Monday, December 22, 2008

Panting After Panofsky - Pt. 9

The end of the essay is in sight! I was beginning to think I was going to be transcribing and paraphrasing Panofsky until well into 2009.

Everything in the study of art, then, is “directed towards understanding Kunstwollen,” the will or volition to make art — not simply will in the individual sense, but the collective will which is a historical product of all previous art history. “For this reason, not only should art theory have an interest in the continuing development of factual research (without which its concepts, to use Kantian terminology, would be empty), but empirical research on factual matters should have an interest in the prejudice-free development of art theory (without which its observations would be blind); and in the end both have to come together to work collaboratively, ideally within the same person.” (Here is confirmation of my two-hat theory.) In spite of the complicated conceptual torsions of Panofsky’s argument, the practical consequences of his contribution to this debate with Dorner are really quite simple: history needs theory, theory needs history, the ideal scholar of art will be adept in both.

He illustrates this thesis with reference to his predecessors Winckelmann and Rumohr, both of whom made use of a system of theoretical concepts as well as undertaking specific empirical research. They and others laid the groundwork for the discipline, and even those contemporary historians who eschew theory are working, whether they know it or not, with his forebears’ previously constructed concepts: “The art historian of today, who does not always need to develop his concepts himself, frequently avoids all such theoretical constructions; yet does this not mean that he can avoid their results consciously or unconsciously? [I feel as though the translation may have malfunctioned here; surely this is a rhetorical question, and should read “does this mean” for “does this not mean.”] And even today the approaches and conceptual constructions of the most empiricist art history are governed by art-theoretical thinking” (66).

This is why we need explicit methodology: to remind the empiricists that they’re already using somebody else’s concepts, constructed for a somewhat different use, that can always be reformulated and improved upon; and to remind the theorists that their proper role is to adjust their concepts to the needs of current empirical research. “It would be comfortable and certainly spare all methodological discussion from the start if art theory and art history really had nothing in common. Alas, in truth they rely on each other reciprocally,” Panofsky says, presenting the situation as a fait accompli that is only in need of being recognized and addressed. Furthermore, “this reciprocity is not a coincidence but the necessary result of the fact the work of art — like all productions of the creative mind — has the double characteristic of being determined by temporal and spatial circumstances on the one hand and on the other of forming a solution, conceptually timeless and absolute, of a priori constituted problems — of generating itself in the flow of historical making and yet reaching into the sphere of hyperhistorical validity” (67).

Once again, at the risk of deforming Panofsky’s thought a little, I’m going to use Bourdieu (as I understand him) to make better sense of this. Like the “field,” which PB claims has a twofold existence — subjectively in reality, and objectively in the minds of those who participate in it — for EP the work of art is both a historical object, determined in all sorts of ways by its position in time and space, and a trans- or hyperhistorical solution to a conceptual problem. This is a more logically rigorous version of the familiar expression that a work of art is “timeless”: in one sense it isn’t, and in another it certainly is; Panofsky’s claim is that the solution to the fundamental problems, qua solution, would still be satisfying even if it were possible to experience it completely de-worlded, outside of all historical space and time. But we never do see it this way, and even the most painstaking, philosophically impeccable art history or criticism won’t get us all the way to seeing a work as pure solution. We’ll always see it with the residue of history on it, the practical, historical, time- and space-determined marks of its creation.

Good art history can help, though, to convince us that a particular, specific, historically determined work is a solution to a fundamental artistic problem, even if we can’t completely see it that way. It has to make a claim that the work of art really has a dual existence. (In order to resist the transcendental, quasi-supernatural interpretation of these remarks, I’m going to read this as EP saying that art history can convince us that people — many people: the artist and the work’s original audience, but also its subsequent audiences and, potentially, us today — have given it this existence in their minds.) “Therefore an artistic phenomenon, if its to be fully understood in its uniqueness, makes a twofold claim,” Panofsky states: “on the one hand to be understood in its determination, that is, to be put within the historical context of cause and effect; and on the other hand to be understood in its absolutism, that is, to be lifted out of the historical context of cause and effect and, beyond all historical relativity, to be understood as a time- and spaceless solution of time- and spaceless problems.” Art history will then be about objectifying objects in such a way that they are not idealized (i.e., we realize that they are historical products; empirical research) while also convincing us of their subjective existence and value. A tricky business indeed, as Erwin himself admits. “In this lies the peculiar problem of all research in the humanities but also its peculiar appeal; ‘two weaknesses,’ Leonardo once said in relation to the architectural arch, ‘together form a strength’” (67).
I’m going to finish (except for that excursus on Dorner!) as Panofsky does, with three theses, which at this point are familiar enough not to need comment:

1. Art theory develops a system of fundamental concepts and, subordinately to these, a system of specialist concepts whose task is to formulate artistic problems, problems that let themselves fall into fundamental and individual problems and that can be deduced wholly from one unique ur-problem.

2. Art history as a pure science of things describes the sensible qualities of works of art by means of suggestive and demonstrative concepts and establishes the style in its external sense as an aggregate of stylistic criteria by means of interpretive/characterizing concepts. This purely morphological and stylistic operation has, consciously or subconsciously, to navigate according to those artistic problems that only art theory and not art history itself is capable of understanding and providing the concepts for.

3. Art history as a discipline of interpretation aiming to understand Kunstwollen is the result of a deep interconnection of art theory with purely empirical art history and must be constructed itself from the results of both. It demonstrates the relations between the sensible qualities of artworks and the artistic problems that are assumed by art history as a pure science of things, doing so explicitly and systematically and thus focusing no longer on a historical reality but on the relation between the formulation of a problem and its solution, which finds its expression in a historical reality.

In the relation of certain complexes of manifestation to certain fundamental and individual artistic problems, art history as a discipline of interpretation formulates certain principles of design. When it relates the entirety of complexes of manifestation to the artistic ur-problem, that is, to one underlying stylistic principle that bridges all the individual principles of design, then art history grasps Kunstwollen.

That pretty much covers it.