The term Kunstwollen [lit. art+will] was popularized by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl and denotes the characteristics and boundaries of an epoch’s aesthetics, as well as the intrinsic creative drive peculiar to it. According to this, each epoch of human development strives for a unique and non-repeatable form of design which cannot be compared to any other period.
This represented a marked departure from the previously dominant model of art history, which approached epochs in a hierarchical manner. For instance, the RenaissanceTM was regarded as a pinnacle of artistic achievement, which implied that the periods before (embryonic) and after (decline) are somehow inferior. This retroactive evaluation fails to acknowledge the lived realities of the artists and dismissed as insignificant their artistic abilities. As the German art historian Wilhelm Wörringer wrote in his work Abstraction and Empathy: “what appears from our standpoint the greatest distortion, must have been, at the time, for its creator the highest beauty and expression of his artistic volition.”
The problem with Kunstwollen is that it treats whole epochs as if they were homogenous and single minded. The easiest way to stretch the idea beyond its load bearing capacity is to apply it to our current times. The new Whitney – that beached glass freighter in meatpacking district? The result of our artistic will. That gallery installation consisting of the overturned contents of a dumpster (we’ve all come across one of these before) – also our artistic will. Really? I, for one, would not like them to stand for our age.
Perhaps the fact that the new Whitney and the overturned dumpster art piece exist is testament to someone’s Kunstwollen. But if it is atomized in this manner, then all the artists, architects, and designers have as an entirety created such a radically heterogenous and irreconcilable world of art that it is useless to begin trying to unify them under an umbrella term like Kunstwollen.
There is a saying in German that goes:
“Kunst (art) comes from Können (ability) not from Wollen (will). What you have there, sir, is Wunst.”
In German, Wunst is a nonsense word, but I think it is high time it be incorporated into the art historical discourse. Wunst is inverted art, stemming not from ability but from will. I think a more accurate description of our age would not be Kunstwollen but Wunstkönnen.