Artibus et Historiae no. 48 (XXIV)

2003, ISSN 0391-9064

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PHILIPP P. FEHL - On Praise in the History of Art and its Fate

Praise is the only possible expression of happiness, gratitude, of appreciation for service rendered to somebody, for a good example given, for showing human feelings. Praise means erecting of a monument - one of the most beautiful functions of art - which unfortunately does not get much recognition nowadays because it is thought that monuments - while praising the object of their glorification (as it is in their very nature), lie. But it is not true. They praise only that what they show, and if they lie or deceive, it is only then, when the object is not beautiful or praiseworthy but merely vain and pert, or simply inhuman.

The history of praise, of the true praise of art, is as old as the Creation itself. "God said, May it be light. And it was light, and God saw that it was good". It took God six days to create the world; he examined it and praised it since it was good. And the angels, on seeing the work started to rejoice, to celebrate their praise of God who created the world so well.

The present article is an attempt to examine the fate of praise in the history of art. The paper consists of two very different episodes, placed in chronological order. One of them is the period when praise in art and in the history of art constituted so to speak the heart of one's experience. This is a
period of history of art based on literary examples, embracing the vast time-span since the Creation, through ancient Greece and Rome of Homers, Ovid and Virgil, Vasari's description of Michelangelo's Last Judgement, up to the nineteenth century.

The other one is the period of the last hundred and twenty years in which the art history had been shaped as an academic discipline and which - because of this very fact - eagerly abstains from praise considered to be unprofessional. In this period reflection on art, its history and the social systems which are expressly praised or rebuked in the works of art, had become certainly much more complicated, even if not necessarily better.

The two styles of studying art are not as easily distinguishable from one another as they seem to be when seen from a chronological perspective. A hundred and twenty years cannot so easily be reduced to a common denominator. The contradictions of praise and censure and the quite often self-praising abstention of value judgements, even the attitude of mind itself, which have existed and still exist simultaneously and often side by side in the same departments in strange, amazement arousing opposites, urge us to be cautious when we feel like speaking of the so-called pre-history of art history and the one surpassing it, real and in fact proper - writing of the history of art.

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