Thursday, September 13, 2012


Richard Brilliant, Dale Kinney (ed.), Reuse Value: Spolia and Appropriation in Art and Architecture from Constantine to Sherrie Levine. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. 268. ISBN 9781409424222. $119.95.

Reviewed by William J. Diebold, Reed College (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Readers of the BMCR will be familiar with volumes that emerge from a conference and comprise diverse, very loosely related, narrowly focused studies on a small aspect of a capacious subject. While many of the individual articles in such collections are of high quality and interest, the books tend to be uneven in achievement and, especially, coherence, with the essays lacking a sustained relationship to each other and many (unfortunately) having only a tenuous relationship to the topic announced in the volume's title. Reuse Value is very much an exception here—the book is highly readable, consistent in quality and attention to its subject, and extremely stimulating.

The reasons for this are several. First, one can assume a strong editorial hand, likely a result of the scholarly seniority of the book's editors, the distinguished art historians Richard Brilliant and Dale Kinney. (Indeed, the scholarly achievement of the contributors of this volume is remarkable; all but one is at least a full professor and many are emeriti. Not that seniority correlates perfectly with quality; one of the best articles in the collection is by the one junior faculty contributor, Mrinalini Rajagopalan, while one of the weakest is by an emeritus professor.) Another reason the collection is so strong as a whole is that the topic is simultaneously focused and broad. Art- historical interest in spoliation is as old as Western art history itself. Vasari's use of the reused reliefs on the Arch of Constantine to illustrate his theory of the fall (and subsequent rise) of the course of art meant that, from its beginning, art history was concerned with spoliation and its significance. Given this historiography, it is not surprising that several of the contributions focus on late antiquity (esp. Liverani, Brandenburg, and Greenhalgh). But the essays in the volume are not restricted to that period or even to the art of the West. Of special note here are the articles on contemporary art and architecture (Meier and Kuspit), on India (Flood and Rajagopalan, both treating the Qutb Mosque in Delhi, but from very different perspectives), and on the era of high modernism (Wharton).

This range of topics could have led to an intellectual Babel. This did not happen, in large part because almost every author provides a sustained discussion of the methodological implications of his or her article. The core group of papers grew out of a colloquium held in 2006 at the Clark Art Institute on the topic "The Mirror of Spolia: Premodern Practice and Postmodern Theory"; true to its name, there actually seems to have been substantive discussion among the participants at this colloquium, discussion that apparently shaped the papers so that they speak well to each other. This universal attention to method could easily have led to repetition. The relationship between spoliation and the postmodern interest in appropriation indicates that this volume is tapping into the Zeitgeist and thus a series of methodological musings by scholars, many of them of similar training and age, might have been more or less banal reflections of our age's spirit. But this is not the case; the authors take very different positions on, for example, the question of whether spoliation has ideological meaning. Liverani, author of an important earlier article on late antique spoliation with the provocative title "Reimpiego senza ideologia," not surprisingly is skeptical about the complex meanings often ascribed to the use of spolia. He is joined here by Esch, Brandenburg, and, especially, Greenhalgh. More open to an ideological reading of spoliation are American-based scholars such as Flood and Kinney. There is also disagreement among the authors as to whether postmodernism is a good thing, a bad thing, or more or less irrelevant.

One of the volume's great strengths is the awareness it shows of the relationship of historical and contemporary concerns. As Kinney notes, "Relatively few studies of spolia draw on the language and concepts of postmodern theory, and even fewer critics of contemporary art and architecture are aware of the historical precedent of spolia" (1). That seems to me exactly right. The rise of postmodernism has made it theoretically possible to break down traditional lines between the practice of art and the academic discipline of art history; this collection puts that worthy goal into practice. Especially for people who teach in environments where students of art and art history are working together (e.g., liberal arts colleges or many art schools), this kind of volume, which shows that modern practices of appropriation have a historical precedent (and perhaps a model), is exceptionally welcome. And what is good for our students is also good for ourselves. Kinney is right that too few art historians are aware of developments of contemporary art, just as too few contemporary critics are aware of the full range of art-historical tradition. Reuse Value shows why such broadening of attention can be valuable as a methodological foundation for more narrowly focused scholarship.

The range of methodological positions in the essays, and the clarity with which they are expressed, means that any individual reader will read some with head-nodding sympathy (for me, Flood, Kinney, and especially Rajagopalan's meticulously detailed reconstruction of a complicated historical situation), some with interest but skepticism about the value of the particular approach to the case chosen (in my instance, Liverani's strict application of literary semiotics to late antique spoliation or Wharton's attempts to talk about relics in respect to the Chicago Tribune Tower), and some with annoyance. In the last category I found Greenhalgh's radical positivism too restrictive. For him, late antique and medieval spoliation can be assigned an ideological meaning only if a text exists that also expresses the patron's ideological intentions in employing spolia. This failure to treat material evidence as probative and the belief that meaning exists only with the maker, and not also with the viewer, seems to me to be out of step with much of the best scholarly work have in the humanities over the last 50 years. Similarly restrictive are Brandenburg's flat claims that attempts to find a meaning in the arrangement of the Hadrianic tondi on the Arch of Constantine "are certainly misguided" (59) or, of the reused columns in Old St Peter's, that "There is no room . . . for an ideological explanation of their use" (61). How can he know? The proof would seem to be in the pudding of reasoned arguments to the contrary, rather than in preemptive blanket denials of what are real historical possibilities. Brandenburg makes a real contribution when he argues convincingly that many cases of what is too casually called late antique spoliation actually involve the use of older materials that had been stored in imperial warehouses, rather than the reuse of carvings ripped from existing monuments. This is a helpful corrective to the common view of late antiquity. But to then use this evidence to reject flatly the claim that there was a late antique aesthetic of variatio that guided the choice of which marbles to reuse seems to me needlessly to favor a monolithic explanation over a more complex (and, to my mind, more convincing) view of historical causation. Ockham's razor is a guide to interpretation, but so, too, is Freudian overdetermination. Kuspit's rant against postmodernism also had me scratching my head. But precisely this kind of reaction in this reader is all to the volume's credit. The essays do not speak with one voice. As a result, each essay (or the volume as a whole) would be useful in stimulating thinking, both for scholars, but also very much for students in the classroom, both graduate and undergraduate. And about how many books that derive from the proceedings of conferences can one say that?

This methodological diversity of course means that the volume does not have a sustained argument. The subtitles of Reuse Value and the conference from which it arose "Premodern Practice and Postmodern Theory") both suggest that postmodernism and earlier practices of spoliation are related. According to the editors, the colloquium was intended "to probe the apparent parallels between the use of spolia in premodern art and architecture and the various modes of appropriation theorized and practiced in modern and contemporary art." But they confess that "final agreement on the nature and the validity of these parallels eluded us" (xv). The positive interest in spoliation among contemporary art historians (a recent development, as Kinney notes) indicates that the discipline, not surprisingly, has its collective finger on the pulse of the Zeitgeist. I would have appreciated more attention to the history of this interest (Kinney's paper on the medieval reuse of ancient gems is the only one that really engages with modern historiography on this issue). Whatever the precise intellectual relationship of this volume to post- modernism, many of the authors do not approve of contemporary developments in the arts and thought. I have already mentioned Kuspit's ill-tempered attack on postmodern appropriation art, which he characterizes with terms such as "decadence," "loss of creative imagination," and "submission—capitulation—to tradition" (238). Kuspit is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but it has now been over a century since Riegl and W├Âlfflin showed the values of an analytical, as opposed to an evaluative, history of art. Kuspit's sentiments here mirror both the locus classicus of spoliation studies, Vasari's account of the Arch of Constantine, and, rather more unfortunately, some of Vasari's more recent epigones. Bernard Berenson's 1954 The Arch of Constantine or The Decline of Form makes its argument clear in its subtitle. The irony, of course, is that Berenson's condemnation of the Arch as an uncreative and inartistic product of an era in which artists "scratch and chip and daub and smear with a vague urge, perhaps, but no pattern in their minds" was explicitly connected to his dislike of what is for Kuspit the sine qua non of artistic achievement, twentieth-century high modernism: as Berenson writes of his characterization of the Arch, "I confess that I am describing what in my view has been happening to our arts in the last thirty years or so."1 Nor is Kuspit alone in Reuse Value in lambasting postmodernism. Hans-Rudolf Meier is very critical (in my judgment, rightly so) of most examples of the rather superficial use of fragments of older building in contemporary architecture. And Richard Brilliant ends the volume with what strikes me as a far too melancholic note of regret: "In an environment convinced of the value of the make-believe, considerations of appropriation, of the routes of reference thereby engendered, seem less and less important, as the historical layering of the past fuses into the horizontal stratum of the ever-present" (254). This volume seems exceptionally strong evidence to the contrary.

This review, by an art historian, has tried to indicate how important and exciting a topic is spoliation. But it is surely worth considering the counter-position, implied in several of the essays in the collection that worry about the ideological readings of spolia. Greenhalgh expresses this position most explicitly, writing in response to what another scholar has called "an art historical obsession with spolia," that "it is perhaps significant that neither historians nor archaeologists are overexcited by reuse, surely because they take it as a normal part of medieval building practice encountered on actual excavation sites" (77). This volume goes a long way to showing, however, that this art-historical excitement, even if its origins are disciplinarily determined, is still justified.

Table of Contents

Introduction (Dale Kinney)
On the Reuse of Antiquity: The Perspectives of the Archaeologist and of the Historian (Arnold Esch)
Reading Spolia in Late Antiquity and Contemporary Perception (Paolo Liverani)
The Use of Older Elements in the Architecture of Fourth- and Fifth-Century Rome: A Contribution to the Evaluation of Spolia (Hugo Brandenburg)
Spolia: A Definition in Ruins (Michael Greenhalgh)
Ancient Gems in the Middle Ages: Riches and Ready-mades (Dale Kinney)
Appropriation as Inscription: Making History in the First Friday Mosque of Delhi (Finbarr Barry Flood)
Renaissance Spolia and Renaissance Antiquity (One Neighborhood, Three Cases) (Michael Koortbojian)
Authenticity and Alienation (Richard Brilliant)
The Tribune Tower: Spolia as Despoliation (Annabel J. Wharton)
A Medieval Monument and its Modern Myths of Iconoclasm: The Enduring Contestations over the Qutb Complex in Delhi, India (Mrinalini Rajagopalan)
Spolia in Contemporary Architecture: Searching for Ornament and Place (Hans-Rudolf Meier)
Some Thoughts About the Significance of Postmodern Appropriation Art (Donald Kuspit)
Epilogue: Open Sesame: The Art Treasures of the World on Call (Richard Brilliant)


1.   Bernard Berenson, The Arch of Constantine or The Decline of Form (New York, 1954), 20 and 21.

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