04 December 2015

Translation: Freestyle. The Racist Face of Art History

This article by Roger-Pol Droit was originally published in Le Monde on November 26, 2015 in French.

The Barbarian Invasions. A Genealogy of Art History, by Eric Michaud, Gallimard, « NRF Essais », 304 p., 23 €.

What is the relationship between the arrival of the barbarians in the Roman Empire and contemporary aesthetic theories? At first glance, none. If there were a connection, it would be vague, marginal, not vital. Wrong! In fact, there is a profound relationship of great consequence. For better or worse, art history, in its birth as in its development, has many lasting connections with “the spirit of peoples,” racial classifications and anti-Semitism. In a constitutive, not accidental, way. These affirmations can surprise, even shock. When we read the exceptional work of Eric Michaud, they reveal themselves as not just intelligible but enlightening.

Let’s go back. The classical version of the Roman downfall can be summarized as the dismantlement of a civilized world by successive waves of unsophisticated hoards, more or less wild, from the North and East. Slow corrosion, long decline. But this lack of organization wound up conquering its knowledge, art, the Pax Romana and prosperity. Rich and refined centuries were succeeded by dark times and famines. Order gave way to chaos. In all areas, a dreadful regression had struck Europe for a long time. In a nutshell, what the classics were describing.

In the 19th century, the axes of this story were reversed. The barbarians had brought new blood to a gasping society. Therefore, they did not destroy it, but on the contrary, regenerated it. Without them, the sterility of Classicism would not have been broken, Gothic inventiveness and its impassioned genius would not have emerged. This new life is conceived as a indissociable cultural and racial mutation: the ordered tepidity of the Latin races gave way to the vital strength of the Germanic races. This “astounding Romantic inversion, which was aesthetic, political, racial and religious, all at the same time,” according to Eric Michaud constitutes “the real matrix of art history as a discipline.” He demonstrates this persuasively with an unusual level of erudition in the course of an essay that leads from one surprise to another.

Insidious Presence 

With abundant detail and references, this director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences brings to light the inclusion of art history in the great myths of the 19th century, such as the clash of Aryans and Semites or the Indo-Germanic invasions as civilization bearers, respectively studied by Maurice Olender and Jean-Paul Demoule. Still, his most astonishing contribution is his demonstration of the persistence, up to today, of ethnicism in art, of its insidious and morbid presence even there where we do not see it. 

“Honor to savage values,” proclaimed always Jean Dubuffet in 1951, while Andre Breton in 1955 saw a vital resistance to the “Greco-Latin contagion” in the art of the Gauls. Since then, we have not stopped celebrating native arts (African, Inuit, Aborigine, etc.) as signs of an authentic spirit of peoples. In essence, art history is less concerned with forms, individual creators, artistic ruptures and schools than with ethnicities. Less politely: It was born racist and it remains that way. The best-intentioned progressives, defenders of first peoples, are therefore, unwittingly, in a shaky position. There's something to talk about.  

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