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.)