Often reading textbooks on Art History, philosophy, or even Music, a great deal of context is given. The work in question has to be situated. It comes from somewhere.
But I get the sense that when the climate of the times is described, the author implicitly suggests that the work wasn’t anything really special, or genius. One can easily trace its origins to the current ideas circulating.
When one presents a work like this, we cease to really see its transforming power. We cease to see it as a work of genius. And, I think, there are geniuses. When one reads a biography of the artist/philosopher in question, the transforming power of the work is almost always raised to a much higher degree because the work in question is seen in detail. When I look at it as one instance of one person’s work, as a sign of the times, I’m not really looking at the work as it was presented in its own context.
I can’t help hear Badiou’s voice in my head: an event is an ontological decision. One of his examples is the French Revolution. Once it is infinitely picked apart, no one can name it as unified event anymore, and if no one can name it as an evental site, it no longer holds any trans-formative power.
In sum, the way one views an artwork is a decision. I can decide to see Schoenberg as a consequence of the steady increase of the use of dissonance. Indeed, he seemed to say as much. But. One hundred years after Schoenberg, people often see his late work as the cut-off of what constitutes good classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, then it ends…). And I can also say: “Ya, he wasn’t so great. You can easily see where he comes from. Sooner or later someone would have done what he did.” Here, (bad?) historical context is used as a weapon against the naming of a revolutionary work.
Be wary of textbooks and biographies that use context. Tracking the influence of a work is a difficult business, even if it is within context. So, “Context”, then, can be used either for the discrediting of a revolutionary work, or it can be used to show just how revolutionary the work really is.