Wilhelm Worringer was one of the most remarkable art historian/cultural theorists of the first half of the twentieth century. While he was a significant, if unintentional influence, on movements like Expressionism and different strains of abstraction, he seems to rarely be read at this point, while more dubious parasites on his work (such as Benjamin) have been glorified beyond reason. Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1907) was a key text for T.E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis and his lesser known book on Egyptian art is remarkably consonant with much of what Lewis was arguing about art in the 20s and 30s. A student of Simmel, Worringer managed to be one of the best sociologists of modernity by not writing about modernity at all.
Egyptian Art (1928) was written as a polemic against what Worringer regarded as a false idea of Egyptian profundity, one accorded to them by a “glorification of the abstruse.” (27) He pinpoints an irony in the fact that what Europeans glorified in the Ancient Egyptians often seems formally comparable to that which they claim to despise about America (judging by the inclusion of Canadian examples, he means the northern continent in general). (x) His project then was to de-romaticize and de-heroicize the Egyptians, whose ancient civilization have been distorted through their late ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘degenerate’ phase after they had been infected by Hellenistic and Roman society and eroticized in their exotic qualities. False eroticism is coupled with false religiosity. If the Egyptians have a reputation for spiritual profundity this is due to the “fascinating power of the senseless. Nothing has a more profound effect than paradox.” (15) This paradox is the simultaneity of high material culture with a senseless ideal one. (16) The confusion of this resulted in immense fantasies for hidden or secret depths beyond the stereotypes and fancies, fantasies that are unattuned to the fact that “the heart-beat is audible only under pathological conditions.” (18) (more…)