Friday, 15 May 2009

Opinion, and Extracts From Erwin Panofsky's Idea, A Concept In Art Theory

In true Panofsky fashion the book hops in and out of Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, Scholasticism, and many of their recombinations and reformations from the high renaissance through to Neo-Classicism, in search of the chain of transformations undergone by the notion of the Idea in art, from its restriction of art to the world of shadows, to its glorification of art as matter enlivened by thought, to its role as weapon in the battle between the subjective and the objective, and even its use in the overcoming of such an opposition in the chasing of its origins back to the groundlessness of divinity. His narrative chain is impressive and fun, however I cannot help but be disappointed that after his recounting of all the fights and debates and dialectics over the centuries which have invigorated artists and artistic production, from the squabbling camps of the Caravvagisti naturalists and the Mannerist stylists, to the oppositions of the Impressionists and Expressionists, that after citing so much colourful material and debate that has arisen from the cyclical return of these recurrent themes, he seems to draw a line under the whole investigation, under all those themes, placing his narrative in the trash-heap of futility, as if it were a failed scientific experiment whose very subject had proven itself worthless and unsuitable for investigation. He wrote that “To recognize the diversity of these solutions and to understand their historical presuppositions is worthwhile for history’s sake, even though philosophy has come to realize that the problem underlying them is by its very nature insoluble”, and in so doing once again brings down philosophy’s heavy and blunt axe onto the nape of art’s soft neck, paternalistically pointing out to art that its energetic dialogues are pointless, that all they need to do is to look at the divine Kant and see that there can be no ground for artistic perception outside of itself, that there can be recourse neither to a pure nature nor to a transcendental “thing-in-itself”, that oppositions like that between “idealism” and “naturalism” are illusions of illogic, dialectical antinomies that have arisen from a misunderstanding of the origins of artistic perception; and so the debate is closed. The oppositions of subject-object, nature-style, systematization-intuition, etc are all passionate phantasms over which so much intellectual energy has been wasted, the interesting residue of which just so happens to be the voluminous and eminently inexplicable mass of sculpture and painting that silently sits in its museums, tormenting the likes of Panofsky in their wordlessness, but which he cannot ignore, and so after convicting the reasons behind their production as being guilty of epistemological inadequacy, he must simply catalogue the sculptures and the ideas behind them like a good botanist cataloguing a species doomed to extinction, and so having noted their existence, having marked their irrelevance, he closes the book on the vainness of art.

How would a writer feel if a theorist came and declared that philosophy had discovered the insolubility of the problem underlying the nature of literary invention? That all the discussions between writers as to the nature of factual history and fictional representation, of style and content, of reality and truth, were all silly disagreements based on their inability to see that the problems themselves had been misplaced, that they were locked in endlessly circling dialectical antinomies? I would think that he might be rather perplexed at the nature of ideas in writing being posed as a problem that should be solvable, that such a notion was as laughable and arid as being told that while people can discuss as much as they like about whatever they so please, it is all pointless because the sum of all their debates cannot be resolved into a proof that concludes a philosophically framed problem. There seems to me to be a misunderstanding about the oppositions in art-production, in that I do not think their value lies in their ability to compose in aggregate an elegant answer to any of the problems they present (which is what many an art theorist seems to look for), or even that their connections in time should be logical enough to form a coherent history, rather it seems to me that their value lies in the quantity and quality of the artistic phenomena they engender; that the amount of investigation they demand be justified not by their quality as resolvable equations, but by the strength and vigour of the pursuit after an unachievable goal which they inspire in the artists pre-occupied with their ideas. And the reason that certain oppositions and questions keep coming back in various forms, and keep inspiring generation after generation of artists to produce, is not that they are logically interesting and eminently given to discursiveness, but that they are representative of various facets of human nature, perfect mirrors and justifications of all the various shades of character-types in the pool of humanity (the ‘rigorous’ types disposed first to systematization and then ‘the scientific’, and the ‘spiritual’ types first to the idealistic and later the absolute, etc etc); and just as (I pray) the diversity of civilisation will never implode to a point where all is in agreement with all else, but will rather remain abundant in human archetypes which subtly shift in combination from person to person and generation to generation, so artistic discourse will continue to be rich in discussions and disagreements which are as rich and inspiring, but also as repetitive and unchanging, as the nature of human character itself.

Plotinus says:
For he who contemplates physical beauty must not lose himself therein, but he must recognise that it is an image and a vestige and a shadow, and he must flee to that of which it is a likeness. For if one were to rush forth and to grasp for truth that which is only a beautiful reflection in the water, then the same thing will happen to him that happened to the one about whom a meaningful myth tells how he, wanting to grasp a mirrored reflection, vanished in the depths of the waters; in the same way, he who holds on to physical beauty and will not let go of it, will sink, not with his body but with his soul, into the dark abysses, horrible for the mind to behold, where he will languish blindly in Orcus, consorting with shadows there as he did here.

Thus the Platonic attack accuses the arts of continually arresting man’s inner vision within the realm of sensory images, that is, of actually obstructing his contemplation of the world of Ideas [relevant passage not included in this extract, see p30]; and the Plotinian defence condemns the arts to the tragic fate of eternally driving man’s inner eye beyond these sensory images, that is, of opening to him the prospect of the world of Ideas but at the same time veiling the view. Understood as copies of the sensory world, works of art are divested of a more elevated spiritual or, if you will, symbolic meaning; understood as revelations of Ideas, they are divested of the timeless validity and self-sufficiency which properly belongs to them.

Scholasticism in general, just like Plato, showed far less interest in the problem of art than in the problem of the beautiful, much more compelling because of its amalgamation with the problem of the good.

[Alberti’s Treatise] differs from earlier literature of art by no longer answering the question “how to do it?” but the quite different and thoroughly unmedieval question “what abilities and, above al, what kind of knowledge enable the artist to confront nature with confidence whenever he is required to do so?”
In its attitude toward art the Renaissance thus differed fundamentally from the Middle Ages in that it removed the object from the inner world of the artist’s imagination and placed it firmly in the “outer world”. This was accomplished by laying a distance between the “subject” and “object” much as in artistic practice perspective placed a distance between the eye and the world of things –a distance which at the same time objectifies the “object” and personalizes the “subject”.

It is clear from what has been said that the “subject-object problem” was now ripe for a basic clarification. For as soon as the “subject” is given the task of obtaining the laws of artistic production from reality by his own effort instead of being allowed to presuppose them above reality (and above himself), there necessarily arises the question of when and for what reasons he is justified in claiming to have these laws correct. Yet –and this is particularly significant- it was only the definitely “Mannnerist” school of thought which first achieved a basic clarification of the problem, or at least consciously demanded it.

The concept of the “Idea” was already transformed into the concept of the “ideal” during the renaissance. This stripped the Idea of its metaphysical nobility but at the same time brought it into a beautiful and almost organic conformity with nature: and Idea which is produced by the human mind but, far from being subjective and arbitrary, at the same time expresses the laws of nature embodied in each object, achieves basically the same thing by intuitive synthesis that Alberti, Leonardo, and Durer had tried to achieve by discursive synthesis when they summarized and systematized a rich material, gained by observation and approved by expert judgement, into a theory of proportion: the perfection of the “natural” by means of art.

[Mannersists] rejected both the flowing freedom of baroque space and the lawful order and stability of Renaissance space, and created instead even severer restraints precisely by means of planarity. In a similar way the avowals of artistic freedom co-existed –not too peacefully- with the dogma that artistic creativity could be taught and learned, that is, that it could be systematized. Perhaps this dogma received very special stress precisely because it was feared that otherwise art might be threatened by subjective arbitrariness.

At the end of his book Zuccari interprets the term disegno interno as an etymological symbol of man’ssimilarity to God (disegno = segno di dio in noi), and he celebrates it as the “second sun of the cosmos”, the “second creating Nature”, and the “second life-giving and life-sustaining world spirit”

He who has done much measuring will develop his own Augenmass (ie intuitive sense of proportion); he who “has filled his mind full” by much Abmachen (ie reproducing nature from life), will accumulate a “secret treasure of the heart”, from which he can pour forth what he “has gathered in from the outside for a long time”.

Ideas normally provide a guarantee of objective validity and beauty in the work of art; with Durer however, their proper function is to ensure originality and inexhaustibility in that they enable the artist to pour forth “always something new” from his mind. The theory of Ideas, which here almost take on the character of inspirations, serves to support that romantic conception of genius that recognizes the mark of true artistry not in correctness and beauty but in an unending plenitude that always creates things unique and things that never existed before.


Anonymous said...

post the book as a pdf online . . . can never find the damn thing . . .

Also - while I'm thinking about it and in response to the intro of your text, to say that some fundamental problems are insoluble is not necessarily to come crushingly down upon art. Its just the acknowledgement of a very real horizon, which puts in into Pan's larger theorization of art as a continual re-stating of those basic poles or problems (optic/haptic, etc). A series of failed solutions at best helps define the problem. Stating the problem clearly becomes the best end.
Anyway, thanks for the quotes!

Anonymous said...

post the book as a pdf online . . . can never find the damn thing . . .

Also - while I'm thinking about it and in response to the intro of your text, to say that some fundamental problems are insoluble is not necessarily to come crushingly down upon art. Its just the acknowledgement of a very real horizon, which puts in into Pan's larger theorization of art as a continual re-stating of those basic poles or problems (optic/haptic, etc). A series of failed solutions at best helps define the problem. Stating the problem clearly becomes the best end.
Anyway, thanks for the quotes!

nabil said...

Enjoyed your synopsis and comments. Thanks Adam.