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  • Time and History in Alois Riegl's Theory of Perception
  • Michael Gubser

In an early essay, the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl (1858–1905), a pioneer of the modern discipline of art history, linked the creation of the zodiac images in calendar art to the designation of constellations in the heavens.1 Ancient calendar artists observed the motion of stars across the night sky and attempted to map them into recognizable patterns representing specific temporal periods. Their efforts inscribed the cyclical temporality of the heavens into the images of the ancient calendar. This inherent temporality came to characterize all art forms in Riegl's work; his choice of calendar art as his earliest research topic heralded a career-long interest in the connection between temporality and artistic form. Art objects, he believed, were temporal as well as spatial. Just as the light from constellations reflected a deep history, artworks illuminated the passage of time by visually re-presenting the perceptual world of past eras.

Riegl's work has garnered attention in recent decades among art historians and non–art historians alike. This interest is due in part to the renewed concern for disciplinary origins that art history, like other fields, has experienced in the wake of poststructuralist critiques. Scholars outside of art history have taken note of his work because of its broad scope and relevance for the study of historiography and perception; Riegl's work provides models for linking the analysis of specific artworks with a history of perception, exploring the relationship between monuments and memory, and analyzing the nature of visual modernity. Interest in Riegl also stems from his acknowledged impact on such preeminent philosophers and historical theorists as Erwin Panofsky, Paul Feyerabend, Gilles Deleuze, Fèlix Guattari, and above all Walter [End Page 451] Benjamin.2 Figures as varied as Georg Lukács, Karl Mannheim, Walter Gropius, and Mikhail Bakhtin have cited his work favorably.3 Riegl is perhaps best known for his attempts to dismantle the hierarchy of high and low art, his attack on the preeminence of classical aesthetic ideals, and his effort to construct a universal history of style. The combination of these commitments led him to consider European and non-European craft genres that fell outside conventional definitions of art. In books such as Problems of Style, Late Roman Art Industry, and The Group Portraiture of Holland, Riegl examined the high arts, decorative arts, and manufactured artifacts alike, gleaning insights into the structure of an era's perception from close descriptive analyses of its artwork.4 In Problems of Style, Riegl traced the development of ancient vegetal decorative motifs toward their fulfillment in the naturalized tendrils and acanthus leaves of Greek ornament. A single, universal development encompassed seemingly distinct motivic forms, and creative innovation was driven by an inner formal logic. Similarly, Late Roman Art Industry, the [End Page 452] epoch-making work that Walter Benjamin described as a revolution in art historical method,5 traced the gradual development of space as an object of artistic concern in the late Roman Empire. In this volume, Riegl explored his controversial notion of the Kunstwollen, or artistic will, which asserted art's autonomy on the basis of a formal creative volition internal to artworks.6 Finally, The Group Portraiture of Holland documented the emergence and decline of a "typically Hollandish painting" emphasizing space and attention.7

Riegl scholars have frequently attempted to situate his art history within a variety of philosophical traditions, an effort complicated by Riegl's limited citation of sources. Several scholars have linked Riegl's historical vision with the embattled tradition of Hegelian philosophy. Riegl's teleology; his stress on the unified, internal, and purposive development of art; his notion of art as mind overcoming material; and even his emphasis on the role of the viewer in art all have a distinctly Hegelian resonance. Wolfgang Kemp fits Riegl squarely within a late-nineteenth-century Hegelian revival,8 Michael Podro incorporates him within a Hegelian critical tradition of art history that spanned the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,9 and Michael Ann Holly posits a clear trajectory, linking Kant and Hegel with Riegl and Panofsky.10

Others, however, just as firmly reject this...


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