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This page is a part of Jan Michl's design research website
An extended summary of the keynote lecture
presented at the II. Congress of Czech Art Historians in Prague on September 21, 2006
The text of the lecture proper comes at a later date
For the Czech version of the summary, please click here
Culinary history versus cookbook:
Does the discipline of art history
function as an instruction manual?
By JAN MICHL
The lecture was concerned with consequences of teaching history of art, architecture and design to art school students, and the impact this has on their subsequent production as professional artists.
It was addressed above all to colleagues teaching art history to practicing artists.
The author argues that in teaching art history there is no methodological approach that would explicitly take into consideration the difference between an academic and a practicing type of audience - despite the fact that the number of students from the ranks of future artists have probably always exceeded that of the academic audiences. The difference between the two is that, in contrast to the academic audience, the art school students have a natural inclination to regard historical information about the origin of art works as practical hints: a culinary history tends to be perceived as a cookbook. In itself this is not a problem. The difficulty arises when art historians claim, or suggest, that all art objects are results of a necessity, be it a functional, material, construction-related, or ultimately a historical one. History of art understood as a result of historical necessity has thus, probably from the very birth of the discipline in the early 19th century, tended to coerce future artists, architects and designers into thinking that to be of any value, their work has to be a result of "historical necessity" as well. It is as if future cooks were led to believe that cookbook recipes are out, and that dishes can, and should, be made on the basis of books presenting culinary history.
The lecture revolves around the author's belief that, in view of the above fundamental misunderstanding, the history of art, architecture and design should be taught differently to art school students than to the academic audience. As the main task of future artists is to produce new artefacts, the world of art of the past should be presented and discussed above all in terms of choices rather than inevitabilities.
The mainstream art historical fascination with various notions of historical necessity has in the past led, unsurprisingly, to a deficit of interest in the role of human intentions, purposes, aims and wishes. In the traditional histories of the modernist architecture and design, for example, the intention-related aspects of the creative process have usually been replaced by imputing intentions to functions, materials, constructions, or to "the spirit of the time", rather than to human designers. Even today the 20th century interwar and post-war modernist architecture is often interpreted as an expression of such allegedly determining factors - in spite of the fact that modernist architects and designers kept proclaiming their intention to bring about a new, historically authentic architecture of the modern era.
The author argues for abandoning the ingrained notion that the development of society as well as of the arts occurs as a succession of historically necessary epochs (as argued by Hegel, Comte, or Marx), somehow analogically to the pre-determined stages of evolution of a plant or an animal from seed or embryo to a fully-grown individual. As an alternative to this view the author proposes the concept of an open-ended development best known from biology, and postulated most prominently by Charles Darwin, and the modern-day neo-Darwinism, whereby the rise of both functional and aesthetic phenomena in nature is explained as a result of the opportunistic mechanism of natural selection. The Darwinists essentially claim that what in the living nature appears to be an obvious outcome of a premeditated plan, i.e. design, is in fact a result of repeated redesign. The same can be said, in the present author's opinion, of every single man-made artefact, including works of art.
The author believes that only a radical ditching of the notion of historical necessity will make art history classes, addressed to future artists, architects and designers, truly meaningful. Such art history ceases to be a panorama of historically necessary artistic expressions of the past, forbidden for the present day artist to touch. From the perspective of an open-ended development it makes no longer any sense to claim that functions, materials, constructions or "the spirit of the epoch" carry their own, pre-ordained, historically correct solutions. There is no longer any reason for artists to perceive themselves as media, instruments, mediators or midwifes, necessary for bringing about all such allegedly pre-existing solutions. The concept of development rid of the notion of historical necessity also frees artists, designers and architects from the soul-destroying worry about whether their work is in agreement with the allegedly historically necessary development, because such a question has meaning only in relation to the botanical-embryological concept of development as unfolding of the pre-designed. And, perhaps most important of all: from the point of view of the open-ended development the artist is not seen as expressing, but rather as creating the character of his or her time. As a consequence, and in contrast to the notion of necessary development, the open-ended view makes it possible, even imperative, for the artists to feel personal responsibility for the character their works bestow on their own time.
The history of art, architecture and design, liberated from the notion of historical necessity, promises to turn the world of pre-modern works of art into as legitimate and as contemporary a resource for the present day artist, as the modern art of the 20th century, until now the only authorized source of model solutions. For the world of past artistic achievements to become a part of the artist's own present it is not sufficient for the past works of art physically to survive until the present time. If we take key buildings and structures in Prague [Czech Republic], say the Charles Bridge, or the Renaissance Belvedere, or the Baroque Church of St Nicholas at Malá Strana, each of them is physically a part of the present-day reality. Mentally, however, and very much due to the influence of art history classes, we tend to classify them as non-present, keeping them locked up in the mental cupboard labelled "the past". One way of unlocking the cupboard and making these works present in the mental sense as well, is to draw attention to the neglected world of artistic choices, intentions, and conflicts, and to the logic of situations, both with respect to artists, their clients and the public. To bring in this deliberative dimension of the creative process is essential, because in every period artists have had to face the fact that no problem, whether of technical, functional or artistic nature, ever provided only one correct-because-historically-preordained solution.
Online since November 26, 2007.
Minuscule modifications: September 9, 2013.
Several minor word changes, plus additional list of references to related text by the present author: February 11, 2017.
Your comments are welcome: michl.nor[at]gmail.com
See also the author's other related texts:
"On Seeing Design as Redesign" (2002)
"Without a godlike designer - no designerlike God" (2006)
"The modernist idea of architecture, or Please, do not disturb!
(Busy producing art historically correct expressions of the modern epoch.)" (2011)
"Taking Down the Bauhaus Wall" (2014)
"A case against the modernist regime in design education" (2014)
"Towards understanding visual styles as inventions without expiration dates" (2015)
Author's other online texts in English
The author's workplace 2017:
NTNU / Norwegian University of Science and Technology / Gjøvik, Norway