Frederic J. Schwartz: Cathedrals and Shoes: Concepts of Style in Wölfflin and Adorno
(New German Critique – Number 76, 1999 Winter)
The art-historical notion of style is perhaps best captured in Heinrich Wölfflin’s famous postulate that the essence of the Gothic can be seen as easily in the shoes worn at the time as in the greatest cathedral.Wölfflin is best-known today for his famous Principles of Art History [Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, 1915], in which he introduced a priori formal categories that seemed to make the study of visual artifacts a science. The comparison, however, appeared nearly three decades earlier, in the Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture of 1886; it was Wölfflin’s doctoral dissertation, and he scrupulously notes his source for the shoes. At the simplest level, style is the presence of a common formal denominator in the visual production of a period. But if we listen to Wölfflin on the Gothic shoe, we note some quite specific idealist assumptions that inform his early concept of style. First, Wölfflin writes that forms can not be reduced to matters, say, of function, material, or technique (to use some then-current categories derived from the work of Gottfried Semper), but express instead a will that often manifests itself in direct opposition to material contingencies.
But I think we can see best the way fashion haunted style where Wölfflin’s notion of style first appeared, in his discussion of the Gothic shoes. By now, in any case, we should be thoroughly suspicious about Gothic style as Wölfflin wrote about it, visually uniting all of a culture, from shoe to cathedral. Now that style emerges as a construction as much implicated in turn-of-the-century capitalism as in the distant historical past, we might ask just how much spirit there is in Wölfflin’s shoes. If we interrogate Wölfflin’s early text, his scrupulously footnoted dissertation, we get an answer. The answer is that there was probably very little spirit there indeed. Returning to Wölfflin’s source, the Kostümkunde by Hermann Weiss, we can confirm what young art historian writes, that the shoes appeared in the twelfth century. Yet what Wölfflin fails to point out is that, according to the passage he read, they emerged at the end of the twelfth century, and disappeared almost as quickly. Weiss’s characterization of the pointed shoe is in fact quite unambiuous: it was, he wrote, just a strange and passing “fashion”.

William S. Wilson: Reference and Relation