Discourses and Strategies

The Role of the Vienna School in Shaping Central European Approaches to Art History and Related Discourses

by Ján Bakos (Author)
©2013 Monographs 230 Pages


This book consists of essays on the Vienna School’s impact on Central European art history, Walter Benjamin’s move from transhistoricism to historical relativism, Jacob Burckhardt’s legacy and its metamorphoses, two competing conceptions of the social history of art, and Ernst Gombrich’s life long struggle against metaphysics. All share a common denominator: concern with the trajectories of art historical ideas and their ideological instrumentality. However, the author’s aim in analysing the premises and intentions of art historical discourse is not to undermine the credibility of art history by reducing it to total epistemological relativism. The historiography of art historical theories and critical reflection on their ideological background is understood by the author as an auxiliary art historical subdiscipline.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface & Acknowledgement
  • Part one
  • I. “Humanists” versus “Relativists”: Methodological Visions and Revisions within the Vienna School
  • II. The Depth of the Historicity of Art and Walter Benjamin
  • III. Between Task and Function: Metamorphoses of Jacob Burckhardt’s Legacy
  • IV. From the Ideological Critique to the Apologia for the Market
  • V. In Defence of Liberal “Humanism”: Gombrich’s Struggle against Metaphysics
  • Part two
  • VI. From Universalism to Nationalism: Transformations of the Vienna School’s Ideas in Central Europe
  • VII. The Revision of a Bourgeois Idea: From a National to a Dynastic History of Art
  • VIII. Paths and Strategies of the Historiography of Art in Central Europe
  • Bibliographical Note
  • Index of Names
  • Series index


The essays collected in this book were drafted and written during the previous decade. Many were delivered as papers at international conferences and appeared in various journals or conference proceedings. Here they are published in their original form, without correction.

All share a common denominator: concern with the trajectories of art historical ideas and their ideological instrumentality. Seen thus, the history of art history appears not simply as a history of theoretical constructs but as a story of concealed political interests and implicit ideological strategies. Nonetheless, the author is also more than aware that the zenith of research into the relationship between epistemology and ideology is almost over and that searching for the hidden ideological dimension of art historical research is, therefore, no longer on the main agenda of present day art history. However, it must also be said that the author’s aim in analysing the premises and intentions of art historical discourse in its many forms, together with his reconstruction of their historical paths, is not to undermine the credibility of art history by reducing it to total epistemological relativism. The historiography of art historical theories and critical reflection on their ideological background is understood by the author as an auxiliary art historical subdiscipline. Therefore his chief ambition has been to demonstrate that ideological involvement is an unavoidable part of art historical research, from which it must follow that art historians, to be worthy of their salt, must always be extra vigilant when it comes to this aspect of their work.

It is not the ambition of the present book to map the full spectrum of theories and methods that have shaped the paths of modern art history. Inevitably, the personal perspective of any researcher affects the choice of their object of investigation, which, in this author’s case, is evidently that of a Central European art historian. That is why the Vienna School of Art History and its impact is put at the centre of the investigations presented in this book.

Without research grants awarded by the Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, the Landis & Gyr Foundation, the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, the British Academy, the Getty Thrust, the Geisteswissenschaftliches Zentrum Geschichte und Kultur Ostmitteleuropas an der Universität Leipzig (GWZO) and grant agency of the Slovak Academy of Sciences VEGA, and without research carried out at the Swiss Institute for Art Research in Zürich, the ← 7 | 8 → Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in München, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, the Courtaud Institute of Art in London or the GWZO in Leipzig, the present essays might not have seen the light of day. That is why the author would like to express a deep gratitude to Stephen Bann, Gottfried Böhm, Albert Boime, Thomas Crow, Heinrich Dilly, Jiří Fajt, Clair Farago, Eric Fernie, Hans Joerg Heusser, Stefan Muthesius, Donald Preziosi and Artur Rosenauer for their faith in his research and broad-minded support of his projects. The author´s thanks go also to Wojciech Bałus (Jagiellonian University Kraków), Horst Bredekamp (Humboldt University Berlin), Kornelia Imesch (Swiss Institute for Art Research Zürich), Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (Princeton University), Jiří Kuthan (Charles University Prague), Adam S. Labuda (Humboldt University Berlin), Michaela Marek (University Leipzig), Sergiusz Michalski (University Tübingen), John Onians (University of East Anglia Norwich), Piotr Piotrowski (Adam Miczkiewicz University Poznań), Charles Salas (Getty Research Institute Los Angeles) and Michael Viktor Schwarz (University Vienna) for invitations to conferences or lectures which gave him the opportunity to present the results of his research to a larger art historical comunity. For their generous assistance and valuable suggestions and comments on English version of the papers the author is greatly indebted to Robert Gibbs, Matthew Rampley and Paul Stirton. A particular gratitude is directed to Nick McAdoo, for improving the final text immensurably and making it more comprehensible and readable. Important stimulus was also given by the interest taken in his research on diferent occasions by Robert Born, Marina Dmitrieva, James Elkins, Jaś Elsner, Jaromír Homolka, Jiří Kroupa, Marian Kutzner, Steven Mansbach, Branko Mitrović, Keith Moxey, Piotr Skubiszewski and Christopher Wood, among others. They all have the author’s gratitude.

Finally, the author is no less indebted to Robert Suckale and Ingrid Ciulisová for encouragement to publish these collected essays in book form and to Jan Michl and Oliver Bakoš for their massive support for this project. The author knows how lucky he has been to have had the benefit of the support from all these people.

And last but not least, the author would like to express his gratitude to the Slovak Academy of Sciences for the financial support of the book and the publishing houses VEDA and Peter LANG GmbH, for including the book among their projects.

← 8 | 9 → Part one ← 9 | 10 →


The Common Denominator

Irrespective of whether the Vienna School can be regarded as a dialectical system within a bipolar structure or as a merely pluralistic succession of methodological discourses,1 and despite all the deep differences concerning the nature of art, the historical process and art historical research, there were at least three common characteristics shared by all art historians trained at Vienna University from Moritz Thausing to Ernst H. Gombrich. They are as follows: 1. the idea of art history as a science; 2. the notion of the historical basis of art history, and 3. belief in the method as a methodological credo or doctrine.2

Summary or a Foreshadowing of Revisions to Orthodoxy?

It is well known that Hans Tietze, in his Methode der Kunstgeschichte, published in 1913, attempted to summarize the basic principles of the ← 11 | 12 → evolutionist methodological project developed by Franz Wickhoff and Alois Riegl and articulated explicitly by Max Dvořák.3 In “Das Rätsel der Kunst der Brüder van Eyck” (published in 1903),4 Dvořák had expressed the credo of a “genetic approach” as follows: “… die moderne Wissenschaft hat uns gelehrt... die Tatsachen in einzelne... Kausalverbindung zwingende Entwicklungsketten umzusetzen. Unter dem Einflusse der exakten Forschungsmethoden haben wir... gelernt... eine Tatsache nie als eine vereinzelte Erscheinung, sondern stets als ein Glied in einer bestimmten Aufeinanderfolge von Tatsachen derselben oder verwandten Art zu betrachten.”5 In Tietze’s reconstruction of the genetic method of the Vienna School, the first rifts in this doctrine occurred.6 Arguing against the idea of a work of art as part of an immanent evolution7 and anticipating Schlosser’s nominalism, Tietze claimed that the work of art is an isolated phenomenon.8 Inspired by neo-Kantian philosophy, he even started to conceive of evolution as a scientific construct.9 His characterization of the key idea of Viennese orthodoxy, the belief in “the immanent evolution of art” as “a reduction and abstraction10 fore-shadowed the revision of the formalist-evolutionist model and the first steps towards a new heteronymous and expressionist notion of art history. The idea of art history as the history of ideas or worldviews was, however, not explicitly or fully articulated by Hans Tietze but rather by Max Dvořák.11

Unfolding Revision

It is well known that the new approach articulated in Dvořák’s “Idealismus und Naturalismus in der gotischen Malerei und Plastik” (1918) resulted ← 12 | 13 → in a fundamental revision of the orthodox genetic-autonomous model.12 Seeing art in terms of the solution of formal problems was replaced by the idea of art as an expression of ideas; the notion of history as a continuous process, by the idea of turns, ruptures or revolutionary breaks, and the notion of art historical research as a rational explanation (“Erklärung”) unveiling causal connections, by the concept of art history as a grasping and interpretation of unique and even irrational historical phenomena.13 Despite that, the notion of art history as the history of ideas represented no revolutionary rupture.14

It was an organic result of the consistent development of Riegl’s late ideas about the puzzling parallelism between the history of style and the history of worldviews.15 The new paradigm still shared with the old orthodox one not only a belief in historical relativism but also a conviction that the history of art had an impersonal nature, despite the independent and active (if not autonomous) role played by art itself. Riegl’s antinormativity still implied the notion of “ars una16 or at least a belief in the lasting essence of all art, identified either as a “Wettschaffen mit der Natur17 or as a sensuous common denominator and the core of the art work, i.e. “das eigentlich Bildkünstlerische im KunstwerkForm und Farbe in Ebene oder Raum”.18 He regarded the historical changes of “Kunstwollen” as variations on a common core oscillating between two alternative poles of human perception (resulting in “haptic” or “optic” artistic rendering). Dvořák, by contrast, arrived at a radical historical relativism. He ← 13 | 14 → developed the idea of the history of art as the history of the concept of “art”. According to Dvořák, “der Begriff des Kunstwerkes und des Künstlerischen hat im Laufe der historischen Entwicklung, und zwar bis auf die Grundlinien, die mannigfaltigsten Wandlungen erfahren und war stets ein zeitlich und kulturell begrenztes und variables Ergebnis der allgemeinen Evolution der Menschheit”.19 Consequently, the view of art history conceived of as changes to the identity of art itself, opened the door to later sociological interpretations of art.

However, the impersonal determinism and relativism of Dvořák’s history of worldviews inherited from Riegl, provoked criticism. Even Dvořák’s close adherents, Otto Benesch and Hans Tietze realized very early the dangers implied in Geistesgeschichte, as follows: that of turning art history into history without works of art20 and of neglecting the active nature of art, this being the consequence of treating works of art as mere documents of intellectual history.21

The Turn to Individuality

Dvořák himself escaped both perils mentioned above in his late lectures and papers. Leaning upon a neo-Kantian belief in the unique nature of historical phenomena combined with the idea of the irrational nature of the historical process, Dvořák abandoned his old belief in historical causality. This he replaced with the idea of great artists as the initiators of the history of art and creators of the worldviews of their age.22 As a consequence, radical ← 14 | 15 → historical relativism started to evolve into transhistoricism. Dvořák articulated the belief that the history of art resulted in eternal artistic values.23 Seen thus, the consequence was that art historical research itself transformed its character: no longer the mere reconstruction and interpretation of the past, it took on rather a new role, moralizing about the present and prophesying the future.24 Thus, Dvořák’s late essays about great masters like Tintoretto, El Greco, Dürer or Pieter Brueghel the Elder can be regarded as anticipating the explicit critical revision of Vienna School orthodoxy carried out and declared by Julius von Schlosser in 1924. Riegl’s and Dvořák’s “realism” was replaced by the extreme “nominalism” of Schlosser. In place of formal evolution or collective worldviews, the singular work of art and the artist were established as the basic elements of the history of art and the genuine objects of art historical research.25

Insularist Turn

Even if Schloser’s turn to insular theory,26 conceiving of the work of art as a monad,27 represented an open revolt against Riegl’s hegemony, having the character of a revolutionary break, it came into existence more as a metamorphosis of previous notions. His long museum practice necessarily focused on singular works of art and his intensive study of the history of writing on art28 contained the seeds of nominalism on the one hand, and of individualism on the other. Moreover, an indication of an implicit revolt against Riegl’s deductionist approach, abstract “Grammar29 and immanent and impersonal ← 15 | 16 → determinism can already be detected in Schlosser’s “open” idea of the artwork30 as a cultural/historical phenomenon and in his attempt to replace Riegl’s “Kunstwollen” with the idea of “Kunstanschauung”.31 Schlosser himself dated the implicit start of his nominalist turn as early as between 1901 – 1903.32 As is known, the role of catalyst for the insular and individualist theory of art was played by Schlosser’s friend Benedetto Croce.33 But Croce not only inspired Schlosser to conceive of art history as the history of great artists, but expelled history from art per se.34 As a consequence, Schlosser, as a member of an historical school par excellence, was faced with a dilemma. His extreme atomist historicism, which regarded works of art as utterly unique phenomena (“monads”) threatened to lead towards an ahistorical transcendentalism. Consequently, the history of art was transformed into the reconstruction of timeless masterworks or into a transhistorical communion of genii.35 Croce prompted Schlosser to replace Riegl’s impersonal determinism with individualist activism, the abstract “Kunstwollen” with the individual artist. He also substituted an aristocratic individualism, appreciating only great artists and their masterworks for Riegl’s democratic idea of removing the gap between high and low art.36 Croce’s work also stimulated him to reject Riegl’s relativism. In order to overcome Riegl’s indifference to aesthetic value, Schlosser ← 16 | 17 → appropriated Croce’s idea of art history as art criticism. According to Schlosser, art history must be anchored in an axiology that distinguishes between creative and non-creative art, between genii and epigones. Furthermore, following Croce’s belief in art as expression, Schlosser held up for contrast expression and communication, together with style and language. Style, for Schlosser, was the product of individual artists and the embodiment of their creative expression and not, as Riegl claimed, the result of an anonymous artistic intention (“Kunstwollen”). As a consequence, the dilemma mentioned above that resulted from Croce’s antinomy of “art criticism versus history”, was overcome by means of a dualist theory. In 1935, Schlosser, following Karl Vossler37 but contradicting Croce’s ahistorical model in a sense, distinguished “Stilgeschichte” from “Sprachgeschichte”, the history of style from the history of language, individual expression from collective communication, and creation (by great artists) from imitation (by epigones).38 In this way, Schlosser counterpoised Croce’s belief in creative expression with the Viennese idea of style and its history. The true history of art was regarded by Schlosser as the production of styles, but styles were themselves conceived of as individual expressions executed exclusively by great artists.39 Consequently, neither Riegl’s history of grammar nor the history of language could be regarded as true art history, according to Schlosser. They represented only an empty abstract construction or inferior cultural and historical aspect of true art history.40 In this way, Schlosser aimed to preserve the historicity of art without losing artistic creation’s unique, individual and transcendental nature, and to reconcile Vienna School historicism with Croce’s expressionist ← 17 | 18 → transcendentalism. However, it was a new nominalist model that gave material expression to the critical revision of the orthodox paradigm and shattered its hegemony.


In 1924, at the same time that Benesch and Tietze were casting doubt on “Geistesgeschichte” and the radical revision of Riegl’s orthodoxy by Schlosser, Josef Strzygowski the most intransigent critic of the Vienna School, equated the crisis of the “Geisteswissenschaften” in general with the methods of the Vienna School.41 In contrast to Schlosser and Tietze or Benesch, Strzygowski’s criticism was an external and negative one. Not only rejecting the diachronic and linear idea of history, he also dismissed the Eurocentric and humanist concept of the history of art as hegemonic, and the immanent conception of art history as entirely mistaken.42 He suggested instead that it be replaced with a geography of art, focusing on a pluralist notion of world art history. This was to be conceived as a plurality of simultaneous, constant and interacting artistic territorial circles anchored in different nations, peoples or races. In addition, Strzygowski insisted on replacing the philological, formalist and monistic method of inquiry characteristic of the Vienna School with a systematic science of art (“Kunstwissenschaft”). This should consist of factual art historical study on the one hand and study of artistic reception on the other.43 Because of its vicious and negative intention, Strzygowski’s project only affected the development of the Vienna School indirectly, through the mediation of students who had attended Dvořák’s, Schlosser’s and Strzygowski’s lectures simultaneously, despite the interdictions of each side, being at war with the other.44

The Inductionist “Revolution”

The group of art historians entering the scene in the second half of the 1920s and known as the “Viennese Structuralists”, also regarded the ← 18 | 19 → situation in post-war art history as a crisis in its scientific status. For this reason, they launched a project of art history as a rigorous and exact science (“strenge Kunstwissenschaft”).45 Even if the group, consisting, above all, of Schlosser’s graduates also targeted Riegl’s evolutionary version of the history of style,46 their criticism was directed primarily against Geistesgeschichte, its deductive procedure and its spiritual character.47 Following in the footsteps of Schlosser’s criticism of Riegl’s abstractions, the members of this group regarded deductive generalizations as unverifiable abstract constructions.48 Consequently, they introduced a strictly inductive “bottom up” procedure, focusing on the analysis of a single work of art.49 In addition, interpretation by means of analogies was replaced with “Sachforschung”, the empirical analysis of the structure of the work of art based on objective perception.50 It was felt that such analysis should uncover the inner organization and function of the work and grasp its aesthetic status and message. The representatives of the group, ← 19 | 20 → above all Hans Sedlmayr, viewed their initiative as a methodological revolution, overestimating it as a “new epoch in art history”.51 However, rather than being an original innovation or radical turn, it was more an attempt at synthesis of diverse stimuli taken from their predecessors. Croce’s and Schlosser’s insular notion of the artwork as a monad,52 now characterized as an independent world or microcosm,53 was combined with Riegl’s analysis of formal structure54 and the idea of a centrally organized functional whole, taken over from “Gestalt Psychology”. Drawing on a synthesis of Croce-Schlosser’s axiological dualism and Strzygowski’s idea of a systematic science of art (“Kunstwissenschaft”) that strictly separated case studies from the study of artistic reception, or the immanent history of art from the social history of art,55 Sedlmayr thus attempted to overcome the gap between art history and aesthetics, between “Kunstgeschichte” and “Kunstwissenschaft”.

This project resulted in an hierarchical theory of two art histories.56 The first art history, regarded as a craft (concentrated on dating, attribution or icono-graphic identification), was delimited from the second and higher science of art, which he regarded as the investigation and observation of art’s aesthetic nature and artistic quality. Moreover, following “Gestalpsychologie”, ← 20 | 21 → Sedlmayr developed the concept of “gestaltetes Sehen”,57 i.e. the “right” sensuous approach to the work of art enabling the beholder to grasp simultaneously its organization, aesthetic status and inner content58 without preconceptions and a priori knowledge.59 Sedlmayr thereby implicitly reintroduced norma-tivism into art history.60 Consequently, his notion of structural analysis assumed a contradictory nature: in the sense that an impartial, empirical and rational analysis, insofar as it adopted the “correct”, i.e. centralized sensuous approach, was supposed to guarantee a grasp of the aesthetic quality of a work of art. Consequently, an immanent, decontextualized analysis of an artwork’s structure was expected to discover its inner spiritual content. No wonder that Sedlmayr’s colleague Otto Pächt warned, in his paper “Das Ende der Abbildtheorie”,61 against the danger of slipping from scientific analysis into poetry.62

The Reverse of “Rigorous Science”

In 1936, the year Sedlmayr took over the chair of art history at Vienna University from Schlosser, a fundamental critique of “The New Vienna School” ← 21 | 22 → was published in The Art Bulletin.63 Its author, Meyer Schapiro, unmasked the metaphysical core of the structuralist project of “rigorous science of art” as it had been articulated in two volumes of the journal Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen, 1931 – 1933. According to him, the Viennese Structuralists “neglect the social, economic, political and ideological factors in art” and “isolate forms from the historical conditions of their development” explaining “art as an independent variable... which has an immanent goal”.64 He also argued that they substituted “in an animistic manner... mythical, racial-psychological constants... entities like race, spirit, will, and idea... for a real analysis of historical factors... giving them an independent self-evolving career”.65 As a consequence, “theological deductions” were preferred by Viennese art historians “to an empirical study“ and “a mysterious racial and animistic language” was offered “in the name of a higher science of art”.66

There is no doubt that Schapiro’s criticism concerning the lack of methodological self-reflection67 and the notion of art as autonomous with an immanent history, was well-founded.68 However, as far as the reproach of the “mythical constants” or “mysterious entities” was concerned, the situation was a little more complicated. In his paper on Riegl, Sedlmayr explicitly kept aloof from any abstract, racist explanation of the history of art.69 According to him: “Ebensowenig kommen als Träger des Kunstwollens die Völker in rasenmässigen Sinn in Betracht; die Verteilung der Stile und ihre Grenzen decken sich nicht mit Grenzen und Verteilung der Volkstümer.”70 Sedlmayr pleaded instead for a more concrete, sociological approach: “Der Träger des Kunstwollens ist vielmehr immer eine bestimmte Gruppe von Menschen, die sehr verschieden groβ sein kann.”71 On the other hand, in the “manifesto” of Viennese Structuralism, Sedlmayr, in his essay “Towards a Rigorous Study of Art”, published in 1931,72 refers explicitly to Otto Pächt, acknowledging “attempts to work out historical constants or invariants ← 22 | 23 → (of a national or regional type, for example)” as legitimate objects of art history.73 Then, in 1936, Sedlmayr started to turn away from the immanent structuralist conception of art.74 In his paper “Geschichte und Kunstgeschichte”,75 written when he was already head of the Institute of Art History at Vienna University, Sedlmayr dissociated himself from Pächt’s isolationist approach and pleaded for an equilibrium between autonomous and heteronymous art history,76 for a synthesis of the structural analysis of a single artwork and its wider historical interpretation. In no time, he then adopted the racist mythical theory, conceiving of the work of art as “eine Monade, in der die kunstwirkenden Kräfte eines Volks und einer Epoche sich verdichten”.77 Despite that, Sedlmayr continued to try and reconcile his original belief in the individualist nature of art as the product of great masters with the collectivist metaphysical notion of art as an expression of anonymous collective subjects.78 As a result, he articulated a theory of the “circulation” or “an exchange between high and low” art, claiming that: “Die Geschichte der hohen Kunst wird ein Bündnis mit der Geschichte der Volkskunst eingehen.”79


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
transhistoricism metaphysics historical relativism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 230 pp., 9 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Ján Bakos (Author)

Ján Bakoš is Professor Emeritus in art history at Comenius University, Bratislava and senior fellow at the Institute of Art History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He specializes in the history of art historiography, methodology of art history, social history of art, medieval painting and sculpture in Central Europe, Modern Slovak art and the theory and history of the protection of monuments. He is editor-in-chief of the journal Ars and the author of many publications including Dejiny a koncepcie stredovekého umenia na Slovensku / The History and Conceptions of Medieval Art in Slovakia / (1984), Der Tschecho-Slowakische Strukturalismus und die Kunstgeschichtsschreibung (1991), Peripherie und die kunsthistorische Entwicklung (1991), The Vienna School’s hundread and sixty-eight graduate: The Vienna School’s ideas revised by E.H. Gombrich (1996), Štyri trasy metodológie dejín umenia / Four Routes in Art History Methodology: The Vienna School, Czecho-Slovak Structuralism, the Russian Historiography of Art, Iconology & Semiotics /(2000), Monuments and Ideologies (2001) and Max Dvořák – A neglected Re-visionist (2004). He also edited The Past in the Present: Contemporary Art & Art History’s Myths (2002) and Artwork Through the Market (2004). In 2000 he was awarded the Herder-Prize by Vienna University.


Title: Discourses and Strategies
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
230 pages