Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 1999
Hans Belting The Germans and Their Art: A Troublesome Relationship Trans Scott Kleager New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 128 pp.; 27 b/w ills. Paper $20.00 (0300076169)

The brevity and informal nature of these essays, first published in German in 1992, should not obscure their density, just as the length and extremely formal nature of Belting’s Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art should not obscure the clarity of its essential argument. That dichotomy—dense, “formless” evocation versus brief, “rational” argument—will be familiar to Belting, since it is one of the manifestations of the “troublesome” relationship between German and Italian art.

The question of the national characteristics of art is important but treacherous, perhaps especially in Germany’s case. Are we to side with Heinrich Wölfflin, who said in 1936 that “the highest principles of art do not coincide with the merely national” (p. 53)? Or is it necessary, finally, to come to terms with what constitutes a nation’s art, despite the fact that modernism “had always seen itself as an international phenomenon” (p. 59)? Especially after two world wars, it has seemed risky for German art historians to take up the centuries-old discussion of the nature of German art. “Occidental” art, European art, or international modernism or postmodernism, have seemed safer—they have, in effect, been refuges from the difficult question of specifically German art. But for Belting, it is time to resume the discussion, as hard as that may be.

This excellent book is too short to be a history of German attitudes to their art (only 100 pages of text, including a 30-page introduction to the English edition!). It is intended specifically to start discussion: Belting remarks in the introduction that he welcomed the publication of his book in English, because the original edition hadn’t had the effect he had wanted. In that spirit, I will list four of the leading ideas Belting attributes to the stalled German conversation on German art, and then try to expand the discussion in ways that may be suitable for the English-speaking public and for art historians who are not specialists in German art. I’ll end with some very brief comments on the position of Belting himself in the history of discussions on German art.

1. One of the most fundamental quandaries for observers of German art is the notion that Germany may not have an indigenous tradition of art at all. Erwin Panofsky put this eloquently in his book on Albrecht Dürer (a book that answered, in an oblique fashion, Wölfflin’s book on Dürer, which was much more confident about Dürer’s Germanness), when he used the metaphor of a fugue to suggest that Germany’s voice is “missing” from the great polyphonic concert that is European visual art. For Panofsky, Dürer epitomized the permanently bifurcated nature of German art, torn between an indigenous tradition it spurned and an alien tradition—in Dürer’s case, the Italian Renaissance—it could not possess. (Then there is the question of whether Germany has an indigenous tradition of specifically visual art, as opposed to its undisputed preeminence in music and poetry. Yet even the music and poetry in question are Romantic, leaving the earlier histories of both arts open to the same questions that plague German visual art.)

2. This initial doubt is entangled with the problem of theory. Dürer went to Italy to learn “secret” theories and complained that young German artists were growing like unpruned trees without the straightening influence of theory. Belting is very good on the German tendency to cushion seeing with theoretical armatures; the tendency can be seen as both a symptom of the anxiety over Germanness and an obstacle in its solution. The discipline of art history, in Belting’s view, has long been complicit in this by producing theories intended to interpret German art for Germans in certain politically motivated fashions.

3. German artists and art historians have often observed a lack of continuity between themselves and their most distant past. The various attempts to root German visual art in ancient practices, from the Ottonian to the Gothic, and even the prehistoric (as in Joseph Beuys), can be interpreted as compensations for the lack of a continuous past that would stretch from the current generation back to the Middle Ages. In effect, German artists and historians have often labored to invent suitable, politically, and psychologically acceptable stories about the German past.

4. Because the Renaissance happened in Italy, German scholars have had to adjust to the idea of a tradition that just missed the crucial moment in the history of their country’s visual art. In that they are hardly alone, but the German reaction has been the most eloquent and arguably the most tortured. German scholars responded to the lack of an (Italian) Renaissance by at least three strategies: claiming they had a Renaissance; devaluing the Renaissance; and seeing its absence as a “catastrophe.” (pp. 44, 46, 48, 53)

These are some of the threads in Belting’s chronicle. Because his book will be read by many people who are not exclusively concerned with German art, I’d like to offer some speculations on the book’s potential significance in the United States. In particular, there are intriguing historiographic similarities between the willful oblivion of some German scholars in regard to national characteristics of German art and the willful optimism of some Western writers in regard to the notion that the international art market is genuinely international, and not significantly American or Western European. While German artists and scholars turn aside from specifically German questions by embracing “European” or “Occidental” qualities, American artists and writers evade questions of nationality by endorsing the idea that art is now uniformly a global phenomenon. Might there not be evasions on both sides?

Belting notes it has often been a “relief” for German scholars to study European or world art instead of German art, and the same may be true for American scholars, if for very different reasons. (p. 36) In my experience, contemporary American critics find it easier to address artworks as if their ethnic origins were only a matter of some very specific references (particular symbols, particular images) rather than more “troublesome” national or ethnic qualities. In the age of studious multiculturalism, it is easier to think of an international avant-garde than to come to terms with the possibility that certain nations may be “behind” or “ahead,” or that their art may pertain largely, if not wholly, to their own concerns.

I’d like to suggest that the “inferiority complex” that the German historian Wilhelm Pinder saw in his German contemporaries also applies (again for different reasons) in American scholarship. For us, it may be manifest in the huge amount of writing devoted to Abstract Expressionism and the Hudson River School, which may be understood as an unwillingness to confront international parallels and affinities: in the case of Abstract Expressionism, there are Soulages, Hartung, and Fautrier; and in the case of the Hudson River School, there are the many 19th-century Realist schools, especially in central Europe. Perhaps if Abstract Expressionism and the Hudson River School were less invested with national meaning, the scholarship might roam more freely. The “lost” Renaissance is a related question. I wonder if there is a country that does not have a vexed relation to the Italian Renaissance. Even in America, where there was never the possibility of having participated in the Renaissance, historians continuously promote artists and movements to “Renaissance status” by claiming their work is formative for the country’s later development.

Once this kind of comparison gets underway (and I think Belting’s book is a perfect catalyst), the parallels proliferate. German scholars have long pondered the fact that they had only one Renaissance artist, as opposed to the constellation of High Renaissance artists in Italy. Dürer was invested with more significance than he could bear; and the same could be said of Abstract Expressionism as a whole. The other potentially American artists in New York in the 1940s—the Hyman Blooms and other figurative painters—have been eclipsed for some of the same reasons that Grünewald was omitted from the German Renaissance canon (that is, precisely because he was too German).

It strikes me these parallels might go a long way toward illuminating characteristics of English-language art history that have gone largely unremarked. I’ll mention just one further possibility. For several decades now, American art history has been importing theoretical methods from France. It is still widely perceived that art history lags behind literary theory, and despite the proliferation of scholarship, there is a lingering anxiety about the question and a failure to address it directly. Might not that anxiety be taken as a parallel case to the recurrent German sense that German writers lack an “interpretive basis” for their own art? (p. 45) Certainly art-historical interpretation answers to peoples’ concerns about their history.

The questions of national identity that Belting conjures so effectively pertain not only to German art and the art of allied nations (there are immediately obvious parallels to Hungary, Poland, Austria, and other European countries) but to the largest, and most invisible, national art of all: American art. The time may be ripe to stop hiding behind the facade of transnational postmodernism, or the so-called “international art scene,” and start coming to terms with the ways in which that scene is a collage of unacknowledged national characteristics. Internationalism and multiculturalism are worthy ideals, but they wither under the strong light of such historical scholarship as Belting’s. The book advocates honesty, historical depth, and self-analysis: qualities that can be brought to bear by readers on this side of the Atlantic as well as in Germany.

I’ll close with some abbreviated remarks about Belting’s own position in relation to the history he tells. Belting’s short book is unique in his unwillingness to take sides, or to posit a nature or a plausible definition of German art. He aims only to chronicle. That entirely admirable aim occasionally, and inevitably, runs up against moments when he does seem to favor something other than open-ended conversation. Several such moments occur in the final pages. At one point he says the transformation of the notion of German art into an “abstract concept that transcended national distinctions” made things simpler for viewers who “would not, or could not, enjoy a work of art for its own sake” (p. 110). The statement sounds odd in contrast to what has come before, because both German art and German art history have been consistently presented as activities that are inseparable from the political, social, and historical ideas that gave rise to them. As Belting knows, every position has its history, and his own, necessarily unwritten here, would make an interesting addendum. Let’s hope he has it in mind for a future project.

James Elkins
E. C. Chadbourne Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago