Monday, December 8, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Part 1

The new issue of Critical Inquiry (or at least the newest one I’ve got: Vol. 35 No. 1 Autumn 2008) includes the first English translation of a 1925 article by the German art historian Erwin Panofsky with the following catchy title: “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for the Science of Art.” It is a doozy. Even the valiant translators, Katharina Lorenz and Jas’ Elsner (who endearingly admit to “brain ache” in their introduction), don’t really make the claim that it’s a “good” piece of writing, even by the low rhetorical standards of German philosophical discourse. But it is also totally fascinating, and not just as a historical document (though there is that: Panofsky was hugely influential in the field of art history, and more generally in American academic and intellectual circles in the 40s and 50s; I’m learning some interesting tidbits from my Rockefeller research about his role alongside Einstein and Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton). The best description of Panofsky might be given in a 1934 telegram of rec. from Bernard Berenson which Lorenz and Elsner use as their epigraph: “LEARNED INDUSTRIOUS AMBITIOUS USES TALMUDIC DIALECTIC TO PROVE THAT IN EVERY FIELD HE ALONE IS MASTER.” That about sums it up. If you think the 60s was the heyday of High Theory, you may want to turn your attention to Germany in the 20s.

I’m interested in Panofsky, in part, because he was very important to Bourdieu, who translated his 1951 book Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism into French and contributed a “postface” to it that I’ve yet to look at. Reading “On the Relationship…”, I can see the stylistic debt to Panofsky in early-mid-period Bourdieu works like Reproduction (1970), which has some of the same algebraic density of Panofsky’s text. (As the translators put it, EP “seems to be striving for a language and syntax that give his thoughts the shape of mathematical formulae … as if even his language were designed to stress the dependencies between form and content.”) (One interesting thing about Bourdieu is that he tried out a variety of prose styles in the first half of his career, writing in quite different Durkheimian, Sartrean, Lévi-Straussian, and Althusserian idioms by turns before finally discovering his own “voice,” rather late in the game, by translating and then imitating Panofsky. He then refined this super-dense, German Kantian style until it was transformed into something much more classically French, almost Proustian. (I became sensitized to this progression by Jeffrey Alexander’s lengthy critique of Bourdieu in Fin-de-Siècle Social Theory, which attempts to use it against him in order to accuse him of inconsistency; but it seems to me just an interesting case of intellectual development.) But this is all a subject for some other time.) It’s on the theoretical level, though, that Panofsky had the most influence on Bourdieu, or one might even say the metatheoretical level, since what both insist on is an explicitly theorized relation between theory and practice: for Panofsky, art history; for Bourdieu, empirical sociological research.

Enough preamble: what I want to do here is basically just work through Panofsky’s essay, quoting it, paraphrasing it, and ultimately trying to decide if it can help me with my ACLA talk. In particular I want to track his use of the term “manifestation,” and see if I can credibly get from there to Puchner’s claims about “manifestos.” What I’m not going to do is criticize any of the essay’s premises or moves (which, given Panofsky’s intense attachment to binarism, would be super-easy to do with vulgar deconstruction), just try to understand them on their own terms; nor am I hereafter going to note any similarities to Bourdieu, though they are legion. I may do this in a few parts, because it’s a really really dense essay and I have other stuff to do. But here goes.

Panofsky begins by invoking an earlier article of his, “Der Begriff des Kunstwollens” (“The Concept of Artistic Volition”), in which he defined the concept of “Kunstwollen” (artistic will or volition), taken up from art historian Alois Riegl. “Kunstwollen” is “the sum or unity of creative powers manifested in any given artistic phenomenon.” In that old article, Panofsky says, he claimed that Kunstwollen “can be interpreted neither psychologistically as the will of the artist (or the epoch and so on) nor as psychological ‘reality’ but as a metempirical [read: non-empirical] subject — an immanent sense within an artistic phenomenon” (43-44). The cash value of this is that Kunstwollen is not discoverable through empirical research alone, nor by connecting the empirical object to its immediate surroundings or historical context (what Panofsky later in the essay calls the “short circuit” approach). How it is discoverable isn’t yet clear, but this is what Panofsky wants to go on to show.

The impetus for this piece is a 1922 attack on Panofsky’s position by rival art historian Alexander Dorner. He really only engages Dorner at the end, though, in a three-page “Excursus on Dorner” after the main body of the essay; most of the article is just a fuller restatement of his theory, because Dorner’s objections are “partly … based on a fundamental misunderstanding of my views, partly … they depend on a mistaken grasp of the relationship between the a priori and a posteriori understanding.” So, according to Panofsky he’s only restating — though probably also refining — the ideas he’s already put forward in “The Concept of Artistic Volition.”

In Section A (there are a lot of divisions and subdivisions), Panofsky posits a few “pairs of concepts” which make up the “fundamental system of concepts for art theory” of the title. All of these pairs, or “problems” — which, he will go on to tell us, include optic/haptic, depth/surface, fusing/splitting, and time/space; more on these later — are “part of” (more elaborated versions of?) “a single major ur-problem”:

When we examine works of art, we talk of artistic problems for which the work of art itself offers solutions. Problems of this kind … always present themselves in the form of opposites, while works of art create a conciliation between such binary polarities … Now all these artistic problems are implicitly part of a single major ur-problem, which in itself has the shape of an antithesis … and — insofar as it is the necessary result of the conditions of artistic creation — is an a priori issue. The ur-problem is perhaps best described with the words volume and form. (45)

So, for Panofsky, volume vs. form is the fundamental problem of art. Let’s let him elaborate on that:

Art, however one chooses to define it and from whatever vantage point one takes, operates through an organization of sensibility. The products of art both preserve a genuine volume of sensible perception and yet also subject it to organization; in this respect they curtail that volume. To put it another way, in any work of art there must be a conciliation of some kind between volume and form as the two poles of a fundamental antithesis. (45-46)

Purely conceptually, this is all art is: you have some physical stuff (“a genuine volume of sensible perception”) which must be presented, yet somehow also limited, “curtailed”: Panofsky calls this, intending I’m pretty sure absolutely no psychological or moral connotations, “an organization of sensibility.” This much should be uncontroversial, and also by itself not very interesting.

But the next move kind of does my head in:

Volume and form … can and must form a synthesis because the purely ontological antithesis of form and volume has a correlation to (or, to be more precise, is at its core identical with) the methodological antithesis between time and space; the principle of volume corresponds to the nature of space and the principle of form to the nature of time. If the antithesis between form and volume is the a priori precondition for the existence of artistic problems, then the interaction between time and space is the a priori condition for their potential solution.

OK, so: the antithesis (which Panofsky calls “ontological,” meaning “relating to our understanding of being”) between volume and form — which is at the core of all Art — is correlated to, or analogous with, or actually really the same thing as* the “methodological antithesis between time and space.” (* I’m not going to pause to work out which of these options Panofsky really means, or is better off arguing about, or whether he can really mean all of them, though it seems to me that would be valuable and important to do.) “The methodological antithesis between time and space”: that would be, I take it, the fact that we can comprehend the entirety of the sensible volume of an artwork all at once (except where we can’t, as in something huge like the Spiral Jetty or, um, a work of literature), that is we can see everything about it on the level of “space”; but on the level of “time” we think about it, we process it, we understand it. (Also, it exists in time — in history — which is what I’m ultimately interested in, but Panofsky’s not, right here.) Thus “the principle of volume corresponds to the nature of space” — we can behold all the volume, all the being, all at once — and “the principle of form to the nature of time” — we need time to think about the form, why it is the way it is, how it could be different. It should be clear already that when Panofsky invokes “time” as being “methodological” he’s thinking about criticism, or art history, which is why he ultimately also associates it with the artwork’s “solution.” Right, so, Panofsky lines up volume — space — problem, form — time — solution. This is a distinction between being / ontology / ousia and understanding / methodology / methodos:

If a definition of a work of art can be attempted at all, it would have to go along these lines: the work of art examined from an ontological perspective is an argument between volume and form, while the work of art examined from a methodological perspective is an argument between space and time. Only within this pattern of correlations can the work of art be understood. On the one side volume and form engage in lively interaction; on the other time and space unite themselves within one individually perceptible object.

So, for Panofsky, “time” and “space” are the critic’s concerns; “volume” and “form” are the artist’s, or the artwork’s (let’s not get bogged down in any debates about intentionality). Both activities, artmaking and criticism, are “arguments” with the same basic phenomenological terms: there’s a volume there, let’s organize it into form. There’s a being there, let’s understand it in time. (To really get above my pay grade, I wonder to what extent Panofsky was aware of Heidegger; Being and Time was published two years after this essay.) Panofsky wants to make this the basic contrast that underlies any and every visual artwork:

This double problem (which in reality is only the twofold aspect of a single problem) dominates, I repeat, artistic creation in general — whether it takes its sensible material from visual or acoustic experience. In the specific conditions of visual experience, that is, in those conditions that are binding for the fine arts, the decorative arts, and architecture, the problem in question is naturally expressed through more specific contrasts.

This is the final move Panofky makes in the first section of Part A (after which I’ll stop for today); he wants to move from this most basic level to one a little closer to the actual manifestation the individual artwork takes. Though the fundamental problem is always the antithesis between volume and form, space and time, it is always “expressed through more specific contrasts” in any given work, which Panofsky will go on to specify. What’s important for now is that he has established a pair of basic ground concepts that will be valid for any visual artwork:

These specific visual contrasts or, to be more precise, these contrasts of specific visual values we may call the fundamental problems of artistic and architectural creation. Their conceptual description is thus what I mean by the fundamental conceptual system for a science of art.

So far so good. Next time, A2.