With the rising interest in art education in this country, these two books have appeared at an opportune time. John Hardy translates several essays by the brilliant art historian Max Dvorák that originally were published in Kunstgeschichteals Geistesgeschichte in 1924. Rémy G. Saisselin refers to Dvorák’s explorations of “Geistes geschichte,” which he defines as “the history of the human spirit.” 

Dvorák was a contemporary of some of Europe’s greatest teachers: Ernst Cassirer, Ulrich von Wilamowitz Moellendorff, Heinrich Wofllin. Dvorák’s pupils in Vienna included Edgar Wind, who later became Panofsky’s first pupil and applied the theory of “Geistesgeschichte” to the study of symbols and images—the type of iconographical research that dominates many graduate departments of art history. 

Iconography, which delves into forces of the imagination at work in a particular culture at a particular time, opposes by its very nature the aesthetic approach to works of art prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th century. Saisselin in The Bourgeois and the Bibelot (bric-a-brac, or what goes on a whatnot) criticizes the aesthetic approach, which he feels contributed to the “bibelotization” of art and architecture as evidenced in such “collectibles” as miniature plastic reproductions of Michelangelo’s David. Although Saisselin focuses on the Old Masters and how the industrial age and the rise of the bourgeoisie may have altered our perceptions of such masterpieces, his arguments pertain directly to the problem of modern art.

The modern reproduction of a masterpiece captures only the form of the work; it brings to the viewer a dim reflection of the expressive power inherent in the original: reproductions reduce the potential dangers and disturbances of original art.

Reproductions also facilitate and, according to Saisselin, encourage the acquisition of artworks to the detriment of a genuine appreciation of art. The danger here, foreseen by Edgar Wind more than two decades ago, is that artists might tend to create objects to fill this acquisitive need—multiples without originals that can be mass produced for mass diffusion. Art created for a mass market, though not invalid per se, can easily become supermarket art.

Art suffers and society is cheated when artists pander to a market of acquirers. Connoisseurs recognize the timeless power of great art and under stand that scholars and artists contribute to the enhancement of cultural values through the study and contemplation of artistic masterpieces. Acquirers reap the publicity of a “world record” price paid for a work of art and then lock their investment away in a bank vault.

In reaction to the bibelot mentality, some artists seem to have embarked on a backlash campaign to create artworks that could never be reproduced. The trouble is that no one would want to try. A recent listing of SoHo galleries in The New Yorker testifies to this phenomenon: thick laminated ply wood gouged with a chain saw and doused with paint (allegedly inspired by Mount St. Helens); massive sculptures “a bit smaller than Stonehenge, but in the same general mood, except that one piece is shaped like a boat”; “an installation containing a flowing stream of water, five swings, and fifteen hundred pounds of talcum powder”; and . . . “Betty Boop’s head on the body of Buddha.” What would John Ruskin have had to say about all this?

Saisselin has provided much worth while material for educators and art historians. But Dvorák’s text in The History of Art As the History of Ideas is richer by far in his analysis of the shortcomings of modern art—which for him meant the art of the 1920’s.

Dvorák repeatedly emphasizes that great art is based in humanity, specifically in humanity that reaches out beyond itself. Dürer, Bruegel, El Greco all responded to inner values that filled their compositions with spiritual meaning. Leonardo even reached out to the future.

Dvorák’s point can be retold in as many different ways as there have been artists on the earth. When the spirit is gone there can no longer be “Geistesgeschichte” and art will be the poorer for it.

(These two books by Dvorák and Saisselin should be read in light of The Eloquence of Symbols, Oxford, 1983—collected essays by Edgar Wind with a provocative biographical memoir by Hugh Lloyd-Jones.) 


[The History of Art As the History of Ideas, by Max Dvorák; Translated by John Hardy; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul]

[The Bourgeois and the Bibelot, by Rémy G. Saisselin; New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press]