The past--or, more accurately--pastness--is a position.--Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 1995 One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.--Umberto Eco, "An Ars Oblivionalis? Forget It!" 1988 (1) By way of a case study of the changing historiographic fortunes of Albrecht Durer and Matthias Grunewald, this essay reflects on an important assumption underlying the disciplinary activities of art history--the idea of historical distance. (2) The rich literature on that subject in the philosophy of history has prompted this consideration as to whether, and to what extent, the special circumstances of specifically art historical writing demand a different approach to its analysis. Art historical literature offers a number of ways in which the distance between the historical horizon under examination and that of the interpreting historian might be conceived, and these ideas in turn have provided the discipline enduring models of methodological procedure. (3) My purpose here is not to evaluate these paradigms of historical distance but rather to consider their function. What is their nature, what purpose do they serve, and how do they change over time?
The role played by the object that is the focus of art historical speculation cannot be ignored. The aesthetic power of works of art--the fascination of images and their capacity to dominate our response in the present--argues against treating them as if they were simply documents of particular historical horizons. (4) Works of art can appear so immediately accessible that it is often difficult to keep in mind that they are as opaque as any other historical trace. The very appeal of the artifacts we call art, images that seem to enhance and enrich the human condition as aesthetic experience, can blind us to the alienating power of time. Can we think dispassionately about objects that compel a phenomenological reaction? Is not the intensity of our confrontation with the art of the past such that we cannot easily articulate the nature of our relation to it? (5) The present imperative of the objects of art historical fascination, their ineluctable contemporaneity, inevitably shapes the way in which we think about their role in their own historical horizon. This reminder is not to suggest that art historians can do without a concept of distance--far from it--but to propose that every attempt at definition implies our incapacity to stabilize its meaning.
My argument will depend for its force on remembering the historiography of German Renaissance art during the 1930s and 1940s. This chapter in our intellectual history has been obliterated from the consciousness of contemporary art historians because the period is justifiably regarded as an aberration, a reprehensible occasion when the history of art was distorted by ideologues. The use of the German past by the National Socialists, who conflated historical horizons in the interest of nationalist propaganda, is an extreme example of the rejection of an objectifying distance between past and present. As a necessary reaction to the way in which the art of German Renaissance artists, such as Durer and Grunewald, had been identified with the nationalist and racist doctrines of National Socialism, postwar historians emphasized the distance that separated the past from the present. The history of art had to be purged of its relation to the present so as to ensure an "untainted" view of the past. The success of this distancing project often allowed postwar historians to imagine that they were separated from the historical horizons they studied by an absolute and unbridgeable gulf.
The question of historical distance is made more complex in the light of recent work on Durer and Grunewald that reflects the increasingly varied conceptions of historical writing now available to art historians. Whereas the discipline once largely subscribed to a Hegelian notion of history in which something meaningful, the "Spirit," made its way through time according to the teleological logic of "progress," recent contributions to the literature have attempted to escape this model by insisting on the immediacy of phenomenological response. What happens to the idea of historical distance in these circumstances? Is it simply elided and folded into the narrative with the understanding that such an interpretation should be regarded as a manifestation of a particular historical moment?
But I am getting ahead of myself here. Before we delve into the historiography of Durer and Grunewald, I want to frame the argument in terms of the role of memory in historical writing. Changing conceptions of historical distance are related to the function of remembering and forgetting in historical writing. How do we keep the objects of the past at bay, while simultaneously insisting on their contemporary relevance? An insistence on our access to the past is as important a feature of historical writing as an acknowledgment of the impossibility of achieving it, especially if history is to be a cultural medium for enabling the present to come to terms with the past. Like remembering and forgetting, historical writing appears to depend on the paradox of asserting the presence of meaning in the past while simultaneously recognizing that its articulation by the contemporary historian transforms that meaning beyond recognition.
Since the work of Pierre Nora, Patrick Hutton, and others--especially those interested in the history of the Holocaust--the concept of memory has seemed to offer historians a notion more flexible than that of history, yet just as capable of intimating the meaning of the events of the past. (6) Because memory depends on the informality of oral tradition and because it has a continuing life among ordinary people, the living power of memory has been preferred to the dead textuality of history. Memory's capacity to gesture toward the effects of presence that lie outside the normative conventions of historical writing, as well as its power to do justice to a greater diversity of experience account for its fascination for contemporary historians. As Sigmund Freud suggested long ago, memories are themselves recast every time they are called to mind. Memory, like history, cannot escape the effects of the context in which it is rehearsed. Both memory and history can be characterized as acts of will, impositions on the chaos of the past of an order and significance that cannot be found in "reality." Just as the meaning of a text depends on a Derridean "supplement" to convince us of its absent presence, both memories and histories depend on the illusion of being "found" rather than "made" in order to repress the creative role of agency in their construction. (7) Freud's purpose in attacking the Aristotelian theory of memory as the imprint of experience on the mind, of course, was not to claim that experience left no traces but to argue that far from being mechanically summoned to consciousness in its original condition, memory actually transforms experience in the process of re-creating it. Rather than a memory cure--rather than simply enabling the patient to recall the traumas of childhood--psychoanalysis offers the patient a means of making those traumas accessible to consciousness, thus encouraging the formation of narratives that can enable him or her to come to terms with the past. In this manner, traumas can lose their debilitating, indeed, paralyzing, hold on the present. The purpose of remembering is to grant the patient the ability to forget. (8)
Yet memory will not leave us alone. However much we may be cognizant of the vagaries and the incertitudes of its testimony, it continues to afford us a disconcerting awareness that the past is different from the present. In what follows I want to draw an analogy between the haunting role of memory and the function of works of art in the art historical imagination. Like memories, works of art do not leave art historians in peace. Despite our appreciation of the presentness of the task of interpretation and our consciousness of the fleeting validity of even the most persuasive analyses, we persist in trying to grasp what cannot and will not be pinned down. It is, perhaps, the knowledge that something escapes our understanding that makes both memories and works of art so fascinating. How can historians of art ignore objects that are so patently tangible and immediate, so apparently available to our powers of understanding, even when they have proven to be so elusive and distant? The ongoing need to construct historical distance in the face of the impossibility of ever keeping past and present wholly distinct is clearly exemplified in the historiography of German Renaissance art, particularly the writing on the two canonical artists of the period, Albrecht Durer and Matthias Grunewald. The literature on these artists is so immense, however, that it will be sampled rather than systematically reviewed.
The political implications of the following story must not be overlooked. This reflection on the impossibility of achieving the historical distance necessary to distinguish adequately past from present in historical narratives is meant to enhance, not diminish, the importance of the task of the historian. It may be contended that the very excesses of the nationalist historiography I am about to review preclude us from taking it seriously as a form of history and that its sinister agenda guarantees a positivist rather than a relativist approach to the study of the past. In other words, why dignify this unfortunate historiographic episode with serious consideration? In response I will argue that it is our very experience of the political uses of the past that allows us to be aware of not only the role of the present in the construction of the historical narratives of others but also our responsibility for the shapes that we give to...