The Art of Camouflage: The Great War, Part One

Artists at War

Hide and Seek and Camouflage

One of the odd aspects of the Great War is the surprising fact that it was during these four years that the British artists not only met the challenge of depicting a new kind of war but they also left behind a unique legacy which took a Cubist-Futurist based visual vocabulary and transformed it onto a language for conflict. It is only with the British and Italian artists that the avant-garde goes to war in 1914 and each group took up a specific area of battle. The Futurists, with their fascination with machines, especially those that flew, specialized in airplanes. The British, trapped in trench warfare and bogged down in mud and corpses, showed the horrors of the ground war to a home audience, hungry for information. These two bodies of work from the British and Italian Futurists have been largely overlooked by traditional art history because art historians tend to not take British art seriously and because these bodies of work fall into what is considered a specialized area–“art of war.” The Italian contribution to the translation of aerial warfare into avant-garde art has long been buried under the weight of their pitiless Fascism. Only slowly are these Italian bodies of art being resurrected, now that enough time has past to distance the art from the taint of the glorification of war.

But the British art of the Great War bear no such stain. Instead the art produced by the English painters was a patriotic endeavor undertaken by artists who went to the battlefield, often not as soldiers but as support staff, nurses and medics to the fighting soldiers. The contribution of Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) was a case in point. In 1915, a year into the War, Wadsworth, very fascinated with the machine, created an imaginary machine. In “inventing” a machine, the artist takes a typically Vorticist approach to mechanization–an artist does not copy machinery or, as one sees in the Cubist-based art of Fernand Léger, refer to it–an artist becomes an engineer and makes machines. The fact that an artist invented mechanical device might have no purpose is simply beside the point, Wadsworth was drawing a picture, if you will, of the new world that echoes the famous statement “mechanization takes command” by Sigfried Giedion (1888–1968) and now commands the battlefields of that narrow arc transcribing the front lines in Belgium and France. It was this mythic Vorticist machine that had transformed conflict in ways that have rendered all historical forms of battle obsolete.

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According to Derweatts Bloomsbury Auctions, This 1936 lithograph was known for its controversial modernist depiction of a Vickers and Lewis Machine Gun from the Great War. Wadsworth’s offering for the 1936 poster campaign for the Lord Mayor’s Show caused public uproar as it was pasted on the London Transport network and was subsequently withdrawn from circulation after just 24 hours. Tainted by a climate of pre-war anxiety the British public took aversion to what they believed to be Wadsworth’s glorification of the weapons of war. Responding to these claims in the pages of the Daily Express the artist proclaimed, ‘If people object to this poster… they must object to the Lord Mayor’s Show. Better cancel the whole thing.’

One of the new machines that surfaced during the Great War was the submarine, perfected to a deadly threat by the German navy. The U-boat or Unterseeboot, “under sea boat” was at least two hundred fourteen feet long and carried of crew of over thirty. Hovering off the English coast and patrolling the Mediterranean, the role of the German submarine was to isolate Great Britain and cut off supplies, from food to munitions, vital to the war effort and to control shipping lanes to France. Like the newly formed air forces, the Royal Air Force or the Luftstreitkräfte, there were commanders in the submarine forces who proved to be all to adept at sinking Allied ships. The “ace” of the German submarine fleet was an officer who had French ancestry, Kapitänleutnant Lothar von Arnold de la Perière, whose prowess at sinking or damaging ships was astonishing. Commanding the U-35, he retired with a record of 195 ships sunk (455,869 tons) and 8 ships damaged (34,312 tons) and died in an air crash at Le Bourget airport in 1941.

Although this class of U-31 high sea submarines carried only six torpedoes, Arnold de la Perière usually deployed his deck gun to dispatch his prey and remains to this day the most successful submarine commander of all time, having the lion’s share of Imperial sinkings. The entire German count for all of their submarine fleet was 230, and this extraordinary record of destruction can be explained by the novelty of this new weapon and by the lack of radar which, in the Second World War, could detect the under water vessel. As John Abbatiello, an military expert on anti-submarine warfare, pointed out, “Submarines had poor visibility, lying low on the water, but enjoyed the advantages of stealth, and escaping counterattack by diving.” For a slow and heavy laden cargo ship or a lumbering destroyer, there were few recourses to a foe lying concealed and in wait, but the Allies were able to combine into convoys which allowed the assembled ships to turn on an attacker. By the end of the Great War, the British also used airplanes to attack the submarines which had to surface in order to kill. In the end, the score was almost even, with the German submarine fleet losing one hundred seventy eight boats.

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Willy Stöwer. Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpool (1915)

For the first time, thanks to this scourge of submarine warfare, so expertly practiced by the Germans, it was necessary to conceal the unconcealable–large ships–through camouflage. Although the art of concealment was known in the animal kingdom, humans used camouflage in hunting with the idea of blending in with the natural environment. But the idea of camouflage in warfare was relatively new. On land, massed regiments simply marched towards each other and fired their weapons, which created clouds of concealing smoke. Until the mid nineteenth century, the loading of guns was a slow and laborious process and the soldier was limited to one shot at time. The early guns were difficult to aim and were less than accurate. On the sea, ships towered above the waves with billowing sails and guns mounted below the high decks. As on land, it was necessary to see the enemy in order to fight the enemy. The notion of “skirmishing,” developed by the British army early in the nineteenth century, in which riflemen in green uniforms harassed the front lines of the enemy. During the Peninsula Wars, Wellington proved to be a master at this new form of deployment against Napoléon’s occupying army, considered not only novel but also comical at the time. But skirmishing itself was a form of camouflage itself: the skirmishers were a body of snipers sent to attack the front lines of the enemy, disrupting the steady forward marching of the massed regiments. So effective could these offenses be that although the skirmishers lay in wait and fired from concealed positions, they could be mistaken for the main body, confusing the enemy.

Indeed, fifteen years before Wellington’s green clad infantry were sniping at the French in Spain, Captain Charles Hamilton-Smith conducted an experiment for the Royal Engineers and stated,

Under general circumstances; and in battles, when the distance, the smoke of cannon and musketry, partially, at least, concealed contending armies from each other, glaring uniforms may not have caused serious bloodshed; but in the later wars, and the mode of engaging introduced during the French Revolution, where the rifle service is greatly increased, and clouds of skirmishing light Infantry cover the front of their forces so far in advance as to be checked only by similar combatants pushed forward by the opposing army, the fire of both parties is commonly guided by individual aim, and good marksmen make considerable havoc. The colour of the uniform becomes therefore a question of importance, particularly where it is of so distinct a nature as to offer a clear object to the marksman.

Hamilton-Smith’s experiment was a clear warning that colorful uniforms could not withstand a modern war and his research indicated that the proper color for the modern military uniform was gray. It was take fifty years before the British army could be dislodged from its stylish preference for red, and it was in India in 1848 that the military began to use official uniforms that suited the climate and the terrain. These uniforms were not gray, as recommended by Hamilton-Smith in 1800, but a new color, “khaki,” meaning “dust,” derived from the mazari palm. Stationed in India in 1846, Sir Henry Lumsden, realized the bright white pants and hot red felt coat of the standard British uniform were simply unsuitable to India and he started with his own loose fitting pajamas which he dyed with mazari, an innovation that led to the khaki uniform, approved by the colonial army in India. The regiments who were not provided appropriate clothing took things into their own hands and devised their own uniforms from light weight cloth stained with tea. However obtained, these new colors and new outfits were instantly recognized as serviceable as camouflage out in the “land of dust” that was India. The exact sequence of the adaptation of the khaki color by the British military is a matter of some discussion, and it should be noted that these “khakis” were mostly home-brewed affairs until 1884 Spinners Co. Ltd. of Manchester developed a reliable dye for the uniforms.

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And now one hundred years later, the unanswerable submarine warfare had to be answered by any means possible. There were precedents for camouflaged ships: in the age of cannons, some ships draped painted canvases over the ports to conceal how well-armed they were and two hundred years later, the USS Narkeeta covered itself with brickwork to confuse the enemy. One of the problems with large ships is that they were, in contrast to a motionless animal in nature or a stilled sharpshooter in war, moving, positioned between sky and sea, a dual background that was both static and in motion. The constantly changing weather at sea was another factor: how to conceal within a range from fog to to storm to rain to full sunlight? The other issue is that, unlike a large gun emplacement, which was immobile, the mind of the observer had to be confused in an entirely different way. In other words, one could visually and mentally construct continuity with between a motionless dappled covering and its surroundings, but the challenge with ships was to confuse the enemy, not with concealment, but with the disruption of aim. The precision of the guns had to be confused. Recall that the ace German submarine commander, who was probably responsible for the need to develop a special camouflage for ships at sea, destroyed ships more often with surface guns that with torpedoes.

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USS Narkeeta

As with static camouflage, the artists were deployed to create special effects. It is a measure to the difficulty the problem of camouflaging ships that it was not until 1917, three years into the war, that an effective method was finally developed by a marine artist Norman Wilkinson (1878-1971. Wilkinson, a rather bad artist of seascapes, largely derived from Turner, was serving in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on a minesweeping vessel. The artist had served in Gallipoli and so he was an experienced soldier interested in serving his country. In sharp contrast to the French artists, only some of whom served in active combat, even older English artists joined up. One of these indefatigable mature soldiers was Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927), an Anglo-Jewish painter, not to be confused with the Pre-Raphaelite artist, a famous gay artist, Simeon Solomon who had been charged with sex crimes in 1873 and died alcoholic and destitute in 1905. Like Wilkinson, Solomon was not the greatest of artists but he had game, and the English portraitist became an “R.A.” and depicted King George V, the Queen Mary and Edward the Duke of Windsor in the famous Coronation Luncheon group portrait of 1911.

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The fact that he was fashionable and important and portly did not prevent Solomon from joining, as a private soldier, a volunteer corps for home defense, The United Arts Rifles or “The Unshrinkables,” according to Nicholas Rankin author of A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars, a 2008 book that briefly discussed Solomon. The home guard drilled in Piccadilly, near the Royal Academy, and somehow in the fertile brain of Solomon an idea based upon nature came to his head: camouflage. In 1915, he advertised his skills as an artist to The Times in 1915, under the title, “Uniform and color”–“A knowledge of light and shade and its effect on the landscape is a necessary aid to the imagination of a designer of the uniform in particular, and the appearances of war in general.” His suggestions for military uniforms were both based on previous British experiments with khaki and added some advice on “warships. The North Sea is almost invariably a pearly green, and experiments with models should evolve something more subtle than their metallic hue.”

Solomon had spent some time screening trenches with dyed and tinted sheets of muslin to shield trenches from the cameras of aircraft flying above. In these opening years of the War, airplanes were largely used to photograph trenches and almost a half million aerial photographs were developed for the Allies alone. The idea of camouflaging trenches was a good one, but it was also highly impractical, given the constant barraging of the lines and the impossibility of hiding hundreds of miles of emplacements–and four lines of trenches at that–that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. Interestingly, although Hamilton-Smith’s report was one hundred years old and khaki was over fifty years old, according to Rankin, the word “camouflage” was not included in the Encyclopedia Brittanica before the War.

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Camouflaged Communication Trench to Company HQ, Picantina: panoramic sketch of communication trenches and a bomb damaged building amongst bare tree stumps just behind the front line. A barrel stands in the left foreground (September 1916)

But in 1920 camouflage expert Solomon,who had already written The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing in 1911, published another and very different book, Strategic Camouflage. In a section devoted to camouflaging buildings which concealed trenches and other strategic points, he wrote advice to an artist,

Or you can make a lean-to against the south side of a roof, and cover up the whole yard without any but an expert being the wiser, if you use a little skill. But you must be careful that the airman does not take an oblique view of your camouflage, if other houses in the same line or parallel are left to expose their whitewashed sides, windows, and doors, to mark the contrast with what you have shut off from view by your lean-to. In every case it is not wise to interfere with the rigid outline of your roof at the eaves.

It should be noted that Solomon’s approach to concealment in that he is thinking in terms of trompe l’oeil is purely academic and based upon his studies of reproducing nature in art. While the French artists were inspired by avant-garde art, particularly Cubism as Picasso famously claimed, the English artists came to the fine art of concealment and confusion by more circuitous routes. The extremely difficult of hiding a huge ship slowly ploughing the waves of the changeable sea was solved by Norman Wilkinson, two years after Solomon was spreading his muslim tarpaulins over trenches. The next post will discuss the joint operation between Wilkinson and Edward Wadsworth.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy, Part One

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN (1889 – 1951)

Part One: Early Work

During the War to End all Wars, it would be the self-appointed task of an obscure Austrian philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein but bring Kantian philosophy to its logical conclusion. As biographer Edward Kanterian noted in the 2007 book, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wittgenstein began writing his seminal work two days after he volunteered to serve with the Austrian army. The son of a cultured and wealthy Viennese family, the young man began writing while the European continent was mired in trench warfare and ended his studies in an Italian prison camp. “My work has extended from the foundations of logic to the nature of the world,” he remarked in 1916. The result of Wittgenstein’s wartime work was a book that would change philosophy, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein was but one philosopher who was part of an Anglo-American shift to an analytic and pragmatic philosophy, the next stage after positivism and materialism. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Analytic philosophy would be countered by existentialist movements, such as the “vitalism” of Henri Bergson, and the neo-Kantian or Kantian revivals in both Germany and France.

As Bertrand Russell explained in the Introduction to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein used the terms “symbol” and “language” interchangeably, meaning that language is a form of symbolism. The study of language, linguistics, as seen in the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure and Ludwig Wittgenstein was also an acceptance of the “Kantian paradigm,” without the transcendental aspects of Kant’s thinking. Yes, the mind structures reality which is expressed through the only available tool: language. Without getting into a debate about the a priori, analytic philosophy is based upon logic or analyzes that which can be deduced only from that which is observed. As Russell explained, Wittgenstein asserted that “Every philosophical proposition is bad grammar…A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions,’ but to make propositions clear.” The result–a statement about reality can be expressed only in language–would be, for Wittgenstein—the end of philosophy itself. Or so he thought, until he changed his mind.

To say that there is only one way to explain the world and that way is language is put aside the question of whether or not we can ever truly experience “reality.” Once that question of “reality” is removed from the dialogue, another question surfaces: the obvious direction of philosophy becomes whether or not we can ever know the world. Given that all we have is words, the epistemological grounds are based upon how we use language: what is appropriate to say or not, what constitutes a meaningful statement and what statements are, according to Wittgenstein, mere metaphysics. For Wittgenstein, “Metaphysics” takes on another meaning. In contrast to Kant, for whom metaphysics had the taint of superstition and mysticism, and in contrast to the materialists, for whom metaphysics was the same as idealism or the transcendental a priori, for Wittgenstein, metaphysics was improperly concerned statements that could not be proved or was about subjects that were inaccessible. Yes, one can talk about magic, but why bother?

Wittgenstein announced that “It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense” in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1918 (published in German in 1921 and in English in 1922). His compilation of philosophical remarks was turned into a treatise and after the Great War, he returned to his mentor, Bertrand Russell at Trinity College and announced he had succeeded in solving all philosophical problems. Wittgenstein opened the Tractatus with Hemingway beautiful writing: “The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of the facts, not of things.The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.” Wittgenstein developed the notion of the proposition, that is, a statement about the world. A proposition can be complex but it can be meaningful only if it can be broken down into smaller components—simpler propositions—that in turn can be broken down into elements that are elementary: names.

The Austrian philosopher was interested in names and in the act of naming or pointing. Names are the terminus of analysis; they are the simple signs of simple objects. “Simple” means, in this context, that the element “named” cannot be defined or talked about and can only be shown (by pointing). These “primitive names” refer to a simple object that can be elucidated by primitive propositions and without these acts of pointing and naming. Without a point of reference, the sentence would be meaningless. “Meaningless” does not mean that the sentence cannot be understood. “Meaningless” means that a sentence without a reference is nonsense. The “mystical” is “thing that cannot be put into words”. Wittgenstein was inspired by reading of a trial in which the lawyers replayed an event using dolls and toys that served both as a point of reference and as a means of re-enactment. From this inspiration, he developed the “Picture Theory,” which Wittgenstein explained as, We picture facts to ourselves…The picture must have something in common with what it depicts. What it has in common is its pictorial form.”

A proposition, like a picture, must have a logical form, for without a logical form, it would be “nothing about the world”. For Wittgenstein, there are three types of expression: tautologies, contradiction, and propositions with sense. The first two say nothing useful or “nothing” while propositions show what they say. We can say nothing about the world as a whole. We can show that language has a relation to the world but we cannot say what the relation is. In the end we are constrained by this finitude: we are imprisoned in language and the world we live in is bounded by this language. Philosophy has been reduced to an activity of displaying the limits of what can be said. As Wittgenstein stated, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” and “What we cannot speak about we must consign to silence.” Thus ended the Tractatus.

There were years in which the philosopher “retired” from philosophy. The son of a wealthy family, he had given up his inherited wealth in 1913 and, after the War became a school teacher in rural Austria. Coming from a family in which three of the sons had committed suicide, Wittgenstein was ill-suited for such a job and was strict and difficult towards his students—allegedly beating some of the boys—and spent the later years of the twenties designing a severely restrained home, in the manner of Adolf Loos, in Vienna for his sister, Gretl. The house, Wittgenstein’s only architectural work, is an austere and stern masterpiece, one of the great works of modernist architecture.

However, Wittgenstein was disturbed by his own philosophical conclusions laid out so clearly and clearly in the Tractatus, because, however, impeccably logical the philosopher had been, under his analysis much of what people say was declared to be out of bounds of “philosophical investigation.” Fortunately for school children everywhere and unfortunately for architecture, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and mentored a generation of older (and more controllable) college students. It is only at this point, in 1929, did Wittgenstein submit the Tractatus as his dissertation and join the faculty. His biographer, Norman Malcolm, a former students wrote movingly three years after Wittgenstein’s death of his former mentor in Ludwig Wittgenstein. A Life. Malcolm explained that Wittgenstein never wrote down his lectures and spoke entirely extemporaneously as he labored intellectually to move away from his early work to his later thoughts. As Malcolm stated, “It has been said that Wittgenstein inspired two important schools of thought, both of which he repudiated.” For the rest of his life, Wittgenstein published nothing.

In his 1930s lectures to his students at Cambridge, later published as The Blue and the Brown Books, an older Wittgenstein rethought Tractatus. These “books” were these free form lectures written down by his worshiping students and are rare records of philosophical thinking, later formalized into what Malcolm called “the Oxford School” of linguistic philosophy. It was the Blue Book which introduced the new idea of meaning: meaning is in the use; and the Brown Book developed the concept of “language games,” in which words are used in particular ways and are connected through use and “family resemblances.” In other words, words have no fixed and final meaning; and, contrary to Tractatus, there is no link between language and reality. Named after the color of the papers that bound them, the “books,” published in 1958, are repudiations of Wittgenstein’s early work and lead to the publication of more posthumous works which continues his free form discussions of meaning, Philosophical Investigations (1958) and Philosophical Grammar (1969). The next post will discuss the late work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three

ERWIN PANOFSKY AND ICONOGRAPHY

Part Three: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

As has often been pointed out, the exodus of Jewish scholars from Germany was one of the greatest brain drains of talent of the 20th or any other century. “Hitler shakes the trees, and I pick up the apples.” This famous quote is attributed to Walter Cook who founded the Fine Arts Department of New York University ( now the Institute of Fine Arts, also known as “The Institute) and moved his scholars to a brownstone next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Harry Bober in “The Gothic Tower and the Stork Club,” Panofsky was “one of the more resplendent golden apples, joining the department in 1931. The ideas of Erwin Panofsky and how they were employed or not have depended upon trends in art history. When Panofsky became part of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (called “The Institute” by those in the know) in 1933, his iconographical system found a permanent home . The discipline of art history in America was greatly enriched by his intellectual and philosophical approach and put what was still a relatively new field of study in his new country on a sounder footing.

Because many of its scholars were Jewish, art history was hunted from Europe by the Nazis. They fled to America, bringing with them concepts based upon European philosophy that were ill-understood by their new students. Traditionally, the American version of his signature idea: iconography, was greatly simplified into a clunky game of matching symbols (icon) to symbolism (iconography), while neglecting the cultural basis for the meanings (iconology). That said, when Panofsky arrived at Princeton with his Kantian-inspired system, he met with opposition from another branch of Kantian thought–formalist art history and yet another bastion of artistic thought, Marxism. For art historians, Marxist thought or the assertion of Karl Marx that the economy was the “secret engine” of society, was a fruitful way of examining a work of art, for a Marxist analysis would remove the “veil” of the “natural” and reveal the economic basis of the work itself. Formalist art historians, however, preferred to look directly at the work itself and not at the society that produced it. Rather than thinking of these two methods as complementing each other or as adding to a fuller picture of the art, the discipline tended to place Formalism and Marxism as polar (and political) opposites.

When Panofsky arrived in America, the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin’s approach to “style” and the materialism of Marxism had become the leading modes of art historical and art critical thinking. The Marxist approach, exemplified by the writings of Meyer Schapiro (1914-1996), was on full view in Schapiro’s famous battle with Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of MoMA. Barr’s famous 1936 “Chart” of avant-garde movements in his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art removed art from any historical or cultural context and presented the movements as independent of social forces. In comparison to Barr’s art-for-art’s sake approach, Schapiro was a life-long Marxist who had more in common with Walter Benjamin than with the more orthodox Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser. Before and after the Second World War, Formalism and Marxism, softened semantically to the “social” approach to art history, were the dominant modes of art history methodology, but, due to its political connections, Marxism waned and Panofsky’s iconography moved to the fore. But when Marxism made a comeback during the sixties and seventies, the symbolic meaning of art receded until the late 1980s and early 1990s with the books of Michael Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art and his student, Michael Ann Holly’s Panofsky’ and the Foundations of Art History. Panofsky’s methods were seen as part of The New Art History or a more modern way of looking at art in historical context, one of Panofsky’s basic tenets.

As Holly’s book outlines, Panofsky’s intellectual antecedents were complex. As an art historian, he felt that his primary task was to make sure that his studies of works of art rested on a firm foundation or to establish an epistemology of art history. In his opinion, the Formalist methodology of Heinrich Wölfflin was founded on a particular judgment or a personal interpretation of the stylistic elements of any given work of art, and that, therefore, the observations of Wölfflin or any other formalist art historian did not have the necessary epistemological depth. What Panosksy wanted to do was to provide art history with a Kantian a priori, to fix art historical methods in the realms of a universal or necessary judgment. It would take Panofsky two decades to work out his approach and he would deploy his intellectual heritage from pre-war Germany to do so.

For the early art historians, the most important fields of study, indeed the founding fields of the discipline, were the art of Antique, Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is this sweep of Western civilization, told as a series of recurrences of the classical culture and as the struggle to find and retain the powers of reason. Panofsky was the student of Aby Warburg who was fascinated with the recurrence of persistent motifs in art and literature, stretching from ancient times to the Renaissance. Panofsky’s early writings reflect Warburg’s interest in the motifs of Renaissance art, but, as Michael Podro pointed out, Warburg combined Georg Hegel’s dialectic of conflict: thesis and anti-thesis with Sigmund Freud’s belief that society was forced to repress primal instincts and desires of human beings in order to govern its members. Warburg noted the tensions (dialectic) in Renaissance art, the tensions of psychological repressions, and the struggle of the artists and writers to overcome the “superstitions” of the medieval Church.

Panofsky gently swerved away from his mentor’s Freudian or psychological method and turned to the more secure neo-Kantian approach of philosopher Ernst Cassirer and that of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. As Michael Podro pointed out,

What then could provide an absolute viewpoint form which we might elucidate a painting or a building? Panofsky takes as a model for the kind of interpretation he wants the Kantian conception of what makes a judgment scientific. What makes a judgment about the world a scientific judgment, as opposed to a merely personal report, is its causal character, and this causal character or structure is not, in Kant’s view, derived empirically but is injected into experience by the mind…What was important for Panofsky was that it was assumed to be a concept we did not derive from experience but one which we brought to experience in order to give it its intelligibility.

The central problem that faces any historian is that of anachronism—-of looking at history from the standpoint of the present and for Panofsky the way to solve this inherent difficulty was to remain firmly fixed in the culture of the work of art itself, not the culture of the present time. The problem of anachronism was also the problem of Formalism, i.e. that observation had to have a causal component beyond the thing observed and reported upon. It was not until 1939 that Panofsky published a series of articles/lectures that certainly stemmed from his work as a professor at the Institute, Studies in Iconology. To study “iconology” is to study the meaning of a work of art: the meaning that was embedded in the culture, the meaning that was in the mind of the artist, consciously or not as a kind of “collective unconscious.” In the introduction of this book, the art historian establishes his methodology: what he was opposed to and how he resolved the problems of meaning and interpretation of works of art. Panofsky began his Studies with this statement:

Iconography is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the one hand and form on the other…The meaning thus discovered may be called intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape. This intrinsic meaning or content is, of course, as much above the sphere of conscious volitions as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Panofksy established a layered or step-by-step method that was slow and deliberate, requiring an extensive education on not just the work of art but also of its culture of origin. The tripartite iconographical method of layered meanings or strata, has its basis not just in the Warburgian notion of motif but also in the ideas of Saussure. If, for the linguist Saussure, words were signs that were signifiers for the thing signified, than for Panofsky, the work of art could be understood as a visual language in terms of the sign, signifier and the signified or icon, iconography, and iconology. Panofsky continued his opposition to formalism by stating that the “pre-iconographical description” was a “pseudo-formal analysis,” but that this first take was a “practical experience” that was “controlled” by the history of style. Moving up from the bottom to the next layer or level of meaning, Panofsky introduced the “secondary” or “iconographical analysis” that required “knowledge of literary sources that concerned historical themes or concepts.” It is with the last or highest level of interpretation that Panofsky acknowledged Ernst Cassirer: iconology is the “intrinsic meaning,” that is, the “iconological interpretation” is the history of “cultural symptoms” or the “essential tendencies of the human mind.”

Although subsequently in American art history, Panofsky’s Hegelian methods have often stalled at the iconographical level with few art historians being willing to look for the “symbolic forms” or “symptoms” in works of art. Part of the reason for the impoverished use of Panofsky is the inevitable loss of intellectual background when the art historian emigrated to America, and another reason for the loss of the philosophical background was the division of universities and colleges into distinct departments, dividing disciplines, like history, art history and philosophy, which were in actuality part of one another into artificially separated entities. As Holly pointed out,

Art historians not acquainted with the background of many of Panofsky’s ideas frequently see in his later work merely a practical program for the deciphering of specific and not-so-hidden symbols in visual images. Iconology, despite Panofsky’s emphasis on semantics, is still understood as only a slightly more refined and sophisticated version of iconography.

Just as the three layers of meaning combine Saussure and Cassirer, Panofsky’s famous concept of “disguised symbolism,” developed in his 1953 essay Early Netherlandish Painting, reveals his neo-Kantian insistence on finding the epistemology for a work of art and in establishing the epistemology for art history. Art is embedded in a épistémè that is clearly visible in Netherlandish painting of Jan van Eyck, but in Panofsky’s account of late Medieval art in Northern Europe, we find echoes of Warburg. Here is an artist, van Eyck, who is part of a “superstitious” spiritual culture but who is also living in a new world of reason and science. “A way had to be found to reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition,” Panofsky wrote and noted that “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feeel the need to saturate all its elements with meaning.” To miss this mind set, this struggle between faith and science is to miss, not just Panofsky’s epistemology of art history but also to miss the meaning of the work of art itself.

The first post in the series discussed Panofsky’s intellectual background with the second post explaining the idea of symbolic form.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Erwin Panofsky and Art History, Part Two

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part Two: The System of Meaning: Art History as Symbolic Form

Like the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky considered social acts to be not natural but linguistic forms, which are cultural, and thus subject to human interpretation. As a social act, any work of art is a cultural artifact, and, as such, must function as a means of communication with its public and act as an object of visual language. This language speaks, as it were, through symbolic codes or a system of writing through pictures, called “iconography.” “Iconography,” Panofsky stated, “is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” But the road to iconography was a long one, a journey through turn of the century attempts to put philosophy on the same certain basis as science.

Panofsky, as a student of Aby Warburg, was also the heir to late nineteenth-early twentieth century thinking that attempted to combine idealism and scientific thinking into a new absolute philosophy. In fact, Ernst Cassirer, one of the mentors for Panofsky, had begun his career in the philosophy of science. The copious writings of Panofsky can be situated squarely in this philosophical tradition and his philosophical take on art history was part of his effort to make of art history a solid “humanistic discipline” that was grounded in a solid epistemology. The art historian, as noted in the first part of the posts on Panofsky, staked out territory that separated his approach to art history from that of Heinrich Wölfflin, who stressed period styles, and from what art historian Christopher S. Wood in his preface to Panofksy’s 1927 Perspective as Symbolic Form, called the “homemade concept” crafted by Alois Rigel: Kunstwollen, or artistic will or volition.

Indeed in his famous 1940 essay, “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline,” Panofsky began by comparing the humanist to the scientist, but the comparison was challenged when it had to be acknowledge that unlike the scientist who confronted a static mindless object, the art historian worked with a work of art, a product of Kunstwollen. As Panofsky asked, “How, then, is it possible to built up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process?” According to Wood, Panofsky attempted to salvage Riegl and to re-locate artistic creativity in Ernst Cassirer’s neo-Kantian idea of “symbolic form.” As Panofsky stated in “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925),

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.

Previous art historians had followed either Kantian or Hegelian abstract structures and explained art in terms of formal categories. Alois Riegl, for example, worked in Hegelian dialectics by analyzing art within binary categories of internal-external, haptic-optic, and coordination-subordination, which he considered to be the deep structures of the work. Riegl considered the engine of this system to be Kunstwollen, which is a bracketing device that allows the study of art to be a study in form. Panofsky attempted to address the neglect of the meaning of art objects, by stating in his 1920 essay, “The Concept of Artistic Volition,” that, “Artistic products,” “are not statements by subjects, but formulations of material, not events, but results.”

To develop his concept of iconography, Panofsky drew together a number of philosophical ideas, replacing the notion of Kunstwollen with Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms and used neo-Kantianism to analyze art through a priori categories. Ernst Cassirer’s symbolic forms are deeply spiritual, but their embedded meaning is attached to a concrete and material sign. Panofsky moved from the level of form to the level of structure by understanding that artistic perception was a special case of cognition. His most famous case study is his study of perception when he examined Renaissance perspective as symbolic form. Perspective as Symbolic Form, his most explicit revelation of the impact of Cassirer and neo-Kantian thought was a very impactful essay buttressed with extensive and erudite footnotes was a legend for those not fluent in high German until it was translated into English in 1991.

For Panofsky, perspective is an example of a “will to form” that was an unnatural invention of a particular period of time, the Renaissance. The symbolic form functioned at the structural level and the Renaissance version of perspective is comprehensible only for the modern sense of organized and structured space. Panofsky asserted that perspective is a form of thought and that thought is culturally bound to a place and time, a position of relativism that rested uncomfortably with the desired transcendence of symbolic form. The essay suggests that perspective is part of a change in world view, the shift in point of view from the infinity of religion where Earth is the center of the universe to a heliocentric world based on science. According to Panofsky, referring to perspective,

This formula also suggests that as soon as perspective ceased to be a technical and mathematical problem, it was bound to become al all that much more of an artistic problem. For perspective is by nature a two-edged sword: it creates room for bodies to expand plastically and move gesturally, and yet at the same time it enables light to spread out in space and in a painterly way to dissolve the bodies.

Experience or Welt is associated with Space as Experience and this experience is expressed in a linear fashion as a pictorial device in painting. For example, modern Western art based itself upon science, emulating the mindset of newly discovered humanistic values in the Fifteenth Century. Developed by architects to both measure and to map virtual space, “perspective” was an artistic language that was a sensuous and an intellectual (aesthetic) manifestation of a culture and its needs. Thus, following the thinking of his colleague, Ernst Cassirer who considered art to be a symbolic form, and perspective, for Panofsky, becomes symbolic form.

In 1951, Panofsky expanded upon this notion of symbolic form as a way of thinking that permeated an entire culture in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, which precisely compared the way in which cathedrals were conceived and the way in which ecclesiastical literature was organized. Pierre Bourdieu, the French theorist, profoundly influenced by Panofsky’s idea of symbolic form, wrote in 1967 “Postface to Erwin Panofsky Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, of the Gothic imagination as a specific form of thought that produced buildings whose designs concretized and expressed the form of thought symbolically. Bourdieu used his own term, “habitus,” or an affinity among supposed different objects, to explain the existence of a mindset “..though which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most creative acts.”

As a form that symbolized a society’s desire to master territory and to understand space, perspective is a formal system that exhibits a system of relationships or formal principles that underlie the mental structures of the Renaissance. A Marxist, therefore, would have insisted that perspective reflected the new world of commerce that required mathematical measurement of all things. But there is another way of interpreting perspective as a symbolic manifestation of cultural cognitive structures. These structures produce a certain way of seeing the world that depends upon deeper formal codes of knowledge. Perspective painting originates in the human intellect as an artificial convention of seeing. This Renaissance way of seeing is a canon of representation that is also the history of how a culture thinks and sees. Panofsky takes up a task elided by Saussure, the problem of the diachronic aspect of language as a particular culture that expressed itself in a certain fashion through art forms at particular times.

Although perspective was uniquely a Renaissance invention of necessity, five hundred years later, we are still convinced that we “see” in perspective and we still draw “realistically” in perspective, still using the devices invented by Brunelleschi and Alberti. But Panofsky undermines the apparent “naturalness” of perspective. The Renaissance invented an equilibrium between the subject and the object and linear perspective is simply a necessary abstraction for practical empiricism and solves the problem of how to reproduce three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The abstraction of the system is manifested through the artificial construction that keeps the object within certain spatial limits. The system depends upon a single, stable, and immobilized eye and does not recognize infinity. The space is mathematical and produces an adequate reproduction of an optical image. Representation takes place within a closed interior space or a hollow body or box that increased in its scope with the invention of the vanishing point that expresses infinite space (without depicting infinity). Perspective is the mathematical realization of an image of space.

Symbolic forms may manifest themselves as the deep structure of works of art, as habits of cognition. Panofsky discussed perspective as “symbolic form” in that perspective is not natural but artificial and needs to be understood within a cultural system that is an expression of an era.The new symbolic form comes about as the result of a Hegelian agonistic resolution of conflicts. Historical change is a series of syntheses, but for Panofsky, art will move in a schema of advances and reversals, rather than thesis and antithesis. In other words, art will recoil and reverse direction and abandon previous achievements. Today, the work of Panofsky is still prevalent in art history but is usually employed clumsily and superficially, with most adherents to his methods limiting themselves to a simplistic reading of symbols without understanding the complex network of relations that allow the symbols to function and ignoring the cultural context that engendered these symbols. Nevertheless, art history can claim the distinction of being the first humanistic discipline that responded to the linguistic claims of structuralism.

Symbolic forms are the deep structures of thought, functioning as an épistémè. But works of art manifest aspects of for example how people in Medieval times, such as Panofsky’s 1934 essay on the Arnolofini Wedding as an example of “disguised symbolism,” and the art historian needed a method to interpret the (superficial) visual codes. Panofsky, impacted by the semiotic work of Charles Sanders Peirce, organized visual language into 1. The pre-iconographical analysis, or what he terms “practical experience,” which is the primary, natural or factual expression which, when seen, must be subjected to 2. An iconographical analysis, or “knowledge of literary sources,” which decodes the image into conventional meaning. But this conventional meaning is part of a vaster system, a world of symbolic values that must be investigated through 3. an iconological analysis, a “synthetic intuition,” which is a study of the culture that produced the initial sign. Unlike iconography, which requires the viewer to know literary sources, themes and concepts and the history of visual types, iconology requires to the spectator to be conversant with the history of cultural symptoms that are essential tendencies of the human mind–the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Panofsky stated,

…as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms–or symbols in Ernst Cassirer’s sense…

Iconography is not merely a decoding of symbols, not only an identification of icons; iconography reveals the basic attitudes of a nation, of a period, of a class or of a religion. The icon developed by the society is qualified by the artist’s personality but the symbolic values expressed must ultimately be manifestations of an underlying principle or structure. Iconography as a method of interpretation is an act of synthesis, in the Kantian sense, a putting together of identification or analysis that leads to interpretation. The recognition of the icon presupposes familiarity with the themes and concepts of the culture and its historical conditions. This synthesis takes place at the iconological level or third level where the cultural symbols are also the intuitions of the human mind.

To state Panofsky’s approach to art in Kantian terms, he has put forward a new theoretical manifesto. There are a priori categories that are independent of experience and are purely intellectual and are transcendental. Time and Space are antithetical and must be balanced into a unity that is art. This unity (symbolic form) or sinn is the intrinsic meaning of the art of a period and this unity spans the usual distinction between form and content. Painting in perspective, in other words, is a desire to order the world in a certain way. Between form and content is a middle ground: symbolic form, a concept derived from Ernst Cassirer, which is the sole object of Panofsky’s study.

The first part of the series discusses European philosophical ideas while third and final post on Erwin Panofsky will describe his system of iconography.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Erwin Panofsky: Art History and Philosophy

ERWIN PANOFSKY (1892-1968)

Part One: The Antecedents of Iconography

To be an art historian in Germany or Austria, the sites where the study of the discipline was both founded and developed, was to be a member of an intellectual elite. The study of art in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century was based as much on private art collections, and the ability to gain access to these homes, as upon the study of art in museums. Born into the family of wealthy business people, Erwin Panofsky, who was taken to museums as a child, moved among these privileged intellectuals in those brilliant years of the Weimar Republic before its tragic end. Like many German intellectuals, Panofsky moved his career to America, taking with him the scholarly method of studying art in terms of meaning to Princeton University, where he spent the rest of his life. All too often the American understanding of this art historian is somewhat stripped down and remembered as a process of interpretation: icon, iconography and iconology, meaning that the icon or image was the symbol for a certain concept, such as the Cross was symbolic of the Crucifixion. All too often Americans tended to neglect the basis of Panofsky’s thought: iconology or the placement of art in culture. But for Panofsky, art history was an extension of the philosophical thought of Germany in the early twentieth century.

The nearly century long pride of place that Erwin Panofsky holds in art history is demonstrated by the recent excitement at the finding of his long lost Habilitation thesis that was found in June of 2012. The German publishing house De Gruyter will publish Die Gestaltungsprincipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels in 2014. There is no doubt that his thesis will be marked by traces of the state of German philosophy of the early twentieth century. The best way, indeed, the only way, to discuss the art historical writings of Erwin Panofsky is to place the historian in the rich and complex intellectual context of his time. His art historical methodology was firmly grounded in German philosophy—specifically that of the philosopher, his colleague, Ernst Cassirer (1984-1945). Cassirer, a professor of philosophy at Hamburg, whose cousin Paul Cassirer was an art dealer, stated that, “Reason is a very inadequate term with which to comprehend the forms of man’s cultural life in all their richness and variety. But all these forms are symbolic forms. Hence, instead of defining man as an animal rationale, we should define him as an animal symbolicum.” A neo-Kantian from the Marburg school, Cassirer’s contention that people thought symbolically would profoundly shape Panofsky’s ideas on how people read or understood “icons” or images.

In his 2006 study of Cassirer, Edward Skidelsky introduces his book, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, by making the point that, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Cassirer has been reconstructed by German historians as one of the few intellectuals who emerged post 1989 as something of a hero who famously debated (and probably lost the debate) the future Nazi, Martin Heidegger in 1929. In the “Debate on Kant,” Cassirer asserted that Kant must be understood, no metaphysically, but functionally in the various forms of neo-Kantianism which, “..enquire into the possibility of philosophy as a sciencewith the intention of formulating its conditions..” For Cassirer the form is the function of philosophy, and the path to the symbolic form is Kant’s concept of “schema”, defined in the abstract as “phenomenon,” but reinterpreted by Cassirer as “symbol.”

During his years as a philosopher of the Weimar Republic, Cassirer’s works were published by his cousin Bruno and one of his earlier works was on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, published in 1921 and translated in English as early as 1923, signaling that Cassirer was first of all a philosopher of science. Indeed, Kant was understood in Marburg from the standpoint of science, but when Cassirer published The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in three volumes between 1923 and 1929, he showed that he had moved into the arena of culture. As Donald Philips Verene points out in The Origins of the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Kant, Hegel, and Cassirer (2011), myth is not just the origin of culture but also of language itself: “Linguistic symbolism is representational symbolism. All natural languages are structures of representation…” Taking Kant as his starting point, Cassirer proposed a “critique of culture.”

The first Jew to serve as the rector of the new university at Hamburg, Cassirer was also among the first to leave Germany in 1933 and after nearly a decade of lecturing in England and Sweden, he ended his career at Yale and Columbia universities. As Sebastian Luft pointed out in Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms: Between Reason and Relativism; a Critical Appraisal, that Cassirer wrote his last two important works, The Myth of the State (1946) and An Essay on Man (1944), were written in English. The “functional concept” proposed by Cassirer ordered his symbolic forms according to a principle of “serial arrangement” in which certain elements obtain meaning only within that particular system. In other words, Cassirer was positing a universal model for language that could incorporate the particular under the functional concept. The combination of the particular that acquires meaning within a universal system is not dissimilar to the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure and his networks which make meaning possible. For Cassirer symbolic forms—myth, religion, language, art history and science—were understood contextually as “inner forms” unique to each culture.

The three volumes have very specific subtitles which almost certainly can be explained by his association with Warburg: The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume One: Language (1923), The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Two: Mythical Thought (1925), and The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Volume Three: The Phenomenology of Knowledge (1929). The fourth volume on the metaphysics of symbolic forms was in progress when the philosopher died suddenly of a heart attack the day after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his years in Germany, Cassirer was in contact with the other seminal figure that helped Panofsky form his approach to art was one of the founders of the field, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), who was the eldest son of one of Germany’s premier banking families. Warburg gave up his position as heir to his younger brother Max who would helm the family business. An art historian, specializing in the Renaissance, Warburg asked in return only that his brother support his life long desire to amass a library on art and culture. It is this library and the mode of its arrangement that would prove to be the foundation not just for Panofsky’s methods of study but also for the contextual approach to the visual arts.

In counter distinction to the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin, Warburg insisted that works of art were more than a mere collection of shapes and colors. While it should be noted that Wölfflin was somewhat in concert with Cassirer in that he thought that each era had a “period eye,” or a particular way of seeing or making forms, Warburg had “a downright disgust for aestheticzing art history.” In other words, he resisted the notion that a work of art was presented for pleasurable appreciation rather than for its deep psychological meaning across time. Warburg was fascinated with the Renaissance, not as a “rebirth,” but as rebirth redefined as “survival,” or the continuous reappearance of a motif or an idea that moved through time, leaving its traces on art and literature. And, also in contrast to received wisdom, Warburg did not regard the Renaissance as a return to classical reason but as the continuation of the struggle between the forces of rational thinking, as personified by the figure of Apollo, and the power of the irrational, as symbolized by the god Dionysus.

This human struggle between the rational and the irrational was part of a collective (un)consciousness that had as its origin in the body, manifested in art as an empathetic expressiveness. These primal experiences of suffering or traumas became for Warburg, “pathos formulae.” Warburg worked as an archaeologist of culture, excavating these ancient wounds which could be found, as antique echoes, in the works of the Renaissance, which contained the marks of the primitive nature of what the classical artists had grappled with—the dialectic between the animal in the human. These traces or tracks could be discerned in a variety of sources, not just visual but also textual, and Warburg assembled his books, building a cohort of sources or references around lingering ideas. These books would be grouped together in sections in what would become one of the most famous intellectual libraries of the twentieth century.

Mark A. Russell noted that the establishment of this collection followed Warburg’s move to Hamburg. According to Russell, in Between Tradition and Modernity: Aby Warburg and the Public Purposes of Art (2007), the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg or the Warburg Institute had acquired 15,000 volumes by 1911 and by 1926, when the library became a research institute with Fritz Saxl as Warburg’s assistant, there were 46,000 books. By this time, as Russell recounts, Warburg had suffered from his own mental illness and during his absence, the library had been moved from the private home and became a public library with the books, arranged by Saxl, placed on the shelves in accordance to scholarly expectations. Upon the fragile recovery of his mental health, Warburg continued his scholarship on memory and pictorial representation until his death in 1929. Saxl carried on his legacy but when Hitler came into power, it became clear that a library, founded by a Jewish family could not survive under the Nazis. Saxl and the Warburg family made arrangements to transfer the entire library, now some 66, 000 books, to London where it became the Warburg Institute in 1933. The library never returned to Germany.

Although Warburg actually visited America and made the acquaintance of the anthropologist Franz Boaz, his archaeological/psychological/anthropological focus remained on Florence during the Renaissance and he was fascinated with the lingering spell of pagan expressions on modern thought. But the scholar, who published his works almost entirely in articles, did not see history as evolving in a progressive form over temporal periods; instead,Warburg thought of history in terms of psychic time. When the Great War broke out, Warburg watched in horror as Europe descended into once again into savage barbarism. Although Warburg supported his nation, as any good patriot, he suffered great psychological anguish during this period and it can be argued that the balance of his mind never quite recovered from the darkness of the War. Warburg did not live to see the rise of Hitler, much less the destructive power of unleashed irrational primitive thinking by the Nazis, but he would have been transfixed to witness the return of a psychic trauma that would cause history to shudder with the new primal wound it would inflict.

If Cassirer’s thinking sought to be transcendent, the method of Warburg was concrete, based on the image as metaphors which progress or transform over time. To this end, Warburg collected a disparate array of images which formed an Atlas of recurring symptoms of humanity’s ongoing trauma/s. The Mnemosyne collection, also known as “Mnemosyne, A Picture Series Examining the Function of Preconditioned Antiquity-Related Expressive Values for the Presentation of Eventful Life in the Art of the European Renaissance,” began in 1924 after Warburg had recovered from his mental collapse and could have been part of his attempt to understand the War and the world’s regression into a primitive state. The “Atlas” was never completed and remains frozen in time, surviving as old photographs of groupings of clippings, reproductions, photographs and other images arranged according to Warburg’s intuition.

This Atlas of Images or Bilderatlas consisted of over sixty or seventy screens (depending on which reference you read), or wooden frames covered with black fabric, where an array of images could be pinned and clustered as visual aids to Warburg’s thought processes. Warburg, who used these screens as illustrations to his lectures, took photographs of these screens, showing his collection of reproductions which traced motifs over time. These photos are all that is left of this vast memory project. It should be noted that Warburg did not differentiate between high or low art nor did he hesitate to cross disciplines. Not only did he pioneer in interdisciplinary research, he also established the mode of lecturing in art history—comparing and contrasting images. According to Sarah Blacker in “Institutional Purlieus and Archival Collapse: Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas”, the “Atlas” was disassembled and is thought to have not survived the move to London except as boxes of images. Warburg had intended for his homage to the goddess of Memory to become the basis for the organization of his library and its images, but art historian Rudolf Wittkower in London used iconography as the system for the Warburg Institute.

The other seminal influence on Panofsky’s thought was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a founder of modern linguistics. If Cassirer thought of humans as symbol-making beings, Saussure defined the human as a language-maker and elaborated upon a system of semiotics or semiology, a science of signs. The philosophical conclusions of these two thinkers were intertwined: both posited a system or a structure through which people communicate, either through symbols (which are a type of word) or words (which are a type of symbol). Both insisted that these symbols/words can be interpreted only within a cultural network that determines how language is understood and interpreted. Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics was not translated into English until 1959 and while a more definitive version came out in 1986, the original and complete text finally emerged in 2006.

Saussure distinguished between language (langue) and speech (parole): one is formal and is a system which is structured—language which is to be studied by the philosopher, unlike causal speech acts. Language is a system of rules which makes performing speech possible. Language is a system or network of relations among elements, none of which can be understood outside the system, which is synchronic or outside time. Language is a system of signs which operate within a structure that the user has incorporated unconsciously. It is that structure of set of rules that govern usage and allow the subject to communicate. To the extent that Saussure can be considered a Structuralist, the Swiss philosopher was also connected to the French anthropologist, also a Structuralist, Claude Lévi Strauss, who asserted that culture had a language that could be de-coded.

Saussure’s “sign, signifier, signified” would be re-interpreted by Panofsky as “icon, iconography, iconology” with a work of art (icon) as a work of culture or a cultural activity (iconography) that must be interpreted in a historical context (iconology). The sign is the icon which resembles the thing, just as a portrait resembles the person depicted. The index is another form of a sign is the “index,” in which smoke, for example is an index of “fire.” In Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (1975), Jonathan Culler noted that indexes are problematic and uses the example of Lévi-Strauss who suggested that an ax could be used as an “index” of a certain level of culture. But most signs are arbitrary in their (dis)connection between the word (sign) and the thing. The arbitrary nature of the sign, or the fact that there is no “natural” connection between the object and the sign, is the seminal insight of Saussure. The sign has significance or meaning and is further elaborated by that which is signified or what the sign means within the culture and why it has acquired this meaning at this point in time. On one hand, the significance of the sign is always incomplete and always escapes total interpretation, but on the other hand, it is this signifé that creates the meaning, however unfinished, of the sign. For Panofsky, as shall be seen in Part Two, the iconology of the icon is embedded in the culture itself.

Part two of this series discusses the idea of symbolic form and three of this series will discuss Panofsky’s famous iconographical method.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Edmund Husserl and Philosophy

EDMUND HUSSERL (1859 – 1938)

It is the dead date of Edmund Husserl that is of great interest. The fact that the philosopher died in the year 1938 speaks volumes of, not just his fate, but the history of the reception of his work. Like the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, Husserl was a Jewish scholar in Hitler’s Germany and was all but doomed. Unlike the theoreticians at the Institute for Social Research, Husserl apparently made no attempt to leave his homeland. The fact that Husserl and his wife, the daughter of a renowned Jewish scholar, had converted to Christianity mattered little to the Nazis who were obsessed with “blood.” Exclusionary laws passed between 1933 and 1937 pushed Jews out of public life and Husserl was pushed out of his home university at Freiberg by the very man he had mentored, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazi regime was but part of a general eagerness on the part of German intellectuals to make a “Faustian bargain,” as it were with Der Führer. As Robert P. Ericksen wrote in Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany,

the Nazi regime actually found enthusiastic support in German universities during the transition of 1933, from students and faculty alike, and Nazis were effective in weeding out Jews and left-wing critics, thoroughly and without mercy. For the rest of the Nazi period, the atmosphere at German universities seems to have been one of enthusiastic support for the new regime and its politics, rather than resistance or criticism.

For what appear to be historical reasons—the interruption of the free flow of philosophical ideas and writing from Germany during the ten year period of the Third Reich—there was a delay in the reception of the philosophy of Husserl. But one must consider also the fact that the thought of Husserl evolved: from a focus on mathematics to logic to psychology, until after decades of deep and complex meditations on the ontology and then on the epistemology of things, he settled on phenomenology as a means to explicate the foundation of reality. Husserl considered his approach to phenomenon as being akin to the transcendentalism of Kant, with whom he found an affinity, and, in his desire to transcend to a universality for a firmly grounded philosophy, he was also akin to Georg Hegel in his absolutism. Husserl’s longing to construct a philosophy of universality began in earnest after the Great War, a war that killed one son and wounded another. He translated his sentiments into a scientific approach to the problem of who we encounter or perceive objects. By rejecting situational interpretations, Husserl attempted to eliminate relativity. The Nazis also despised relativity, but they interpreted the philosopher as being inclusive, which is somewhat different from universal. In the end it was an epistemological system of the universal that was facing a racist ideology of purity and superiority, and, given that his earlier work was tainted with anti-war sentiments, Husserl was simply could not win such a contest.

As Dermont Moran relates in Edmund Husserl: Founder of Phenomenology, although Husserl was forbidden to publish in Germany, the elderly scholar continued an active lecture schedule and he continued to write until he fell ill and died. His former colleagues at his university refrained from attending his funeral, but those who admired his work, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, gathered together his unpublished manuscripts, which were salvaged for publication throughout the 1950s. Thus Husserl’s oeuvre gradually became available in English in time to filter into American universities so that by the 1960s, graduate students, even those in the arts, could be come conversant with that aspect of his very varied writings with which the philosopher became most identified: phenomenology. And, in turn, phenomenology provided the language for the artists and critics associated with the Minimalist art movement, who were seeking to provide a philosophical framework for reductive shapes which aspired for “objecthood.” Although there is much in Husserl’s thought that seems to relate to the New York art world, from the materialistic formalism of Clement Greenberg and his followers to the very antithesis of Greenbergian formalism, Minimal Art, it is well to remember that Husserl was not translated into English until the 1960s and 1970s and any art world knowledge of his work would have been second hand.

Husserl’s long search for an unshakable ground for philosophy came to fruition in 1907—the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage—when he gave a series of lectures which were developed later as The Idea of Phenomenology. True to his methodical nature, he was more of a note maker than a manuscript writer, Husserl’s follow up books, Ideen I and Ideen II, evolved slowly during and after the Great War. Although there were treasure troves of unpublished work, these are the seminal works for phenomenology. For Fernand de Saussure and for Ludwig Wittgenstein, the proper study of philosophy was language or Logos, which is fully expressed in speech. However, for Husserl the proper domain of philosophy was a special kind of seeing, called phenomenology or that which is based upon discernible phenomena. Given that this is a philosopher who was trained in mathematics and logic and who swerved towards a neo-Kantian perspective, it is clear that Husserl would examine the relationship between the human subject and the world of material culture or objects in the world.

Phenomenology begins of course, with the dialectical logic of Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and ends with Husserl who, many will argue, is the end point of Western philosophy. Given that Husserl regarded philosophy as a universal science and sought to uncover an absolute foundation of knowledge, phenomenology is the totality of human objectivity that creates a “transcendental subjectivity” or a universal ego. It is the human mind who not only recognizes the Other—objects, other people—but which also structures these experiences. This is where Husserl is in agreement with Kant but Husserl, the mathematician, the logician, must cordon off these experiences in such as a way to purify them so that these phenomena can truly be known.

A “phenomenon” is an entity as it appears to the unconscious. All being is being for consciousness. In other words, objects exist independently of consciousness. Kant insisted that, even if this were so, these objects were inaccessible except through mediation; but Husserl asserted that it was possible to recover lost origin by disclosing the (Kantian) constructive activity of consciousness. Although neither Friedrich Nietzsche nor Wittgenstein were interested in recovering lost origins, Husserl’s quest is for clarity and “complete clearness” in philosophy. He believed that phenomenology was a special kind of seeing that could be cultivated through an operation called “bracketing.” Bracketing in math is simply a way of setting off or aside a grouping of numbers with parentheses or square, curly or angled brackets. Bracketing is separating a set of numbers in order to act upon them in a certain manner. And thus is a phenomena can be set aside or apart or “bracketed” from its cultural surroundings, it can be “seen” in a more rigorous or universal or essential fashion. This “reduction” of surrounding noise is referred to by Husserl as an “eidetic” reduction that is capable of transcending the relativity of that which lies outside the brackets.

Possibly because of his disillusionment towards the War or more possibly due to his foundation in logic, Husserl was suspicious of early Twentieth Century pragmatism and its relativity. Worse than the turn towards relativity, Kantian “disinterest” had become fatally entangled with “naturalism” which extended knowledge of nature to the psychic processes as thought they, too, were natural objects. In other words, the natural attitude or reaction of humans was to impose their personal (relative) understandings or interpretations upon a circumstance or thing. These mis-directions that had been allowed in philosophy had caused a crisis that Husserl saw as solvable by a return to the ideal of rational certainty, pioneered by the Greeks. Like those philosophers of the nineteenth century, Husserl admired the Greeks and considered them the first Moderns because the Greeks, in contrast to the other cultures of their era, were able to disentangle themselves from the “mythico-religious” and to attend to the theoretical or philosophical aspects of life. To be sure that one would achieve clarity and rationality, one must take what Husserl called the Natural Standpoint or the phenomenological stance. What we experience from this stance is the “fact-world.” But we are then instructed to doubt this fact world, that is, we are asked to suspend “belief” and make more pure “judgments” about this world.

We bracket the object in this fact-world in that we take the object “out of action”, we “disconnect” ourselves from our “interest” in or knowledge of this object, and thus we detach ourselves from the object. From this attitude of Husserlian disinterestedness, we now possess a “unique form of consciousness.” We now see differently and what we see are the “essences” of things. Husserl calls the result of this “transcendentally reduced experience” to be the self-appearance, the self-exhibiting, the self-giveness of objects themselves. We are and have become directly aware of objects, not just their appearances but their thing-ness, their very existence. In other words, we have bracketed out that which is extrinsic to the object and become fully into its presence and reflect upon the way in which the object is present for the consciousness. Husserl was not so much concerned with the meaning of the objects as with their existence as evidence. Husserl considered himself as an “archaeologist” like Freud, but he did not excavate for meaning but for an origin–what the object is in existence: the being of the object. Rather than a unity, according to Husserl, consciousness then is a flow of realizations in experience of the object that allow the object to come into being for the subject.

Within this flow through a process of “unfolding” of layers or strata of consciousness, what is sought is the ‘foundedness” of the object . The result of the stance of phenomenology would be a “rigorous disengagement” and ”systemic neutrality” towards phenomenon. Ultimately, Husserl’s influence expanded and the method of bracketing would hopefully achieve the certainty and clarity in philosophy that he desired. The philosopher was part of a larger group of philosophers concerned with the mechanisms of consciousness—not psychology—from Bergson to Merleau-Ponty. Thanks to their continued interest in his work, Husserl’s Ideas: General Introduction in Pure Phenomenology was eventually published in English in 1931 but the only work he considered as complete at his death, Die Krisis der eruopäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenoligie, delivered as lectures in 1935 and 1936, would not be published until 1954. Although, with hindsight, we can see Husserl as part of a larger phenomenon played out in the arts as the “new objectivity,” Husserl’s philosophy was, like the art of the Thirties, caught up in the rising tide of the next war. Like many creators of his generation, Husserl would have to wait for a new generation, emerging after the Second World War, to appreciate his ideas. Until then, the world would be propelled into catastrophe by belief systems and ideology that shaped a destructive force in Nazi Germany, which resulted in one of the greatest brain drains in modern times as scholars fled to America.

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Language, Culture, and Philosophy

THE LINGUISTIC TURN

How do words mean? How is meaning constructed? These seemingly innocent questions are lethal to the entire edifice of knowledge. If we imagine knowledge, not as wisdom, but as an architecture of writing, then the foundation of “truth” is undermined. The question becomes not what do we know but how do we write? If philosophy in the nineteenth century was about ideas, then philosophy in the twentieth century was about language or linguistics. We live in the aftermath of this “Linguistic Turn.”

This “turn” away from ideas and towards language meant that words, not things, would be examined in terms of how words, put together into speech acts and discourse, acquire meaning. Which philosopher marks this “turn,” when and where this “turn” took place depends upon which account is read and which definition of “linguistic turn” is used. Some have contended that German mathematician and philosopher, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, others think that the “turn” was British (or Anglo-Austrian) and was the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps it is best to think not in terms of “first” but in terms of the significance of what is a change in direction. As Richard Rorty said,

The picture of ancient and medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy of the seventeen through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and the enlightened contemporary philosophical scene with words has considerable plausibility.

The linguistic turn is a concern about how language allows speech and under what linguistic conditions meaning is constructed. In other words, philosophy becomes fused with literary theory and knowledge become examined as the result of a social/cultural structure. The turn towards the study of the arts, visual and literary, through linguistic philosophy started with concerns with logic (analytic philosophy) and semiotics (the study of signs).

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

After this death, the students of Saussure recreated his lectures and published them as Cours de linguistique générale (1916). This act of devotion brought their teacher’s radical reconsiderations of the way in which meaning is formed. Saussure made a distinction between langue, that is the system, the institution, rules and norms, and parole, which is the actual manifestation of the system in speech, and writing. The philosopher made the distinction between rule and behavior and noted that meaning is bound up in this system of relationships and differences. Language is composed of a network of established significations and relativism is checked by a competent reader who has a sense of what one is reading towards. Langue is a Metadiscourse and parole is a specific text, and structuralism attempted to find and establish an almost scientific approach to de-coding signs and finding their meanings.

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism will specifically deny the basic precepts of Structuralism–its reliance on rules, its search for meaning and its bi-polar structure. Language is the rule and speech is the behavior. The system itself is synchronic as a functional whole and diachronic in its inevitable historical evolution. Saussure and his followers concentrated on the synchronic study of language that is examining the system as a whole as an abstract structure. The diachronic structure was left to others as this aspect of the structure changed with historical changes and was relative and ceaselessly in flux.

The Saussarian system is constructed on the basis of binary oppositions, which Saussure declared to be inherent in the language as a habit of thought that allowed any culture to order and sort out a vast heterogeneous field of elements into distinctions and differences. Structuralism, as a mode of analysis, studies signs within this network of relations. Meaning is bound up within a system of relationships based upon difference and relativism or individual interpretation/solipsism is checked by cultural competency or a sense of what one is reading towards.

Language competence is the ability to represent within a system of norms and rules. This system is one of relations and oppositions in which elements are defined in formal and differential terms. The units of language are modes of a series of differences or functional contrasts. These binary oppositions are inherent in language and this relational identity or dependent identity is crucial to language. For the signifier to express meaning, the signifier must differ from other signifiers and these differences are essential for the signs to work. The linguistic system can be defined as the place of the sign, which acquires meaning only within the system of differences.

Semiotics or semiology seeks the grounds of signifying processes. Structuralism is important because it does NOT seek the truth. There is no truth; there is no human subject. There are only codes or sign systems and it is these structures that produce meaning. Meaning is arbitrary and there is on necessary connection between these structures and “reality”. The revolution of semiotics is the undoing of the common sense link between the word and the thing. The “thing” can be “named” anything and can mean anything. Language, therefore, is not a window on reality, nor is it a mirror. Language is merely a network of signification. Furthermore, knowledge is structured by the systems of code. The structuralist discourse is a method designed to master and explain language and to create a universal grammar of narration.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Peirce proposed a topology of signs organized into the icon, the index, and the sign, which is the combination of the significant and the signifié or of form and meaning. That the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary is one of the central insights of Structuralism. The arbitrariness of the mechanics that create the sign upsets the ancient notion that words were imbued with the qualities of their referent. Words and things become detached, and things can be known only through words, which in turn can function only within a system and only in terms of their differences. Peirce separated icons from signs by pointing out that icons are based upon actual resemblance, rather than arbitrary relationships, such as a portrait resembling the subject: a one to one relation.

These indexical signs are also mythic and change within the conventions of knowledge and the linguist reads these indices within this system of conventions. According to Peirce, all signs consist of a significant, which is the form, and of a significance, which is the meaning of the sign. All signs are fundamentally incomplete. The significance of one sign cannot be grasped by examining the sign on its own. Any sign acquires meaning only within a network of relations that presents an interpretant in the form of another sign. The sign’s meaning is developed within the system of language and the meaning is manifested through the use of the sign.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2000)

In Structural Anthropology (1958), this French scientist combined anthropology with linguistics, understanding signs to be combination of the signifier and the signified and as forms that were fundamentally incomplete. The signifier cannot be directly grasped but can be understood only in the form of another sign and meaning is determined through this development. All cultural phenomena are signs read by the inhabitants of the culture, but these inhabitants cannot function as subjects because meaning is bound up within the conventional structure. It has been said that Structuralism is Kantian thought without the transcendental subject or without to reasoning and rational human mind actively interpreting and creating reality. The Kantian subject is dissolved and becomes a passive, unwitting object upon which the linguistic system operates at will. The structural analysis refuses to consider a notion of “self” identified with consciousness and does not seek for external causes that make the “subject” as the explanatory cause.

Any object (even human objects) is defined/structured by its place in the system, but unlike form this structure has no content. Content itself is a logical organization and is the same nature as form. Form is only a way of organizing the particular structures that make up content; and meaning is only the effect of logical, intellectual structures by which the mind orders experiences. Following Kant, Lévi-Strauss proposed that the mind imposes form on raw materials and creates myth, which are forms of concrete logic composed of bundles of relations or sets of items. Organized in terms of binary oppositions–dark and light, good and evil–myths explain or reduce the often-frightening contradictions in the real world.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung united Freud and Structuralism into his concept of the “Collective Unconscious.” He recognized Freud’s concept of the dream but asserted that the unconscious remained unconscious. Although Jung understood that “dream-work” was an active process that included actions of displacement, condensation, symbolization and so on, he disagreed with Freud’s notion that these actions were actions of censorship. For Jung, dreams did not deceive but express. Dream thinking was simply an “older mode of thought” and the interpretation of dreams will show that the meanings are bound up in recognizable form. Dreams are like plays, they dramatize through plots and culminate in a climax. The manifest content of dreams, therefore, is drama. The latent content can be uncovered through free association, for dreams are self-portrayals in symbolic form. Dreams have a creative role to play in the total human psyche and are linked to the dreamer’s life.

Both Jung and Freud considered mind and body to be linked. For Jung the psyche functioned in terms of archetypes that are inscribed in the body and are genetically transmitted. These archetypes are unconscious pre-dispositions. In the Kantian sense, archetypes are a priori conditions for actual experience, or, to put it another way, archetypes organize experiences. Archetypes are models or primordial types or ideas that act as originals or exemplars. Jung was talking about cognitive structures that were congenital structures that produced patterns of behavior.

The image, which is symbolic, is the functional form of this system and can be described as a typical situation into which energy is released. Image approaches instinct. Symbols manifested in images necessarily emerge from archetypes which, being universal, are part of the collective unconscious. It is not so much that we can read each other’s symbols but that we can read the instinct to make symbols. Once these symbols are decoded, the archetypal foundation of these forms will be revealed.

Freud and Jung corresponded but disagreed on what determined the nature of the human psyche but they were part of a philosophical mindset that sought to set out what Jean-François Lyotard would call a “grand narrative.” For Freud the engine of his grand narrative was sexual energy, for Jung the engine was the organizational capacities of archetypes. Also writing philosophy during this period was Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a Neo-Kantian philosopher and Kantian interpreter, who would bring a number of these ideas together into his three volume (1923-29), Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which incorporates art as a language of symbolic forms that had to be interpreted.

Cassirer worked with Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) at the University of Hamburg. These three scholars were the Hamburg School and were interested in the historical evolution of “symbolic forms.” Warburg applied the notion of psychological archetypes of art and searched for recurring images and recurring symbols that returned eternally in art as symptoms of the unconscious. Panofsky applied the notion of the Kantian mind actively constructing culture to works of art and attempted to read art according to the teachings of structuralism, especially that of Saussure whom he had read.

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Sigmund Freud, Part Three

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)

PART THREE

REIFICATION AND FETISH

The only access the psychoanalyst has to his or her patient is the words of that patient who undergoes the “talking cure.” Sigmund Freud believed in simply listening to and interpreting the structure of the language used by his clients and was engaged in what we would call linguistic forensics. The meaning of cultural objects, from the most private of dreams to the most public of commodities can be understood only within a network of relations that are structured in a very particular fashion. For Freud, the structure is universal and the relations among the words (or things) are dependent upon the cultural network. In other words, his dreamers and patients in Vienna might have different dream symbols than those in London but the structure of the minds that produced the dreams was as universal as the traumas that were the root cause of anxiety and neurosis.

One of the most important revelations of the theories of both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud is the way in which the mechanisms of the human mind work to substitute that which is desired but not permitted with a substitute—a speech act or an object or an action. The result is a kind of deflection, the desire is redirected and can be reified. In other words, anxiety or neurosis or trauma can be projected onto an inanimate object. For example, through the processes of exchange, a work of art can be altered from an object to a reified desire. Marx described this process of reification (fetishization) in these terms:

…we get a fetish form of capital, and the conception of fetish capital…It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction – which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form. For vulgar political economy, which seeks to represent capital as an independent source of value, of value creation, this form is naturally a veritable find. a form in which the source of profit is no longer discernible, and in which the result of the capitalist process of production – divorced from the process – acquires an independent existence.

The Unconscious is a buried city, like Rome, made of strata of anxieties and traumas, causing the “Rome neurosis,” which must be uncovered by the analyst/archaeologist. Internal conflicts between the opposing libidinal forces or basic human instincts and social controls of these impulses cause human unhappiness or neurosis. Civilization was created but at a price, built on painful “substitute-formations.” We cannot have what we want; we cannot do what we want; we cannot say what we want: our deepest needs must be sublimated and something more socially accepted must be substituted.

Freud’s early training was in Paris with the great doctor Jean-Martin Charcot who studied “hysteria” or acting out among female patients. He was also familiar with the symptoms revealed by traumatized victims of the Great War. The individuals observed by Freud showed the mind’s power to protect itself and to reveal itself and he sought the deepest layers buried beneath the more powerful mechanisms of repression. Suppressed traumas, which cause “hysteria,” or blocked discharges, or distorted and disguised expression of the original trauma are somewhere in the back of the mind. Hidden in the unconscious mind is a memory or trace of the traumatic and scarring experiences that are so painful that the conscious mind will not allow them to surface. But surface they do, but in unexpected and highly coded ways, usually not recognized as expressions of repressed pain.

According to Freud, the result of these unexpressed traumas are redirected and rerouted eruptions called “symptoms” that show up uncontrollably as jokes, “slips” of the tongue, expressed outwardly as language through mechanisms such as “denying the truth” or Verneinung. A cruel joke is not funny; it is a form of verbal assault. A slip of the tongue reveals the true content of the mind. To use the word “not,” as in, “I don’t mean to hurt you…” is to deny the truth: “I really want to hurt you” in order to suppress (badly) the true intent of the speaker. Freud called these psychic slips “parapraxes.”

Other means of the discharge or display of symptoms would include dreams, the actual process of production and transformation of the buried traces of the trauma into a rebus. Dream-work can produce dreams and free-association can produce conversational clues that lead the subject through the “talking cure” conducted by the analyst. In the process of investigating the structure of the symptoms, the sources of the trauma is uncovered in what Freud called the “return of the repressed.” This “return” is not always either healthy or redemptive, much less enabled by a reputable psychoanalyst.

Most people are merely caught up in helpless repetition, a ritual reenactment of the trauma that becomes a compulsion. The actual trauma is never visible but is apparent in its structure of repetition or return. The symptoms of the trauma can be witnessed as a trace. The memory is reenacted as “fixation”, “condensation”, displacement”, distortion”, “disguise”, identification” and “projection”—all Freudian symptoms of the original repression. The original repression, according to Freud, is sexual and he explained this primal trauma as the Oedipal Complex.

The sexual instinct is powerful psychic energy and is a force of nature that must be controlled in order for society to function appropriately. The connection between the mind and body is the original trauma, the separation of the child from its original object of desire, the mother. The result of this separation or splitting is a complex, called “Oedipal” for the male and “Electra” for the female. The trauma is a necessary condition for socialization but entry into human society comes at a high price: a lifetime of pain due to the repression of desire until maturity is reached through the resolution of the Oedipal complex.

In opening the dyadic relationship or what Freud called “The Family Romance,” with the mother to include the father, the subject is subjected to the law of the patriarchy or the superego that will ruthlessly punish incest or any other violation of taboos or laws. What began as a natural love and desire for the mother is socialized and banned and the resulting pain and shame imprinted onto the young body is repressed into the unconscious, which will not allow this trauma to be expressed. The result of this primal repression is the dream, which is an expression of forbidden desire. The child understood the fear better than s/he understood the desire and for the rest of her life, desire will be tainted with fear and shame, rendering normal human interaction redolent with unnamable anxieties and needs. The original desire will never be met.

These unfilled desires will play themselves out for the rest of the human being’s life in dreams. But even here, there is no freedom of expression for censorship is always at work. These powerfully charged memories would not be expressed, as they are infantile sexual wishes that can be satisfied only by dream-work. These forbidden dream-thoughts are latent content of dreams that are made into dream-stories through dream-work. These infantile desires are remembered through mechanisms such as condensation that is composite figures or structures that manifests itself as correspondence. Another mechanism is displacement; as elements are replaced through a chain of associations for disguise that surface as dream images. This representability is a rebus or picture puzzle or ideogram that organizes the dream into a comprehensive narrative.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud would be among the last of the philosophers to be concerned with the interaction of philosophy with society. In contrast to earlier philosophers who were concerned with politics, Nietzsche and Freud were primarily observers and interpreters of their own times. They were more concerned with how human beings could survive and function within their society than in intervening and changing the world, like Marx. In many ways, the two can be read in tandem: Nietzsche who sketched out the psychology of modern society and Freud who proceeded to diagnose that culture. Even though both were men of their times, their works became newly relevant to a new generation, called Postmodernists.

Nietzsche would become, like Duchamp, a posthumous “Father of Postmodernism.” As Nietzsche once said, “I want to be right not for today or tomorrow but for the millennia”. There are those who would argue that Nietzsche has succeeded. Nietzsche argued for the primal force of the Will to Power over the “grand narratives” of Hegel and Marx, and although his ideas were similar to his precursors in that there is always the assumption of an “engine” that drives the system, where that engine is Nothingness or Desire or Power or Will, he became the point of departure for the Postmodernists. The appeal of Nietzsche is his radical extension of Enlightenment skepticism and doubt into existential nihilism. A new generation of skeptics would pick up where Nietzsche left off and apply the concept of ambiguity to the foundation of human knowledge: language.

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Podcast 68: Georgia O’Keeffe—The Context of Bones

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part Three

Liberated from the steel canyons of the skyscraper-lined avenues of New York City, Georgia O’Keeffe found “her country” in New Mexico. Here the painter found new vistas—the extraordinary landscapes of the Southwest—and unique motifs—the bleached bones of cattle and sheep. This podcast discusses the unexpected link between O’Keeffe and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as evidenced by her iconic paintings of the American West.

 

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Sigmund Freud, Part One

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)

PART ONE

ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE SUBCONSCIOUS

Freud died in exile in London from tongue and throat cancer, brought on from his longtime habit of smoking some twenty cigars a day. He had left his native Vienna reluctantly, as he also suffered from a bit of agoraphobia, under threat from the occupying Nazi regime that was determined to kill all Jews, regardless of how famous they were. Freud was on the list of those destined for extermination but was persuaded to find safety. His sisters refused to leave, stayed behind, and died in the camps. Freud also died, in agony, without ever having seen the city that was the metaphor for his newly conceptualized theory of the human mind—psychoanalysis. That city was Rome, buried, like the human mind under many layers of the past. The analyst, like the archaeologist, was expected to excavate the mind, to dig beneath the encrustations of memory to relocate the source of the disturbance. Psychoanalysis is a science of investigation.

Although Freud did not invent the science of the human mind, he was certainly the most eloquent, insightful, and poetic of those who attempted to chart the terrain of human thought. Like Charles Darwin, who came before him, Freud managed to pull together a number of preexisting ideas into a coherent framework that struck a cord with the public. Like Darwin, Freud would be used and misused, understood and misunderstood. His ideas would be pragamatized and medicalized in practical America. The Nazis would simply dismiss his writings as “Jewish” and burn them in bonfires. His ideas would be turned into literature in France under Jacques Lacan. And his ideas would be deemed “sexist” by a new generation of women in philosophy who, as feminist scholars, criticized his male-centric philosophy.

Contemporary science and current events may have disproved many of Freud’s suggestions, but his basic insights remain as provocative today as they did one hundred years ago. Nietzsche would have noted that Freud only reflected the temper of his own time and a contemporary historian would caution against judging Freud anachronistically. Instead, his many books, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Pschopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality (1905), Totem and Taboo (1913), Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), The Ego and the Id (1923), Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926), need to be read as literature and as a writer who conveyed some of the “truths” of his own time. His insistent gendering of all human activities only reflected the obsessive gendering of society at the end of the nineteenth century as a possible reaction to the need to keep women “in their place” when faced with the demands of the First Wave of Feminism.

Typical of his era, Freud conceptualized the human mind as dynamic, as a living organism, and utilized a biological model of becoming and evolution. Equally in keeping with the mindset of the century, Freud visualized the mind as being divided between two parts, the conscious, and the unconscious. The conscious mind is that which is familiar and that which is accessible, both to the individual and to those around her. The conscious mind, according to Karl Marx, has been formed in a matrix that is social. For Freud, this mind is formed elsewhere—in another time and place, in childhood—through a series of infantile traumas that caused part of that mind to go underground, as it were, to become that which is called the “unconscious”. The unconscious mind is the central concept of Freudian thought.

Both Marx and Freud are Modernist model builders and their thinking is architectonic. Marx used the metaphor of the base and superstructure, a building in which the base is the mode of production, the economy, and the superstructure, the many rooms, is education, government, the arts, and so on. Freud imagined the mind as a divided form, split into thirds: id, ego and super ego as well as the conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious. Although it seems to be like Marx’s base with the conscious mind as a sort of mental superstructure, the unconscious mind is deeply hidden and well defended. In contrast, Marx’s base and superstructure were in a constant state of dialectical interaction. Freud works less with a dialectical structure and constructs a depth model—one penetrates from above, seeking to locate and to interpret that which is hidden beneath.

Both philosophers seek the truth and have faith that truth will be revealed when that which conceals truth is removed. What follows is recover—social recovery or psychic recovery to health and balance. For Marx, ideology is the “false consciousness” which conceals the true purposes of the ruling classes. Moreover, ideology is more than lies; ideology is very the structure of the consciousness that leads members of society to collude with the interests of the ruling power. In other words, what is of interest is not the specific aspects of the “falsity” but the structure of thought that make false consciousness possible and effective. For Freud, the truth of the unconscious is also embedded in a structure that has its own topography.

The Freudian personality is organized in three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. This split mind is the result of Civilization, which is mastery over nature, or the ungoverned human being. The cause of this mental fracturing was what Freud called “the Oedipal complex (in men) (the Electra complex in women) a trauma suffered in childhood when a child is separated from his first love object, his mother by his father, from whom he fears castration. As Richard Wollheim explained it in his 1971 book Sigmund Freud,

…the indissoluble connection of the superego with the Oedipus complex accounts for the remarkable intransigence of morality and its comparative imperviousness to reason. Rooted as it is in what Freud had called the “infantile neurosis,” it shares in the backward-looking character that we have already seen to be of the essence of the neurosis itself.

In his seminal late work of 1930, Civilization and its Discontents, located the cause of “neurosis” or “discontent” in the state of “civilization.” Freud asked a simple question: why are we so unhappy? The answer is that for humans to come together in a civilized state, repression of the most basic instincts was necessary, resulting in sublimation of basic instincts. These instincts are “instincts” and “basic” due to necessity. In order to survive, humans had to be aggressive, but in a social setting, the law forbids aggression. The resulting conflict between the repression of these instincts is a neurosis of guilt and conflict.

Writing during a decade of social upheaval, Freud noted that these instincts are either rechanneled or redirected or simply ruthlessly disciplined by the ruling forces of society. Unknowingly between two wars, the Great War still fresh in his memory, the philosopher seemed to sense the conflicts to come. He stated,

What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! ‘Natural’ ethics, as it is called, has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others. At this point the ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better after-life. But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature.

Writing about the same time, Nietzsche also saw civilization as causing human dis-ease and alienation. With Freud, these ruling forces were internalized as the Superego, which controlled the Id, or the defiant instincts, always threatening to reemerge and disrupt civilized life. Squeezed in-between the childish Id and the parental Superego, is the Ego, the disciplined adult mind that fights for mental health, balance and harmony. That conscious mind has become, over time, a city like Rome, one part visible and functioning openly and the part being covered with layers of repressed instincts, called the psyche. For his entire career, Freud sought to alleviate the psychic pain of humans. The question was how to get behind the mind’s defenses and to reach the buried layers of the psyche.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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