Most people would agree that most people learn to be racists. We learn that there are races. As we grow into adults we learn to categorize, put people in boxes then pre-judge them based on the boxes. Then we get better at it as adults. When we bundle people into categories it’s harder for us to get past the generalizations (required to create the category in the first place) to see and appreciate the unique characteristics of the individual. I don’t know that we can ever pretend we do not categorize everything around us but we’d be more empathetic as persons and better as a society if we could get past that enough to appreciate what’s special about every person we encounter.
The Age of Enlightenment had a field day with categories. This was when the encyclopedia was invented, the classifications of flora and fauna were devised with all the Latin names and art history as we know it was birthed. (Some say this is also when the concept of race was invented.) Art history was at first a straight forward enterprise: ascertaining when something was created and who created it. With it came the notion of “periods” to help us keep all the information straight. We got: Ancient Egyptian, Classical Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque, Neo-Classical and so on. The discipline came into its own as an intellectual pursuit on par with philosophy and science in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century especially in Austria and Germany.
The purposes of art history evolved and expanded to include not only who and what but how and why. Intellectuals such as Erwin Panofsky and Aby Warburg introduced us to concepts such as “renaissance and renascenses” (tradition never truly disappears) and the “migration of meaning” (words, symbols and images mean something to one generation and something different to another). Ernst Gombrich was interested in how artists work, how they think and what motivated them to make what they made at various times across history.
Gombrich has written about the benefits of categories and conventions how they are helpful in organizing the world around us and helpful to artists in establishing a foundation upon which to innovate (no artist starts with a completely blank slate). He was also acutely aware and wary of their tendency to stiffen and limit our thinking. He warned against an encyclopedic, rigid knowledge of art history with which we remember categories and periods, facts and dates but fail to appreciate works of art for what they are. He disdained excessive intellectualizing that prevents us from empathizing with a work of art. And he spent a lifetime arguing against the moralizing that came with much of that intellectualizing especially the adoption of Hegelian philosophy by art and architecture historians, critics, theorists and ideologues.
G. W. F. Hegel promoted the term “zeitgeist” or “spirit of the time” which modernists took up as a badge of honor, a battle cry against all of history. Suddenly there were only certain things an architect could or should do to be consistent with the spirit of the times and many things the architect was not allowed to do. (The word migrated into popular language and now means more benignly “fashionable” or “of the moment”). Almost the entire history of art and architecture got subsumed into what we now call traditional (wrong) and modern (right)—with the inevitable reaction: traditional (right) modern (wrong), and counter reaction-- traditional (wrong) and modern (right).
But here’s the thing: when we keep our minds open to everyone and everything, when we empathize with and learn from people, places and times different from ourselves, set our imaginations free even as we stay practical and logical we enter a world that most people would recognize as creativity. When the categories slip away when we stay in the moment then every moment, place and work of art is at our disposal. We enter a woken dream state where there is no right or wrong ideas and images flow freely eventually landing in new and unexpected places with the result that we connect with people and places in ways we might never have imagined before. It’s the way children live pretty much all the time.