“‘Coefficients of friction’ of function, raw material and technique…”

A quote from Edgar Wind’s essay on how Aby Warburg’s library aims to “cater” for problems generated by art history. The piece was written in the 1930’s and addresses the legacy of Riegl and Wölfflin, but—for me—it’s the point right at the end that caught my attention, Wind naturally applying an engineering concept to the interplay of forces necessary for the production of cultural objects.

If we consider the works of Alois Riegl and of Heinrich Wölfflin … we see that, despite differences in detail, they are both informed by a polemical concern for the autonomy of art history, by a desire to break it free from the history of civilization and thus to break with the tradition associate with the name of Jacob Burckhardt. I will try briefly to summarize the forces behind this struggle and their consequences for the methodology of the subject.

3. The antithesis of form and matter thus finds its logical counterpart in the theory of an autonomous development of art, which views the entire process exclusively in terms of form, assuming the latter to be the constant factor at every stage of history, irrespective of differences both of technical production and of expression. This has both positive and negative consequences: it involves treating the various genres of art as parallel with each other—for, as far as the development of form is concerned, no one genre should be any less important than another; it also involves levelling out the differences between them—for no one genre can tell us anything that is not already contained in the others. In this way we attain, not a history of art, which traces the origin and fate of monuments as bearers of siginificant form, but, as in Riegl, a history of the autonomous formal impulse (Kunstwollen), which isolates the element of form from that of meaning, but nevertheless presents change in form in terms of a dialectical development in time—an exact counterpart of Wölfflin’s history of vision (Of course, this conceptual scheme is quite different from Wölfflin’s. There is no simple division of form and content, but a complex relationship of dynamic interaction between a conscious and autonomous ‘formal impulse’ and the ‘coefficients of friction’ of function, raw material, and technique.…)*

  • Wind, Edgar (1930). ‘Warburg’s Concept of Kunstwissenschaft and its Meaning for Aesthetics’ from The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Hamisi Art (1983). Oxford: OUP.
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