Can history come to an end? Arthur Danto has written of art entering a “post-historical” phase; he believes that the history of modern art as moving toward a state of abstraction has been fulfilled—indeed, internally exhausted. Since the 1960s, this particular “narrative,” as he calls it, has come to an end, even as the art world continues to exist, even to flourish. Although I don’t like the phrase “post-historical,” I think Danto is right. I had not, however, considered this idea in relation to history understood in its traditional sense as the actions of great men and nation building. But, a few weeks ago, the unnerving thought that this kind of history had come to an end confronted me. My husband and I were standing at the busiest traffic circle in Paris, the Place de L’Etoile, in front of the Arc de Triomphe, which, as I learned from the guidebook that I was reading aloud to him, was the largest triumphal arch in the world (165 feet tall), which meant that it was larger than any of the ancient triumphal arches still standing in Rome that were undoubtedly its inspiration. Reading that Napoleon dreamed of erecting a triumphal arch to the glory of the French army in 1806 following their victory at Austerlitz—a dream that would not be realized until 1836 when the arch was completed two decades after Napoleon’s final defeat and exile—did not surprise me. But I thought our guidebook was off the mark when it described the project as “grandiose” and attributed it to Napoleon’s “megalomania.” Instead, as I told my husband, raising a triumphal arch that would surpass in scale and magnificence the triumphal arches of antiquity was testimony to the hold of the ancients (especially the Romans) on the imagination and aspirations of modern people living before the twentieth century.
more from Rochelle Gurstein at TNR here.