The Barbarian Invasions: A Genealogy of the History of Art

The history of art, argues Éric Michaud, begins with the romantic myth of the barbarian invasions. The history of art linked its objects with racial groups—denouncing or praising certain qualities as “Latin” or “Germanic.” The predominance of linear elements was thought to betray a southern origin, and the “painterly” a Germanic or Nordic source. Even today, Michaud points out, it is said that art best embodies the genius of peoples. In the globalized contemporary art market, the ethnic provenance of works—categorized as “African American,” “Latino,” or “Native American”—creates added value. The market displays the same competition of “races” that was present at the foundation of art history as a discipline.

Eric Michaud examines the deep connections between the constructions of art history and the creation of modern nation-states in Europe, which fashioned a nationalistic and racist reception of artistic objects while producing and sustaining a nationalist cult of art.

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