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Discourses and Strategies

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

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Ján Bakos

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.
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III. Between Task and Function: Metamorphoses of Jacob Burckhardt’s Legacy

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Art History as the History of Tasks

Thanks to Heinrich Wölfflin we know that Jacob Burckhardt, on his 75th birthday in 1893, conveyed his legacy in the following terms, to the next generation of art historians: the history of art was to be understood as the history of tasks (“die Kunstgeschichte nach Aufgaben behandeln, das ist mein Vermächtnis”).1 Nonetheless, in keeping with his distrust of philosophy, Burckhardt bequeathed no definition of “tasks”. He did, however, display very vividly his notion of “Aufgaben” in the Beiträge zur Kunstgeschichte von Italien, a book consisting of three essays – “Das Porträt”, “Das Altarbild”, “Die Sammler” – only published posthumously in 1898.2 According to Norbert Huse, Burckhardt “verstand unter Aufgaben weder… die Aufträge… noch die Lösung von ‘Kunstproblemen’”.3 In contrast to this, Nicolaus Meier thinks that Burckhardt used the notion “Aufgabe” in three different but clearly-defined ways: “Zuerst… als formale Aufgabe… Zweitens… als Funktionsbegriff… er weist auf kausale Zusammenhänge von Kunst und Auftraggebern… Und zuletzt… eine ‘Aufgabe’ [als] ein von allen Bedigtheiten unabhängiges… Phänomen… eine Art unbedingter Autorität.”4 Consequently, Burckhardt’s model represents “ein offenes System…, in dem bald einmal der Stil, dann wieder eine Aufgabe… die gröβere Wirkung auf die Entwicklung der Kunst hat”.5

← 56 | 57 → Norbert Huse pointed out that from the 1870s onwards a gap between cultural history and art history entered Burckhardt’s thinking.6 The idea of “Aufgaben” could therefore be regarded as...

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