Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Notes on Twee #16


(For the record, I agree with pretty much all the criticisms here.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 9

The end of the essay is in sight! I was beginning to think I was going to be transcribing and paraphrasing Panofsky until well into 2009.

Everything in the study of art, then, is “directed towards understanding Kunstwollen,” the will or volition to make art — not simply will in the individual sense, but the collective will which is a historical product of all previous art history. “For this reason, not only should art theory have an interest in the continuing development of factual research (without which its concepts, to use Kantian terminology, would be empty), but empirical research on factual matters should have an interest in the prejudice-free development of art theory (without which its observations would be blind); and in the end both have to come together to work collaboratively, ideally within the same person.” (Here is confirmation of my two-hat theory.) In spite of the complicated conceptual torsions of Panofsky’s argument, the practical consequences of his contribution to this debate with Dorner are really quite simple: history needs theory, theory needs history, the ideal scholar of art will be adept in both.

He illustrates this thesis with reference to his predecessors Winckelmann and Rumohr, both of whom made use of a system of theoretical concepts as well as undertaking specific empirical research. They and others laid the groundwork for the discipline, and even those contemporary historians who eschew theory are working, whether they know it or not, with his forebears’ previously constructed concepts: “The art historian of today, who does not always need to develop his concepts himself, frequently avoids all such theoretical constructions; yet does this not mean that he can avoid their results consciously or unconsciously? [I feel as though the translation may have malfunctioned here; surely this is a rhetorical question, and should read “does this mean” for “does this not mean.”] And even today the approaches and conceptual constructions of the most empiricist art history are governed by art-theoretical thinking” (66).

This is why we need explicit methodology: to remind the empiricists that they’re already using somebody else’s concepts, constructed for a somewhat different use, that can always be reformulated and improved upon; and to remind the theorists that their proper role is to adjust their concepts to the needs of current empirical research. “It would be comfortable and certainly spare all methodological discussion from the start if art theory and art history really had nothing in common. Alas, in truth they rely on each other reciprocally,” Panofsky says, presenting the situation as a fait accompli that is only in need of being recognized and addressed. Furthermore, “this reciprocity is not a coincidence but the necessary result of the fact the work of art — like all productions of the creative mind — has the double characteristic of being determined by temporal and spatial circumstances on the one hand and on the other of forming a solution, conceptually timeless and absolute, of a priori constituted problems — of generating itself in the flow of historical making and yet reaching into the sphere of hyperhistorical validity” (67).

Once again, at the risk of deforming Panofsky’s thought a little, I’m going to use Bourdieu (as I understand him) to make better sense of this. Like the “field,” which PB claims has a twofold existence — subjectively in reality, and objectively in the minds of those who participate in it — for EP the work of art is both a historical object, determined in all sorts of ways by its position in time and space, and a trans- or hyperhistorical solution to a conceptual problem. This is a more logically rigorous version of the familiar expression that a work of art is “timeless”: in one sense it isn’t, and in another it certainly is; Panofsky’s claim is that the solution to the fundamental problems, qua solution, would still be satisfying even if it were possible to experience it completely de-worlded, outside of all historical space and time. But we never do see it this way, and even the most painstaking, philosophically impeccable art history or criticism won’t get us all the way to seeing a work as pure solution. We’ll always see it with the residue of history on it, the practical, historical, time- and space-determined marks of its creation.

Good art history can help, though, to convince us that a particular, specific, historically determined work is a solution to a fundamental artistic problem, even if we can’t completely see it that way. It has to make a claim that the work of art really has a dual existence. (In order to resist the transcendental, quasi-supernatural interpretation of these remarks, I’m going to read this as EP saying that art history can convince us that people — many people: the artist and the work’s original audience, but also its subsequent audiences and, potentially, us today — have given it this existence in their minds.) “Therefore an artistic phenomenon, if its to be fully understood in its uniqueness, makes a twofold claim,” Panofsky states: “on the one hand to be understood in its determination, that is, to be put within the historical context of cause and effect; and on the other hand to be understood in its absolutism, that is, to be lifted out of the historical context of cause and effect and, beyond all historical relativity, to be understood as a time- and spaceless solution of time- and spaceless problems.” Art history will then be about objectifying objects in such a way that they are not idealized (i.e., we realize that they are historical products; empirical research) while also convincing us of their subjective existence and value. A tricky business indeed, as Erwin himself admits. “In this lies the peculiar problem of all research in the humanities but also its peculiar appeal; ‘two weaknesses,’ Leonardo once said in relation to the architectural arch, ‘together form a strength’” (67).
I’m going to finish (except for that excursus on Dorner!) as Panofsky does, with three theses, which at this point are familiar enough not to need comment:

1. Art theory develops a system of fundamental concepts and, subordinately to these, a system of specialist concepts whose task is to formulate artistic problems, problems that let themselves fall into fundamental and individual problems and that can be deduced wholly from one unique ur-problem.

2. Art history as a pure science of things describes the sensible qualities of works of art by means of suggestive and demonstrative concepts and establishes the style in its external sense as an aggregate of stylistic criteria by means of interpretive/characterizing concepts. This purely morphological and stylistic operation has, consciously or subconsciously, to navigate according to those artistic problems that only art theory and not art history itself is capable of understanding and providing the concepts for.

3. Art history as a discipline of interpretation aiming to understand Kunstwollen is the result of a deep interconnection of art theory with purely empirical art history and must be constructed itself from the results of both. It demonstrates the relations between the sensible qualities of artworks and the artistic problems that are assumed by art history as a pure science of things, doing so explicitly and systematically and thus focusing no longer on a historical reality but on the relation between the formulation of a problem and its solution, which finds its expression in a historical reality.

In the relation of certain complexes of manifestation to certain fundamental and individual artistic problems, art history as a discipline of interpretation formulates certain principles of design. When it relates the entirety of complexes of manifestation to the artistic ur-problem, that is, to one underlying stylistic principle that bridges all the individual principles of design, then art history grasps Kunstwollen.

That pretty much covers it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Definition of pessimism

For many decades American poetry has been a private activity, written by few people and read by few people, lacking the language, rhythm, emotion, and thought that could move large numbers of people in large public settings.

George Packer on why poetry doesn't matter. Give the woman a chance!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 8

(Here’s another picture of Wolfgang, in a nice Christmas sweater.)

We are now getting to the "science" part promised by Panofsky's subtitle ("Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art"): “Insofar as art history as a pure science of things wants to understand the style of a work of art in stylistic analyses and even in pictorial descriptions it must assume a basis in the fundamental and individual artistic problems. Therefore the fundamental and individual art-theoretical problems are assumed to be already established, even in cases where the practicing scholar could not give an account of these problems and concepts themselves and might even deny their existence.” In other words, the fundamental conceptual problems are what the empirical, practicing scholar is responding to in the work of art, whether she knows it or not. In this respect, it’s like natural science: one geologist who looks at a rock with a certain set of concepts and another geologist who has another set are looking at the same rock, with the same properties, they’re just describing it differently.

“But as art history is only a pure science of things up to the point where it navigates on the basis of the problems as ascertained art theoretically and not when it reflects on them. In instances when this should happen, when the results of art-theoretical investigation do not govern the choice of observation and the construction of concepts within research from the outside but rather directly infiltrate art-historical thinking, art history would move from denoting and interpreting a set of facts in the material world to denoting and interpreting an abstract relation between the formulation of a problem and its solution. At this point art history would cease to be a pure science of things and a restricted historical discipline and would change into what might be described as a transcendental art-theoretical discipline or, more modestly and perhaps more accurately, as a fully interpretive enterprise” (63)

The distinction here is not between a good and a bad kind of art history (which, for Panofsky, would be an art history with and an art history without theoretical guidance, respectively). It’s between two modes of the good kind of art history: on the one hand, empirical observation informed by theory, which EP calls a “pure science of things”; and on the other, a kind of metadiscourse undertaken by theorists (or by the researcher wearing her theorist hat) which, while staying with the object, shuffles the middle-range (not the fundamental) concepts around, and is thus “fully interpretive.” (Interesting how Panofsky makes the big Kantian claim — to be “transcendental,” to be trafficking in the realm of pure metaphysical ideas rather than physical objects — and then backs away from it at once. Lorenz and Elsner, in their introduction, note that this essay is heavily Kantian in a way that Panofsky’s later, American work is not. So maybe that’s what’s going on here.)

This latter, interpretive theorizing is what Panofsky wants to have the right to do, but he, crucially, doesn’t think that everyone should have the right to do it.

“Researchers need not accept this change of states as long as they are content with a solely stylistic morphology, but they must be ready for it the moment they want to move from an understanding of stylistic symptoms (of style in its external sense) to an understanding of the stylistic nature of art — that is, an understanding of style in the internal sense or Kunstwollen” (63). Staying in the first mode, then, of the “pure science of things,” researchers can do plenty of things with artworks: they can do the kind of morphology, for instance, that was getting underway in Russia around that time and culminated in the work of Vladimir Propp (and is currently being revived by Franco Moretti): they can see what looks like what, and how a certain form might transform into another. But, invoking a comparison with medicine, Panofsky insists that these forms are only “symptoms.” (Among the many, many tempting detours I’m avoiding going down here is this pre-Lacanian/Althusserian/Žižekian use of “symptom.” Partly because I’m not convinced that I’d ever come back.) They are the outward signs of the will to make art, the Kunstwollen, but no matter how closely we examine them we aren’t going to fully understand why or how the artist did what she did.

“Because the principles of design in a work of art are nothing other than the artist’s comments, executed in this way or that, on the fundamental and individual artistic problems and because the underlying stylistic principle is nothing but the artist’s comment, executed in this way or that, on the artistic ur-problem, the principles of design and the underlying stylistic principle itself can only be understood if the understanding is based on an explicit confrontation with the problems” (63-64). So this is a funny kind of biographical criticism: one that wants to know what the artist thinks she’s doing, her intention, but that also views everything she does as nothing more than “comments” on pre-existing artistic problems, both fundamental (haptic vs. optic) and individual (how do I differentiate this column from the wall, or whatever). (“Comment” is a very weird word; I wonder what the German is.) But Panofsky’s opponent here is not Romantic, producer-centered theories of artistic creation (as Barthes’ and Foucault’s would later be) but hardcore empiricist art historians who think all one needs to do is collect objects and describe them: his point is you need to know the basic problems, which have been answered (or “commented on”) throughout art history, in order to know what the artist thinks she’s doing.

“Therefore art history as a pure science of things, because it only navigates according to the artistic problems but does not reflect on them, is capable of understanding stylistic criteria and their aggregates but not principles of design and their unity.” This is clear enough: art history without theory (or even a-h that excepts fundamental theoretical concepts, but doesn’t work with a theorist to refine and relate the second-order concepts to research findings) can draw up “criteria,” say what counts as art based on all previous known examples, but they can’t get a handle on the “principles of design” that determine artworks (principles which exist in the minds of artists). (Cf. Wittgenstein/Austin/Cavell on criteria. Or don’t.)

“This deeper understanding is reserved only for that form of study that is familiar with those problems that art history in the strict sense only assumes as known and that, by reflecting on them with the help of an art-theoretically constructed fundamental and specialist conceptual system, is capable of systematically dissecting the relations between the formulation of a problem and the solution of a problem.” The repeated key word here is “reflection,” an activity that follows upon fundamental theory and practical empirical research and reconciles them. (It seems to me that Panofsky owes more of a description of what reflection would actually look like, aside from some super-smart theorist ringing changes on a data set. But maybe it can be reconstructed from an account of his actual practice. I guess this would be a good first place to look.)

Then Panofsky does some algebra — which I hope I will be forgiven for leaving out because I don’t think it’ll make things any clearer (at least, for me) — the gist of which is: “In this way and only in this way can scientific study grasp style in its internal sense or Kunstwollen, which can be understood neither as the sum of sensible qualities nor as an aggregate of stylistic criteria but exclusively as unity within and above the principles of design, which not only requires a tacit relation to the results of art theory but a direct collaboration” (64-65). Collaboration between research and theory alone has a hope of getting a handle on Kunstwollen — that is, achieving a rough scholarly approximation of what it’s actually like to make art. (Value judgment mine.)

Panofsky’s final move, in section B, is a really interesting, ambitious one. It’s one that opens up the heretofore uncharted territory of comparativism, or the relation of the findings of art historical research (once it has passed through the refining process of theoretical reflection) to other disciplines within the faculty of the humanities: “If this Kunstwollen can reveal the immanent sense of the manifestation in question then there is no barrier to comparing this sense as articulated in visual-artistic phenomena with the sense of musical, poetic, and even extra-artistic phenomena. Absolutely all philosophical and religious doctrines as well as juridical statues and linguistic systems must be understood as solutions of philosophical, religious, juridical, and linguistic problems.” After having carefully limited himself to the discipline of art history throughout, Panofsky is all of a sudden advocating the application of his “fundamental problem” approach to the humanities as a whole. But even this is not all. “This is why all humanities disciplines are related to a science of art. Just as a science of art attests that within a certain artistic manifestation all artistic problems are solved in one and the same way, so the humanities in general can attempt to show that within a certain culture (which must itself be determined as regards epoch, region, and the persons involved) all intellectual problems, including the artistic, are solved in one and the same sense.”

Wait a second… “all intellectual problems … are solved in one and the same sense”? What would that even mean, practically? Also, how are we to define “a certain culture” — where does one stop and the next begin? (Cf. Wittgenstein on towns and concepts, or don’t.) It seems as though Panofsky’s made a quick turn from neo-Kantian to way way Hegelian, from Kunstwollen to Kulturwollen, a jump that seems to make EP himself a little nervous — witness the very tentative end of the paragraph: “Though one cannot ignore the dangers inherent in the practical application of this process of comparison, today perhaps practiced all too often (the will to unveil analogies can easily lead to interpreting the phenomenon in question in capricious and even brutal ways), one cannot deny on purely theoretical grounds that it is undoubtedly possible and justifiable” (65). I think he’s almost definitely gesturing at Marxism here, and perhaps other hasty totalizations of the social world — but here Panofsky seems to think that the risk of such theoretical abuses is a small price to pay for the promise of such a grand rationale for the humanities.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The World Reviewed

So far in December: a review of Mishima, and brief comments on Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and Sid and Nancy.

I also saw Wendy and Lucy, which was sort of like a remake of this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 7

(I’ve already run through all the pictures of Panofsky Sr. to be found on the internet apparently, so here’s one of his son Wolfgang, who is a renowned physicist in his own right.)

So Panofsky holds that empirical researchers use two orders of concepts — sensible and suggestive/demonstrative — in their practice, but that these exist on a different layer than the fundamental theoretical concepts he himself formulates:

To repeat, one has to differentiate between two layers within the standard art-historical concepts: a superficial layer of solely suggestive or demonstrative concepts, which only define and describe the sensible qualities of artworks, and a deeper layer of concepts that actually characterize style, which interpret those sensible qualities along the lines of stylistic criteria in that they interpret certain complexes of sensible qualities as the manifestation of principles of design and those principles of design as the differentiation of a uniform stylistic principle. (60)

Both of these kinds of concepts, remember ("sensible" and "suggestive/demonstrative/[first-order] stylistic") are still pragmatically generated art-historical concepts, and not properly theoretical concepts of the kind that Panofsky wants to propose and perfect.

But what gives this guy Panofsky, and art theorists more generally, the right to impose their more "fundamental" concepts on researchers? “Now, it is worth asking what grants art history the right to operate interpretatively in this way, as any interpretation, if it is not simply capricious, demands the existence of solid and legitimized standards of definition to which objects of interpretation can be related” (60-61). (Note Panofsky’s neo-Kantian concern with “right,” with justification, grounding and legitimation — the kind of questions Habermas revives in the 60s and 70s.) “The answer, which should perhaps now be obvious, is the imperative of those artistic problems formulated in the fundamental concepts of art theory. Those fundamental problems [i.e. haptic vs. optic etc.] represent the standards of legitimation to which the sensible qualities of artworks can be related. These problems help observation navigate while collating the sensible qualities within certain complexes of manifestation and interpret them according to stylistic criteria. Only by being oriented towards them do we have the ability to conduct successfully this enterprise of collating and interpreting” (61)

So the point of fundamental theoretical concepts is to “orient” empirical research: this is what differentiates Panofsky’s position from that of scientific positivism, which would be mere, pure data collection, without the necessary second step of “collating and interpreting.” This helps us arrive at a practical definition of what the critic/theorist actually does, in relation to what the historian/researcher does: she does “stylistic characterization,” as opposed to a “sensible classification.” (By the way, I don’t think Panofsky thinks these necessarily have to be different people, or that one can’t move from gathering and classifying data to interpreting and characterizing it; but he does think you can only wear one hat at a time.)

This act of “characterization” is pretty close to what Kant called “judgment” (?). It means not just description of the artwork, however exhaustive, but an assessment of whether it is satisfying, which Panofsky reformulates as a question about whether it solves fundamental problems:

The stylistic characterization “within this work of art lies one of the fundamental artistic problems — or even all the fundamental artistic problems — which have been solved in this or that sense.” We only get to this point after first recording a complex of manifestations (for example, the extremely “textural” mode of surface characterization or the extremely unifying mode of color design), with the help of demonstrative concepts (doughiness or the addition of grey in all local colors) and then by interpreting this “texturality” or unity through the prism of the fundamental problems. Only by this process can the observation of sensible qualities … reach the sphere of problems that actually characterizes style and whose specific task is to relate the sensible qualities of works of art to artistic problems. (61)

For Panofsky, understanding of art, when it’s done correctly, is a process: the theorist/critic looks at what the historian/researcher has gathered, and at what she has already observed about it (with those pragmatic “suggestive or demonstrative concepts” that emerge out of the research experience), and goes on to relate it to the fundamental problems, to what is agreed to already exist within the sphere of art history. And this entails saying how this particular work has “solved” one or all of the fundamental artistic problems. (There may be a direct line of descent from this neo-Kantian definition of the critic to the self-understanding of a Clement Greenberg, or after him a Michael Fried.)

This brings us back to the distinction suggested earlier between characterization and classification: “Only from this perspective is it clear why the double precondition of stylistic characterization — that in certain sensibly perceivable complexes of manifestation an artistic principle of design become apparent and that the principles of design themselves to be governed by a single underlying stylistic principle — actually exists in its own right. Only if we can take these complexes of manifestation as solutions to artistic problems can we understand them as the manifestations of principles of design, that is, as testimonies for a certain position on fundamental and individual artistic problems. Only if we can detect within these fundamental and individual problems the shaping of a single ur-problem can we grasp a single stylistic principle in operation within and above all principles of design, that is, a certain position on these ur-problems” (61-62) (I’ll leave it for now, but I’m uncomfortable with this talk of “ur-problems.” For one thing, EP makes a weird move, within a single sentence, from “a single ur-problem” to plural “ur-problems” — is this a translation glitch? Or an inconsistency within Panofsky’s system? Does he really think it’s productive to think of all artworks as solving a “single ur-problem”? If so, what is it? For modernism, maybe it’s autonomy; this seems to be what Bourdieu thinks.)

But, yet again stipulating Panofsky’s terms:

only from this perspective is it clear why we have the right to deduce stylistic differences from the differences of sensible qualities and a stylistic identity or relation from a correspondence or similarity of sensible qualities. We can do this because (and on the condition that) the difference of sensible qualities provides testimony for differing positions on one and the same artistic problem (to which a unified artistic subject could only respond in the form of one position); we are allowed to do this because (and on the condition that) the correspondence or similarity of the sensible qualities provides testimony for an identical or related position on one and the same artistic problem (to which differing or, rather, different artistic subjects could only respond with different positions). (62)

Gaaah. This is an insanely dense and defensive sentence (I mistyped it about four times just now, getting lost in the parallel clauses). So, it seems that what Panofsky thinks is that the role of art theory is to mark individual artworks (and maybe, on another level, artists?) as positions within a larger space of art as a whole. (I may be overreading this passage based on a false transfer from some of Bourdieu’s writings, but just run with me here.) A description of an artwork’s “position” will need to take into account historical facts about it (when it was made, why it was made, the biographical details of its maker if any are known), but also, more importantly, its position within the space of art history, that is of all other artworks. And this latter space can only be known if we orient ourselves according to fundamental theoretical concepts. If we want to have a hope of understanding artworks with reference to a universal, then something like Panofsky’s system will allow us to get from a thick empirical description (a classification, and even a preliminary characterization) of an individual object to the whole set of artworks ever produced in any culture. And though Panofsky opposes the hastier kinds of “short circuit” thinking about art, his scheme does allow us to get from specifics to the general (Art) without tracing everything with endless cultural-historical research.

But Panofsky doesn’t just make this as a suggestion for art historical research, he makes it as a claim about art and style: “every stylistic characterization (no matter whether it wants to or not, no matter whether it knows it or not) necessarily relates — both in choice and organization of its observations and above all in its creation of a conceptual system — to the contents of that sphere of problems that I tried to outline in the first part of this essay. A stylistic characterization that denies this relationship to the fundamental problems either denies it incorrectly or is incorrectly termed a stylistic characterization” (62). (Hmm. Here he makes the twentieth-century theoretical move par excellence — “no matter whether it wants to or not, no matter whether it knows it or not” — taken over from Marx, Freud and Nietzsche by basically everybody who wants to make a categorical statement without arguing for it. I am skeptical about this descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive, aspect of Panofsky’s argument, but this is neither the time nor the place (well, I guess it actually is the place) to talk about that.)

But then he goes back to the methodological level: “Yet the art historian qua art historian cannot understand these problems and their interdependencies. He who solely deals with empirical manifestations is in the opposite situation from the art theoretician, who aims to develop fundamental art-theoretical concepts and to differentiate art-theoretical specialist concepts. The art historian … can define the empirical manifestation but not the solution of the artistic problems, while the art theoretician only supplies the solutions of artistic problems without being himself able to understand their empirical manifestations in actuality” (62). So the historian and the theoretician need each other: that’s the take-away from Panofsky’s essay (this section of it anyway; no, he’s still not finished). With a rhetorical emphasis on the historian needing the theoretician, to be sure (this is against Dorner, presumably):

Empirical manifestations, with which art-historical study in its strict sense is concerned, do not show the fundamental problems at all; the problems are not apparent within the phenomena but are required behind the phenomena and therefore are only understandable by a form of investigation that is not art history but art theory. It is only the nonsensible conceptual speculation of art theory that can establish the goals by which the work of empirical researchers must navigate its every step. Only art theory can understand those artistic problems that are assumed in art-historical practice and can provide those artistic problems that are assumed in art-historical practice and can provide the fundamental and specialist concepts for this enterprise. (63)

So theory is the concept factory. Researchers mine the ore of art, give it to the theorists to make tools out of, and then the theorists give it back to the researchers to use to find more art with.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Notes on Twee #15

The violent side of twee: people like to put their dolls in trouble. As you get older you react especially viciously towards what you used to love.

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 6

Panofsky opens his essay's second section (B) with a few unnumbered paragraphs in which he sums up what he’s done so far and defines what he wants to go on to do: “I have clarified the possibility for the development of a conceptual system of a science of art … It remains to examine whether this development is necessary.” We move from the descriptive to the prescriptive, then, asking ourselves what we actually want from this system of concepts, and even whether we want it at all. “One might ask if the construction and design of those art-theoretical concepts were not a futile game of logic, a useless mental exercise completely without meaning for the historical study of real and existing artifacts.” One might! “My response is no” (56).

No! OK, then: Panofsky proposes that empirical research and theoretical system-making be put in, you guessed it, a dialectic: “The construction of an art-theoretical system of concepts and the empirical conduct of historical research are both essential because they study the [art] object from two completely different perspectives, but in each case from only one perspective. Together, they partake of a peculiar and unbreakable reciprocal relationship.” Art theory and art history each see the same objects, but from different angles: by putting them together we get a new, composite, more complete image, which brings us closer to understanding. (This theorization of the dialectic in visual terms seems to anticipate Slavoj Žižek's recent-ish stuff on parallax. Or quite possibly there’s a longer continuity within Hegelian thought that I’m not aware of.) “The ultimate task of a science of art, namely, the determination of Kunstwollen, can only be achieved in the interaction of the historical and theoretical modes of observation” (56). Here Panofsky reintroduces Kunstwollen, or artistic volition, as what we really want to understand, to get at, by looking at works of art; this is just assumed as given; his contention is that it’s by this double perspective that we can do it.

Here begins section B1 proper. So Panofsky has been arguing the necessity for a double perspective — a version of dialectic — in the methodology of the science of art, but he goes on to say that even the normal, supposedly strictly empirical half of this proposed dialectic is already doing something double. “Even the kind of art history that is not open to theory has found itself with a double task,” he says. “As art history, first it classifies the monuments historically, that is, temporally as well as spatially, and puts them in relation with each other; second, its role is to characterize the style of the monuments. The achievement of the second task (which has necessarily to take place before the accomplishment of the first because the historical place of a monument can only be assessed when its artistic character is known) takes place with the help of concepts that characterize in a more or less general way the stylistic qualities of the artworks studied.” Characterization precedes classification; we need to know what an object is like, what properties it has, in a broad sense before we can class it, put it into a category. [ Classification versus characterization: is this possibly somehow important for the ACLA paper? ] Panofsky’s intention, in pointing out this obvious fact, is that even the most anti-theoretical, purely historical text (his example is Georg Dehio’s History of German Art) uses some concepts, and often preconstructed, commonsensical ones drawn directly from “the contemporary culture” and ordinary language (e.g., pictorial and plastic, depth and surface, calm and moved). “Even historical empiricism does not deny that the use of such style-denoting concepts in art-historical work is not only common but necessary; it only avoids interrogating them about their origin and legitimacy” (57). This is a version of the argument often made in defense of literary theory, that whenever we read or interpret we’re doing so according to the lights of some kind of theory; Theory Per Se is just a way of making these operative concepts more explicit.

The next three so pages (and the rest of this blog post) will be devoted to “two sets of objections [that] may be made” to this defense of theory as something always already at work in historical criticism. The first (B1.1a) is that “concepts that can characterize the style of an artwork denote something completely different from its sensible qualities.” So what is the relevant difference here between “stylistic” and “sensible”? “The sensible qualities that we may be detect in a work of art may be nothing but pure qualities of visual perception — qualities that we habitually … divide into [e.g.] color and noncolor.” In other words, is it really using a philosophical concept if we say, simply, that painting is red; isn’t it just a perception? Panofsky’s answer to this is that, once you move from seeing red to using the word “red,” you’ve entered the realm of concepts; furthermore, you’ve had to make a choice about conceptual usage. “To capture these qualities conceptually, the art historian has two options to choose from, which are close to each other in that they are each only an indirect form of labelling” (57). (Parenthetically, we’re veering awfully close to Philosophical Investigations territory here; I’m beginning to wonder if Wittgenstein read Panofsky.)

“On the one hand, one can imply the sensible qualities of the work of art in question by pointing back to other sensible perceptions that are taken as known (for example, when describing skin as leathery or doughy, a fold as in the shape of an eye, drapery as rustling, a color as mouse-coloured or cadmium yellow).” Let’s call this the appeal to common sense. Rhetorically, it works like this/has this structure: we say we all know what color a mouse is; this object is that color. “On the other hand, one can label the sensible qualities of the work of art in question by attempting to describe the feelings stimulated by it (for example, when we talk of an emotionally rousing play of lines, or solemn or cheerful color design)” (57-58). Let’s call this the appeal to impressionism. Rhetorically, it works like this: we say imagine a cylinder that is open on one end, and a fan of dotted lines is extending out of it. The second requires a little more mental work, but both operate relationally, by attaching themselves to some kind of mental image we’ve already got in our heads, or are capable of producing.

“The limits of both practices” — of the appeal to common sense and the appeal to impressionism — “are clear,” Panofsky says. “Labelling the sensible qualities of a work of art can never be exact or sufficiently determined because a general statement — general because it is linguistic-conceptual — can never do justice to individual, purely qualitative content. The most lively and sweeping account of a set of lines or a complex colors is essentially only a hint towards a factual situation and never has the ability to cover it completely” (58). (This modest, pragmatic application of Zeno’s paradox to the sphere of the visual — we can describe more and more, and better and better, of the artwork but we will never quite get it all — can be taken too far too fast and we end up with a certain vulgar version of deconstruction: language is totally inadequate to express the reality of artworks, or indeed of anything else.)

To say this much is just to say that even a purely sensible description can never be a complete sensible description: any transfer to the sphere of concepts will entail some loss. But even if this weren’t the case, a complete description of an object’s sensible properties still wouldn’t give us an account of its stylistic properties. “Methodologically it is important to stress that classification of sensible qualities is by no means identical with classification of stylistic criteria. Taken on its own, a classification that only captures the sensible qualities of the artwork has no right whatever to draw any fundamental difference between those lines that were produced by the artist’s hand and those lines that appear because of cracks in the varnish; and even if this right were granted, that is, even if such classification could extract qualities of artistic importance from the wealth of purely sensible data, the observation of those qualities does not lead to the understanding of stylistic criteria” (58).

Style, for Panofsky, is thus linked to intentionality. An anti-theoretical, empiricist critic, by their own logic, cannot say anything about whether an artist meant to do something, because that requires concepts beyond the purely sensible and descriptive. Critical understanding of style/intention/Kunstwollen requires theory. (Taken in the right way, this is a pretty devastating reply to the Wimsatt/Beardsley arm of the New Criticism, and thus a more elaborate version of this.) What can theory help us to understand, exactly? It can establish intentionality, or perhaps something related to it, Kunstwollen: “we would need to establish that in specific, internally connected sequences of sensible qualities (let us call these sequences complexes of manifestation) specific artistic principles of design are fulfilled, and second we must be clear that within these principles of design we can find a unity without contradiction, without which we could not talk about style at all” (58-59). (This confident invocation of “unity without contradiction” again raises deconstructionist red flags, as well as [unhelpfully?] anticipating Althusser’s jargon — this is something else to bracket in the name of Playing Along With Panofsky.)

So we need to talk about style, and to do that we need constructed concepts: “In analyzing the style of an artistic manifestation, an art history that relied solely on concepts that only describe the sensible qualities of artworks (which we perhaps should be allowed to call suggestive or demonstrative concepts) would be futile from the start. Art history would then treat works of art no differently from natural objects; that is, by collating hundreds and thousands of individual observations indiscriminately and disjointedly, it would in the end only offer a more or less poetic paraphrase of sensible experience or some kind of personal description of the artwork, but never a characterization of artistic style” (59). From this, if from nothing else, it should be clear that Panofsky, despite all his talk of science and respect for the methods of empiricism, is not a positivist: he ABSOLUTELY INSISTS on interpretive theory in addition to descriptive criticism or history, and in fact goes so far as to say that we can have no concept of artistic style at all without it. (And, à propos of ACLA, note that Panofsky thinks we are able to recognize and describe something as a “manifestation” prior to our understanding of it as a specific expression of Kunstwollen; that is, we don’t just need to “read” the object, we also have to understand why it appeared when it did.)

So far this is all exclusively about “sensible” description, writing which doesn’t even attempt to give an account of style. But of course some anti-theoretical art history does try to talk about style. “Luckily [I guess this is Panofsky’s idea of a joke], besides such demonstrative concepts … art history commands other concepts, which are capable of describing stylistic criteria but in doing so reach beyond the sensible qualities of art: pictorial and plastic, depth and surface, bodily and spatial, style of being and style of becoming, coloristic and polychrome” (59). These terms, useful as they are, are still, from Panofsky’s point of view, common sense concepts, refined beyond the apparently nonconceptual state of concepts like “red” and “leathery” and “mouse-colored,” but still not rigorously worked out: they’ve emerged as they were needed in the course of empirical research, of everyday conversation, or from the culture. (Of course for a full-on pragmatist, like John Dewey or Richard Rorty, such concepts are all the concepts there really are. But staying with Panofsky.)

“I hardly need note that such concepts have a fundamentally different meaning than those that describe the sensible qualities of artworks. The sensible aspects of the artistic rendition of a lion or a mountain landscape have no more pictorial, dimensional, spatial, and coloristic qualities than the lion or the mountain landscape themselves” (Note the lion: another Wittgenstein image.) Sensing, for Panofsky, is naive seeing: we look at a picture of a lion and just see the lion, not a picture of a lion.
“When we use such concepts” as “pictorial” and “plastic,” on the other hand, “we no longer define or describe sensible qualities; we interpret them. Interpretation organizes individual, in itself purely qualitative and disjointed, perceptual content into an internally connected complex and underpins it with a function in the sense of its pictorialism, depth, and so forth. Only by looking at such complexes as expressions of artistic principles of design, which do not appear together by sheer chance* but are united in a uniform and dominating stylistic principle, can we talk about them as stylistic criteria” (59). (Once again this puts me in mind of Alexander Nehamas, and his ideas about interpretation, which he applies not only to art and literature but, following Nietzsche, to all of life.) (* “Sheer chance”: another place where a stray breeze from the past century or so of avant-garde art and theory could bring this whole magnificent structure down. Stay with Panofsky, stay with Panofsky.)

So style, or the manifestation of Kunstwollen in a particular object by a particular artist, can only be grasped through interpretation, or the discovery of a uniform and dominating stylistic principle. This is sounding awfully monolithic and transcendental, but Panofsky saves it with what I think is a pretty brilliant example:“How else, to take an example, could we find a set of concepts to define the collaboration of two different artists on one and the same work of art (which is not difficult to discern for the expert)? Without the assumption of unified stylistic principles, the art historian would have to take the differences resulting from the conflation of two sensible qualities … as something quite natural and harmless no less so than that the drapery of one figure is yellow but of another red. The difference between two sensible qualities can only be seen as a stylistic difference once we accept this double precondition that a given complex of visual expressions reveals a certain principle of design and that such principles of design are united in an unopposed unity” (60).

That is, if the style is just in the object itself, and can be read without reference to the artists who made it, then what do we do when we’re confronted with an object made by more than one artist, and that we can tell (if we’re trained art historians, at least) was made by more than two artists? Is this observation just inadmissible in a discussion of the object’s real properties? No, Panofsky says; if we’re really understanding the object, the way a good theoretically oriented art historian would, then we can take it apart and see how the two separate manifestations of Kunstwollen interact with each other. We can see more than just what’s in the object, and also more than either of the individual artists knew or intended: we can see how their two wills combined to produce a single artwork.

“What applies to the understanding of stylistic differences naturally applies to the understanding of stylistic correspondences; the art historian who singles out certain stylistically identical or related items from a given group of artworks and distributes them into stylistically connected subgroups” (this would be classification) can only do this “on the basis of a correspondence or similarity of principles of design.” (This is why, to hop briefly into Bourdieuland, “classification classifies the classifier.”) Without this conceptual mastery and self-reflexivity, based on a knowledge of the history of art and thus a grasp of Kunstwollen, we’ve basically just got a bricoleur putting like with like, sticking things together regardless of whether they really belong together or not. “The researcher who would underpin his groupings with the sensible qualities of works of art in themselves — rather than as indications of certain principles that are presumed to be behind them — could never be certain that he has put together works which are really stylistically identical or stylistically related, and it could easily happen that his groups … would include items that [only] correspond in size, material, color, or other sensible aspects” (60). Thus empiricism, left unchecked by theoretical understanding, opens the door to the totally arbitrary, which for Panofsky, no Saussurean avant la lettre, is emphatically not a state of affairs to be welcomed. (And, ironically, one might say, we see here how positivism gives birth to the postmodern.)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Humbleton, PA (Notes on Twee #14)

I think in a lot of ways this might be the key to everything.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Idea of a University

To have even a portion of you is the highest
State to which a good article can aspire.
It puts me beyond chance, necessity, anxiety,
Suspense, and superstition, the lot of many.

Vaulters, whose hours are possessed by one pole,
Take exaggerated views of the importance of height,
Are feverish in the morning, and are
Startled and depressed when they happen to fall.

When I am in difficulties, I originate vast ideas
Or dazzling projects equal to any emergencies.
I can remember to whom I am speaking.
This is genius. Something really luminous,

Something really large. The earth smiles.
The rocks are deranged over the sequence of ideas,
Too violent to last before this giant fascination.
And the hand opens its ten thousand holds.

— David Shapiro

Friday, December 12, 2008

Spreading the American Dream

Have it your way!*
You know how Muybridge's sequential motion photographs demonstrated how there was a point in a horse's full gallop in which all four legs left the ground?  Somehow this is that, but for a frame-by-frame of late capitalism.  We could call it coca-colonization, but I'm pretty sure Burger King have an exclusive contract with Pepsi.

* your = our

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 5

We are coming to the end of section A, my friends.

When the fundamental concepts of art theory are accounted for on an a priori basis and therefore are valid independent of any experience this does not of course mean that they could be deduced in a purely rational way independent of any experience. As the fundamental artistic problems … already represent the contrast between form and volume, time and space, presupposed a priori in a specifically sensible sphere, so the understanding of these fundamental problems presupposes an empirical (visual) manifestation. (55)

Oh, good: this solves my “manifest vs. a priori” difficulty from last time. What Panofsky is saying is that, while the basic concepts are legitimate a priori — we know they hold good before looking at any individual object — they are not totally abstract, conceived prior to the basic manifestation. Rather, they were developed to fit the absolutely minimal conditions of an experience of visual art: if we’re not looking at some manifestation that deals with haptic and optic, surface and depth, and fusing and splitting, then we are simply not looking at a work of art (or else not looking aesthetically) at all. A manifestation of these concepts is just what visual art is.

What applies to the understanding of the fundamental problems applies to a still greater extent to the understanding of the individual problems; artistic problems are only understandable by means of their solutions, that is, the works of art themselves. And if those concepts that formulate the problems claim a priori validity this claim does not mean that they can be found in a priori form but only that they can be legitimated a priori. (55)

Just as you shouldn’t look directly for the fundamental problems in the individual artwork itself, you shouldn’t try to refute the fundamental concepts by showing that they can’t be found in the work in question. The goal of empirical research is not to attack the prevailing theory, but to work with it and extend it (see below) in order to get at more of whatever is interesting about the object. (Important, maybe, for the purposes of my ACLA paper: “manifestation” for Panofsky is prior to “form.” We get our concepts straight about the pure manifestation before we advance to looking more closely at the form.)

So, again, art theory maintains a sort of benevolent autocratic relation to art history, helping it improve itself but not susceptible to coup d’état from mere researchers: “the system of concepts for a science of art, insofar as it is discovered and developed a posteriori, will continue the results of empirical research, but its existence, insofar as it is valid a priori, is independent from these results and cannot come into conflict with them” (55). Again, the potential problem with this, from a contemporary scientific point of view, is that in practice it’s unfalsifiable (wonder if Panofsky ever ran into Karl Popper?). But let’s grant Panofsky this theoretical autonomy for the nonce and see where he goes with it, how he imagines it interacting with the course of empirical research:

A new discovery or a new observation can constitute proof either that one of the already established and a priori legitimized artistic problems in a specific case has been solved differently from what had been supposed so far or that one of the questions formulated by existing concepts had in this case been answered wrongly (for the intention of art theory is nothing other than formulating questions). (55)

What the stability of the fundamental concepts will give us is a ground from which to change our understanding of particular artworks. If we hold the basic problems steady, then empirical work (discoveries, analysis, etc.) can allow us to see that a work has solved one or more of those problems differently (from some other work, or from how we used to think it solved them).

For example, if against all odds a pictorial landscape from the fifth century BC should be discovered, an amendment of art historical understanding must be made, which in itself would not affect the theoretically constructed system of art concepts. Or again a new discovery or new observation can prove that a specific artistic problem has not yet been recognized as such, that the questions formulated in an earlier conceptual system were directed away from an important characteristic of certain objects. For example, when an architectural monument of a completely unknown form comes to light or when an already-known work of art unveils a new aspect of a new problem to the eyes of a scholar who studies it, the relevant problem needs to be shaped to a formula and brought into relation to those problems already known, which constitutes an extension but not a destabilization of the art-theoretically generated system of concepts.

This is close, as I read it, to Alexander Nehamas’ use of the concept of interpretation: if it comes to light that James Joyce actually wrote Augustine’s City of God, say, then we need to rearrange our entire understanding of literary history around that fact. But the new discovery, transformative as it is, doesn’t fundamentally change (“destabilize”) the way we think about literature, it just means we have to shift everything around and reconsider (“extend”) the links between various different texts and authors. (This is all in "Writer, Text, Work, Author," I believe.)

At this point I think we’ve all so fully internalized the Kuhn/Bachelard/Foucault idea of “paradigm shifts” or “epistemic breaks” (and the attendant uses and abuses of its “revolutionary” implications) that this is actually kind of hard to get, and certainly once gotten it’s easy to argue with. But it's also very attractive to anyone halfway interested in reconciling theoretical thinking with historical research. For now, I think it's enough to get clear about what Panofsky's vision was, before assessing whether there are contradictions in it (there probably are) or whether it might have some special utility for literary scholars today (it probably could).

That’s the end of part A. Deep breath. I am very much looking forward to an Erwinless weekend. Next week, maybe, I’ll start on B.

Coke Is It

William Empson to John Wain, 1953:

"The Wimsatt-Beardsley essay … seems to me good, especially from a reasonable breadth … [But] the hatred of 'biography' and the claim that a good poem should have all requirements for reading it 'within itself' seems to me mere petulance, like saying 'I won't visit any house that hasn't got a Coca-Cola machine and a sun-bathing apparatus.' Obviously a person of more serious interests would be willing to put up with inconvenience." (Selected Letters of WE, 213)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 4

At the beginning of this section (A4) Panofsky is still formulating, still more strictly, the difference between art theory and art history, now using the Kantian language of “duty”:

The duty of art theory is to define and develop the absolute antithesis of the fundamental concepts — the concepts that formulate artistic problems. Art theory does not incorporate an absolute antithesis of style-defining concepts equal to those with which art history operates. The fundamental concepts, far from separating the world of artistic manifestations into two hostile camps between which there would be no space for a considerable number of phenomena, simply describe the polarity of two regions of value that face each other beyond the world of manifestations and that are contrasted within the work of art in varied ways. (52)

Again, he insists on a strict separation between the concepts and terminology of history and that of theory. (Interesting that he uses the political/military metaphor of “hostile camps” — it would be interesting to know more about what he’s reacting against.) Thus far Panofsky has mostly talked in roughly spatial terms about history and theory — speaking of separation, distance, difference, etc. — but now he starts to talk more in terms of time (perhaps this attends a turn from the ontological to the methodological): “The contents of the world of historical reality must be grasped not with the fundamental concepts but starting from them. The fundamental concepts do not dare, as a form of grammaire générale et raisonnée, to classify the manifestations of art; their duty is rather … to offer an a priori legitimated catalyst from which a discussion of the manifestation may be constructed” (52-53) (I wonder if this would work as an anticipatory objection to structuralism? In some of its versions, anyway. Or it may just be the sudden French that makes me think this.) So what does EP mean exactly by “a priori legitimated catalyst”? I think this should be read along with “starting from them”: Panofsky is making a claim about methodological priority. The catalyst comes first, and sets us off on our adventure. “They [the fundamental concepts] shape only the formulation of artistic problems, not the potential solutions; they determine only those questions that we direct to objects, not the individual and unpredictable answers that these objects can offer us” (52-53).

It seems to me like Panofsky is trying to formalize aesthetic looking, without predetermining the final product of aesthetic encounter with an object too much. That is: we start with these very basic, fundamental problems (how does the artist solve the haptic/optic problem, and the surface/depth problem? etc.) which quickly become much more specific when we start actually examining an artwork, and trying to figure out what it’s doing. The fundamental problems will not be used, as terms, in our final analysis of the work, but if we don’t start with them, then what we’re doing is not really “aesthetic looking” at all. He wants to draw a line somewhere, and he decides to do it at the earliest possible moment, before the particular features of the work make matters more confusing.

(There’s a footnote on this page which baffles me a little but is definitely relevant to the question of what is or isn’t “really” aesthetics. Right after “they determine only those questions that we direct to objects, not the individual and unpredictable answers that these objects can offer us,” Panofsky adds: “This describes the principal difference between art theory, as I understand it, and so-called aesthetics and art psychology. By addressing fundamental problems, art theory does not ask the questions of philosophical aesthetics, which seeks to determine the prerequisites and conditions that have made the artwork possible a priori, and even less those of normative aesthetics, which claims to formulate the laws that works of art must follow; art psychology on the other hand enquires into the conditions in which the work of art, or the impression of the work of art, becomes real” (53). This position-taking is very helpful in understanding what he thinks his project is all about. For Panofsky, traditional philosophical aesthetics (everything in the line of Aristotle?) is too literal, effecting that short circuit from the concept to the artwork that he warns against everywhere in this essay: its implict presumption is, if we think hard enough, apply enough philosophy to this object, we will get clear about it. Panofsky says no way. “Art psychology,” on the other hand, would seem to be a more subject-centered (psychoanalytic? or phenomenological?) approach, making what the artwork does to the viewer the ground of philosophical discourse, rather than the problems the artist is trying to solve. This is also no good. We can’t discover what artworks really want to be doing — their Kunstwollen — by reasoning about them with traditional philosophical concepts, or by looking more intently about what they are already doing to us. If it helps, we could identify the first approach with Kant and Hegel, the second with Freud and Heidegger. NEITHER OF THESE WAYS OF THINKING GETS US ANYWHERE, WITH REGARD TO WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON IN THE ARTWORK.)

By this point Panofsky has pretty well made his claim for art theory’s autonomy: that it must formulate general questions, with which we begin, and which we cannot give up if we want to continue doing aesthetic looking. But now he turns to the specific tasks it takes on in relation to empirical research: “besides the fundamental artistic problems, with which all works of art have to deal, there are without doubt also individual artistic problems, which are solved only in a specific group of artworks, perhaps only in a single monument … [A]rt theory then must provide specialist concepts so as to support fundamental art-theoretical concepts and order them systematically; the individual artistic problems should be shaped to formulae and related to the fundamental problems” (53). This is where art theory has a role in a continuing discourse: after having laid down the inalienable system of concepts adumbrated earlier, it looks at what the art historian has actually come up with, the individual artistic problems, and comes up with new concepts to describe them which link up with the unassailable fundamental problems. It’s a little space for pragmatism, and thus for argument, within a larger scientific foundationalism. (Parenthetically, I think this is similar to how Adorno conceived social theory’s relation to sociology. Might be an interesting paper in here, about Master Theorists and their administrative genesis.)

Then Panofsky’s argument takes kind of a weird sociological turn, making a claim not just about how art history (the discipline) should operate but about how the history of art actually functions:

“The individual artistic problems emerge, almost as if following a Hegelian scheme, from the fact that all solutions of the fundamental artistic problems in the course of historical development become themselves the poles of a specific individual artistic problem. Further, the solutions of this individual problem again form the poles of another, even more specialist second-order problem, and so forth ad infinitum” (53)

The example he uses to illustrate this is a column: “if, under specific historical circumstances … the situation occurs in which wall and column join into an organic connection within one building, then a new artistic problem arises, which in relation to the fundamental problem has to be regarded as an individual problem. Such an individual problem can produce further specialized individual problems, in that its varied solutions … are themselves in dialogue with each other. In the same way, two different solutions of the fundamental artistic problems … can come to face each other as poles of a new contrast, which itself can be split into indefinite subproblems” (53-54)
What Panofsky wants to give us here, I guess, is an account of the genesis of styles. Everything kicked off, long ago, with the fundamental conceptual problems of haptic versus optic et al., and every time a satisfying solution is found that achievement forms the basis for a newer, more specific problem. So the problem becomes not simply to manifest some sort of art, but to make a column; then to make a Doric column; then to solve some specific problem within the Doric column, and so on, as he says, ad infinitum. What keeps this from being totally teleological or progressivist or whatever (Art just gets Better and Better!)* is that there can be multiple problem chains going on at the same time, and even interacting with each other: Doric columns don’t have to give way to Ionic, there can be both at any one time, and they can draw on each other’s solutions in order to help with their own specific problem, etc. (* Just how Hegelian is this? Not sure right now: the popular image of Hegel is of a pretty monolithic forward movement of history, but you never know.) And presumably chains can also come to an end, or get lost, through accidents of history as well.

This is all leading up to a very grand theory of art indeed. If we accept Panofsky’s scheme, then ultimately “ all individual artistic problems can be systematically linked with each other and finally — however particular and specialized (even singular) they may be — referred back to fundamental problems, and so from the table of art-theoretical fundamental concepts a coherently connected art-theoretical conceptual system emerges, which can branch out even into the finest specialist concepts” (54). We can keep our specialist, historicist, close reading/looking procedures, refine them however we need to in order to make use of them: as long as they can ultimately “refer back” to the fundamental problems, we can tie them in with every other artwork. But not, I think, by short circuit: by slow, careful relation of one style to another, back through the history of art, which can all in principle be made to form one coherent story.

How would this work, exactly? “How this conceptual system might be designed and used in practice is not possible to demonstrate here,” but all he’s concerned with here, he says, is refuting Dorner’s objection to “the possibility of finding fundamental art-historical concepts”; what Panofsky wants to insist is that, in theory, fundamental concepts are possible. There would still be a tremendous amount of work to do to show how, or that, they’re useful to art historians. So really his argument here doesn’t depend on the particular concepts he’s given (although he presumably does think they’re right), but on the very idea of a fundamental conceptual system. Therefore, he ends the section with three reasons that he thinks his concepts can “rightly be described as fundamental”:

(a) they are valid a priori and are therefore suitable and necessary for understanding all artistic phenomena;
(b) they do not refer to anything nonmanifest but to manifest objects;
c) they build a systematic connection with those specialist concepts that form their subordinates.

So, against a common sense objection that any fundamental conceptual system will be too abstract to apply to all artworks, Panofsky says: (a) as long as we get the concepts logically right before we move into the empirical arena, we'll have room to maneuver later; (b) my concepts are good because they refer to real visual experience; and (c) they are useful because they allow us to connect up seemingly disparate works and compare them.

(It seems like there might be a contradiction between “a priori” and “manifest” — doesn’t “a priori” mean “prior to experience,” and thus to manifestation? If not, I think Panofsky owes a fuller definition of manifestation.)

(There’s also an interesting footnote at the end here about form and content, but it has to do with Dorner, so maybe I’ll save it for the end and the excursus on Dorner.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Today I woke up feeling sick and exhausted, body crumbling to dust, the ants are back in my apt. and it was raining.  Drove to campus cause i missed the bus and paid for all-day parking in the garage, prepped for my last class of the semester, gorged on cough drops.  Then, somehow, class went fine.  It was brief, but we talked about Edith Wharton and Gossip Girls' debt to Wharton, and about how American corporatism disrupts the bildungsroman/everything.  As one student remarked:  the everyday excoriations of the stock market seem more brutal and intrinsically gothic than anything else we've read (in a semester that included Dorian Gray).  Then I got to see an esteemed colleague become Dr. Esteemed Colleague, with a brilliant final dissertation oral exam.  Then I went to the public library to get my parking validated, and found a used copy of Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935) for a couple of bucks in the library book sale.

Here's Langston Hughes's poem "Park Bench," from this anthology:

I live on a park bench.
You, Park Avenue.
Hell of a distance
Between us two.

I beg a dime for dinner --
You got a butler and maid.
But I'm wakin' up!
Say, ain't you afraid

That I might, just maybe,
In a year or two,
Move on over
To Park Avenue?

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 3

In section A3 Panofsky stops making little tables and takes up his purported subject, the proper relationship between art history and art theory. “It should by now be clear,” he says, “how incorrect is the general opinion that a fundamental conceptual system for a science of art should aim to define the stylistic qualities of a work of art or of an artistic period by a single formula.” Without knowing precisely what he’s reacting to, I know the kind of theoretical-historical criticism he’s talking about: work that would deduce what’s going on in a work of art from what we think we know about the era (this work was made/written then, so clearly it must be dealing with that). Against this historical reductionism, Panofsky argues for a particular kind of formalism, guided by an absolute theory of form but sensitive to empirical differences on the ground. We can’t sum Kunstwollen up in one formula, he warns: the will to make good art is not the will to surmount one obstacle, but to solve a whole range of problems currently constituted as important. Theory can help us understand these problems, but not by specifying what they are a priori: “What a terminology that merits the label of a fundamental system of concepts aims to shape into a formula is not the issue of how an artistic problem is solved but rather in what form such problems arise” (49). That last part is a little obscure, but that orienting kind of knowledge — not knowing the problems but the form of the problems — is what Panofsky thinks art theory can contribute to the study of art.

Crucial here, then, is the distinction between the theoretical concepts Panofsky has given us so far and the details that actual close observation of artworks reveal. We can’t start with the first and apply them directly to the second. “Understood aright, the fundamental concepts are not labels to be stuck onto concrete objects” — i.e., this object is dealing with optic vs. haptic, this one with fusing vs. splitting — “their necessarily antithetical qualities denote not stylistic differences apparent within the world of appearance between two phenomena that can be observed but a polarity between two principles that exists beyond the world of appearance and that can be located by means of theory.”

When EP says that the concepts are “necessarily antithetical,” I believe he is saying that, in any object, we experience some property (color, say) empirically as just one thing: that canvas is that exact shade of red. But conceptually, it is possible to think of it as somewhere on a spectrum, between two poles of possible shades of red. (And “color” is already too specific an example, not as fundamental as haptic vs. optic, depth vs. surface, etc. But it’s easier to understand this way.) So in “the world of appearance,” of empirical observation, we are seeing just one point on a line (Bourdieu, following Leibniz, would say a “space of possibles”). In order to see it this way, though, we need to conceptually orient ourselves by using theory.

Why can’t we just apply the fundamental concepts directly to the objects? “Because they are necessarily formulated antithetically, these fundamental concepts cannot account for the wealth of artistic reality — which is not to be reduced to dualisms — and thus cannot be accused of a failure to do so. All the concepts discussed above — optical and haptic values, depth and surface values, the values of fusing and splitting — refer not to contrasts actually encountered within artistic reality but to contrasts out of which artistic reality generates a conciliation of some kind” (49)

So Panofsky is careful to separate our “encounter” of “artistic reality” from the conceptual system he’s outlined. We will not be able to look at an artwork and just “do the math” — calculate how far it’s haptic in contrast to optic, or fused as opposed to split — to get a sense of its quality or value. The only thing we know for sure about the actual artwork is that it will be “a conciliation of some kind” (???) and this will be “generated” out of the contrast between the fundamental concepts. The concepts themselves are purely ontological: “a purely haptic value would only come into being in an abstract geometric figure, a purely optical value only in an amorphous manifestation of light; an absolute surface is in concreto as impossible as an absolute depth; a pure fusing would be spaceless time; a pure splitting would be timeless space” (49). (“Pure” in Panofsky is a marker for “stay out, empiricists.”)

On the next page Panofsky reasserts the polarity thing: “it is certain that art-historical characterizations refer only to works of art themselves and thus operate not in contrast but on a flexible scale. The fundamental system of concepts for a science of art defines the poles of a polarity that is constituted a priori and that cannot be grasped in a manifest form” (50). [Here’s a possible opening for the ACLA paper. “Manifest” is here distinguished from “theoretical”: you can “manifest” your current position, where you are, on a flexible scale; but this mustn’t be confused with the purely conceptual theoretical polarity.] Thus, “normal art-historical characterizations describe a conciliation of these polarities, which is executed a posteriori and for which there are not two but an indefinite number of solutions” (50). I still don’t think I get the “conciliation” thing.

From here Panofsky goes on to introduce another order of concepts, closer to those in use in the art historical terminology of his day: these include “pictorial,” “plastic” and “stereometrical-crystalline.” “Now,” he says, “if [the] concepts of absolute contrast (such as haptic, optical, and so forth) only generate but do not solve fundamental artistic problems, then those concepts such as pictorial, plastic, and so forth, which are only concerned with the solution rather than the generation of fundamental problems, will produce a scheme of gradual difference rather than a set of absolute contrasts” (50). A couple of things to nail down here: the distinction between “generation” and “solution”; and the distinction between “absolute contrast” and “gradual difference.” I don’t quite know what to do with the former right now, but the latter really interests me. For Panofsky, the empirical (or the art-historical) is the realm of “gradual difference”: when we’re looking at a particular artwork from a particular time, we need to specify the contours of the phenomenon we’re talking about every time. “The concepts pictorial, plastic, and stereometrical-crystalline by no means describe absolute contrasts; rather they describe points on a scale, whose freezing point is every time defined by the concept plastic” (50) [freezing point?].

This “scale” metaphor is useful, and Panofsky runs with it: “That is, if the theoretical end points of the scale, which cannot be touched by any reality, are located as it were in the indefinite, but are also ultimately defined by the contrast of haptic and optical values, then its historical end points are located in the definite and therefore, depending on the specifications of the corpus of objects under scrutiny, must change their location” (50). The same formal scale has, as it were, a double existence: in theory — where the end points are stable, but invisible — and in history — where the end points (i.e. the extremes) are in principle visible, but always changing. “In art-historical practice, depending on the reference system applied, the same phenomena can be described with different terms and different phenomena with the same expressions” (50-51). Meaning: we can adjust the scale all we want in dealing with particular historical examples in order to account for difference, but the fundamental concepts will remain the same, and cannot be challenged. We can see why EP likes this so much, because it preserves his conceptual system against any possible argument: “the variability of the individual points on the scale is not proof against the constancy of the poles of the scale and only shows that concepts of characterization are not fundamental concepts and that fundamental concepts are not concepts for characterization” (51); i.e., the theory, qua theory, is unfalsifiable.

[There’s a little thing on color at the end here, which I may come back to. But I’ll stop for now, and tomorrow probably go on to A4.]