His dissertation was a study of the Jakobskirche in Regensburg , while his habilitation , completed in , addressed medieval calendar manuscripts. In Riegl accepted a curatorial position at the k. His first book, Altorientalische Teppiche Antique oriental carpets , grew out of this experience. In this work Riegl sought to refute the materialist account of the origins of decorative motifs from, for example, the weaving of textiles, a theory that was associated with the followers of Gottfried Semper. Instead, Riegl attempted to describe a continuous and autonomous "history of ornament. Riegl seems to have conceived the Kunstwollen as a historically contingent tendency of an age or a nation that drove stylistic development without respect to mimetic or technological concerns.
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Ottoman İznik pottery The Stilfragen is divided into an introduction, which sets out the purpose of the work, and four chapters, each on a theme in the history of artistic style. The first chapter, "The Geometric Style," argues that geometric ornament originated, not from such technical processes as wickerwork and weaving, but rather from an "immanent artistic drive, alert and restless for action, that human beings possessed long before they invented woven protective coverings for their bodies.
This ornament, he argued, developed from attempts to represent natural forms in two dimensions, which gave rise to the idea of an outline.
After this "invention of line," the cave-dwellers proceeded to arrange lines "according to the principles of rhythm and symmetry. Riegl argued instead that heraldic ornament arose before the invention of mechanical weaving-looms, and stemmed from a desire for symmetry. The third chapter, "The Introduction of Vegetal Ornament and the Development of the Ornamental Tendril," traces an unbroken evolution of vegetal ornament from ancient Egyptian through to late Roman art.
Here Riegl argues that motifs such as the lotus flower , although they may originally have been endowed by the Egyptians with symbolic significance, were adopted by other cultures that "no longer understood their hieratic meaning,"  and thereby became purely decorative. In the most famous section of this chapter, Riegl argued that acanthus ornament was not derived from the acanthus plant , as had been believed since the time of Vitruvius , but was rather a sculptural adaptation of the palmette motif.
It was therefore "a product of pure artistic invention,"  and not of "a simple compulsion to make direct copies of living organisms. The arabesque is understood here as a geometricized version of earlier systems of tendril ornament, thereby establishing a "genetic relationship between the ornamental Islamic tendril and its direct predecessor, the tendril ornament of antiquity.
A view with most serious implications. One of them was that if one viewed art history in this way, absolute aesthetic norms became obsolete and had to be dropped.