Erwin Panofsky’s essay entitled The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline opens with a few words from a dying Emmanuel Kant. Just days before his death, the great philosopher rose trembling and uncertain, muttering incoherently to greet his physician, and wouldn’t sit until the doctor himself sat down. Only then Kant “permitted himself to be helped to his chair and, after having regained some of his strength, said, “Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen” — “The sense of humanity has not yet left me.”1Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (1939). Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. New York: Anchor Books, 1955. 1.  Panofsky cites E. A. C. Wasianski. Panofsky tells us that both men were moved, almost, to tears.

In this moment, Panofsky tells us Kant lifts the meaning of Humanität from mere social ritual to something far more significant — the proud and tragic consciousness of human dignity in the face of the “utter subjection to illness, decay and all that is implied in the word ‘mortality.'”2Panofsky. 1.

Panofsky then traces the history of this proud and tragic consciousness. In its classical form, humanitas sought not only to distinguish man from animal, but also moral man from feral and vulgar barbarity. In the Middle Ages, that antithesis was replaced with another, between God and Man. The Renaissance revived the classical duality, and what would become our concept of humanism is born with a doubled tension, and a doubled resolution. Panofsky writes:

It is from this ambivalent conception of humanitas that humanism was born. It is not so much a movement as an attitude which can be defined as the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty); from these two postulates result — responsibility and tolerance.3Panofsky. 2.

This attitude, Panofsky goes on to say, is then attacked by those groups which have a fundamental aversion to concepts of responsibility and tolerance — authoritarians, intellectual and political libertinists, determinists, and the “‘insectolatrists‘ who profess the all-importance of the hive, whether the hive be called group, class, nation or race.”4Panofsky. 3.

The humanist, Panofsky concludes, rejects these various flavors of authority, and respects tradition as something worthy of study, and, at times, restoration. The humanist is fundamentally an historian, looking at the past — with reason, humility, responsibility and tolerance — to create an intelligible, ordered cosmos of culture, just as the scientist seeks an intelligible, ordered cosmos of nature.

The work of art, Panofsky posits, provides a fundamental divergence between the scientific and humanistic cosmos-building practices. Because the work of art demands to be encountered aesthetically, it cannot be simply analyzed directly as an object in nature, but must first be re-enacted and re-created in the mind of the humanistic beholder. The beholder literally realizes the meaning of the work of art.5Panofsky. 14.

How the art historian does this separates him from the naïve viewer, the connoisseur, and the art theorist. To recreate his work of art, the art historian reads and acquires all knowledge possible about the work itself. This research helps him identify and reject his personal subjectivities, and to rigorously bear witness to the artistic (and cultural) “intention” of the work of art.6Panofsky. 22. The “scare quotes” are Panofsky’s.

But to do this work, and even formulate his questions, the art historian relies on the abstract work the art theorist. Panofsky necessarily turns to the German language to express the theorists’ goal as Kunstwissenschaftliche Grundbegriffe, or, loosely translated, a continually-becoming-interdisciplinary-system-of-conceptual-knowledge-of-art. Panofsky sees an organic relation between the art historian and art theorist, each dependent on the other in fundamental ways, and each cross-pollinating the other. Panofsky describes the relation with a magnificent mélange of metaphors:

…[T]he relation between the art historian and the art theorist may be compared to that between two neighbors who have the right of shooting over the same district, while one of them owns the gun and the other all the ammunition. Both parties would be well advised if they realized this condition of their partnership. It has rightly been said that theory, if not received at the door of an empirical discipline, comes through the chimney like a ghost and upsets the furniture. But it is no less true that history, if not received at the door of a theoretical discipline dealing with the same set of phenomena, creeps into the cellar like a horde of mice and undermines the groundwork.7Panofsky. 22.

Here, Panofsky writes in direct response to Sedlmayr’s Toward a Rigorous Study of Art, a work that he explicitly cites a few sentences before. Rather than considering Sedlmayr’s second order of art history as belonging to the discipline of art history, Panofsky gently pushes it aside as a separate discipline altogether.  He then describes art history’s fundamental dependence on that separate discipline with colorful word-pictures that reveal a certain penetration-anxiety. It is an anxiety that still haunts the discipline. For many American art historians, a guiding disciplinary preoccupation is the defense of art history from the shame of illegitimate influence and the stain of impure theoretical thought. The academy has not yet figured out how to rid itself of the ghosts in its chimney.

Panofsky would get over his anxieties, and would go on to construct one of the most enduring art theories of the last century, now far out of fashion.




Humanism, however, is not just out of fashion, it is thoroughly disgraced. The problem is humanism’s congenital defect — classical humanitas sought to distinguish the moral homo humanus from a lesser type of human being, homo barbaritas. This distinction, and who gets to make it, disqualifies not only humanism, but for some, the entire Enlightenment project. From this tainted humanist seed racism, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and the horrors of modern history grew and flourished. Humanism is blamed for creating the condition for barbarity, it is the perverse progenitor of victor and vanquished, of oppressor and oppressed.

To claim to be a humanist is to be backward, out of step, and stubbornly anti-progressive. To the average humanities professor humanism is seen as, at best, a naïve belief in fuzzy utopian universality, and at worst, a symptom of benighted privilege, ignorance and casual racism. In its ascendence, this critique of humanism has spilled beyond the bounds of the academy and into mass culture.

In a recent art history seminar investigating anti-Freudianism, Affect Theory, and Afro-Pessimist ethics, I asked my professor, a rising star in the identity politics game, about the eclipse of humanism. I fully expected the standard linear answer: in the face of the atrocity of twentieth-century history, and in an Oedipal struggle with existentialism, a new generation of European anti-humanist intellectuals emerged — Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida and the rest. “Continental” Theory was sucked into the American academy with a roar in the 1980s. That, in turn, gave a radical theoretical foundation for feminism, which in turn provided the model for queer theory, which begat academic theories of race — all of which flourish in the warm embrace of the progressive replacement of humanism — identity politics. Humanism is too old, too white, too male, and too European to be of much use in our new post-modern, post-human global reality. The few decrepit humanists still employed by the academy are dying out like the dinosaurs they are, and actually claiming to be a humanist now is a nostalgic affectation, like wearing spats — but racist and reactionary spats.

But that’s not the answer he gave. Instead, my professor, apparently approaching glee, responded:

“We won.”

Hooray! The Culture Wars are over! But I saw that in the wake of his victory my professor had created a militant and Manichean space, a black-and-white world populated by two categories of people — winners and losers.8Jodi Dean recently wrote about weaponized identity politics and its premise of continuing existing power structures, and its failed investment in “winners.” I saw that my professor, in his anti-humanist zeal, had done nothing other than to re-create, in miniature and caricature, a type of primal and brutal humanism he claims victory over. If the congenital defect of humanism is its teleological foundation — the ability to make the distinction of privilege between two types of humans — then does not a new worldview populated only with winners and losers repeat humanism’s original, divisive sin?

Yes, but the problem is even more tragic. This worldview does keep in place the structure of hierarchy that is humanism’s Achilles’ heel, but it simply inverts the agents — the once marginalized now are now able to marginalize. What is lost in this cartoon version of upturned humanism is the ambivalence at the core of Panofsky’s essay — the black-and-white world of identity politics has no room for shades of gray. In a world of winners and losers, notions of human dignity are secondary, and notions of human frailty and fallibility, antithetical. My professor’s identity politics then becomes a kind of monstrous born-again humanism, one that has slipped its moral moorings. Panofsky knew, back in 1939, that those who sought to divide the world along identitarian lines would have no use for the responsibility and tolerance that constitutes his humanism.


At the time, I remember feeling somewhat sad for my professor. I felt sorry to have stirred up his hubris with a simple question, and I felt embarrassed for his blindness. I realized that he did not realize that the victory he claimed is no victory at all. Claiming victory over responsibility and tolerance is like claiming victory over the sun — it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to begin with, and leaves nothing but scorched earth in its wake.

Kasimir Malevich. Costume design for Victory Over the Sun: Enemy. 1913.

As I wrote the previous paragraph, I groped a bit for the right metaphor. What finally arrived in my mind was the title of a famously obscure Russian Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun. The opera was created by a group of Russian avant-garde all-stars — Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov, Matyushin and Malevich — and it was first staged in Saint Petersburg in 1913, in the volatile and fertile period just before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. The opera thematizes instability, but not just instability qua instability —  it thematizes the instability of our very foundations: space, time, language, and sense itself. All of these, these artists tell us, are not fixed, they are not absolute. Each operate in complex rhythms and rhymes that we may not be able to see because we are in them. Art makes these invisibilities visible. The humanities make these invisibilities intelligible. From Plato to Nietzsche,  the great minds of our Western tradition have shown us, patiently, over and over again, that we live in a  world where there are no absolute victors. Rather, we are caught in an eternal rising up and rising down, driven by nature, decay, fear, and our own predations as we seek to be, however fleetingly, “winners.”

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (1939). Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. New York: Anchor Books, 1955. 1.  Panofsky cites E. A. C. Wasianski.
2. Panofsky. 1.
3. Panofsky. 2.
4. Panofsky. 3.
5. Panofsky. 14.
6. Panofsky. 22. The “scare quotes” are Panofsky’s.
7. Panofsky. 22.
8. Jodi Dean recently wrote about weaponized identity politics and its premise of continuing existing power structures, and its failed investment in “winners.”