Monday, December 15, 2008

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.)