Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 7, 2002
Hubert Locher Kunstgeschichte als historische Theorie der Kunst 1750–1950 Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2000. 524 pp.; 89 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (3770535219)

According to the well-known argument of Hayden White, each historiographical account—no matter how devoted to empirical detail in the tradition of Ranke or to grand systematic schemes in the manner of Hegel—is based on a theory or philosophy regarding its own aims and premises. This argument comes to mind after reading Hubert Locher’s erudite book Kunstgeschichte als historische Theorie der Kunst 1750-1950 (Art History as a Historical Theory of Art 1750-1950). A historiographical achievement in many respects, the book guides us through a host of important contributions to the discourse of art history in the West over a two-century period, from Charles Batteux to Siegfried Gideon (although most examples derive from German-speaking territory). Locher displays a close familiarity with the material, and is conscientiously attentive to art historians’ basic conceptual convictions and respective contexts. With an impressive encyclopedic knowledge, the author is well equipped to compare earlier scholars with later ones, and vice versa. As indicated by the title, the account is basically chronological, if also refreshingly intersected at times by digressions pertaining to the overall argument. And the argument, phrased in terms borrowed from Thomas Kuhn, is that these two hundred years of art-history writing are dominated by a historical paradigm of style.

Beyond this argument—that the history of art, roughly from Winckelmann to the death of Wölfflin, has been coined in terms of some model of stylistic development—is a more general claim: each history of art implies a theory of art. Accordingly, Locher’s segmented history of art history as a theory of art is bound to be governed by its own theory of the history/theory of art, although, unfortunately, the text remains silent on this point.

A short introduction on the “Historical Construction of Totality” is followed by five larger chapters: “Art History as a Science (Wissenschaft) of Art,” “The Art of the Nation,” “The Art of the World – in the Book,” “Art as (a) World Language – Form,” and “Towards the End of the ‘Meta-Narrative.’” Locher begins by pointing out that the critical “judgement of art,” inside and outside academic art history, was conceived in terms of stylistic development from the eighteenth century on, but that this conception shifted after World War II, when “art history as the interpretation of particular works of art” surfaced as the new paradigm. Each of the following chapters, except for the conclusion, deals with a comprehensive theme or “problem history” (Problemgeschichte): nationality, universality, and form(alism).

These themes are referred to as “small narratives,” a paraphrasing reference to Lyotard as well as to the overall argument that a history of style, as a theoretical metanarrative of art, is evident in the discourses on art during this epoch. The small narrative notion is designed to prevent Locher’s book from providing yet another inherently reductive metanarrative on the metanarrative of style, and to facilitate the contextualization of problems within the paradigm that he addresses. It is a little ironic, however, that this book’s sole reference to Foucault occurs when Locher defends the small narrative, which is interpreted as an isolated series or Foucaultian “tableau.” The appropriation and decontextualization of the “series/tableaux” seems a little misplaced, since these terms form such an integrated element of Foucault’s theoretical position, with which Locher’s work has little in common. For instance, the author explicitly disavows the pursuit of epochal “thresholds,” which, along with the detection of mutations, differences, and historical discontinuity, constitute the argument—indeed the "paradigm"—of Foucault’s studies, as he put it in The Archaeology of Knowledge. I am not convinced, in short, that what is here singled out as an astounding continuity deserves the rather monolithic label “history of style” (Stilgeschichte), nor am I sure that the threefold compartmentalization of the narrative, within an “age of the history of style,” escapes the hold of the metanarrative.

The first of the “small narratives” entails the nationalization of the concept of style. Beginning with the seventeenth-century debates about taste—a concept that always was connected to some specific cultural milieu—issues of heritage, cultural identity, and nationality are traced from Winckelmann to the “patriotic” art histories of the early twentieth century. While Locher pinpoints what appears to be an important difference between the antique concept of style employed by Winckelmann (such as “beautiful style”) and the period term used by professional art historians toward the latter part of the nineteenth century (such as “Gothic style”), the conclusion is, nevertheless, that the “basic conception” of the modern concept is already established with Winckelmann. Although the term style certainly remains present throughout this period, what was the “problem” addressed by it? Was Winckelmann’s concept of style absolute or relative, systematic or historical, essentially static (despite its cyclical development) or irrevocably transformative?

Similar questions could be raised concerning the concept of history, dealt with in Chapter 3, which could be construed as undergoing fundamental changes from Winckelmann to the early nineteenth century. The focus of Locher’s investigation is on the genre of universal art history, with interesting visual supplements ranging historically from Séroux d’Agincourt to Malraux. This story is narrated as a product of Hegelian romanticism, which reaches its end in the early twentieth century, when the “whole” of art is said to be disintegrating and is supplanted by a more specific research interest in individual works of art. Not disputing the latter occurrence, I disagree with the conclusion. The “whole of art” is arguably the most deeply rooted conviction underlying traditional art history, and what (still) accounts for its empirical coherency as a field of knowledge. Moreover, discursively produced unity is not due to some specific interest in global art, as opposed to merely national art histories, but part and parcel of the modern, general concept of history as the form of all past, present, and future experience.

Locher’s discussion of universal history and comprehensive handbooks paves the way for his last theme, which is devoted to form. At this point, it becomes evident that his is an evolutionary tale of sorts, regardless of its thematic structure. Is it not even unconsciously Hegelian, in its pursuit of style from narrow nationality to worldwide representation of art in words and pictures to the gradual purification of the grammar of form, ushering in, eventually, abstraction and “theory as art?” On the one hand, style is a cultural derivation in Locher’s narrative, which may seem to tacitly overturn the age-old dichotomy between history of style and history of culture, between the formal and contextual, between intrinsic and extrinsic perspectives, and so on. And yet, on the other hand, the dichotomy prevails, as evident in the conclusion, where Locher stresses that the paradigm of style is succeeded by a paradigm of cultural history—which is what allegedly reigns today. It also could be said that each attempt to ground style in the nation or the people is literally to foreground cultural history.

What about the history/theory implied by Locher’s book? It seems that he has composed a cultural history, in a fine humanist tradition, on the figure of style in three different, if partly overlapping, fields. Another option, of course, would have been to undertake a “style history” in tune with historical theories associated with White and Foucault. Given the guiding thesis of this inquiry, I regret the forsaken opportunity to conduct a discourse analysis on the rhetoric of/on style during these centuries. Without too much respect allotted to individual agents (or the cultural history, so to speak, of influences, traditions, and scholarly preferences), while paying more attention to the legitimizing power of style discourse, such a study might have focused more clearly on the differences and disruptions (and their consequences) within this material. This book, in sum, offers lots of new information and introduces new combinations of information, but I am not entirely satisfied with its framework. When the period from 1750 to 1950 is presented as a coherent age, decisive nuances concerning both style and history threaten to fade even farther from our sight. Although the style theme (or “style” style) resurfaces continuously throughout this incredibly heterogeneous era, it does not necessarily reflect a deeper theoretical continuity. However, I hope that my hesitation regarding the frame will not discourage any potential readers, but, rather, direct more attention to the “pictures” within it.

Dan Karlholm
Stockholm University

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