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So begins Hans Belting's brilliant, iconoclastic reconsideration of art and art history at the end of the millennium, which builds upon his earlier and highly successful volume, The End of the History of Art?. "Known for his striking and original theories about the nature of art," according to the Economist, Belting here examines how art is made, viewed, and interpreted today. Arguing that contemporary art has burst out of the frame that art history had built for it, Belting calls for an entirely new approach to thinking and writing about art. He moves effortlessly between contemporary issues—the rise of global and minority art and its consequences for Western art history, installation and video art, and the troubled institution of the art museum—and questions central to art history's definition of itself, such as the distinction between high and low culture, art criticism versus art history, and the invention of modernism in art history. Forty-eight black and white images illustrate the text, perfectly reflecting the state of contemporary art.
With Art History after Modernism, Belting retains his place as one of the most original thinkers working in the visual arts today.
Those commenting on art or art history today see each theory they might seek to promote already devalued by any number of other theories. One can no longer take a position that has not already been advanced in another form. It is best to insist on the standpoint one has decided upon and to accept that others will find it mistaken or, if they agree, probably have misunderstood it. This is a time of monologue, not of dialogue. Naturally, common themes still exist, but those who share them, may understand them in very different ways. One of these common themes is the epilogue. Epilogues have been fashionable for so long that one would dearly like to write an epilogue on the age of the epilogue. It is not important whether these epilogues refer to the end of history, of modernism, or of painting. The important thing is the continued need for epilogues that characterizes an age. Where nothing new is discovered and the old is no longer the familiar, then epilogue is what suggests itself.
But today the epilogue is also a mask quick to express reservations about one's own opinions in order to avoid overstraining the readers' or listeners' tolerance. Whether referring to "art" or "culture," "history" or "utopia," each concept is put in quotation marks to permit its continued use while demonstrating the requisite degree of skepticism. One also expects another, different understanding, but not consensus. Each concept is tagged with a visiting card that introduces its user and serves to confine the general concept to an individual sense. Anyone speaking about culture is soon informed that such a thing no longer really exists except on a market ofthe media. Concepts and theories have met the same fate that art met long ago: the only way they find legitimacy is by simultaneously calling themselves into question. Of course, many earn their living by contributing to the changes in the debate that keep it alive. But today, theory, whatever it acquits itself of, is geared toward epilogue in all its themes and speech rules, just as at the outset of modernism it had the aspect of prologue, being militantly future-addicted and intolerant of the present. In the past, the enemy was the very notion of history that we fear to lose today, since what we now treat as history is the same modernism that they once hoped to bring into being.
An epilogue to a former paradigm measures the present against models it can no longer satisfy. In our case, this model is the culture of modernism, with which we identify ourselves just as emphatically as our forebears once identified themselves with religion and the nation. This collective identity is not linked with a part of the world but with a nostelpy for battles and utopias in which all eyes focused on an ideal future. The loss of such a perspective does not, however, mean the end of modernism but rather the impossibility of ending it, since we possess no alternative to it. This is the reason why I sympathize with the term "surmodernité" or hypermodernity as it was coined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé to define our present time.
Modernity has taken a thousand shapes, and we argue about whether it lives on in them or whether it has already been abandoned. History, too, long since and for good reason declared dead, refuses to lie down and ubiquitously continues to make heard its unsolicited voice. Finally, the classical arts, which we have so often ceremoniously and finally left behind us, continue to exist as if against all expectations and derive new power and freedom from precisely this fact. Yet this does not mean that we still live with the old challenges and opportunities that once obsessed "classic" modernism. Every glance at this modernism can only be retrospective, as it emphasizes our different situation and the new cultural experience clearer than ever. This is why the argument as to whether the present still retains the old profile of so-called modernism has long been superfluous. We are in the process of expanding the concept of modernism, just as we have always expanded the concept of art whenever we wished to continue using it.
The new media arts, to give one example, react to a media world that, as is well known, did not even exist in classic modernism. The media are inherently global and thus suspend all regional and individual cultural experience. They reach and adapt themselves to everyone, which is why their chief purpose became the consumption of information and entertainment at a high level of technology and a low level of ideas. The commonplace concept of art can no longer cope with this. Everyone knows that art with an implied capital A has meanwhile fragmented into a spectrum of resistant phenomena that are accepted as art long before we are able to define them. The very loss of a binding definition of art prevents us from holding a well-founded position on media art. The question is not whether the media arts are capable of being art but whether artists are willing to create art with the new technologies.
Art is still bound to an artist who uses it for his or her personal expression, and to a viewer under this spell. That makes it the secret opponent of technology, whose raison d'être is functionality and whose information is geared not toward a spectator but toward a user. This is why technology has always been indifferent to every personal worldview as it had always been mirrored in art. Put in extreme terms, technology does not interpret the given world but invents a technological world in which all physical and spatial reality is suspended. It thus dramatizes the crisis of individualism that has emerged in modernism and since the exhaustion of bourgeois culture. Philosophers have already declared the human in a text as superfluous or outmoded, and the new artistic currents are being acclaimed as "posthuman," a slogan containing the most terrible and (one hopes) the most erroneous epilogue in our time.
At the same time, a gradual countermovement is forming in the sense that it is precisely media, whose audiences continue a belief in new technology, that trigger a call to return to personal and physical reality. The body is the theme of philosophical conferences and also emerges as the target of new installations, such as those by Gary Hill (see p. 94). Film directors like Peter Greenaway forsake the world of the surrogate as it emerged on celluloid and in video photography and organize exhibitions that physically involve the viewers. The good old stage play, of all things, which once claimed appearances as its own prerogative, has now become a refuge for lost reality, for it is far more real than any analogical or digital medium can ever be.
But the problem of how to make use of new technology and how to gear it to a new aesthetic has accompanied the discussion of modernism from the beginning. The debate has always suffered from the fact that the innovators were in open conflict with tradition, while the others always defended every inch of it. In the process, each side invoked the famous logic of history in their attempt to win the argument, and the analyses assumed the character of epilogues; but there were two intentions involved: break with or defense of the old. Incidentally, this has been the case for as long as bourgeois culture has existed: it had to be sufficient unto itself and yet continued to worship models from history that it could no longer live up to.
Modernism thrived on the contradiction between these two models, the one turned toward the future and the other toward tradition, and thus found a necessary resistance against its own utopias. The practice of culture, as soon as it became politicized, inflicted such deep wounds in the twentieth century that, in retrospect, its victories appear just as doubtful as its defeats appear justified. Today, modernism itself has become tradition, which is why its guardians are so ready to conjure it up again in an epilogue, while its opponents, true to the proven pattern, are all the quicker to announce the end of a modernism they never cared for.
Whether we were talking about the "lossofaura" that Walter Benjamin saw as a historic opportunity for a new art or of the "loss of the center" lamented by Hans Sedlmayr in a modernism gone off the rails, the epilogue was always handy. The same is true of the deconstruction of the concept of the "work," which was augured from such phenomena as Fluxus or concept art. The individual work that-as a museum picture-represented a norm in the public's appreciation of art appeared to have been replaced by a fleeting artistic spectacle in which there were now only spectators and bystanders. In media art, video tapes only are visible as long as they have been played, or installations before they are dismantled. The permanence once inherent in the presence of art is thus replaced by rapid impressions that fit the fleeting nature of modern perception. For some decades, the pressure on art to innovate has been increasing as the possibilities for innovation in the fine arts have dwindled. The pace of new artistic invention is accelerating, but the weight of these innovations has diminished in the same measure as has their ability to shape a new style. Several styles have long been allowed to exist side by side, and artistic production no longer carries the banner of progress that has been replaced by the frivolous or lethargic "remake." The institutional culture of modernism that adopted progress as a program of identity has become an exercise of memory.
Looking back over classic modernism in light of present practice, we notice a range of fundamental changes that elude all simple comparisons, as the following topics make clear. From today's distance, modernism's erstwhile universal claim proves to be a view that was never ready for globalization. Modernism's erstwhile goal of "freedom from taboos" lost its value when art lost its ability to provoke. Belief in the ideal of a technological world of art as a living environment for humankind was supplanted by the fear of the loss of nature. The challenge to bourgeois culture presented by an antibourgeois avant-garde, invented by modernism, collapsed because the demise of the bourgeoisie also meant the loss of the avant-garde's enemy. This debate on the image of an elite culture loses its meaning on the level of a mass culture in which everyone can make his or her own choice. Finally, history-the locus of identity or of contradiction-lost its authority to the same extent that it became omnipresent and malleable. This also means that art history can no longer be the guiding image of our historical culture-which brings us to our theme.
The Meaning of Art History in Today's Culture
When I published the first draft of the present book in 1983 under the German title Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte? (The End of Art History?), I appeared to be contributing to the production of epilogues, but I did not intend to write an obituary for art or for art history. Instead, I asked myself whether art and the narration of art to which we had grown accustomed were still compatible. The opportunity to publish a new book on the same topic is also a chance to review and update the argument; this is possible only in the individual steps I undertake in the following chapters. But I must again insist on the initial argument that the rhetorical figure of speech dealing with the end of art history does not mean that art or art history is over but that, both in art and in the discourse of art history, we can foresee on the horizon the end of a tradition whose familiar shape had become, in the era of modernism, canonical.
I spoke of the farewell to the guiding model of an art history with an internal logic, which was favored in describing shifts of style from one period to another. The more art history as a coherent discourse disintegrated, the more it was absorbed into the whole cultural and social environment of which it was a part. The debate about method lost its edge, and historians replaced the one, mandatory art history with several or even many art histories that exist side by side, much as do today's artistic styles. Artists, for their part, took leave of a linear conception of history that had forced them to carry art into the future while waging war against its old form. They freed themselves from both a model and an incompatible history, and they abandoned such old genres and media whose rules constantly demanded progress to keep the game going. No longer did artists continually reinvent art, for it had been institutionally and commercially established-incidentally, with the admission that it was and remained a fiction, thus denying art's relevance to real life. Art critics ceased writing art history in the old sense, and artists stopped paying their debt to this kind of art history. Thus, the old play is interrupted if we haven't already been to a new play for some time, while we continue to consult the old textbooks, therefore failing to understand what happens. Talk of an end should not be confused with a longing for an end of art itself, which, like a picture in its frame, found a fitting framework in art history. The ideal art history was a narrative of the meaning and course of historical art. If today the image bursts out of its old frame, then we have reached the end of an old and most successful academic game. It was the frame that turned all it contained into a picture. It was art history that gathered the art of previous centuries into the picture, where we learned to see it. Only the frame provided inner cohesion to the image. Everything within it was, as art, privileged over everything outside, just as in a museum, which collects and displays only art that has already gone down in art history. The age of art history as an academic discipline coincides with the age of the museum.
The age of art history? Once again, we must define concepts. The idea of a general history of art was not established until the nineteenth century, while the material it gradually accumulated came from all previous centuries and millennia. Let us put it another way. Art had long been produced without any idea that it was fulfilling the course of art history. The comparison with the museum suggests itself again. Museums, too, filled up with artistic works that were created long before such institutions existed and without reference to them (fig. 1). But later, artists lived with museums and conscious of the idea of art history or else in opposition to it. We can distinguish the age of art history from all other ages that still lacked a framework for viewing art. My argument addresses this framework. It seems that taking art out of this frame has led to a new and uncertain art discourse that transfers itself onto art itself. Accordingly, artists have for some time abandoned what they call the "rigid frame" of artistic genres, which they find restrictive. They believe the public is also forced into a "rigid stare" at such a frame, even if, as at the movies, the frame contains a great deal of movement. Every genre proved to be a frame defining what was to become art. But the meaning of the frame, which keeps the viewer at a passive distance, also applies to the general situation in which culture manifests itself. It appears that the prevalent concept of culture was restricted to that of a historical culture that might, in retrospect, just as easily be resisted as revered. The struggle over "art and life" is, therefore, telling, suggesting as it does that art was only found outside life's reach: in the museum, in the concert hall, in books. The expert's gaze at a framed picture was a metaphor for the cultivated person's attitude to culture as an ideal. He or she always remained the audience, while artists and philosophers "made" culture.
Excerpted from Art History after Modernism by HANS BELTING Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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