The historic preservation values of Riegl

Riegl distinguishes, in addition to Gegenwartswerten (values of things in the present), such as the actual use value of an object, different historic preservation values as Erinnerungswert (the value of things recalled). He describes especially the preservation of art and history (Riegl 1903, p 144). “According to the generally used definition, a work of art is every touch­able and seeable or hearable work of man that shows a particular artistic value, an object for historic preservation is every such work that possesses historic value”. The historic value is described by Riegl comprehensively: “We call historic everything that once was and today no longer is; accord­ing to the most modern concepts, we can add to this the further opinion that that which once was can never be again and everything that existed forms an irreplaceable and unmovable link in the chain of development” (ibid, p 145). Historic value can, fundamentally, apply to everything: “Ac­cording to modern concepts, every human activity and every human skill of which testimony or tidings have been preserved by us, can, without ex­ception, lay a claim to historic value: every historic event counts for us, in principle, as irreplaceable” (ibid). Because one cannot preserve everything, one should give one’s attention to “especially conspicuous stages in the path of development of a particular branch of human activity” (ibid).

A historic work of art is, then, “an essential link in the developmental path of art history. The ‘historic work of art’ in this sense is actually a monument to art history, its value from this perspective is not ‘artistic value’ but rather ‘historic value’” (ibid, p 146). The result of this is that the distinction between historic works of art and monuments of history is un­founded, as the former is included in the latter. All historic works of art of earlier times or at least all artistic periods must then have the same value. Clearly, however, in addition to an art-historic value a purely artistic value exists that is independent of the place of the work of art in the historic chain of development (ibid).

On the other hand, when considering the artistic value, the status that an object has is relevant: If it is considered to stand the test of time from an aesthetic perspective (however uncertain this basis may be), then the object has an objective status. If, on the other hand, the artistic value is perceived by a contemporary observer, the object’s status is subjective and conse­quently relative – and relates to a modern ambition for art (Kunstwollen)

and to the present. The artistic value is then no longer an Erinnerungswert, but rather a Gegenwartswert, so that therefore there is also no longer any historic value. Then one should, in historic preservation, sensibly only speak of historic monuments (ibid, p 146ff).

The interest in the artifacts of the human past and their historic value has in no way been exhausted. This interest is not directed at the object “in the condition in which it originated,” but rather at “imaginings of the time that has passed since it originated, made manifest in the traces of age.” This value draws its meaning from the fact that it awakens in “modern man the perception of the compulsory cycle of growth and death” (all quotes ibid, p 150). This, to Riegl, is Alterswert (value achieved through the ac­cumulation of age). When historic preservation approaches nature conser­vation through the concept of Alterswert, when it values the process of ag­ing, of death, and of becoming one with nature, when ultimately it values historic objects not as the works of humans, but rather as works of nature (Morsch 1998, p 94), then it is clear that it is not a matter of a conserva – tional nature conservation, but rather a process-oriented one.

The main point, however, is that the distinction between preserving man-made artifacts and preserving nature does not make sense, because not only does the aura of an urban-industrial site emerge from the impres­sion of a union between the two, but also because nature itself has a cul­tural character, in this case, an urban-industrial one (cf. also Huse 1997, p 93). Through a dynamic understanding of historic preservation, Alterswert can play a special role in determining the value of a historic industrial site because the traces of time present in a rotting steel beam or in scarred bun­ker walls become just as clear as those present in the development of a specific spontaneous nature.

Updated: October 13, 2015 — 9:45 pm