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Daily RC Article 102

Riegl's Concept of Kunstwollen: Unravelling the Artistic Drive in Style Evolution


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According to general opinion the concept of the Kunstwollen or “art drive” stands at the center of Riegl’s thought. What is the origin of this concept?

Its starting point is the recognition of “style,” which took place during the course of the nineteenth century. If one classes them according to their purely external appearance, the diverse works of art can be divided up into differing groups and subgroups of varying size. In general, these groups of artworks form relatively closed spatial and temporal unities. They gather around certain central works which represent the “pure style.” …

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This concept of style as something grasped intuitively and described through highlighting individual stylistic characteristics is by its very nature extremely erratic and uncertain. “The purely empirical depiction of styles by their individual characteristics is not scientific, in the proper sense of the word. It stops with merely outward description.”

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The phenomenon that has been observed is therefore the following. Forms are transformed, their “external character,” their style changes, now the simple question is raised as to what drives this formal change. What is changing at a fundamental level, when the surface style changes? One can thus also phrase the second question as follows: We know the dependent variable factor, namely the style of works of art; what is the variable independent of all others? These two questions are not of equal importance; most immediately we shall give prominence to the second.

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Various answers have been given to this question. One answer, or, more precisely, one apparent answer, that of [Semperians], is that purpose, material, and techniques change, and that these are the determinants of style. There is an intellectual factor in addition which can be ignored (and this is a mistake) because it is secondary. If one then asks further what these three variables depend on, one comes to the result that since blind chance is not admitted the independent variable is the material culture: crass materialism! There is no need at all to develop this point of view through to its final consequences. For it is clear that according to this answer, style means something quite different from what it meant in our question, and that our question only has the appearance of having been answered... In terms of our concept of style, forms that have been executed with different materials and techniques and for different purposes can remain unchanged. This solution is thus useless for us.

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Riegl himself offered an opposing answer. The independent variable is the “direction of the Kunstwollen” to use the rough general expression. The purpose, the material and the technique also change, but they are negative factors, mere “frictional coefficients,” which have to be subtracted in order to recognize the pure “direction of the art drive” that is the positive determining factor. In any case, two of them are partly dependent on the direction of the art drive, which also determine the choice of material and technique.

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Here we have arrived at the concept and theory of the art drive on the basis of questions raised by the concrete praxis of scholarly research. The concept is introduced to clarify the quite concrete phenomenon of style. The theory of the art drive is a “new explanation of style.”

The article delves into Riegl's concept of Kunstwollen or "art drive," stemming from the recognition of style in the 19th century. Riegl aimed to understand what drives the transformation of forms and style in artworks, considering purpose, material, and technique as elements that change but are secondary. He proposed that the independent variable behind stylistic change is the "direction of the art drive," viewing purpose, material, and technique as negative factors that need deduction to identify the pure art drive's positive influence on stylistic evolution. This concept was conceived to explain the phenomenon of style in a new light.
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