Wednesday, December 10, 2008

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.]