Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Part 2

Picking up where we left off: in between sections A1 and A2 Panofsky includes a little table, which lays out the antitheses I described yesterday (“general antithesis within the ontological sphere: volume versus form,” “general antithesis within the methodological sphere: time versus space”) in two columns. Between those two, there’s a third column, itself divided into three, which lists the “specific contrasts within the phenomenal and, especially, within the visual sphere.” So we’re getting more specific, closer to actual artworks. The three specific contrasts Panofsky lists are:

contrast of elementary values: optical values (empty space) versus haptic values (body)
contrast of figural values: values of depth versus values of surface
contrast of compositional values: values of fusing versus values of splitting

The rest of section A2 (which has five parts — sigh) is basically a reading of this table, which Panofsky calls “the table of a fundamental conceptual system for a science of art” (47).
“The pair of concepts in the first column (optic and haptic values) refers to a region of the experiential that we may call the layer of elementary values; it describes those qualities that need to be reconciled to create a visual unit (figure).”

The pair of values in the second column (depth and surface) “refers to a further region of the visual, which we may call the layer of figural values; it describes those qualities through whose conciliation a visual unit (figure) actually comes into being” (47). For another way of talking about this basic contrast, think of Wittgenstein’s remarks in the Philosophical Investigations on Gestalt psychology, or “seeing something as something”: on the level of elementary values we just see some lines, or a totally abstract pattern, not yet understood or processed; on the level of figural values, we begin to see these same lines or pattern as a figure of some kind. (I don’t think this necessarily needs to apply only to representational art — any kind of artwork, or really anything sensible, presents some kind of Gestalt, right? — though I’m not 100% sure about this.)

Finally, the third pair of concepts “refers to the final region of the experiential, which we may call the layer of compositional values; it describes those qualities through whose conciliation a majority of visual units (whether the members of a specific organism, or the parts of a specific group, or the components of a specific artistic entity) are joined together in a unity of a higher order” (47). So there’s a progression from: just stuff; stuff that is something; stuff that is something for some reason. (I may have smuggled in intentionality here, so maybe it would be better to say for the last: something that is organized somehow.)

Panofsky moves on: “The fundamental problem expressed in the first [elementary] pair of concepts is the argument between optical and haptic values, which can be understood as the specifically visual manifestation of the contrast between volume and form. For the realization of a purely optical value would lead to an annihilation of form, that is, to the completely amorphous appearance of light, while conversely the realization of a purely haptic value would lead to a complete annihilation of all sensible volume, that is, to a wholly abstract geometric form” (47-48). This is interesting: thinking of it like an eye, “optic” means totally open, letting light in, putting up no resistance to it, and therefore what you get is just the volume, “an annihilation of form” — a pure ontology. (Of course this is possible only in theory.) “Haptic,” on the other hand, which literally means "relating to touch," is eyes closed, no light getting in at all: since we're talking about the visual, in this case we are just as it were imagining an artwork, rather than actually sensing any volume. (It’s a little confusing that Panofsky says this would be “a wholly abstract geometric form,” because it implies that it would have to look like a Mondrian or something; but if I’m understand him right, it could look like anything, the important thing is that it only exists as form, it hasn’t been manifested as a sensible object that has volume.)

Having done haptic vs. optic, Panofsky skips over to the third (compositional) pair of concepts, “fusing” versus “splitting,” which he calls “the specifically visual manifestation of the contrast between time and space. For a real complete amalgamation of single independent units can only be imagined within the medium of time, which cannot be split, while reciprocally a real and strict isolation of single units from each other is only imaginable in the medium of space, unpenetrated by any movement. The antithesis expressed in the third pair of concepts could thus be described as calmness and movement (being and becoming) if the concept of movement or becoming included not only a sense of the purely temporal but also the idea of a spatiotemporal event” (48).

Ow. Brain ache. So, we’re thinking about “composition” now — the “final region of the experiential” and “a unity of a higher order” — and in order to do this we have to think methodologically, which means thinking about the contrast between time and space. I think we’re trying to think of an artwork that has to be exactly as it is — “a real complete amalgamation of single independent units” — which means we apprehend it all at once as right (or successful, or unified, or whatever other term of praise you want to use). This happens in time, “which cannot be split”: that is, I think, you can’t divide a moment of your experience of a complex artwork and be looking at more than one thing at once: you have to look at each piece one at a time. In other words, you need to effect “a real and strict isolation of single units from each other” — which would presumably be necessary in order to critically examine the artwork, and really see how it all fits together? — can only happen in space, “unpenetrated by any movement” (and Panofsky is usually so symmetrical, I’m surprised he doesn’t say here that space “cannot be fused” — though again I’m not exactly sure what this would mean. What’s the contrast? Can time be fused?). The last sentence is more abstract, but it seems to make things a tiny bit easier: the compositional antithesis is between “calmness” and “movement,” “being” and “becoming,” and movement/becoming means a “spatiotemporal event” (scanning the canvas of a painting, in time). So, maybe all Panofsky is saying here is that the time element comes in at the compositional level? If so, that’s clear enough. Still, I’m not at all sure I’ve got the hang of this part; maybe I’m just not sure what “fusing” and “splitting” actually are. Perhaps I’ll come back to this.

He then doubles back to the middle figural pair of concepts — depth and surface — and says that this contrast “can be understood not only through the contrast between volume and form but also through the contrast between time and space, inasmuch as a specific relationship between depth and surface requires also a specific relation of optical and haptic values and a specific relation of fusing and splitting, movement and calmness” (48). Hmm… so it seems as if here Panofsky is saying that the figural is the synthesis of the elementary and the compositional, or (maybe better) the mediating level: it has to do with (“requires”) both space and time and openness and closedness.

To illustrate this, Panofsky brings in his first example: “The difference between ancient Egyptian and classical Greek reliefs is well known: in ancient Egyptian art an utterly flat or even sometimes a receding execution of the relief and an almost complete relinquishment of foreshortening eliminate any values of depth in favor of values of surface while in classical Greek art a measured depth of the relief and an equally measured foreshortening establish an equilibrium between values of depth and values of surface” (48). Egyptian relief: no depth, all surface:
Greek relief: equilibrium between depth and surface:
(Panofsky, I think it’s safe to infer, likes the Greek relief better; he’s bringing in this contrast because he wants an example of a more successful artwork to illustrate his theory. Again, we will just stipulate this value judgment for didactic purposes.) “In this example, it is clear that these solutions to the surface-depth problem, however they may be executed, are inevitably also linked to a corresponding solution of the problem of optical and haptic values as well as of the problem of the values of fusing (or movement) and splitting (isolation or calmness). In this example, the movement of one individual form and thus also the connection of various individual forms with each other is only possible on the condition that this one individual form is free to move from the second to the third dimension of space” (48). (Note that now Panofsky is suddenly back to talking about "problems" and "solutions." Where does he get this language from, I wonder? Is it Hegelian? Or is he using it in a logical sense?)

Again, just granting him that the Greek relief is better than the Egyptian, what Panofsky emphasizes as a criterion of excellence for art is the simultaneous solution of multiple fundamental problems in a single gesture or feature. “A solution of the surface-depth problem in favor of surface necessarily means also a solution of the contrast between calmness and movement, isolation and amalgamation, in favor of calmness and isolation, and vice versa. Likewise … a solution of the surface-depth problem in favor of surface means necessarily also a solution of the problem of the optical and haptic values in favor of the haptic, and vice versa. So, while the two other fundamental problems [viz., elementary and compositional] can be attributed either to the space-time antithesis or to the volume-form antithesis, the fundamental problem of … depth and … surface can actually be understood from both sides” (48-49).

I’m still not sure I’m getting what putting the figural in between the elementary and the compositional values does for Panofsky — but it’s clear enough what he’s positing as success in art: “It is this mediating role of the second fundamental problem that helps us to understand that within any one specific style all three fundamental problems can and have to be solved in one and the same sense” (49). That is, simultaneous solution is what he likes the best — and with this doctrine we may be within reach of Robert Graves, I.A. Richards, William Empson, and thus the New Criticism. But I’m going to stop there, on the verge of A3.3, and hope the foregoing gets clarified a little as I go along.