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Abstract

This essay originated as an editorial for an issue of Perspective devoted to periodization. It traces the critique and dismantling of this conception in art history, and argues that even most recent literature suggests that the problematic of periodization has not been resolved, and will not easily be.
Journal of Art Historiography Number 2 June 2010
Periodization and its discontents*
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann
Not so long ago it could simply be assumed that every art historian knew how to date
and localize a work of art. The discipline carried on according to the principles that
visual appearance was an index of history, and that style marked historical periods in
art (as well as in the work of individual artists). The organization of art history courses
in colleges and universities together with displays in museums necessitated
periodization, or reinforced it. Although disagreement might exist about whether
something was to be called late Renaissance or early Baroque, such debates were often
productive, much as disagreements about attributions could be. New artists, styles, and
even whole types of art were identified; new period concepts, like Mannerism, were
discussed. Concern with the definition and description of periods of art and culture (in
Europe) thus continued through at least the 1970s, as witnessed by the books originating
in the popular series published by Penguin Books that was devoted to ‘style and
civilization’.
Things seem much different now. Many of what used to be considered basic
skills are not universally possessed by art historians, while other competences (for
instance familiarity with relatively recent theoretical tracts, frequently not related to art
or to history) are often taken to be imperative. While questions of or about style may
again, or still, be of interest to some scholars, issues of dating and localization, though
basic to further interpretations, hardly seem to generate much productive debate.
Periodization in particular has encountered many discontents.
Problems were already apparent at least fifty years ago, when E. H. Gombrich
presented a powerful critique of periodization.1
*This article first appeared in French as Malaise dans la périodisation’, Perspective 2008-4 :
Périodisation et histoire de l’art : La Revue de lINHA, 597-601.
In a series of papers published c. 1960
Gombrich spoke of ‘classification and its discontents’, regarding the use of
generalizations as a tool, which was a necessary evil. He evoked the scholastic tag
individuum est ineffabile’, that there is an epistemological need to classify, but proceeded
to dismantle essentialist arguments for periodization. Gombrich also revealed the
origins of concepts like Mannerism in the historiography of art history. He suggested
1 Ernst Gombrich, In search of cultural history. Philip Maurice Deneke lecture, 1967, Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1969; Ernst Gombrich, ‘Norm and Form: The stylistic categories of art history
and their origins in renaissance ideals’, Norm and Form, Studies in the art of the Renaissance,
London/New York: Phaidon, 1971, 81-98; ‘Mannerism: The historiographic background’, Studies
of western art, 2, The Renaissance and Mannerism, (seminar, New York, 1961), reprinted in Ernst
Gombrich, Norm and Form, 99-106.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann Periodization and its discontents
2
that the whole armature of stylistic terminology rested on normative criticism, which
depended upon the fundamental polarity of classic and non-classic. He concluded that
neither this form of criticism nor any morphological description would ever produce a
theory of style, even if one were necessary. Furthermore, Gombrich forcefully argued
against the determinism he saw rooted in the Heglianism which he demonstrated was
endemic to most essays at periodization in art and cultural history.
At about the same time George Kubler presented another formidable challenge
to what he called the classing of things. In The Shape of Time (1962) Kubler offered a
different way to treat objects and their duration in time.2 Among other things, he
proposed conceptions of formal sequences, prime objects and replications, and serial
positions. All of these and much more in Kubler’s far-ranging arguments contradict or
undermine any simple or straightforward notions of periodization. That Kubler himself
may have nevertheless felt the need to employ some such concepts is suggested by his
Art and Architecture in Ancient America, also published in 1962, which still utilized terms
such as “Classic” in dating the arts of various Amerindian peoples.3
Contemporaneously Jan Białostocki’s essay on ‘Das Modusproblem’ (1961)
4 and
Allan Ellenius’s De Arte Pingendi (1960)5
Gombrich and Kubler represent some of the earliest harbingers in English of
disciplinary self-critique conjoined with an approach to questions of method through
historiography. Although it was probably not their intention, this sort of self-critique
propelled many of the newer expressions of scholarship and writing on art and history
in English that began in the early 1970’s (and which were paralleled on the continent by
post-1968 developments). As the discipline awakened from its theoretical somnolence
(at least in English), debates moved on and through questions of the relation of art to
also complicated notions of style and their
relation to history. Though rooted in traditions of humanistic scholarship and
philological methods, as well as having precedents in earlier art historical scholarship,
their approach disrupted clear relationships of style to visual forms, hence to history.
Białostocki specifically considered as problematic notions of style as a ‘Manifestation der
Kultur als Ganzheit’ or ‘sichtbarer Zeichen ihrer Einheit’, posing instead the notion of modes
and their variety. Ellenius’s book also related art theory to the liberal arts and
especially to rhetoric, thus anticipating the fuller reevaluation of the ‘language of art
that has subsequently occurred. In recent interpretations modes, genres, functions,
techniques and materials have been employed to account for formal variation,
contradicting the assumption that periods in the work of an individual artist, much less
of a whole interval of time, can be clearly marked by simple visual relations.
2 George Kubler, The shape of time: remarks on the history of things, New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1962.
3 George Kubler, The art and architecture of ancient America: the Mexican, Maya, and Andean peoples,
Harmondsworth and Baltimore: Penguin, 1962.
4 Jan Białostocki, ‘Das Modusproblem in den bildenden Künsten: zur Vorgeschichte und zum
Nachleben des “Modusbriefes” von Nicolas Poussin’, Cologne: Dumont 1981 (2nd ed.), 12-42.
5 Allan Ellenius, De Arte Pingendi: latin art literature in seventeenth-century Sweden and its
international background, Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksells Boktryckeri, 1960.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann Periodization and its discontents
3
society, culture, race, class, gender, and psyche, and began utilizing a host of concepts,
related to the universe of discourse of poststructuralism, postmodernism, and beyond.
The newer approaches to art history that began to flourish in the 1970’s did not
necessarily diminish a concern with periodization, however. On the contrary: one of the
most admired books of the time, and one that is now sometimes taken as paradigmatic
for art history tout court, Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century
Italy; A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style of 1972, explicitly deals with style in
relation to a ‘period eye’.6 The magnum opus on which Baxandall was working at the
time (The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, 1980) similarly evoked national,
ethnic concepts, speaking about the ‘Deutsch’ or ‘demotic’ characteristics of sculpture
north of the Alps.7
Reasons for discontent with the approach to periodization practiced by even
such a subtle scholar as Baxandall are more than subjective or personal, contrary to what
has sometimes been imputed. Efforts at periodization flatten out the diversity of artistic
phenomena that appear in any particular time by giving them a unified label. Broad
generalizations according to periods do not fully account for the specific characteristics
of any single work of art (or architecture). Such efforts at historical explanation seem all
the more unsatisfactory when notions of “experience” are generalized to refer to an
entire culture, whose features do not however remain constant over time.
While Painting and Experience was variously (and largely positively)
received, it is thus not surprising that Gombrich reportedly heard echoes of Zeitgeist in
Baxandall’s notion of period eye, much as the present author found Volkgeist lurking
amidst the limewood sculptors.
Periodization relies on the historicist assumption that not everything is possible
in all times, but it is also true that not everything is possible in all places. Attempts to
periodize must therefore take into account the dimension of space or place as well as
that of time. As many scholars have argued in the last decades, painting is, for example,
not the same all over fifteenth-century Italy (if that geographical notion itself is valid and
not anachronistic as a framing conception). Fifteenth-century Ferrara, Venice, Milan,
and Naples all have been seen to possess their own distinctive visual cultures, related to
experiences that are different from those encountered in Florence or Umbria.
Moreover, as the study of the history of art has continued to expand throughout
the world, interests as well as practices in the discipline have become increasingly
global. The geographical parameters of art history have thus become ever more evident.
Treating objects or monuments according to categories including periods that are
derived from considerations of western European art is obviously questionable when
they must be related to different sorts of places both within and outside Europe. Forms,
contents, and functions of art in Aztec Mexico, Momoyama Japan, and Renaissance Italy,
are manifestly not the same. Labels such as Renaissance or Baroque do not describe the
same phenomena when they are applied to Central Europe or Latin America and when
6 Michael Baxandall, Painting and experience in the fifteenth century Italy: a primer in the social history
of pictorial style, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.
7 Michael Baxandall, The limewood sculptors of Renaissance Germany, New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1980.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann Periodization and its discontents
4
they are used to accounts for supposedly similar phenomena in Italy, in regard to which
such terms were originally derived.
Several recent books and essays have consequently again come to address the
geography of art.8 They have recognized that geographical factors are involved in
consideration of the definition (literally) of stylistic change, its diffusion, and its inherent
environmental factors. I myself have tried to trace the way such issues have been
handled (or mishandled) in the past, pointed to some basic problems, and called for
renewed attention to be paid to the geography of art.9
Some recent scholars have however gone even farther, and sought for laws and
rules in the geography of art. In place of historical determinism, they posit a kind of
geographical determinism caused by environmental or even neurological forces. But the
geography of art is as much bound by history as is the history of art by geography. It
does not seem necessary to argue for laws and regularities that apply to all places, as
opposed to creating syntheses or offering descriptions and interpretations of places as
they change in history. Moreover, nomothetic approaches, those that posit that the
geography of art is governed by laws, do not seem to date to have supplied any more
valid bases for localization than has the Hegelianism present in most art historical
attempts at periodization.
The geography of art has long
informed and inspired approaches to its history, and it is also implicated in questions of
periodization. For time is inseparable from space, history from geography. These
questions deserve further consideration.
There thus appears to exist little reason to give credence to approaches that
merely seem to echo earlier, questionable theses concerning the geography of art. These
include arguments for the importance of a genius loci, for constants in local or national
visual culture, and for the ethnic qualities of art, many of which have often simply been
taken over without further reflection. Yet all have been rightly discredited in the past,
when they led to catastrophic results.
Does this mean that the ‘chronotopological’ principles of historiography are to be
8 Katarzyna Muraska-Muthesius ed, Borders in art ; revisiting ‘Kunstgeographie’, (seminar, Norwich,
1998), Warsaw: Institute of Art, 2000; John Onians, Atlas of world art, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2004.; Enrico Castelnuovo, ‘La frontiera nella storia dell’arte’; ‘Le Apli, crocevia e punto
d’incontro delle tendenze artistiche nel xv secolo’; ‘Per una storia dinamica delle arti nella regione
alpina nel Medioevo’, La cattedrale tascabile: scritti di Storia dell’arte, Livorno: Sillabe, 2000; Thomas
DaCosta Kaufmann (Ost-)Mitteleuropa als Kunstgeschichtsregion?, Leipzig: Leipziger
Universitätsverlag, 2006; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Elizabeth Pilliod eds, Time and Space: essays
in the geohistory of art, Aldershot and Burlington, Vermont; Ashgate, 2005; Thomas DaCosta
Kaufmann, ‘Der Ostseeraum als Kunstregion: Historiographie, Stand der Forschung, und
Perspektiven künftiger Forschung’, in Martin Krieger, Michael North eds, Land und Meer.
Kultureller Austausch zwischen Westeuropa und dem Ostseeraum in der Frühen Neuzeit,
Cologne/Weimer/Vienna: Böhlau, 2004; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, ‘The geography of art:
historiography, issues, perspectives’, in Kitty Zijlmans, Wilfried van Damme eds, World art
studies: exploring concepts and approaches, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008.
9 Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Towards a geography of art, Chicago/London: University of Chicago
Press, 2004.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann Periodization and its discontents
5
abandoned? So it has been argued in the pages of the Art Bulletin and elsewhere, in an
‘effort to excavate the anachronic underhistory of the work of art’.10 The intention here
is to “challenge enlightened historical models.” But such arguments (which in addition
seem to confuse the complicated processes related to time and memory involved in the
making of the artwork with the historian’s attempt at categorization), like many others
of a supposedly innovative fashion, may also just take over some of the very elements of
a ‘chronologically rationalist approach’, which they decry. For example, while
criticizing previous definitions of the period, they nevertheless remain enmeshed in
concepts of periodization and its perils when they speak of ‘Renaissance anachronism’.
In the end, like other arguments against the Enlightenment they nevertheless retain
some of the more questionable prejudices of that movement: in particular their
arguments often seem to exemplify Voltaire’s witticism that ‘History after all is nothing
but a pack of tricks we play upon the dead’.11
The essays in the present number of Perspective therefore may be regarded as
returning to a vexed problematic, for which there are no easy solutions. Nor is it clear
that they will ever be solved easily. The expansion of art history into a global dimension
(and world art history has been described as the most pressing problem of art history)
further renders it increasingly difficult to offer effective periodizations, and even opens
the question if this is necessary at all. This is suggested by David Summers’s ambitious
recent attempt to trace a grand scheme in Real spaces : World art history and the rise of
western modernism (2003). Summers does not employ period concepts, nor for that
matter much chronological structure.
12
In addition to Kubler, whom Summers explicitly evokes, Gombrich offers other
alternatives, however. Gombrich was one of the first to identify periodization’s
discontents, but his insights extended beyond that critique. While his own theories of
perception, his belief in a canon, and his aesthetic views have all been criticized, his
constructive suggestions for alternative approaches to cultural history have not received
much attention, even though they may prove productive. Instead of periods, Gombrich
suggested speaking of movements. He also proposed alternatives to Historicism in
what he called the ‘logic of vanity fair’.
13
10 Alexander Nagel, Christopher S. Wood, ‘Toward a new model of renaissance anachronism’, Art
Bulletin, 87:3, September 2005, 403-415.
These include attention to the problem
situation in history and art, to competition and inflation in cultural and taste, to
polarizing issues in art, and to the relation of art to technical progress. Whether or not
we follow any or all of his suggestions, Gombrich’s basic insight into the existence of the
“vanity fair” found throughout cultural history has certainly been corroborated by the
11 Voltaire, Lettre à Pierre Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, 1757, reprint in Les œuvres complètes de
Voltaire, 31, Theodore Besterman ed, Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1965, 47, no. 6456.
12 David Summers, Real spaces: World art history and the rise of western modernism, London/New
York: Phaidon, 2003.
13 Ernst Gombrich, ‘Logic of Vanity Fair’, in Paul A. Schlipp, The Philosophy of Karl Popper, La
Salle: Open Court, 1974, 927.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann Periodization and its discontents
6
recent historiography of art history: fashions exist in scholarship as in other aspects of
human life and culture, and they may also be revived.
In the end, this volume demonstrates that in the end, problems of periodization
are far from passé.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann is Frederick Marquand Professor of Art and Archaeology
at Princeton University. He is the author of many books and articles on a wide variety
of topics. His most recent book is Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life
Painting, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 2009 (published in 2010).
His current work concerns issues of global exchange in art and world art history.
Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann
Department of Art and Archaeology
313 McCormick Hall
Princeton University
kaufmann@Princeton.EDU
... Each period may last from years to decades, and encompass diverse styles. It is 'an instrument in ordering the historical objects as a continuous system in time and space' [1], and it has been the topic of much debate among art historians [2]. In this paper, we leverage the success of data generative models such as generative adversarial networks (GANs) [3] to learn the distinct features of widely agreed upon art movements, tracing and predicting their evolution over time. ...
... As it can be seen in figure 1, we are thus able to evaluate one hypothesis about what movement we find ourselves in at present, namely Post-Minimalism, by comparing the 'future' art we generate with our method to Post-Minimalist art (which was not part of our training set) and other recent movements. 2 We consider the following setting: each observed image x i has a cluster label k i ∈ {1, …, K} and resides in an image space X, where we assume that X is a mixture of unknown distributions f (1) X , . . . , f (K) X . ...
... These images estimate 'future' paintings. 2 As the real paintings from recent movements are copyrighted, they cannot be shown here. For visual comparison, see https://github. ...
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... Each movement and period may last from years to decades, and encompass diverse styles. It is "an instrument in ordering the historical objects as a continuous system in time and space" [Schapiro, 1970], and it has been the topic of much debate among art historians [Kaufmann, 2010]. In this paper, we leverage the success of data generative models such as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) [Goodfellow et al., 2014] to learn the distinct features of widely agreed upon art movements, tracing and predicting their evolution over time. ...
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Conditional Generative Adversarial Networks (CGANs) are a recent and popular method for generating samples from a probability distribution conditioned on latent information. The latent information often comes in the form of a discrete label from a small set. We propose a novel method for training CGANs which allows us to condition on a sequence of continuous latent distributions $f^{(1)}, \ldots, f^{(K)}$. This training allows CGANs to generate samples from a sequence of distributions. We apply our method to paintings from a sequence of artistic movements, where each movement is considered to be its own distribution. Exploiting the temporal aspect of the data, a vector autoregressive (VAR) model is fitted to the means of the latent distributions that we learn, and used for one-step-ahead forecasting, to predict the latent distribution of a future art movement $f^{{(K+1)}}$. Realisations from this distribution can be used by the CGAN to generate "future" paintings. In experiments, this novel methodology generates accurate predictions of the evolution of art. The training set consists of a large dataset of past paintings. While there is no agreement on exactly what current art period we find ourselves in, we test on plausible candidate sets of present art, and show that the mean distance to our predictions is small.
... (p. 749) Furthermore, as Kaufmann (2010) wrote, place cannot be ignored: 'Periodization relies on the historicist assumption that not everything is possible in all times, but it is also true that not everything is possible in all places' (p. 3). ...
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La frontiera nella storia dell'arte'; 'Le Apli, crocevia e punto d'incontro delle tendenze artistiche nel xv secolo'; 'Per una storia dinamica delle arti nella regione alpina nel Medioevo', La cattedrale tascabile: scritti di Storia dell'arte Time and Space: essays in the geohistory of art
Warsaw: Institute of Art, 2000; John Onians, Atlas of world art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.; Enrico Castelnuovo, 'La frontiera nella storia dell'arte'; 'Le Apli, crocevia e punto d'incontro delle tendenze artistiche nel xv secolo'; 'Per una storia dinamica delle arti nella regione alpina nel Medioevo', La cattedrale tascabile: scritti di Storia dell'arte, Livorno: Sillabe, 2000; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (Ost-)Mitteleuropa als Kunstgeschichtsregion?, Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2006; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Elizabeth Pilliod eds, Time and Space: essays in the geohistory of art, Aldershot and Burlington, Vermont; Ashgate, 2005; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, 'Der Ostseeraum als Kunstregion: Historiographie, Stand der Forschung, und Perspektiven künftiger Forschung', in Martin Krieger, Michael North eds, Land und Meer.
La frontiera nella storia dell'arte'; 'Le Apli, crocevia e punto d'incontro delle tendenze artistiche nel xv secolo'; 'Per una storia dinamica delle arti nella regione alpina nel Medioevo', La cattedrale tascabile: scritti di Storia dell'arte
  • Press
Press, 2004.; Enrico Castelnuovo, 'La frontiera nella storia dell'arte'; 'Le Apli, crocevia e punto d'incontro delle tendenze artistiche nel xv secolo'; 'Per una storia dinamica delle arti nella regione alpina nel Medioevo', La cattedrale tascabile: scritti di Storia dell'arte, Livorno: Sillabe, 2000; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann (Ost-)Mitteleuropa als Kunstgeschichtsregion?, Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2006;
Der Ostseeraum als Kunstregion: Historiographie, Stand der Forschung, und Perspektiven künftiger Forschung
  • Ashgate
Ashgate, 2005; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, 'Der Ostseeraum als Kunstregion: Historiographie, Stand der Forschung, und Perspektiven künftiger Forschung', in Martin Krieger, Michael North eds, Land und Meer. Kultureller Austausch zwischen Westeuropa und dem Ostseeraum in der Frühen Neuzeit, Cologne/Weimer/Vienna: Böhlau, 2004; Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, 'The geography of art: historiography, issues, perspectives', in Kitty Zijlmans, Wilfried van Damme eds, World art studies: exploring concepts and approaches, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008.