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Discourses and Strategies

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


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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VIII. Paths and Strategies of the Historiography of Art in Central Europe


From the Local to the Universal

The thematization of the history of art in Central Europe as a specific art historical phenomenon is a fascinating, and at the same time quite dramatic, story, and as such merits serious study.1 This essay, however, does not have the slightest ambition to be a history of the historiography/historiographies of Central European art. It is rather an attempt to outline the main trends, which shaped research into the history of art in the region.

In the 18th century, the plurality of local histories cultivated by local patriotic chroniclers was replaced by the conception of one universal history.2 ← 168 | 169 → At the same time, Johann Joachim Winckelmann conceived the idea of art as having a single true essence. In this way, the previous history of a plurality of artefacts and artists was transformed into a universal history of art with a capital A.3 Many local histories were subordinated to one universal history of the classical norms of art.4 However, the idea of the plurality of specific local histories did not disappear for ever. For example, it was Italian patriotism that motivated Luigi Lanzi’s conception of Italian art as a plurality of geographically located schools.5 The plurality of specific local histories was, however, already subordinated to the universal ideal. Nevertheless, the way to the pluralism of nationalities had been opened.6

← 169 | 170 → In the era of Napoleon, the idea of the universal character of history became an instrument...

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