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8. Rachel Esner - Epilogue. On the Necessity of a Transnational Approach to the History of Nineteenth-Century Art

Following in the footsteps of Annemieke Hoogenboom in her introduction to this collection of conference papers, I would like to begin this epilogue with 1990. Like her, I also attended the Deutscher Kunsthistorikertag in Berlin that year, and like her as well, I also found the atmosphere both strange and exciting. On the one hand, a new era in the practice of art history seemed to be opening up; on the other, the gap between East and West, not only in terms of knowledge but more importantly in terms of methodology, was suddenly made painfully obvious. Whereas in the West more and more scholars were beginning to embrace the idea of an international nineteenth century, our colleagues in the East seemed most anxious to recuperate their national art and art history from the clutches of Communism. Which way was the discipline going to go? We had no idea then that within a few years globalization and the Internet would change everything, but I for one was convinced that the future lay not only in a new interdisciplinarity, but, more importantly, that a transnational approach – in particular to the history of nineteenth-century art – was the wave of the future. I had only recently begun research for my dissertation on the reception of German art in France after 1870, and was already discovering – to my total surprise – that, despite the political situation, the French were far more open to German painting than one might expect – albeit for rather specific, indeed nationalistic, reasons. This only added to my conviction that in order to truly understand the nineteenth century, it was necessary to look beyond national borders, to understand nationalism and internationalism as two sides of the same coin, and, in particular, to develop new methods that would allow us to understand the art created in this period in all its complexity and probable hybridity. And, of course, I was not alone: in the years that followed, many other art historians began to look at this seminal period from this new point of view, a trend that has continued until today, although perhaps not with the strength that one might have hoped. 

In the meantime, however, much of the optimism of the early 1990s has vanished. In recent years, globalization, rather than abolishing nationalism, has led to a political and intellectual backlash. In the Netherlands, this resulted in a call to revive the country’s “norms and values”, with one of the means chosen being the establishment of a “national canon” of history. This extraordinary inward-turning found its most extreme expression in the elections of 2010, where the enormous popularity of Geert Wilders and his PVV led to the formation of a cabinet that relied on the party’s support for its majority. More recently, both Wilders and the current Liberal prime minister have set their sights on Europe; their anti-EU rhetoric – which, in principle, is nothing more than thinly disguised nationalism – while not as virulent as that directed at immigrants, may have far-reaching consequences, not only on the political and social front, but on the academic one as well. The neo-liberal, economic instrumentalization of the university is in full swing and in this “brave new world”, in which success is measured in contributions to the nation’s wealth – the so-called “knowledge economy” – chauvinism threatens to rear its ugly head as well. For what use, for example, is research that relativizes the achievements of the past; that reveals webs of relations between artists of different backgrounds; that seeks out common currents rather than “national genius”? 

The combination of the intellectual recueillement represented by the idea of an overarching and fixed national canon and the desire to yoke research to economic efficacy strikes me as particularly threatening. Fortunately, we can still offer resistance. A transnational approach to art, history and culture, such as that taken in this collection of essays, shows that even in the century of the nation-state, there was no such thing as an “unadulterated” form of artistic production, just as there was (and is) no such thing as an “unadulterated” volk. By looking at the nineteenth century in this way, we can demonstrate the hollowness of contemporary political and cultural rhetoric, which often falls back on what it sees as the “good old days” of national unity and purity. The historical moment demands that this myth be further dismantled. What wasn’t true then can certainly not be true now. 

Judging by the research undertaken by these scholars of the next generation, there is plenty more to learn and plenty more interconnections to be discovered. For the history of Dutch art, the links with France and Germany can certainly continue to be fruitfully explored; the transnational workings of the art market, the international education of artists and the reception of Dutch art abroad are other areas that merit attention, as well as an investigation of the Dutch art world at home in the light of international relations. Such case studies will lead not only to a far more nuanced understanding of the nineteenth century, the supposed century of the nation-state; they also make a contribution to contemporary discourse, and demonstrate the relevance of the humanities to society today. This sounds like a political manifesto, and one might object that academia has no business mixing with politics. It is my firm belief, however, that research is not – and never has been – neutral (even if for centuries it pretended to be so). Let us accept that fact and put our remaining freedom to work, not only for a better understanding of the nineteenth century an sich, but for what this new understanding reveals that can be useful to us today. Let’s call it: engaged art history. In this way, perhaps the promise of 1990 can still be fulfilled. 


Datum laatste wijziging: Feb 22, 2015 07:55 PM