shows itself to be inadequate for art history: one need only recall Riegl's idea of the ar-



tistic will. T h e music historian Willibald physical aim), beneath it (as a natural or Gurlitt has recently shown that as concerns spiritual event), or inside it (as a law which individual types of instruments, these do binds the individual facts together). not in a way surpass each other (and drive Irere we to forego any thought of unione another into obsolescence), and that, versality in art, the way to any systematic for example, there is no single line of de- theory would be barred. Thus, the sole quesvelopment from the clavichord to the piano. tion remaining is: what kind of universality Rather it appears that types of sound pro- is the art historian to choose? or ratherduced by musical instruments were related since that cannot be controversial-in which to what was considered an ideal sound for sense is a law said to be inherent in the a certain period. Insofar as the violin is facts of art to be understood? Certainly not concerned, this ideal sound seems to have in the sense of rectilinear progress. Nor in been reached by Antonio Stradivarius about that of a self-developing thing-like being. At 1700; but where new forms replaced old the beginning of this paper we spoke of art ones, no necessary hierarchy resulted. T h e as an historical subject whose life history artistic will of a period conceals within it- must be told, and we used this image in orself the prospect of a definite sound horizon der to stress its independence. But we had as well as an inclination for certain forms no intention thereby to minimize the imand colors, and progress relates to the ad- portance of the person of the artist and to justment of the instruments and the works make of art a thing-like being. It is this secof art to that "specific will," as Riegl put it. ond point we now wish to discuss. Assuming But the idea of progress does not exclu- we have to bring into relationship two works sively espouse the idea of a temporal for- of art or two periods of art, the proper idea ward movement. More often religious and of such a relationship would not be that of metaphysical convictions enter into it. T o some substance changing its manifestations, make this understandable we must enter the but rather of a rule of change visible in the subject somewhat more deeply. When we works ant1 styles. Such would be, for exrecall that a given thing belongs not only ample, progress from the haptic to the optic to the category of the particular, but also of concept of space. I n this case, the later mode the general, and when we consider that sci- of creation (Schnffensweise) would be entific evaluation favors the general, at- grounded in a previous one, but to that extempts to endow the particular facts of art tent, it would also be the basis of further history with a general significance may be development and represent the end of an readily understood. This may be done by as- older or previous development. Such a hissuming the realization of a divine plan in toriography of relationships would result history, or-and this is more often the case in a systematizing of all life-utterances and -by attributing to development an ulti- the temporal order would give way to a mate end. According to either of these con- meaningful coherence. Presentations which ditions, the history of art is invested with endeavor to give meaningful unity to temthe merit of progress. But there are two porality tend to organize their material other possibilities which assure some order more or less exclusivelv on the basis of a of law in the development of art without positive point of view. A further developassuring progress. T h e first of these was al- ment is that the temporal development disready discussed: dependency on nationality, solves into a series of static states, as it were, climate, race, milieu, binds art to quan- put to rest. Since, however, one cannot do tities possible of general determination. T h e away with motion, the great personalities second ancl last possibility will be discussed and general historical crises are inserted shortly. It is the most desirable one, for it into an almost time-less representation, and reveals the existence of a law contained one gets the impression df a development within the very facts of art history. T o sum- proceeding by jerks. This quantum theory marize let us say that the general content of history may be identified in the work of of art history lies neither outside it (as a re- Jacob Burckhardt and finds support in ligious background), above it (as a meta- Troeltsch's "historicism." It is undoubtetlly

Art History
justified by the facts, for the history of every art readily shows sharp limits and even discontinuities in several places. There remains to be examined another and special form used to give progress meaningful regularity. This is rooted in German Idealism. Hegel, for example, ties his tripartite division of art required by his system to historical development so that symbolic, classical, and romantic art follow each other in this order. Since symbolic art is above all architecture, since classical art reaches its peak in the plastic arts, and since romantic art includes music, painting, and poetry, the temporal progress is seen as proceeding from architecture to poetry. Naturally Hegel knew that architecture, considered as the first art on the temporal level, saw other arts about itself, and that the highest art, that of drama, had a primitive origin; but he still clung to the historical meaning of this order because it signaled changes in the predominance of the arts. Since sculpture reached its high point among the Greeks, one not surpassed at any future date, it became the true symbol of the classical period. A similar point of view has recently been brought to the fore by Wilhelm Pinder. He apprehends progress in that the arts come to fruition in succession and determine historical epochs in succession; the art which not only came to fruition most recently, but which was also most recently invented, absolute music, rules our contemporary life, while architecture conceived as a nai've language has been lost to us. . . . I 2 Let us, for the present, leave the verbal arts aside, for they realize fundamental values of art in a way different from the nonliterary. If we keep to the order: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, then this order is meant to represent not only a succession of predominance, but also a systematic construction rising from the spatial to the temporal, from the nonliving to the living, from matter to mind. I n such a hegelianizing, general viewpoint, the fundamental concepts of art history and the systematic theory of art coincide and it is for this reason that such a view is of value to us. However, it must be noted that theorists among art scholars of today also show an unmistakable inclination for the intellectual constructions of the young Schelling. His law of polarity seems to be their guide when they conceive changes of style in terms of alternating stresses of form and expression, freedom and necessity, closeness or distance from nature. abstraction and empathy. But this view of artistic data is not as inclusive as that brought forth by Hegel's mind. For the succession of styles is not wholly explicable for this rhythmic movement. T h e proper place of this dualistic concept belongs on the one hand to sculpture and painting, on the other to acting and the dance. Insofar as plastic modeling is concerned, there are, as everyone knows, two possibilities: either to move close to what is at hand in the world, or to move from it as far as possible; and as far as the plastic arts are concerned, one might divide art periods into those close to the subject matter (stoonahe) and those strong in form (formstark).l3 But actors, and especially dancers, may also choose whether they wish to submit to reality and experience, br whether to erect a world of independent forms. I t must be understood, however, that the individual does not have such a choice since he is driven by temperament either to submit to laws already existing or to create his own. Only on the level of the universal do artists and the arts oscillate between polar contrasts, and this is true also of their historical development. With some exaggeration then, we may say that naturalistic art alternates with abstract art, and we may conclude therefrom that the rhythm in the history of the four arts named is determined by an objective law.14 This law, derived from the nature of certain types of art, enlarges upon the notion of the serial order of art styles. But if systematic presuppositions are necessary to a minimum of truth in art history, a systematic theory of art nevertheless still remains dependent upon the content and essence of history. Thus-and who would deny it?--our theoretical constructions are always affected by the limits of history. Even while we try to describe the structure of a work of art, the image of a leading art style and within it the ideal of a certain period, hovers before us. Unwittingly we associate certain basic aesthetic concepts with various



styles, for example the ideally beautiful with classic art. I n a word: in the entire systematic theory of art, there is not one sentence free of implications drawn from history. This was a scandal for the dogmatists, and consequently they called to their aid the comparative method. This method, declared by many to be decisive for all the humanistic sciences, is supposed to free general knowledge from the irruptions of the particular facts of history and lead thereby to the apprehension of the essence of art by setting side by side the many manifestations of art forms. Gervinus and Semperlj had already recognized the value of the comparative methods within certain limits, but a power for revealing the essence and norm of art was only later attributed to it. But we must guard ourselves from going too far in this respect. Were we to attempt to reduce similarities between artistic creations of all types, times, and peoples, as was done according to former prescriptions, only something unspeakably trivial would result. Every really essential sentence on art, every blood-filled word on it, originated in a person, a period, a people. But all those who really know anything about it mean the same thing, even though they may express themselves differently; even what Aristotle wrote on tragedy is of such quality that we who read it today suddenly feel our hearts beat (at the recognition of the truth therein). If we deny life to what constitutes historical, national, and personal experience, in order to construct a dead and meaningless formula through the comparison of an infinite number of forms, we have made an unnecessary sacrifice; for variety, one fully maintained, may comprise a spiritual community. But let us understand the word "comprise" in the proper way. Art, which is the object of theory, is not a congeries of parts strewn hither and thither through history. On the contrary, art is an ideal creation which gives meaning and value to individual facts, a concept of such creative power, and at the same time of such mobility, that a variegated fullness may be included within it. T h e problem is to discover the unity within the phenomenon itself, the unity which binds all things within the thing

itself; more precisely, the immanent relationship between the theoretical and the historical. Just as in Aristotle reality and possibility claim each other, just as in Kant Form and Matter depend on each other, just as, generally speaking, form and content belong together, so do the object of art theory and the subject matter of history form a unity. T h e system of relations established by the general science of art invests historical data with a logical, or let us say, a typological coherence. But history preserves its originality in that it transfers the richness of personal life onto another plane and may fill it as much or as little as the empirical range of a concept may or may not coincide with its logical range. T h e contradiction between the repose and taciturnity of the system and the mobility and talkability of history cannot be eradicated. They are attracted to each other in the ambivalence of love and hate. T o clarify this relationship more and more will be one of the tasks in the further development of our science.

Dehio admits that his enterprise "cannot be justified on the basis of art itself." But he further states: "To take German art into ourselves means to be in contact with the spiritual life of our forefathers. T o understand German art means to understand ourselves.. . ." He describes art as "something inseparable from the whole of the historical life process of our people" (Georg Dehio, Geschichte der Deutschen Kunst, Text Band I [1919], Preface S.V.; compare pp. 5 ff.). Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegrifle. Das Probl e m der Stilentwicklung i n der neueren Kunst, 4th ed. (Munich, 1920), pp. 11-12. It must be noted that art remains forever within the limits of the works of art, while there is a "difference between factual and formulated law." Compare Rudolf von Ihering, Geist des Romischen Rechts I , 6th ed. (Leipzig, 1907), 31. See Erich Rothacker, in Handbuch der Philosophic, ed. A. Baeumler and M. Schroter, Part I1 (Munich and Berlin, 192i), 22. SAdolph von Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte (1909), I, 3: "The dogmas of the Church are the conceptually formulated Christian doctrines of faith coined for an apologetic-scientific treatment which presents the objective contents of religion." a ..\rthur Baumgarten, Die Wissenschnften v o m Recht und ihre Methode, Vol. I (Tiibingen), 8 ff. Gustave Radbruch speaks of the "supra-historical method of interpretation" in the Grundziigen der Rechtsphilosophie (Leipzig, 1914), pp. 190 ff. H . Steinthal, G m m m a t i k , Logik und Psychologie

Art History
(Berlin, 1855), p. 143: The principle of grammar is "nothing else than the basic and deepest essence of language." Georg von der Gabelentz, Die Sprachwissenschajt . . ., 2nd ed., ed. A. Graf von der Schulenburg (Leipzig, 1901), p. 81: "The presentation of the structure of language is the task of grammar." Hermann Paul, Principien der Sprachgeschichte, 4th ed. (Halle a. S., 1909), p. 1: The history of language "must be seconded by science concerned with the general living conditions of the object of historical development, a science which investigates the nature and effectiveness of all factors that are uniformly present in any change." Philipp Allfeld, Kommentar zu d e m Gesetze betreffend das Urheberecht an Werken der bildenden Kunste und der Photographie v o m 9, Januar, I907 (Munich, 1908), p. 29. If we may cite a similar phenomenon in the history of medicine, we would reproduce a sentence from Hahnemann who said that every epidemic disease "seems to be a new illness never before seen, differing in its process, as in its most striking symptoms and entire previous behavior. Every epidemic is so different from the preceding one of the same name, that one must lay aside any logical precision if one is to give those epidemics the name introduced by pathology and to treat them on the basis of such an unfit name" (Organon der Heilkunst, 4th ed. [Leipzig, 18291, p. 174 note). A strict observation of the truth of this statement would destroy all therapy as a science. loIt is on this basis that the educational effect of art becomes understandable, insofar as it concerns the development of creatively formative forces. Johannes Volkelt, Phiinomenologie und Metaphysik der Zeit (Munich, 1925), pp. 75 ff.: "In spite of its linear course, Time is nevertheless spread out in every point [along the line] . . . Only extension and width together exhaust the structure of time" (p. 77). Pinder, Das Problem der Generation i n der Kunstgeschichte Europas (Berlin, 1926). - I t is not our intention to test this assertion in detail; however, we cannot help but note strong creative forces in architecture and that public interest is shown for it within the same limits as is shown for painting and sculpture. But these hesitations may be disregarded. For we regard as essential the idea that the history of art, taken in the broadest sense, detaches from the complex of phenomena a skein which in the main gains form and direction of itself. laSee Kurt Beizig, Eindruckskunst und Awdruckskunst (1927), pp. 176 ff. l4We are here using the word naturalistic art as being interchangeable with the above tern, Nahekunst; abstract art refers to Fernkunst (tr.). '=See the examples in Rothacker and others, O.S., pp. 104 f.