Are the humanities and arts the same stream?

Diethard Herles
Art history class
as a contribution
to political education?

Lecture held at the 3rd KPT of the BDK Rhineland-
Pfalz 2009 at the University of Landau on June 27, 2009

In the middle of the year (2009) French and Italian art historians wrote a “Florentine Appeal” on the occasion of a Florentine conference on art-historical education in schools. This requires the inclusion or strengthening of art history in the school curricula in all member states of the European Union. This in all grades; in Germany from elementary school to high school. At least one lesson per week should be used for this. The board of the Association of German Art Historians strongly supported this European initiative and passed the appeal on to political decision-makers. (
The “Florentine Appeal” leaves open whether art history should be set up as a separate subject in schools, or how it should be integrated into art lessons in this country and strengthened there. It is justified by pointing out that art history lessons in particular are able to create an awareness of the common heritage of all Europeans and thus contribute to building a common Europe. Art history lessons are understood as the best introduction to the intellectual and civilization history of the continent and the fruitful exchange with non-European cultures.
If we take a look at the history of art didactic discourse in our country, it becomes clear that the status and role of art history has been assessed quite differently. It was about the relationship between artistic production and art reception and in this context also about the perspective from which historical works of art might have to be viewed. At one time art was the medium through which education was to be provided, at another time it was the goal itself, towards which education should be pursued, or it was also more or less questioned as a lesson content because the social relevance of fine arts in relation to everyday aesthetic phenomena seemed to be lacking. It was and is ultimately about a justification of the preoccupation with the history of the visual arts. No less a person than Ernst Gombrich, an art scholar of high standing, felt it was urgent, with a view to art lessons, to gain distance and to ask what we actually want from art.
The “Florentine Appeal” is a current occasion to envision educational answers to this.
We all know that our subject, visual arts, had and has to justify itself in the past as well as in the present; that, as it hardly seems necessary for any other school subject, we deal with rhetoric of justification and justification. I understand it when colleagues oppose this and point out that the undoubted importance of art and the artistic as an essential element of human culture is sufficient to justify our subject, so it would have to be unnecessary to provide art lessons with educational effects beyond the subject of “art " to justify. On the other hand - other subjects in the education system for which the state is responsible are also based not only on the relevance of their subject, but also on the associated key qualifications: Classical philologists, for example, encounter the statement that the ability to translate Latin texts no longer has any functional value for today's people Finding that the Latin language in general develops a deeper understanding of language. Mathematicians encounter the hint that at least higher mathematics is beyond what we need in general life contexts with the fact that mathematics trains logical thinking. With the objection that playing football in the further course of life only has very few pupils' importance, the colleagues from sport refer to the key qualifications “team spirit”, “performance” and “fairness”.
In particular for the practice of art - painting, drawing, sculptural design - we cannot claim any practical life necessity per se. It is easier for others: Those who cannot read and write actually have a problem and will not be able to get into high social positions. Likewise, in practical life contexts there is a problem with those who do not master the basic arithmetic operations. Those who, on the other hand, have not developed any artistic skills can easily achieve social prestige and become the director of an important art historical collection themselves.
The question of what the content that we offer the education system leads to is asked whether we like it or not. In relation to the area of ​​art history in the context of art lessons, the formulations of the “Florentine Appeal” can be significant. Because goals and aspects related to specific content are mutually dependent. If the aim is to use the history of the visual arts to understand the spirit that has united Europe for more than three millennia, formal-aesthetic considerations fall short. Art history should be treated primarily as an intellectual and social history. The appeal closes with the argument that art history lessons taught everywhere in Europe are a gesture that the community owes to the future of Europe and to future generations. This is associated with high standards. The didactics, the ways of looking at things must match the intentions.
Years ago there were two common and very different advertising posters for Bavarian state museums. "Art opens your eyes" was read on one, while the other referred to the museums as "treasuries". In one case it was claimed that art encounters lead to special experiences and insights and in the other case the value of the exhibits was pointed out, which suggests admiration as an appropriate viewer attitude. The question of what art opens the eyes to remains strangely unanswered in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is different in scientific collections.
In the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt there was once a text board with which the visitors were informed of the intended educational value of the exhibition at the entrance. It read:
“Dear visitor! When you leave these rooms, you should have understood what the essence of life consists of. ... Such knowledge is not pure specialist knowledge ... it is an educational asset that everyone should be aware of so that they can get to know themselves better as part of this organic world. "
At that time I submitted the text to the former general director of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Erich Steingräber, with the request that he propose a corresponding text for an art history museum (the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) - if possible. Steingräber formulated, among other things, that in art history it can be experienced "that even the greatest individual achievements of European art are part of a historical continuum". This results in a general educational value for the visitors: "The visitor leaves the famous houses of the Bavarian State Painting Collections not only enriched with art experiences, but has also clearly experienced where he comes from as a European." (See: Diethard HERLES: The Museum and Things . Science, presentation, pedagogy. Frankfurt / New York 1996)
The educational goal meant here as in the “Florentine Appeal” is best described with “historical awareness”. Historical awareness means the constant presence of the knowledge “that man and all the institutions and forms of his coexistence created by him exist in time, that is, have an origin and a future, that they do not represent anything that is stable, unchangeable and without preconditions”. (Th. SCHIEDER: Interest in history and historical awareness today. In: C.J. BURCKHARDT et al .: History between yesterday and tomorrow. Munich 1974, p.78f)
“Education” does not just mean the sum of knowledge. Education is provided by those who act responsibly with their knowledge in a given present and with a view to the future. From this point of view, the question must be asked whether dealing with history / art history is an exclusively backward-looking occupation, or whether this can acquire significance for a future.
The philosopher Ernst Bloch answered the question “Is there a future in the past?” By declaring that the past and the future are inextricably linked. The past can - Bloch formulates this very memorably pictorially - as a current “which flows towards us, flows through our present into the future, receives this different name there and yet the same current has remained” (Ernst BLOCH: There is A radio lecture 1966. In: ders .: Tendenz - Latenz - Utopie. Supplementary volume to the complete edition. Essays and lectures. 1978, p. 297).
If the present is to be grasped from the past, history must not be confused with what has merely been. Works of art can therefore be special occasions for dealing with the past with regard to the present and the future. This describes an educational function - not just a technical one.

I will try the following theses on such a pedagogical function in art history:
- Works of art are a field of practice for approaching the foreign - the foreign understood as mentally, spatially and / or temporally distant.
- By making history and historicity comprehensible for us, works of art promote awareness that the present began in the past, that the past ends in the future and that the future depends on the present. This promotes an important prerequisite for a sense of responsibility, i.e. the awareness of the responsibility of one's own present for future generations.

This says something that Friedrich Schiller already noted in his inaugural lecture as Professor of History in Jena in 1789 as an effect of dealing with history:
"... by spreading (history) before one's eyes the great picture of times and peoples, it will improve the hasty decisions of the moment and the limited judgments of selfishness". (Friedrich SCHILLER: Complete Works. Ed. By Gerhard Fricke and Herbert G. Göpfert, Volume 4. Munich / Vienna 1976, p.765f)
More recent quotes point in the same direction:
"Great works of art are more than just aesthetically pleasing objects, more than just masterpieces of human skill and ingenuity ... The history of art is an essential part of the history of human consciousness in general." (Hugh HONOR / John FLEMMING: Weltgeschichte der Kunst, Munich 1992 , P.15)
At an international congress for art history in Berlin, the then Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker summed up the personality-building and politically relevant importance of preoccupation with the visual arts in its history: "Good art history is an aid against the terrible human vice of prejudice par excellence." (Quoted from: Im Bild. Information from the Professional Association of Visual Artists, State Association of Bavaria. Issue 1/1993, p.4)
The history of the visual arts can gain such quality when viewed as a whole - but also the selected individual work of art. Gunter Otto sees art as an invitation to "abandon conventional patterns of perception and interpretation". (Gunter OTTO: The relationship between function and meaning in works of the fine arts. In: Hans BRÖG: Kunstpädagogik heute. Bd.1. Düsseldorf 1980, P.118)
The art of the 20th century in particular turns art into a field of experience that vividly demonstrates the relativity of concepts. The pluralism of isms was followed by the avowed pluralism of postmodernism. Because art experience is particularly associated with plurality, Wolfgang Welsch describes it as an almost ideal-typical school of plurality, the juxtaposition of different things, as a training ground for tolerance. (Wolfgang WELSCH: On the topicality of aesthetic thinking. In: Kunstform International, vol. 100, 1989, p.145)
European art history presents itself as the result of freedom, individuality, but also ties. Even the extraordinary artistic personality remains a child of their time and is bound by its conditions. Obvious and characteristic features of European art history are its special dynamism, constant change with simultaneous continuity. Every change in the world of images has its requirements. Man's interest in the basic questions of existence, in nature, in his position in society speaks from the images of the past. The images contain ideas, standards of value, interests, the “spirit” of their respective time. The pictorial works of the past are thus not just an opportunity to reflect on past relationships and their conditions; they are especially food for thought and reflection on timeless human problem areas. This is where they gain their educational significance.