Art and “Thick Description,” Part Two



Gathered together at the Warburg Library and impacted by the neo-Kantian revival in the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Aby Warburg and Ernst Cassirer created diachronic analyses of cultural symbols from the perspectives of psychology and semiotics respectively. Byron Good and Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good commented in “On the ‘Subject’ of Culture. Subjectivity and Cultural phenomenology in the Work of Clifford Geertz,” that Geertz’s anthropological works are..

..grounded in the work of Ernst Cassirer and his vision of “symbolic forms” as mediating between Kant’s a priori categories of mind and the perceived world, actively constituting “image worlds” (in Cassirer’s terms) of language and myth, religion, art, history, and science. But all of this becomes an ethnographic theory of subjectivity when made local..

It is their colleague, Erwin Panofsky, however, who was closer to Geertz, because Panofsky’s art historical approach was synchronic and, inspired by Fernand de Saussure, semiotic. As Michael Ann Holly pointed out a quarter of a century ago, Panofsky’s method has been drained of what we might call its “thickness” by his followers who thought in terms of decoding symbols rather than interpreting a culture. Few followed Panofsky and took his idea past iconography into iconology, except for the art historian, Michael Baxendall, who is Geertz’s guide to understanding art through his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. In Local Knowledge, Geertz maintained he relied upon Baxendall who “takes precisely the approach I here advocating. Baxandall is concerned with defining what he calls the “period eye.” Geertz continued, “The famous solidity of Renaisance painting had at least in part its origins in something else than the inherent properties of planar representation, mathematical law, and binocular vision.” Baxendall, he noted connected “the moralism of religious preaching, the pageantry of social dancing, the shrewdness of commercial gauging, and the grandeur of Latin oratory.” Geertz described “the painter’s true medium” as “The capacity of his audience to see meanings in pictures.”

Just as Panofsky attempted to recover the medieval mindset or “mental habits and controlling principles” in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Baxendall recreated the particular Renaissance worldview through Piero della Francesca’s paintings. In Studies in Iconology, Panofsky referred to Cassirer’s conflation of cultural symbols and symptoms. He warned that the historian must make sure the intrinsic meaning of the work be checked by relating it to other like works. What Panofsky called “mental process of a synthetic and subjective character,” which engender meaning is that which ultimately interests Geertz, but we must not think in terms of a diachronic zeitgeist. Geertz created a thick description of a limited number of acts and actors, who, while speaking thought a culture, can speak only out of themselves and within their own time. As Geertz wrote in his chapter on “Thick Descriptions,”

Theoretical formulations hover so low over the interpretations they govern that they don’t make much sense or hold much interest apart from them. This is so, not because they are not general (if they are not general, they are not theoretical), but because stated independently of their applications, they seem either commonplace or vacant.

The thick description of a local culture at a specific point in time can be compared–and Geertz did–to early Michel Foucault’s notion of the épistemé, but with caution. Certainly thick description sounds like the Foucauldrian archive. Although Foucault rejected a seamless diachronic view of cultural progress, he still examines cultures over time, albeit time disrupted and ruptured. Nevertheless, Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) suggested that gaps and lacunae in knowledge need to be expected and accepted, making the inevitable “thinness” of “thick description” understandable. Geertz thought in terms of “cultural texts” or public texts that are representational and durable. In Local Knowledge he stated,

The key to the transition from text to text analogue, from writing as discourse to action as discourse, is, as Paul Ricour has pointed out, the concept of “inscription:” the fixation of meaning.

Any art historian laboring in historical archives is aware that the most careful collection of primary sources can produce only a product that looks like a sponge—more of less thick and full of holes, like Swiss cheese. While Geertzian method is obviously consequential to a historian working within a Panofsky-esque framework, several questions come up. First, art historians could be more precisely classified by working method. Anyone attempting to recreate an archive of a dead culture is traveling into the past—“a foreign country”–as David Lowenthal expressed it, and is thus working as an anthropologist. Whether or not one wants to boldly go where Baxendall goes, that researcher is more precisely a cultural historian, working though Panofsky to Geertz, recreating a thick, ultimately semiotic, description. Panofsky stated that

Every historical concept is obviously based on the categories of space and time…The cosmos of culture, like the cosmos of nature is a spatiotemporal structure…the succession of steps by which the material is organized into a natural or cultural cosmos is analogous, and the same is true of the methodological problems implied by this process. The first step is, as has already been mentioned, the observation of natural phenomena and the examination of human records. Then the records have to be “decoded” and interpreted, as must the “messages from nature” received by the observer. Finally the results have to be classified and coordinated into a coherent system that “makes sense.”

The combination of history and semiotics has attracted the attention of the New Historicists to Clifford Geertz, but what of the oxymoronic contemporary art historians? The Geertzian method removes the false dichotomy between fine and popular art—that much is obvious—but his method also breaks the confines of visual culture and transforms the historian into a cultural observer, into an anthropological watcher, who investigates and records and describes–like Honoré Balzac. As with any good researcher, all preconceived ideas, all assumptions, all theories, all hoped-for outcomes must be abandoned at the entrance of the project. For example, a study of contemporary museum practices is not Geertzian, when those practices are critiqued. A simple, careful, and methaphorically rich thick description of the cultural conditions should suffice. Clifford Geertz did not do systems analyses, for he is seeking a culture’s episteme of which the system is merely a symptom of a particular mode of thinking.

Geertzian methodology suggests that art historians need to research further afield, outside of the presumed arena of art history, if s/he wants do produce a “thick description.” A “thick description” replaces formalism, connoisseurship, and all other narrow viewpoints, with a broad cultural perspective re-created out of Wittgensteinian “bundles of family resemblances.” In “The State of the Art,” Geertz remarked that

…the conjoining of History and Anthropology is not a matter of fusing two academic fields into a new Something-or-Other, but of redefining them in terms of one another by managing their relations within the bounds of a particular study: textual tactics.

Moreover, Geertz always used the time-honored Warburgian method of compare and contrast in order to thicken and bring his description to life and to account for the change of meaning through use over time. Geertzian culture is always local, that is limited, and the scope of his research is always narrow and modest. An art historian or cultural historian has the luxury the cultural observer does not. For the cultural historian, time stands still, and the selected slice can be thickened over years of archival research. For the cultural observer of—say the art scene—-the moment is fleeting, and Pierre Bourdieu’s “field of cultural production” must be seized in the immediacy of its “habitus.”


The Arnofini Portrait (1425)

For both kinds of art historians, interpretation is the goal, but the overriding question is when to stop this interpretation. When Panofsky heard an over-interpretation of Arnolfini’s “identity,” in the so-called Arnolfini Portrait he reported,

I was dumbstruck, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck to my mouth..There is, however, admittedly, some danger that iconology will behave not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astronomy. There is, I am afraid, no other answer to this problem other than the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense.

From Panofsky’s perspective, the Portrait was a “symbolic form,” a portrait, if you will, of a shift in European culture: away from a religious or spiritual world view to a more materialistic or secular perspective on society. Like the Merode Altarpiece, the Wedding Portrait is replete with “disguised symbolism,” or ordinary objects that, in their very domesticity, hid spiritual meanings. The practice of “hiding” God in actual life was in itself a “symbolic form” of thinking and therefore of art itself which reflected this epistemology. Panofsky’s colleague, Ernst Cassirer understood that humans invested, not just language but all objects, with meanings. Those meanings, according to his three volume Philosophy of Symbolic Forms were never fixed but were always mutating within the culture. Relativity means here, unfixed and evolving as the society requires and “reading” works of art like “texts,” not as objects bounded by formal thinking depends upon “thick description.” Clifford Geertz followed in the footsteps of Panofsky who followed the thinking of Cassirer, moving from Iconography to Iconology; and it is here, somewhere between Symbolic Forms and Iconology, that the anthropologist slipped himself and his thick description between philosophy and art history. The result is a traunche of contemporary thought with thick description at its core.

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

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

[email protected]

Art and “Thick Description,” Part One



“Art, Clifford Geertz once remarked, “is notoriously hard to talk about.” However, Clifford Geertz provided art history with a way to talk about art through material culture. A term familiar to anthropology, “material culture” means the construction of what Geertz termed a “thick description” of a local culture by a detached observer, usually an anthropologist or sociologist, using—of course–the method developed by Geertz himself. A material analysis of a culture encompasses that culture’s actions, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts for the purpose of semiotically reading a particular event at a singular point in time. The semiotic reading, as Geertz said, cannot be accomplished without the creation of a “thick” or multilayered, “description” of the conditions that make not just the production of meaning but also meaning itself possible. The ultimate outcome of a “Thick Description,” a slice of a culture, goes beyond a thin or shallow semiotic linguistic reading and seeks to understand the way a society thinks. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz stated,

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate is essentially a semiotic one. Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

Later he said, “Culture, this acted document, is public.” In comparison “Thick Description” is a “depth model” compared to Jacques Derrida’s mode of analysis, which stresses the surface of texts and places the reader inside, rather than outside, the field of study. For the study of art history and aesthetics, the word “local” becomes key in relation to a Geertzian understanding of art. In Local Knowledge, Geertz asserted that

The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life. And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter..

But what is the significance of Material Culture to the study of the history and the philosophy of art? In the best Foucauldrian fashion, one must begin by noting what material culture is not. First, material culture is not connected in any way with Marxism. In fact, Marxism is never mentioned in the discourse of material culture, except to note in passing that Marxists object to Geertz’s lack of attention to issues of class and power.

Geertz 1

Marxism, whether vulgar, reflexive, neo, or what have you, is a theory, which analyzes a social system from the perspective of that determining engine, economics in general and capitalism in particular. Marxism is a critique of wealth, power, and class oppression. Second, an anthropologist never critiques or judges a culture, nor does s/he have a political or activist agenda—ideally—that is. Marxism also operates in terms of the dialectic: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, critiquing the teleological movement, the dynamic movement, of historical forces over time. Material culture, in contrast, is not a theory. As Geertz commented in his book Local Knowledge,

..purist dogmas…of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses…but…they head us off precisely in the wrong direction—toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life..

Geertz never worked out or revealed a theory; rather material culture is a method of study, observation, and elucidation. Finally, the Geertzian method must be synchronic and can never be diachronic or caught up in time. The importance of the synchronic was explained by William Sewell in his chapter on Geertz, “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in that the anthropologist,

..adequately realized synchrony is more important to good historical analysis than adequately realized diachrony. In the eyes of professionals, it is more important for a historian to know how to suspend time than to know how to recount its passage.

Next, since material culture is a method, not a theory, the procedure stands apart from both modernist and postmodernist theories, while at the same time making use of their theoretical insights. The young anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, began omnivorously consuming, appropriating, and employing a whole array of new ideas tumbling out of that 1960s merging of philosophy and literary theory. Long before the term “blurring the boundaries” of disciplines sunk to genuflected jargon in art history, Geertz found inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Michel Foucault. Geertz built a stratified, or thick description, of an object in culture in order to interpret it semiotically in a fixed fashion, but Geertz turned to Ludwig Wittgenstein who unfroze meaning by declaring, in Philosophical Investigations,

For a large class of cases–though not for all—in which we employ the word ‘meaning,’ it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

Indeed Geertz attributed his position to

..that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, “The Later Wittgenstein.” The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish…I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master.

In his essay, “Thick Description,” Geertz noted that

..cultural forms find articulation…in various sorts of artifacts and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.

The quotation on meaning and its “use” by Wittgenstein comes from his Philosophical Investigations, “Part 1, Section 43,” as published by Basil Blackwell in 1953. Elaborating upon the ideas of Geertz, Eric Kline Slverman’s essay, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?” noted that

He was the first American anthropologist to employ a textual metaphor for understanding culture. In Geertz’s writings, however, we do not find a single, clearly articulated elaborate theory of the text..His textual metaphor emerges from a series of conceptual themes—it is not one notion of several orientations. Geertz approaches cultural meaning through a symbolic or semiotic framework. He was particularly influenced by Susan Langer..Geertz defines cultural symbols as medals of and models for social reality.

Although Geertz was sometimes lumped together with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, his project is not to read texts but to write texts. Indeed Silverman stated that “Geertz is wary of intertextuality, except in the instance of thinking of parts in terms of the whole or the whole in germs of the parts.” Geertz said in Local Knowledge that

To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted…a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them..

However, Geertz embraced the postmodern notion that academic and scientific writing is a form of literature or écriture, and he wrote deliberately in a metaphorical style, embracing the Lyotardian concept of the “figure” in the “discourse.” It not that Geertz read Derrida, it is that one can do a Derridan reading of a Geertzian text. Certainly, there is a degree of Kristvian intertextuality in Geertz, but, for a field ethnographer, a word far more suitable than “intertextuality,” would be “connections” or what historian Wilhelm Dilthy called “connectedness” or “context” (Zusammenhand) or Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” among cultural elements. Dilthy commented,

It is a relationship of whole to parts…Meaning and meaningfulness..are contextual. One would have to await life’s end and could not survey the whole on the basis of which the relations between the parts can be determined until the hour of death. One would have to await the end of history in order to possess the complete material for the determination of its meaning. On the other hand, the whole exists for us insofar as it becomes understandable on the basis of the parts. Understanding always hovers between these two approaches.

Geertz accepted the postmodern concept of a consciousness that is socially and linguistically constructed, but he did so via Emmanuel Kant by way of Ernst Cassirer with a drive-by for Foucault. For Geertz, the individual, or Foucault’s fictive “Man,” was never the object of study. A person is but an actor situated within a thick cultural matrix, acting and reacting, with limited agency, out of pre-existing cognitive structures, a priori producing culture. Marxists, feminists, postcolonial critics have, rightly, criticized Geertz for not including the voices of the dispossessed. The voices of women, for example, cannot be retroactively added to field research for each thick description is bound up in a synchronic moment in time. It can be stated with or without kindness that Geertz was creating his notion of “thick description” in a time in which women and people of color were silenced in philosophy at the very time when they were vocalizing loudly in the streets. It is possible that, with later anthropologists, once silent voices can be included only in a later thick description. That said, at the time, the scholars who surrounded Geertz or who commented on his theories seem to be more interested in the theory than in the practices. According to Stephen Greenblatt, Gilbert Ryle’s

..thick description is manifestly a quality of the explication rather than of the action or text that is explicated; it is not the object that is thick or thin but only the description of it. A thick description thus could be exceedingly straightforward or, alternatively, exceedingly complex, depending on the length of the chain of parasitical intentions and circumstantial detachments..Thickness is not the object; it is in the narrative surroundings, the add-ons, nested frames..Thickness is no longer seems extrinsic to the object, a function solely of the way it is framed.

Clearly, Geertz, like many of his generation was formed from a mélange of cultural forces swirling around during the 1960s. During this fertile period, decades of thinking coalesced and philosophical ideas that dated back to the beginning of the century began to be assimilated and, having been digested, began to emit descendants in further thought. In his way, Clifford Geertz was a prototypical Postmodern thinker who assembled a coalition of concepts that allowed him to further anthropology and to take the new field in new directions, combining field work with philosophy, specifically semiotics. Material culture became a way to “read” a society like a text, but part of any society is its works of culture–art objets. Given a broad mandate as an anthropologist, Geertz would turn his attention to art and delved into the links between art history, art historians, philosophy and semiotics and philosophy–a complex combination of text and image, discussed in the next post.

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

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

[email protected]