In these pages we celebrate the pageantry of our first-ever graduation as an independent college. The students looked resplendent in their academic gowns, and the teaching staff never more proud of their association with and pride in this grand institution as we gathered by the doors of the Institute and marched to the chapel of Kings College. There we acknowledged the achievement of our students and granted our first honorary degree, a Doctor of Letters, to Professor Hans Belting, arguably Germany’s most influential living art historian and the embodiment of an art historical tradition which lies at the founding of our discipline, more than one hundred and fifty years. It was a very happy time for all of us, and a most fitting way to finish our inaugural year as a college.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Combattants, Dear Jim,
Text of a speech by Honorary Doctor of Letters, Professor Hans Belting

I thank you so much for conferring this unexpected and undeserved honour on me. Everything which has been said about me can be disproved if seen from another, a less congenial point of view, except my age of which I am reminded today in that inescapable way which a birthday imposes on us in our later lifes. The coincidence is accidental but it provides me with two opposite feelings, the one balancing the other.

The real pleasure today however is the company I am enjoying on this occasion. What we do celebrate is graduation and I feel as if I could be again one among you in receiving the first degree or the first in a line in academic life. My sincere congratulations to all of you who today are distinguished for and because of your achievements. There is so much future in this room that I feel confident that art history will pursue its path with new energy and new enthusiasm. From my point of view, you are to be envied for two additional reasons which you may like to consider on this occasion.

The first privilege is your language. English today for the ones who write it as their first language offers an instant ticket for international recognition, because you are read by everybody on the globe. I did not start with such happy premises and even today I have to write all my books twice since I have to rewrite every translation into English. The second privilege is the fact that you are graduating from the Courtauld, which, if I may speak as an outsider, is still the first place of art history in England, both in genealogic terms and in rank. I knew some of the former teachers at this place personally and I held them in greatest esteem.

Besides, England is such an extraordinary environment for young art historians, again for two reasons which do not weigh lightly. It has a shorter history of our field and therefore is protected from worshipping its own accademic past. And, on the other end of the line, England is privileged by its unique cultural heritage and deserves it, since it respects it so beautifully. Speaking as a devoted European, I admire this English virtue of keeping history alive so much. And then the art collections which are rare in the world and of which you will be soon the keepers and the born interpreters. My favoured museum is the National Gallery whose pictures I visited yesterday as if meeting old friends who accompanied me throughout my adult life.

We are at a turning point in art history where what we already know has to be reasserted and retold, while we are at the same time heading for new frontiers as they open first with unexpected faces of contemporary art and equally with the larger context of other than Western areas of art production. Since you are young, you have not to be concerned about this new expansion of the territories of art history which I am describing in my forthcoming book Art History after Modernism due to come out at Chicago in September, a book which is destined to replace my former book on The End of Art History?, meaning the end of old frames of viewing. Don’t start with your self defense too early.

Art is alive, and so is art history. At times I have had my quarrels with colleagues or with methods but there was no moment in my life when I regretted having chosen art history as my field. It allowed me to work on what I loved. Such an exhibition as the one with Henry Moore’s sculptures in the Tate Modern, is proof enough that art has a life which renews itself and mirrors its own history while recreating its energy.

Honorary Doctor of Letters