The word decadence has been used in the Western world to mark an evident decline in society, culture and art from some perceived ‘higher’ or better state of being or form. The German historian Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) explained decadence phenomenologically as the final stage of a historical cycle, when the pursuit of material comfort exhausts the creative forces of society; Freud found a prime source of human suffering in ‘the disposition to decay of our bodies’, and others have put forward the concept of decadence to oppose the idea of continuous progress in civilization. The term also indicates the wilful rejection of contemporary social and artistic norms by rebellious individuals or groups seeking to bring attention to themselves or to their causes. Such rejection can be retrogressive; the Arts and Crafts Movement sought to reverse the apparent decline in the arts caused by the Industrial Revolution by going back to the ‘purer’ work of the individual artisan. Decadence can, however, have a positive connotation, pointing to the breakup of an old society or style out of which something new emerges, or to the rejection of a society in order to regenerate it with fresh spiritual values and creative vigour. In its typical application to society, literature and the fine arts, decadence is usually pejorative, implying a negative moral judgement. Such usage marks the hostile response to change, to uncertainty, to the loss of ideals and ultimately to death. This article examines three notable and distinct patterns in art culture that exemplify this emotional response to decay....
(b Hannover, March 30, 1892; d Princeton, NJ, March 14, 1968).
German art historian, active in the USA. He wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.
Panofsky’s doctoral dissertation (1915) was on the relation of Dürer’s theory of art to that in Renaissance Italy; in 1923 he and Fritz Saxl published a study of Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I. In 1926 he became the first professor of art history at the new university of Hamburg, where he was closely involved with Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), the professor of philosophy, and with Saxl and Aby Warburg at the Bibliothek Warburg. Panofsky’s name is often narrowly associated with the search for the subject-matter of paintings through reference to traditional imagery and literature. However, his writing always involved a much more ambitious and coherent mode of critical interpretation: he sought consistently to place individual works of art in relation to what he took to be an underlying aspect of the human situation, the reciprocity between ‘objectivity’—our receptive relation to the external world—and ‘subjectivity’—the constructive activity of our thought....
(b Siauliai, Lithuania, Sept 23, 1904; d New York, March 3, 1996).
American art historian, critic, and teacher of Lithuanian birth. An archetypal Jewish émigré, he arrived in the USA at the age of three. In 1920 he entered Columbia College, New York, where, having concluded that he would never succeed as a practising artist, he studied languages, mathematics, literature, anthropology, philosophy, and art history. He received his BA in art history and philosophy in 1924. His doctoral dissertation, on the early 12th-century cloister and portal of the abbey of St Pierre, Moissac, in south-western France, was accepted by Columbia in 1929. Two years later part of his dissertation was published in the Art Bulletin, from which time Schapiro was widely acknowledged as a scholar of Romanesque sculpture. However, his interests were always more wide-ranging, and from an early age he was committed to the ‘deep connections of art with the totality of culture’. He was equally renowned for his knowledge of 19th- and early 20th-century art, as well as for his friendships with contemporary artists. He was also one of the first art historians influenced by literary criticism, leading to his publication in ...
Rhys W. Williams
(b Aachen, Jan 13, 1881; d Munich, March 29, 1965).
German art historian. He studied art history at Freiburg, Berlin, and Munich, before submitting his doctoral dissertation in Berne in 1907. This thesis, entitled Abstraktion und Einfühlung: Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie, was first published in Neuwied in 1907 as a dissertation. Somewhat unusually, it was recommended to, and reviewed favourably by, the writer Paul Ernst, whose article in Kunst and Künstler swiftly prompted a publication in book form the following year. It is a peculiar feature of Worringer’s reception that his first publication not only established his reputation as a significant art historian, but has seldom been out of print since 1908. That a doctoral thesis should have had such a profound impact, not only for art historians and theorists, but also for generations of creative writers and intellectuals, is almost unprecedented.
Abstraktion und Einfühlung takes as its starting-point Theodor Lipps’s theory of empathy, the notion that the work of art maximizes our capacity for empathy, that beauty derives from our sense of being able to identify with an object. While conceding that a mimetic urge exists in man, drawing on the ideas of Alois Riegl, Worringer denies any necessary connection between mimesis and art: if Egyptian art was highly stylized, he argued, this was not because its artists were incompetent and failed to reproduce external reality accurately, but because Egyptian art answered a radically different psychological need. In mimetic works, he argued, we derive satisfaction from an ‘objectified delight in the self’; the aim of the artist is to maximize our capacity for empathizing with the work. This kind of art springs from a confidence in the world as it is, a satisfaction in its forms, something embodied in Classical and Renaissance art. By contrast, the urge to abstraction, exemplified variously by Egyptian, Byzantine, Gothic, or primitive art, articulates a wholly different response to the universe: it expresses man’s insecurity and seeks to answer transcendental or spiritual needs. Thus in certain historical periods man is confidently assertive and finds satisfaction in ‘objectified delight in the self’, abandoning himself in contemplation of the external world, but in periods of anxiety and uncertainty he seeks to abstract objects from their contingency, transforming them into permanent, absolute, transcendental forms....