Home > main > The image before [and after] the era of art

The image before [and after] the era of art

February 7, 2012

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In Likeness and Presence, Art Historian Hans Belting, looks at the role of images in society before the era of art. According to Belting, the era of art begins when Reformation deprived the images from their religious function and the disempowered image, redefined itself in the category of art.

Luther announced that “the kingdom of God is a kingdom of hearing and not of seeing”, and urged his contemporaries to free themselves from the alleged power of images. The image which formerly represented the presence of god, now was emptied from his presence. The Reformation taught the domination of the word, and all images, signs, and symbols were suppressed under the power of the word, and became its servants. In the era of Gutenberg, the word became present everywhere as the tool of rational argument and reason. Intellectuals of the time, no longer trusted the surface appearance of the visual world, and the word became the refuge of the thinking subject. The humanists and the theologians emphasized that the painter can at best represent only their body, but their soul is expressed in words. With the iconoclast’s removal of the images from the churches, texts previously read in books took their place on the altar, and demanded the same kind of veneration. The humanist culture with the mind represented by the word, triumphed over matter and the “outward image.”

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1526), Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528) Engraving

Images, having lost their function in the church, took on a new role in representing art. Not even the Catholic church survived this upheaval of the word and not even there the holy image could escape its “metamorphosis into the work of art.” Belting writes: within the realm of art, images symbolize the new, secularized demands of culture and aesthetic experience. In this way a unified concept of the image was given up, but the loss was obscured by the label “art”, which now was generally applied. A general validity of an image independent of the idea of art became inadequate to the modern mind. Its abolition opened the way to an aesthetic redefinition in terms of the “rules of art.” Art, after becoming a discipline in itself, separated images from their previous functions, and recuperated them into its own narrative. This marked a beginning of art history, which later expanded itself beyond Medieval times (the last era before art) to the caves of Lascaux. It is from then on that a picture is no longer to be understood in the terms of its theme , but as a contribution to the development of art. Furthermore, images were ever since evaluated according to rules of aesthetics, a science that supported and explained the new formed discipline.

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