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.

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