The Age of Barbarians

Theobald von Oer (1807-1885) : La Cour des muses de Weimar. – En 1860, 55 ans après la mort de Schiller, cette huile sur toile représente une lecture de ses poèmes dans le parc du château de Tiefurt. Goethe se trouve à droite, parmi les auditeurs.

The Age of Enlightenment is commonly thought to precede the rapid development of history as an academic discipline. An awareness of history and the perceived continuity of peoples and nations caused a rapid evolution in the field of applied arts and architecture. This can be observed in the revival of historical styles in painting as well as the depiction of themes borrowed from ancient history.[1] The imitation of styles (e.g. neo-Classical, neo-Gothic, neo-Byzantine, neo-Renaissance, etc.) and the depiction of historical episodes in paintings, which were popularized by European art academies during the Age of Enlightenment, have been later renounced by modernist critics (Clement Greenberg famously declared that all academic art is kitsch). It is in this light that the concept of Modernism is commonly celebrated as the climax of art history, such that the past is no longer seen as a model or a source of legitimacy for art.

Dr. Annetta Alexandridis’s series of articles in “Plaster Casts in Enlightenment and Colonialist Discourses on Race,” calls attention back to the Enlightenment ideas, as ripples that overturned our understanding of classical antiquity but also distorted eighteenth century racial politics. The articles help in orienting my own research about art academies as sites of aesthetic revolutions that ushered in Greenbergian modernism, in its two-fold approach of presenting a genealogy of scholarship and critique. The remnants of Enlightenment ideas continue to hold sway in both the writing of art history and in the broader political climate in which the discipline now operates. I find parallels in my own investigations of the nude sketch which were eponymously referred to as “academies” in art schools to Alexandridis’s exploration of the Greco-Roman plaster cast. The nude sketch which is pedagogically related to the drawing of plaster casts, reveals colonial misconceptions of racial superiority. It was particularly amusing to read how Pieter Camper’s (1722-1789) study of Winckelmann’s works was taken out of context and used by naturalists of the Enlightenment: “Europeans looked different from ancient Greek statues and that the “antique beauty (. . .) is not in nature, but responded to the rules of optics instead.”[2]

Such trenchant critique exposes how a seemingly neutral educational tool, ubiquitous in fine art academies and archaeology departments, becomes complicit in establishing racial stereotypes. The irony is that these replicas also democratized access to ancient art, while simultaneously establishing a canon of art through “mere exposure,” a term borrowed by Alexandridis from cognitive scientist James Cutting.[3] In Alexandridis’s words, “The impact proved to be particularly powerful in the 18th and 19th centuries when cast collections also served to provide scientific evidence.”[4]

 Another incisive argument that Alexandridis makes is about the perceived mimetic or abstract quality of plaster’s whiteness. European scholars have established the assumption that they embodied only people with white skin even though no man on this planet could ever be as white as plaster. Alexandridis connects such hubris to the acceptance of colonialist logic of “man as such” and that man in his ideal or standard form is ultimately a white person.[5] This point relates to film critic Richard Dyer’s argument that whiteness is an invisible racial position. According to Dyer, “At the level of racial representation, whites are not of a certain race. They are just the human race, a “color” against which other ethnicities are always examined.”[6] I can only imagine the depths to which the critique on plaster casts can be taken by a film scholar for in the same vein, Alexandridis asserts that “the use of casts established the (white) European body as exemplary, whether as pinnacle of humanity, or as default, unmarked model.”[7]

Similar to the aspirations of the Alexandridis’s articles, my own research responds to the call to decolonize the “fine arts”, and examine the realignment of art practice, as well as art history to emancipatory purposes.

Eric Michaud’s paradox that the history of art began with the barbarian invasions serves as a source and model to Alexandridis, and it is a piece of scholarship I find helpful in the formation of my own research. Gleaning from Michaud, it is possible to treat colonial discourses on race as the “barbarity” that made the colonial subject; the subaltern who recognized his participation in history after being exposed to violence rationalized by Enlightenment ideas. In Fanonian terms, the art school became a “subaltern space” where colonial subjects can see their own talent as something worth preserving in the annals of art history which until then only white Westerners were privileged to have as their heritage. The barbarity can inversely mean the figure of the subaltern or the “primitive” itself that ignites cultural and racial comparison, in other words, the historical imagination of the Euro-American hegemon. But how exactly were the canons of Western art history even conceived?

Michaud points to the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (post-enlightenment), when the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth century were thought of as the decisive event in the West’s understanding of its eventual commitment to modernity. According to Michaud, “These invasions were not seen as the catastrophe that plunged Europe into the darkness of the Middle Ages; rather, they were regarded as the healthy way out of a long period of stagnation that could only end in civilizational decline.”[8] Michaud analyzes anthropological preconceptions and fantasies subtending the artistic styles of the 18th and 19th centuries and their long-lasting consequences.[9]

Michaud’s book is not a history of the barbarian invasions, nor is it a description of the main aesthetic features of the art of the barbarians, much less an art history manual that starts during the invasions of the Roman Empire led by the so-called barbarian or Germanic peoples. On the contrary, it is a book about the reception in the West of these phenomena, about how they were perceived and about the way in which the West appropriated that legacy and made it its own, about the ways in which that appropriation generated what today we know as art history.

Michaud takes the emergence of art history as a discipline in Germany in the eighteenth century; i.e. during the “romantic era”, which witnessed wars of national independence globally. In Chapter 4 of the book, Michaud studies the Jew as the new barbarian, the danger that comes from outside, in classical works by Wagner. Michaud demonstrates how anti-Semitism clearly appears in the work of the philosophers and art historians of that time, such as Hegel, Aloïs Riegl, Heinrich Wölfflin, among others. It is racism that reformulates the inaugural model of the history of art, which, as Michaud demonstrates, “was born under the sign of anti-classism, by clearly invoking the barbarian and his arts.”[10]

The originality of Michaud’s thesis resides in establishing a link between the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries and the evolution of modern aesthetics and politics. It is there where the knot that ties aesthetics, politics and racism is created, which will then take on catastrophic proportions in the arc that goes from rationalist modernity to Nazism.

Taking my cue from Michaud and Alexandridis, I see the challenge ahead for my own research to lie in being able to dismantle racist systems of power by first seeking to understand  such systems. The hermeneutic shift presented by Michaud is not only academic but also political: pointing to early modernity as the origin of contemporary racism implies for Europe an even greater work of self-criticism.

Europe is currently at the receiving end of the largest migratory exodus in recent memory. Migrants who do not reproduce the same cultural, political, religious, scientific and gender issues that constitute post-war Europe present a fracture both to continental identity and their art history. This phenomenon reinforces Michaud’s achievement in illustrating how the figure of the barbarian as embodied by the migrant who does not see himself in the Greek profile or the Belvedere torso, looms over the tradition of European racism, which had art history as one of its greatest sources of legitimacy.

Works Cited

Alexandridis, Annetta. “Plaster Casts in Enlightenment and Colonialist Discourses on Race,” in:

Annetta Alexandridis and Lorenz Winkler-Horaček (eds.), Destroy the Copy – Plaster Cast Collections

in the 19th and 20th century: Demolition, Defacement, Disposal in Europe and Beyond (Walter de

Gruyter, 2022), 493-525.

Cutting, James. “Mere Exposure, Reproduction, and the Impressionist Canon,” in Anna Brzyski

(ed.), Partisan Canons (Duke University Press, 2007) 79-94.

Dyer, Richard. White. United Kingdom: Routledge, 1997.

Michaud, Eric. The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art (MIT Press 2019; French
            orig. 2015), 49-93.

Vaisse, Pierre. “Die alten Germanen in der Kunst und in der Kunsthistoriographie im Frankreich des 19. 

Jahrhunderts” In Kulturelles Gedächtnis und interkulturelle Rezeption im europäischen Kontext edited by Eva Dewes and Sandra Duhem, 533-552. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2014.


[1] Vaisse, Pierre. “Die alten Germanen in der Kunst und in der Kunsthistoriographie im Frankreich des 19. Jahrhunderts” In Kulturelles Gedächtnis und interkulturelle Rezeption im europäischen Kontext edited by Eva Dewes and Sandra Duhem, 533-552. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1524/9783050084558.533

[2] Alexandridis, Annetta. “Plaster Casts in Enlightenment and Colonialist Discourses on Race,” in:

Annetta Alexandridis and Lorenz Winkler-Horaček (eds.), Destroy the Copy – Plaster Cast Collections

in the 19th and 20th century: Demolition, Defacement, Disposal in Europe and Beyond (Walter de

Gruyter, 2022), 508.

[3] Ibid., 496

[4] Ibid., 495

[5] Ibid., 496.

[6] Richard Dyer, White, (United Kingdom: Routledge, 1997) 1.

[7] Alexandridis, op cit. 499.

[8] Éric Michaud, The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art (MIT Press 2019; French

orig. 2015), 2.

[9] Ibid., 49-93.

[10] Ibid., 7.