CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed

Schedule of Session 5.pdf

Schedule of Session 5.jpg

In an increasingly “global” world that is both positively hybrid and negatively mixed up, it can be useful to ponder historical periods in different cultures that were eager to present their art to their public as independent, self-contained, “pure”. Although this “purity” suggests a self-image of detachment and concentration on its own production, it should be analyzed as an intellectual and cultural construction, since societies have always been hybrid, and since art itself can hardly be understood without heteronomy. Hence, at least three possible discourses inherent to the idea of art’s “purity” should be examined in order to critically reflect upon this phenomenon:

     -  The birth of a “national”, local, independent style related to the self-awareness of the artistic expression.

     -  The idea of an autonomous, “absolute” art, free from any contingency.

     -  The complex dialectics between art as social fact and autonomous artefact.

Concerning the first discourse, the question of independence is closely linked to the self-awareness of the artist as an autonomous, poietic subject, and to the birth of a specific “national” style. If the most celebrated artists of the 14th and the 15thcenturies  were still deeply affected by the practical desires of their patrons, the situation changed radically at the beginning of the 16th century, at least in Italy. Patrons wanted an object, any object from the hand of great artists; they wanted a “Leonardo”, a “Raphael, or a “Michelangelo” more than a religious or a mythological image. This phenomenon gave birth to an unprecedented interest for the visual arts from the part of the intellectual elite such as PietroBembo or Baldassarre Castiglione. This explosive, very dense circuit brought about a recognizable “national” literary as well as visual language, which was tightly connected with a new self-awareness or self-affirmation of the artist, an aspect that Giorgio Vasari addressed so brilliantly in his Vite.


As far as the second discourse is concerned, one could begin with Immanuel Kant’s concept of the “purposiveness without purpose” of art as portrayed in his Critique of Judgment. A few years later Friedrich Schiller molded the concept of man’s “aesthetic education,” which should have been independent from any form of utility. This idea of art’s “entireness” (Schelling’s “Ganzheit”) and its necessary autonomy from utility had nothing to do with the current, naively reductive concept of art for art’s sake, even though the philosophers of German Idealism were important forerunner of the 19th-century formula of the l’art pour l’art. Their plea for the autonomy of art implies a deep understanding of the intrinsic efficacy – and therefore relevance – of art, an aspect that would become fundamental for Theodor W. Adorno’s aesthetics, and was addressed in Ad Reinhardt’s famous article Art-as-Art (1962), as well as in his minimalistic, radical black paintings.


In order to comprehend these two discourses coherently, and with the necessary historical and critical approach, one should however not forget what Adorno called the “double character” of art (i.e., its status as both a social product, a fait social, and an autonomous artifact), an aspect that is still of great contemporary topicality. The awareness of this dialectic tension will be helpful in considering the concepts of independence and self-awareness, and will also allow investigation of the issue of the criticalpotential of art. What does Adorno mean with his difficult thesis that “art becomes social by its opposition to society”, and what does this imply for the ethos of the artist? Furthermore, and depending from these previous questions: to what extent can the autonomy and self-awareness of art and artist be understood as an intrinsic necessity for any kind of truly critical dimension of art? Or in other words: is autonomy actually the privileged site of social critique? Could it be that the more art is art, the more self-aware it is, the more it becomes paradoxically socially engaged, in clear opposition to the always neutralized and neutralizing “unaware” cultural mass production?


This session seeks contributions that address the issue of self-aware, autonomous, “absolute” art in all cultures and times, putting into question at the same moment this constructed image of self-affirmation and independence, and eventually analyzing the positive tension between the autonomy and heteronomy of art that fosters its oppositional and transformative powers.


Text developed in cooperation with Hana Gründler.