Friday, December 19, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 8

(Here’s another picture of Wolfgang, in a nice Christmas sweater.)

We are now getting to the "science" part promised by Panofsky's subtitle ("Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art"): “Insofar as art history as a pure science of things wants to understand the style of a work of art in stylistic analyses and even in pictorial descriptions it must assume a basis in the fundamental and individual artistic problems. Therefore the fundamental and individual art-theoretical problems are assumed to be already established, even in cases where the practicing scholar could not give an account of these problems and concepts themselves and might even deny their existence.” In other words, the fundamental conceptual problems are what the empirical, practicing scholar is responding to in the work of art, whether she knows it or not. In this respect, it’s like natural science: one geologist who looks at a rock with a certain set of concepts and another geologist who has another set are looking at the same rock, with the same properties, they’re just describing it differently.

“But as art history is only a pure science of things up to the point where it navigates on the basis of the problems as ascertained art theoretically and not when it reflects on them. In instances when this should happen, when the results of art-theoretical investigation do not govern the choice of observation and the construction of concepts within research from the outside but rather directly infiltrate art-historical thinking, art history would move from denoting and interpreting a set of facts in the material world to denoting and interpreting an abstract relation between the formulation of a problem and its solution. At this point art history would cease to be a pure science of things and a restricted historical discipline and would change into what might be described as a transcendental art-theoretical discipline or, more modestly and perhaps more accurately, as a fully interpretive enterprise” (63)

The distinction here is not between a good and a bad kind of art history (which, for Panofsky, would be an art history with and an art history without theoretical guidance, respectively). It’s between two modes of the good kind of art history: on the one hand, empirical observation informed by theory, which EP calls a “pure science of things”; and on the other, a kind of metadiscourse undertaken by theorists (or by the researcher wearing her theorist hat) which, while staying with the object, shuffles the middle-range (not the fundamental) concepts around, and is thus “fully interpretive.” (Interesting how Panofsky makes the big Kantian claim — to be “transcendental,” to be trafficking in the realm of pure metaphysical ideas rather than physical objects — and then backs away from it at once. Lorenz and Elsner, in their introduction, note that this essay is heavily Kantian in a way that Panofsky’s later, American work is not. So maybe that’s what’s going on here.)

This latter, interpretive theorizing is what Panofsky wants to have the right to do, but he, crucially, doesn’t think that everyone should have the right to do it.

“Researchers need not accept this change of states as long as they are content with a solely stylistic morphology, but they must be ready for it the moment they want to move from an understanding of stylistic symptoms (of style in its external sense) to an understanding of the stylistic nature of art — that is, an understanding of style in the internal sense or Kunstwollen” (63). Staying in the first mode, then, of the “pure science of things,” researchers can do plenty of things with artworks: they can do the kind of morphology, for instance, that was getting underway in Russia around that time and culminated in the work of Vladimir Propp (and is currently being revived by Franco Moretti): they can see what looks like what, and how a certain form might transform into another. But, invoking a comparison with medicine, Panofsky insists that these forms are only “symptoms.” (Among the many, many tempting detours I’m avoiding going down here is this pre-Lacanian/Althusserian/Žižekian use of “symptom.” Partly because I’m not convinced that I’d ever come back.) They are the outward signs of the will to make art, the Kunstwollen, but no matter how closely we examine them we aren’t going to fully understand why or how the artist did what she did.

“Because the principles of design in a work of art are nothing other than the artist’s comments, executed in this way or that, on the fundamental and individual artistic problems and because the underlying stylistic principle is nothing but the artist’s comment, executed in this way or that, on the artistic ur-problem, the principles of design and the underlying stylistic principle itself can only be understood if the understanding is based on an explicit confrontation with the problems” (63-64). So this is a funny kind of biographical criticism: one that wants to know what the artist thinks she’s doing, her intention, but that also views everything she does as nothing more than “comments” on pre-existing artistic problems, both fundamental (haptic vs. optic) and individual (how do I differentiate this column from the wall, or whatever). (“Comment” is a very weird word; I wonder what the German is.) But Panofsky’s opponent here is not Romantic, producer-centered theories of artistic creation (as Barthes’ and Foucault’s would later be) but hardcore empiricist art historians who think all one needs to do is collect objects and describe them: his point is you need to know the basic problems, which have been answered (or “commented on”) throughout art history, in order to know what the artist thinks she’s doing.

“Therefore art history as a pure science of things, because it only navigates according to the artistic problems but does not reflect on them, is capable of understanding stylistic criteria and their aggregates but not principles of design and their unity.” This is clear enough: art history without theory (or even a-h that excepts fundamental theoretical concepts, but doesn’t work with a theorist to refine and relate the second-order concepts to research findings) can draw up “criteria,” say what counts as art based on all previous known examples, but they can’t get a handle on the “principles of design” that determine artworks (principles which exist in the minds of artists). (Cf. Wittgenstein/Austin/Cavell on criteria. Or don’t.)

“This deeper understanding is reserved only for that form of study that is familiar with those problems that art history in the strict sense only assumes as known and that, by reflecting on them with the help of an art-theoretically constructed fundamental and specialist conceptual system, is capable of systematically dissecting the relations between the formulation of a problem and the solution of a problem.” The repeated key word here is “reflection,” an activity that follows upon fundamental theory and practical empirical research and reconciles them. (It seems to me that Panofsky owes more of a description of what reflection would actually look like, aside from some super-smart theorist ringing changes on a data set. But maybe it can be reconstructed from an account of his actual practice. I guess this would be a good first place to look.)

Then Panofsky does some algebra — which I hope I will be forgiven for leaving out because I don’t think it’ll make things any clearer (at least, for me) — the gist of which is: “In this way and only in this way can scientific study grasp style in its internal sense or Kunstwollen, which can be understood neither as the sum of sensible qualities nor as an aggregate of stylistic criteria but exclusively as unity within and above the principles of design, which not only requires a tacit relation to the results of art theory but a direct collaboration” (64-65). Collaboration between research and theory alone has a hope of getting a handle on Kunstwollen — that is, achieving a rough scholarly approximation of what it’s actually like to make art. (Value judgment mine.)

Panofsky’s final move, in section B, is a really interesting, ambitious one. It’s one that opens up the heretofore uncharted territory of comparativism, or the relation of the findings of art historical research (once it has passed through the refining process of theoretical reflection) to other disciplines within the faculty of the humanities: “If this Kunstwollen can reveal the immanent sense of the manifestation in question then there is no barrier to comparing this sense as articulated in visual-artistic phenomena with the sense of musical, poetic, and even extra-artistic phenomena. Absolutely all philosophical and religious doctrines as well as juridical statues and linguistic systems must be understood as solutions of philosophical, religious, juridical, and linguistic problems.” After having carefully limited himself to the discipline of art history throughout, Panofsky is all of a sudden advocating the application of his “fundamental problem” approach to the humanities as a whole. But even this is not all. “This is why all humanities disciplines are related to a science of art. Just as a science of art attests that within a certain artistic manifestation all artistic problems are solved in one and the same way, so the humanities in general can attempt to show that within a certain culture (which must itself be determined as regards epoch, region, and the persons involved) all intellectual problems, including the artistic, are solved in one and the same sense.”

Wait a second… “all intellectual problems … are solved in one and the same sense”? What would that even mean, practically? Also, how are we to define “a certain culture” — where does one stop and the next begin? (Cf. Wittgenstein on towns and concepts, or don’t.) It seems as though Panofsky’s made a quick turn from neo-Kantian to way way Hegelian, from Kunstwollen to Kulturwollen, a jump that seems to make EP himself a little nervous — witness the very tentative end of the paragraph: “Though one cannot ignore the dangers inherent in the practical application of this process of comparison, today perhaps practiced all too often (the will to unveil analogies can easily lead to interpreting the phenomenon in question in capricious and even brutal ways), one cannot deny on purely theoretical grounds that it is undoubtedly possible and justifiable” (65). I think he’s almost definitely gesturing at Marxism here, and perhaps other hasty totalizations of the social world — but here Panofsky seems to think that the risk of such theoretical abuses is a small price to pay for the promise of such a grand rationale for the humanities.