Art and “Thick Description,” Part Two

ART AND MATERIAL CULTURE

CLIFFORD GEERTZ and ART HISTORY

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.”

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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.

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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]