PRINT September 2000


the New Vienna School

THE SO-CALLED VIENNA CIRCLE, which flourished in the years before the Second World War, was an informal association of philosophers and scientists dedicated to the overthrow and eradication of metaphysics, regarded by them as nonsense, portentously disguised. Nonsense was understood as whatever could not be verified empirically. This was the notorious verifiability criterion of meaning, which, they believed, the natural sciences exemplified to perfection. Final solutions, of course, were much in the air in '30s Vienna, and such was the ferocity of the Vienna Circle, whose texts bristled with the weaponry of mathematical logic, that anyone in pursuit of scientific credibility was anxious to purge his discourse of metaphysical taint. The New Vienna School, a constellation of art historians that flourished in the same city at the same time, saw itself as practicing Kunstwissensschaft, the “science of art. ” If Hans Sedlmayr and Otto Pächt were the school's guiding lights, its “real founder,” according to the classical archaeologist Guido Kaschnitz von Weinberg, himself a member, was Alois Riegl (1858–1905), curator of textiles and later professor of art history at the University of Vienna. The Vienna School Reader, which brings translations of seminal works by Sedlmayr, Pächt, Kaschnitz, and Fritz Novotny to English readers for the first time, begins, rightly, with two essays by Riegl.

Riegl had attempted to identify certain objective formal structures in the visual culture of a given period, irrespective of any differences between vernacular and fine art, and to explain these structures with reference to the world outlook of those whose art it was. His practice as an art historian presupposed what he termed the Kunstwollen, or “art will”—a notion that could not easily withstand application of the verifiability criterion. Riegl had conducted his investigations in the pre–World War I atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and drew freely on the woolly resources of German metaphysics before it came under the Vienna Circle's knife. The Kunstwollen was an application to art of the romanticist idea of Will, understood as among the world's ultimate components. Rousseau, for example, introduced the idea of a general will—a volonté générale—as a deep political reality. Schopenhauer saw the world as will through and through in his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation. Nietzsche introduced the will to power as what drives the universe. So the art will draws on a rich and, it must be said, pernicious conceptual tradition: Think of how many luckless heads were lopped off during the Terror in the name of the volonté générale by those who claimed special knowledge of it, to say nothing of the Third Reich 's occasional invocation of the will to power.

Riegl never went into any depth on what exactly constituted the Kunstwollen, but his use of the term allowed him to consider the history of art of a given period as exhibiting a kind of internal drive or purpose, which realized itself progressively through time. The methodological agenda of the New Vienna School was to excise this cognitively embarrassing concept while retaining Riegl's art-scientific insight, namely, that art history should concern itself with “the manifestations of a certain will of a supraindividual kind, standing opposed as a normative force to the individual, ” as Kaschnitz phrased it. He proposed to replace Riegl 's “art will” with the insufficiently dynamic term “structure.”

Riegl's purpose in his last book—The Group Portraiture of Holland of 1902—was to deduce the shape of Dutch art history as a directed whole through a description of the Dutch Kunstwollen. The idea of such an art will directed Riegl's eyes to attributes of Dutch painting that might otherwise have been invisible. However much the Kunstwollen may have fallen afoul of positivist admonitions, it would be difficult to understand Riegl's practices as an “art scientist” without reference to something like it. Indeed, though the term has more or less vanished from the vocabulary of art historians, their writing is tacitly guided by similar organizing principles. Something, after all, has to account for what individuates art in different cultures or traditions, and Riegl believed we achieve this by inferring to the relevant Kunstwollen.

Riegl begins his book with the striking observation that the group portrait is almost unique to Dutch art—that for the most part no one but the Dutch produced or were interested in it. In contrast to family portraits—which have a very long history—the group portrait “consist[s] of completely autonomous individuals who associated themselves with a corporation solely for a specific, shared, practical, and public spirited purpose, but who otherwise wished to maintain their independence.” The members of the voluntary group portrait are shown with the exactitude required of individual portraits, but united under a common purpose. Each member of the group is shown with the same degree of detail, which implies, Riegl believed, a “democratic equality” among the individual sitters, who are shown as coordinated with rather than subordinated to one another. So these composite portraits are a window into the spirit of the Dutch people. It is not that the group portrait was itself the purpose of Dutch art history—it was, rather, the means that the Kunstwollen invented as a way of conveying through art what it meant to belong to Dutch culture.

Riegl establishes a progressive and developmental order to the group portrait, showing the Dutch Kunstwollen at work. The payoff is considerable. Probably no one ever looked so close and so hard at Dutch group portraits before. Riegl's analyses of individual paintings depend on seeing the differences under their seeming similarities and then connecting them up as unfolding a history. It is great, even thrilling art criticism, whatever the status of Kunstwollen as a concept. For one thing, it connects the group portrait with Dutch painting in other genres. The Dutch, as Riegl observed, “produced no history painting.” They did not because their Kunstwollen did not choose to depict actions. With qualifications, it expressed itself in landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and—Riegl somewhat bafflingly claims—in genre painting. In my experience, Dutch genre painting shows people drinking, smoking, stuffing themselves, and feeling one another up, hardly the kind of things associated with an absence of action. Riegl had to have seen this, so he must have had a special concept of action in mind.

Whatever the case, the individuals in a group portrait are not depicted as having intentions or feelings. They merely show a certain disinterested attention, looking calmly out at the viewer of the picture, as if exhibiting the essential contemplativity of the Dutch worldview. The differences between group portraits at the beginning and end of the history of the genre, if less dramatic than the differences between, say, Cimabue and Titian, are nevertheless considerable. The task of the art historian in this case, then, is to nail down the developmental stages that the group portrait passed through, culminating perhaps in Rembrandt, after which time Dutch painting took a different direction. A new pictorial practice entered Holland through the art of Gerard Terborch, marking in effect a cultural decision to stop developing the group portrait as a genre.

There is today something of a Riegl industry among art historians. They are perhaps less preoccupied with scientific credibility than were their New Vienna School forebears, but they are convinced, in the words of Jonathan Crary, that “the ways in which we intently listen to, look at, or concentrate on anything have a deeply historical character” and that we can recover this in part by connecting a period's art with other parts of the culture, as Crary himself attempts to connect art and science in his recent book, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (MIT Press, 2000). In “The Main Characteristics of the Late Roman Kunstwollen” (1901), which is included in the Vienna School Reader, Riegl had argued that “the Kunstwollen of antiquity and in particular of its closing phase is completely identical with the other main forms of expression of the human will in the same period.” It is the ambition of Kunstwissensschaft to “delve into the Kunstwollen behind works of art and to discover why they are the way they are, and why they could not have been otherwise.” To extend the methods of art history to the entirety of visual culture, high and low, fine and applied, is exactly to follow Riegl's practice.

Riegl himself believed that the art and the political institutions of Holland were “parallel manifestations of a ... higher force at work in Holland's culture, which was responsible for producing other analogous phenomena as well.” So the Dutch Kunstwollen is part of what we might think of as the will of the Dutch culture taken as a whole. Riegl had the most modest hopes regarding our ability to identify that “higher force.” Such forces are pretty much blank checks that nobody knows how to cash in for scientifically more creditable concepts. At least we now know that the verifiability criterion turned out to be a fake warrant, waved at metaphysics as a form of intimidation. It was too soon for the members of the New Vienna School to recognize this, but even within their own conception of science—as Meyer Schapiro argued in his damning 1936 critique “The New Viennese School” (included in the Reader)—nothing they produced was “strictly a work of Kunstwissensschaft.” The virtue of The Group Portraiture of Holland is that whether it is “strictly a work of Kunstwissenschaft” scarcely matters.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.