PRINT October 2003


Hans Belting

IN HIS 1990 LIKENESS AND PRESENCE, Hans Belting offered a magisterial narrative of the social, political, and religious contexts of imagemaking in late antiquity and the Middle Ages while adamantly refusing to view the creations of that time through the conceptual lenses of artistic autonomy, individual expression, and historical progress that developed only later. Not so much an early history as a prehistory of art (as implied in the subtitle, “A History of the Image Before the Era of Art”), the book served as a touchstone in Germany’s emerging debates over the place of images in contemporary culture once they were divorced from the limited contexts of modern art-historical and aesthetic norms.

His current book, first published in German in 1995, addresses what might be termed art after the era of art. Here the question is, Once the imperatives of modernism (which had supplied, Belting argues, our understanding of art tout court) no longer hold sway, what structure of art remains? And when modernism ends in the last significant movements of the 1960s, what becomes of its institutional cohorts, the museum and the academy?

Belting begins by demarcating the territory of contemporary art from that of modernism, focusing not so much on the character of the art as its place within certain structures of making, exhibiting, and interpreting. His discussion circles around three related themes: the loss of the United States’ postwar cultural hegemony (in part due to a European turn inward toward the former Eastern bloc); a cultural globalization that challenges Western definitions of art; and the revision of the art-historical canon through inclusion of previously marginalized women and minorities. Belting also addresses the increasingly unstable categories of high and low, the undoing of the traditional idea of the physical “work,” and the growing disjunction between the roles of traditional and contemporary art museums. These distinctions are familiar, though perhaps more descriptive of cultural aspirations than current market and institutional fact. Belting, however, wants to advance a stronger thesis than modernist and contemporary art’s occupation of different national and cultural matrices. Contemporary art, he argues, does not herald a new period emerging out of the old. Rather, it marks the end of the very idea of such historical development: Here the grand tradition of art history no longer offers artists an objectively unfolding narrative that they feel the need to carry forward but only a ruin to pick through, or a readymade—something that may be staged and restaged in their work but not reinvented. Belting then asks how contemporary art in this “posthistorical” period can be accommodated by an academic discipline of art history forged in the furnace of modernism and thus ill-equipped to engage with what arrives after that period’s close.

Belting is aware, of course, that this kind of claim to witness the end of art has a tradition of its own, whether it meant that art had reached its zenith, as in Vasari’s lauding of Michelangelo as marking the “perfection of art”; its nadir, as in Vienna School historian Hans Sedlmayr’s scornful charge that what was once an organic whole has now deteriorated into “stylistic chaos”; its political obsolescence, as in Berlin Dada’s “Art is dead”; or its dissolution, as in postmodern critics’ subsuming the history of art into the history of representations, an integration retroactively applied to the whole of art history in the practice of “visual culture.” Belting first published his own thesis (The End of the History of Art?) in the early 1980s, roughly simultaneous with but independent of Arthur Danto’s essay “The End of Art”—suggesting that something was in the air even as both writers announced that embodying the zeitgeist was no longer art’s essential concern. And like Danto’s, Belting’s formulation is best captured in the terms Hegel reserved for art in his philosophical bildungsroman of Spirit, where (as he describes in his Lectures on Aesthetics) art is “set free” after its end, no longer charged with being the engine of Spirit’s self-realization. Belting asserts that contemporary artists have dispensed with what Joseph Kosuth spoke of as “historical baggage,” disclaiming any compulsion to follow modernism’s defining mandates as if they were universal principles.

In all this Belting’s real interest seems to be less the fate of art—which he presents as largely autonomous, affecting but rarely affected by the institutions within which it operates—than the fate of art history. His charge is that art history as a scholarly discipline was founded on the presumption that the history of art was essentially one of style—that is, an internal development according to a natural or historical law, amounting to what Heinrich Wölfflin mused as “an art history without names.” Belting says that modernist art was complicit in this grand narrative: The avant-garde’s utopian dimensions—say, the collectivist programs of Constructivism, Dada, and de Stijl—embodied an analogous commitment to a single history, which it was their duty to execute, even if these efforts were posed as critiques of the tradition, not its extension. Just as artists in such movements proclaimed that the “predominance of the individual”
had to be abolished in favor of the “universal,” so Hegelian art historians would speak of particular works of art as recognizable only by virtue of their place within the general principles of stylistic evolution they exemplified. And, in turn, when modernist art ceased to evince a unified style, historians feared that art must have reached a decadent end, portending a “loss of the center,” in Sedlmayr’s terms, a notion shared in one form or another by thinkers as diverse as Oswald Spengler, Georg Lukács, and Julius Meier-Graefe. The latter, a friend of “classical” modernism, complained in 1913 of the “surface artists” in whose work “images have become slogans”—anticipating what some late-twentieth-century modernist standard-bearers would say in the face of postmodernist deflation of the ideals they hold dear.

That the ideas of internal evolution and stylistic autonomy were shared by both modernist art and the art history of earlier periods such as the Renaissance is an important thesis, but Belting only alludes to what explanatory forces connect the two: Did modernist artists influence historians of Renaissance art, or was their coordination a product of something like a shared conceptual scheme? Belting also offers an overly narrow account of the way in which early art historians attempted to capture the changes of art in the organic development of styles. For one of the foundational questions of art history was precisely how to explain the way that art, in its internal evolution, was related externally—as epiphenomenon, embodiment, reflection, or epitome—to the societies from which it emerged. Answering this question was, for example, Alois Riegl’s aim in his theory of a period- or culture-specific Kunstwollen, and it was what Wölfflin hoped to explain in positing the two roots—tradition and social context—of artistic style.

Belting says that art history now has the fragmented character of the production of art itself, with a plurality of methods and theories and no clear way to adjudicate among them. Indeed, art history today must be defined so disjunctively that it often isn’t clear whether there is anything on which feminists, poststructuralists, social historians of art, queer theorists, iconographers, connoisseurs, and so on might agree such that their disagreements could offer a productive exchange. But Belting overstates the contrasting monolithic quality of traditional art history, since one can find a level of alterity even in the writings of the old guard—Aby Warburg, on the Pueblo Indians, say, or Riegl, in positing a history of ornament against the materialist assumption that it must, as decoration, be a universal answer to a timeless human need.

In any case, Belting charges that art historians have not yet fully recognized the posthistorical state of art, and thus when faced with non-Western art that doesn’t fit in the traditional narrative, they seek to expand the canon (through such devices as “global art”) rather than historicize the very idea of the canon as something inextricable from a local and limited tradition, now closed. The problem, he argues, is that even a renovated canon in which every part of the world is represented would invariably, in its universalistic pretensions, assimilate such diverse artistic expression into a simultaneously unifying and corrupting European frame, leaving local folk traditions as a kind of exotic “reserve.” He finds a prefiguration of this idea in André Malraux’s “museum without walls,” which could formalistically join the artistic expression of an African bronze miniature to a Romanesque relief by presenting both in identically sized photographs on the page.

Belting sees recent technologies of Western art as posing other kinds of problems for academic art history. His comments on video, for example, stress its novel temporal structure, a non-narrative “boring art” (in Nam June Paik’s words) whose superficial similarity to mass media serves its critical ends: Requiring slow, meditative contemplation, video asks for participation rather than consumption. While his discussion of such work is subtle and ingenious, it doesn’t finally explain why video’s novel temporal phenomenology should pose more of a challenge to art history than did, say, the unusual eschatological temporal structure of quattrocento Christian art or the innovative experiential operations of Minimalism.

In the end, although Belting’s diagnosis of art history is informed by a considerable erudition and range, he doesn’t describe what an alternative art-historical practice might look like, save for a nod here and there to media studies. And he is largely silent on what is lost by art when it reaches the posthistorical moment he proclaims. Art is set free, as Hegel proposed, to do whatever it wants—but at the risk, one might suggest, of no longer being of urgent social concern. Consider a fate familiar to artists of the former Eastern bloc, where, as Ilya Kabakov writes, art was once “a necessity of life, not a professional activity” but has now lost its “place in life,” to the extent it has gained the autonomy promised by the West. If Belting had the posthistorical courage of his Hegelian convictions, he might have considered whether the discipline of art history, “in its highest vocation,” is also a thing of the past, experiencing immense freedom but at the risk of no longer occupying a central cultural role. Yet just as postmodern art implicitly continued modernism by taking its terms, albeit negatively and critically, as its own, so Belting’s account of academic art history is curiously still occupied with deconstructing traditional “principles of art history.” Contemporary art, by contrast, seems different—not anxious, oppositional, or nostalgic in its relation to the past. One wonders what an analogous art history, “set free” from the grip of its own tradition, would turn out to be.

Jonathan Gilmore is a Cotsen Fellow in Princeton University’s Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts.


Hans Belting, Art History After Modernism, translated by Caroline Saltzwedel and Mitch Cohen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 248 pages.