Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

Giedion’s account of the third space conception transformed the way many people viewed modern architecture and had a profound influence on younger architects. It would be difficult to demonstrate any comparable influence of the later books on the approach to the art and architecture of the past. Since there has been a shift away from formalism to a variety of contextual studies, Giedion’s approach seems old-fashioned. There has been an even greater movement away from what can only be called his “moral” approach (“moral” not in the sense of simple right and wrong but in the sense of establishing the meaning of human life in the context of world history). Art as symbol, in this sense, is no longer a concern for historians or critics. Therefore, this highly distinctive approach remains unfulfilled, whatever respect the books have earned.

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Giedion is, perhaps, the last of the great “critical historians of art,” to use Michael Podro’s words. Heinrich Wolfflin, whose formalist principles dominated art history for the first third of the twentieth century, was Giedion’s teacher. His stronger affiliations, however, were with Alois Riegl, whose almost unreadable books profoundly revolutionized thinking about the history of art by establishing the importance of all made forms—not simply the great monuments—in studying the historical development of artistic styles. In this, Giedion has been a faithful follower, since, in all of his works, he moves easily from the greatest public monuments to modest objects of daily utility, from the Pantheon to simple locks.

Riegl was also a pioneer in an approach to art which is basic to Giedion’s work: the autonomy of the work of art. He not only undertook profoundly sensitive formal analyses but also established art in its formal statement as an autonomous realm of human discourse about the world, one of the fundamental instruments in the development of a distinctive human consciousness.

Giedion’s approach should not be confused with that of Max Dvorak, whose principle Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte (roughly translated, “the history of art as the history of the human spirit”) placed far greater emphasis on identifying the sources of art as expressions of religious and philosophical movements of their time. Nor should Giedion’s theory be confused with the Hegelian catchphrase “art as the expression of the spirit of the age,” which is still, oddly enough, very much alive among lay people thinking about art. His formalism is also not in the least “art for art’s sake,” an expression which implies that form has independent value. For Giedion, the independence of art lies in its character as a statement of basic human principles of living.

For the time being, at least, art historians have moved away from all these positions, concentrating instead on contextual studies of various kinds (Marxist, Freudian, sociological, programmatic, semiotic, and so on), which is why it is not inappropriate to speak of Giedion as the last of an older tradition. His passing out of fashion may account for the fact that, despite the laudatory reviews of his books and his high professional standing, there are very few serious critical discussions of his work.

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