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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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IV. From the Ideological Critique to the Apologia for the Market

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I.

It is well known that art history as an academic discipline was established in the second third of the 19th century: the first permanent chair of art history being established at Berlin University in 1844 (Waagen), at Vienna University in 1852 (Eitelberger), and at Bonn in 1860 (Springer), followed by chairs in Strasbourg, Leipzig, Prague.1 The institutionalisation of art history in 19th century Germany was launched by a new state ideology – nationalism. University chairs of art history followed the creation of those temples of the new nationalist religion – the public art museums. Art was regarded as an expression of the spirit of a nation and the work of art, as a visualisation of an impersonal spiritual message. As a result, the main task of institutionalised art history was to develop experts for public (state) museums and to reconstruct and promote national historical myths.

Nevertheless, the situation changed significantly in the second half of the 19th century. As international economic competition came into the foreground, romantic nationalism had to be replaced by pragmatic liberalism. This also had serious consequences for art history. The first universal exhibition, the “Great Exhibition” in London of 1851, conceived of as a symbolic international competition, launched a wave of art & industry museums all over the Europe. Art began to be regarded as an efficient means of industrial competition. As a consequence, the study of the history of art was also introduced to polytechnics and academies of fine art....

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