The Meaning of Art History

J. Onians, ‘Art History, Kunstgeschichte and Historia’ from E. Fernie (ed.), Art History and its Methods: a critical anthology (London, 1995), 256-25 8.


    • What are the main arguments of the text?
    • We should open our minds to a wider range of ideas concerning “Art history”.
    • The art historian should adopt the stance of the journalist and critic and art should include technology and design.
    • How does the text relate to other texts you have studied (in this course and others)?
    • It ties art history into the German philosophical tradition of Kant (aesthetic theory) and Winckelmann onwards.
    • His call for a broader view could be seen as a wish to incorporate the Baudelairean poetic approach to art criticism and art history.
    • How could you relate the argument of the text to an artwork of your choice?
    • One can look at a “conventional” work of modern art, such as Judd’s and try to view it from a Kantian perspective or one can consider something normally regarded as outside the range of art history.
    • Can you see any problems with the approach?

 What are the main arguments of the text?

This short text is an introduction to the new magazine “Art History” launched in 1978. It emphasizes our debt to the German tradition of art history and calls for a less narrow interpretation of the subject.

Onians argues that the term “art history” is an awkward English expression derived from the German Kunstgeschichte. He highlights and emphasizes the dependent on the German-speaking tradition of art history. He argues that the un-English title will inspire contributors to rise above their dependence on this Germanic tradition.

He also points out that the terms “art” and “history” each invoke a rich stream of ideas whereas when joined together as “art history” they lose their potency. This suggests that we should open our minds to develop a far richer set of ideas around the subject.

Finally, the original meaning of history, the Greek “historia” emphasized enquiry rather than record and it included present as well as past events. He suggests that the art historian should enquire into what is happening and what has happened and adopt the stance of the journalist and critic. The term art should also be widened to included technology and design as well as the fine arts.

How does the text relate to other texts you have studied (in this course and others)?

If we look at the tradition of art history and some of the great names we find a large number of German speaking (German, Swiss and Austrian) historians, such as,

  • Winckelmann (1717-1768, “Noble simplicity and calm greatness of Greek statues”),
  • Kant (1724-1804, see summary later of part of the Critique of Judgement),
  • Burckhardt (1818-1897, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy looks at the effect of cultural influences on the work of the Renaissance artist),
  • Riegl (1858-1905, a founding father of modern formalist criticism),
  • Wölfflin (1864-1945, “all pictures owe more to other pictures than they do to the nature”) and
  • Panofsky (1892-1968, “Iconology is the study of the intrinsic meaning or content and ‘is apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion – qualified by one personality and condensed into one work.’ “).

How could you relate the argument of the text to an artwork of your choice?

Rather than take Onians’s ideas directly the reference to the German speaking tradition resulted in a sidetrack into Kant as the original source of many of the formal ideas developed by later writers. The next section summarises part of Kant’s Critique of Judgment.

We can look at a work of art using Kant’s four “moments”. Picking up Onians’ point regarding technology we can consider Donald Judd (American Minimalist Sculptor, 1928-1994) Untitled 1969 in the Guggenheim collection. It is a wall mounted work of art made of polished copper.

Untitled, 1969. Copper, ten units, 9 x 40 x 31 inches each, with 9-inch intervals; 170 x 40 x 31 inches overall.

The First Moment. Kant argues that aesthetic judgements are disinterested, unlike things that we like because they make us feel good, for example, chocolate. Our interest in this work is disinterested in that although it has an attractive surface colour and texture the impact of the piece is principally through its form. In this sense I do not like the piece in the same way I like chocolate, it is not agreeable nor does it give rise to a pleasant feeling. However, it is attractive and so passes the first test.

The Second Moment. Kant argues that aesthetic judgements are universal like statements of fact, such as “Honey contains sugar.” rather than statements of opinion, such as “I like honey.” We can imagine convincing someone who does not like the piece of the error of their ways. It has a universal in the sense we feel its beauty is a property of the object.

The Third Moment. Kant argues that beautiful objects appear to be designed but have no purpose. Untitled clearly has no purpose yet it does appear purposive. That is, the artist appears to had something in mind when designing the object. It is carefully constructed, expensively constructed, evenly spaced and is certainly not a random or thrown together construction.

The Fourth Moment. This is more difficult to apply as we must judge if our aesthetic judgement is necessary and founded in what Kant calls “Common Sense”.

The interesting thing about Kant’s approach is that it is formal. It does not depend on the fame of the artist, the culture, the meaning or any intellectual challenge. Minimalist art perhaps comes closest to exemplifying Kant’s theory of aesthetics.

Other-art Reconsidered

Onians calls for a wider view of what constitutes art and suggest technology and design. This leads us down the well trodden path of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Bauhaus and beyond. Instead let us consider an advertisement as a work of art.

This image was used in our Semiotics lecture to illustrate a type of symbol. This is a complex image, not an advertisement but a contrived visual joke that suggests men have no interest in dental care unless it is wrapped in a stereotypical image of feminity.

This image also introduces the complex concept of kitsch, a form of debased art that can possibly teach us something about art by comparison. Can a clear description of kitsch enable us to identify “real” art?

Kitsch claims to have an aesthetic purpose and is derived from the German verkitschen etwas, to ‘knock something off’. It generally refers to objects of bad taste although this raises the question of whose taste? It has also become collectable as it is thought so bad that it is good in an ironic way. So maybe kitsch shows art can be ironic?

Examples of kitsch include porcelain dogs, Tretchikoff paintings (The Chinese Girl is the best selling print in the world) through to the above “advertisement”.

Kitsch is a term that refers to work that is vulgar (another word for “bad taste”), sentimental (insincere emotion) or pretentious (making a claim for underserved importance). These definitions do not seem to take us onto solid ground but all revolve around the idea of someone’s taste or judgement. This suggests that art is in the eye of the beholder and it is what is accepted as art by a certain elite whose opinion is somehow special. It also suggests that what is kitsch in one culture may become art in another. Perhaps the work of Norman Rockwell?

Stephane Mallarmé wrote “The reproach that superficial people formulate against Manet, that whereas once he painted ugliness, now he paints vulgarity, falls harmlessly to the ground, when we recognize the fact that he paints the truth.”

Does this mean that some critics at the time regarded Manet as a painter of kitsch? Although the term was not used in the nineteenth century in so far as the critics thought works such as Olympia exhibited bad taste, the answer appears to be “Yes”. However, kitsch must also be aimed at a mass audience and in this respect Manet’s work fails the test.

Returning to the above example, it is clear that it is not a toothpaste advertisement. We must assume that it is an artistic comment on the nature of advertising and gender. It is a metaphor for advertising itself – the reduction of a complex issue to an attractive and easily assimilated message. How do we know this? Partly because it is not promoting a particular brand. Of course, it could be a Government health advertisement but it does not explain the benefits of dental hygiene. It is an amusing comment on the simplistic techniques used by advertising. It is not an advertisement but an ironic comment on advertising.

Can you see any problems with the approach?

Kant’s approach is very difficult to apply as it is self-defining and subjective. The aesthetic judgement is innate and we must also make a judgement about the artist as genius. It is difficult to see how Kant’s approach would make it easier to judge between a poor work of art and a good work of art.

Onians suggests that art historians should adopt the stance of a journalist or critic. This is a radical suggestion as the historian sees herself as being above mere art appreciation and working with objective formal criteria, and documented events and dates. Is an historian trying to persuade? Should the work therefore be entertaining (as well as thoroughly researched), easy to understand and persuasive. The volume of articles now being produced is so vast that it will otherwise be lost for all time (except perhaps in the all encompassing electronic web) and this raises the question of was it worth the effort it took to produce it. Does the historian have a duty to themselves and their funders to produce work that is relevant to a broader society if only be being accessible?

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