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The Enchantment of Art: Abstraction and Empathy from German Romanticism to Expressionism

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 57, Number 2, April 1996
pp. 317-341 | 10.1353/jhi.1996.0018

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Journal of the History of Ideas 57.2 (1996) 317-341

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A familiar tradition since the eighteenth century has invested art with the power to heal a decadent human condition. Inheriting this ability from religion -- the romantic enthusiast Wilhelm Wackenroder considered artistic inspiration to originate in "divine inspiration" in the case of his hero, Raphael --art eventually replaced institutionalized belief in an evolutionary schedule of cultural development determined by German idealism. Hegel, for instance, theorized the evolution of spirit from religion to art as a qualitative advancement over time. Rejecting the metaphysics of German idealism, Friedrich Nietzsche nevertheless contended that "Art raises its head where religions decline." By assuming the "feelings and moods" of religion which had been dismantled by enlightenment, Nietzsche claimed that art gave new form to the life of feeling and imbued human endeavors with a "loftier, darker coloration." In the early twentieth century Wassily Kandinsky believed that the "spiritual in art" was the historical manifestation of an "inner necessity" that was in itself timeless and universal. Kandinsky portrayed the "life of the spirit" as "a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts." In a kind of "trickle down" aesthetic, the compartments of the triangle move slowly upward toward the apex, which is inhabited by the solitary genius of an age whose vision gradually elevates all those who occupy the lower stages.

The point for proponents of the spiritual in art from romanticism to expressionism (and beyond) was to find in works of art what can best be described as an enchantment. As the negotiation of the gaps or disjunctures separating human beings from complete power over their lives, enchantment conjoins the plane of immediate human experience to a desirable state of affairs through the mediation of such symbolic devices as rituals, incantations, or charms. Thus, evil can be warded off by the use of an apotropaic amulet, and fertility can be enhanced by the recitation of a suitable prayer or the performance of a certain ritual. In a modern analogy a sense of impotence is often alleviated by a trip to the mall where the bored therapeutically lose themselves in symbolic acts of self-renewing consumption. In the traditions of philosophy and science, systems of representation such as astrology, the microcosm, the harmony of the spheres, the great chain of being, the celestial hierarchies, or the mechanisms of theurgy and divination situate humanity within a cosmos that follows a particular order accessible to and in some degree manipulable by human beings. Enchantment consists of an apparatus of belief whose form of representation or enactment is thought to exert influence over the realities it configures.

But enchantment is not limited to the spells and magic of premodern metaphysics (or modern consumerism). By means of religion, morality, and aesthetics, Nietzsche once averred, "man likes to believe that ... he is touching the heart of the world." This study will focus on the manner in which art as constructed within the idealist tradition of German art theory functioned as an enchantment. Specifically, it will explore what the history of ideas about abstraction and empathy has to tell us about the spiritualization or enchantment of art. After identifying the philosophical and aesthetic wherewithal of enchantment in nineteenth-century Germany, attention focusses on Franz Marc's early twentieth-century theorization of abstraction. It is certainly more customary to study Kandinsky, whose writings and early efforts at abstraction are much better known, but Marc's ideas offer more immediate connections to German intellectual history and clarify the aims of his abstract art as a strategy of enchantment. Moreover, Marc was unusually articulate and wrote often, exploring ideas and artistic efforts with great insight. Focusing on Marc therefore offers a corrective to the historiography that has favored Kandinsky's writings. Finally, Marc differed from his Russian friend over the cause of the war. Manifesting a difference that is portentous for this study, Kandinsky left Germany for Russia in 1914, while Marc enthusiastically took up arms for the fatherland. Given these circumstances and the unfortunate tendency of art historians to valorize expressionist art rather than situate it in the ideological context of its production, it is time to delimit more precisely than...


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