Delirium Studies

Art History and its Discontents

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Category: Art History (page 2 of 2)

Celestial Emporiums of Benevolent Knowledge

We abhor the disorder of things. Disorder is, etymologically speaking, married to disease. Disorder is dis-ease. Disorder is also a confusion, an absence, a violation, a disturbance of mind or body. Destruction, rot, madness and death lurk at disorder’s edge. To defend ourselves against the immense entropic power of disorder we invent ways of organizing the world around us so that we may create an ordered and intelligible cosmos out of chaos. These ordering systems — whether they are called worldview, belief systemparadigmWeltanschauungepisteme, ideology or science — are fundamental to our grand culture-building exercises; they are the bones of man-made worlds.

In 1942, as world war was waging, Jorge Luis Borges published a short essay, John Wilkin’s Analytical Language, which describes the faults and fractures inherent in the human compulsion to order, to classify, and to name. As ur-example, Borges cites an ancient and imaginary Chinese encyclopedia:

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies [of Wilkins’ analytical language] recall those attributed by doctor Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they are mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the water pitcher; (n) those that from a distance resemble flies.1Borges, Jorge Luis. “John Wilkin’s Analytical Language (1942)” in Selected Non-Fictions. Eliot Weinberger, ed. New York: Penguin, 1999. 229-232. This is the passage that set Michel Foucault on the path to write The Order of Things.

Borges’ essay traces not only the limits of language but the limits of human knowledge. The tragicomic kernel of the Celestial Emporium is an uncomfortable truth — as necessary and beloved as our ordering systems are, each one is congenitally flawed. Each one is imaginary, arbitrary, provisional, and incomplete. Each one is as absurd as another, and yet we can’t live without them. If there actually is such a thing as a unified and ordered universe, Borges writes, “then we must speculate on its purpose; we must speculate on the words, definitions, etymologies, and synonymies of God’s secret dictionary.”2Borges. 231.

The Keeper, a recent exhibition at the New Museum, echoes Borges’ ancient encyclopedia. It is a collection of collections, a fragmentary encyclopedic catalog of projects, each one a speculation on God’s secret dictionary. But these speculations are presented outside of language, in the pre-linguistic, or, more accurately, in the ultra-linguistic realm of image and object, and so, necessarily, they do their philological work using what may seem to be queer methods. Even so, there are methodological and strategic similarities between them. Massimiliano Gioni, chief curator, organized his encyclopedia-exhibition around the notion of collecting, a universe-building exercise that, as he writes, is a Sisyphean and cyclical struggle between order and disorder; “to achieve the wholeness of a collection, one creates order and gives meaning to objects so that they form a universe of their own, which in turn becomes a mirror of the world in which these objects originated.”3Gioni, Massimiliano. “The Country of Last Things” in The Keeper, M. Gioni and N. Bell, eds. New York: New Museum, 2016. 10.

But there are cracks in that mirror. Writing about his own bibliophilia, Gioni reveals the anxieties of cosmos-building; the pleasure he finds in surveying his library soon gives way to distress. He writes, “I’m suddenly reminded of the infinite gaps in my library and the hundreds and thousands of books I don’t have [. ..] And all at once the abyss of deficiency gapes open before me […] my library will never be complete and [despair] accompanies the most painful realization of all: that what I am trying to hide behind these books might be the thing I fear the most — my absolute, impenetrable ignorance.”4Gioni, 11. Cosmos-building is a hedge against our limits, a wager with finitude. And all the while, chaos nips at the collector’s heels.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário. Dentaduras (Dentures). n.d.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário. Estrela de São João. n.d.

Arthur Bispo do Rosário. Manto da Apresentação (Presentation Mantle). n.d.

The Keeper presents thousands upon thousands of individual things, each one a cosmos-vision made actual and exquisitely particular. For example, Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1909/11-1989), an ex-sailor and diagnosed schizophrenic who spent much of his life in a psychiatric asylum in Brasil, created hundreds of embroidered tapestries, vestments, and constructions from junk and trash. He believed he was chosen by God to gather the salvagable world in advance of the Apocalypse. The ex-mariner filled his miniature arks with lists of names,  gathered cast-off objects into scrap-wood iconostases, and fashioned a coat to wear on the occasion of meeting God. It seems we need a madman to remind us that every thing, and therefore every one, no matter how broken, dirty or deplorable, is, actually, redeemable. Bispo’s objects stand as mute testimony to the possibility of redemption, of actual hope and change.

 

Zofia Rydet. Zapis socjologiczny (Sociological Record). c. 1978-1990.

Zofia Rydet. Zapis socjologiczny (Sociological Record). c. 1978-1990.

Zofia Rydet. Zapis socjologiczny (Sociological Record). c. 1978-1990.

Zofia Rydet (1911-1997), the Polish photographer, decided at age 67 to document the interior of every household in Poland. The black-and-white photographs show the inhabitants of their rooms surrounded, and part of, their own collections of objects and images. The incessant, unnatural wide-angle view and the incessant, unnatural light of a confrontational flash lend each photograph a familiar strangeness. They appear to be what they are: evidence photographs — proof of life, or proof of a specific type of disappearing highland life. A shadowed gloom threatens the image as the light of the flash falls off from the center of the image. A black void — true, primordial χἀος — lurks directly off-camera and gnaws at the edges of each picture.5I suspect it is the same black chaos that gnaws at the edges of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Tales of Galicia, a book of similar time and place as Rydet’s photographs.  The photographer’s apparatus animates and creates this world, rescues it from the void, and does so over and over again, room by room, frame by frame. Rydet’s entire mesmerizing magnum opus is digitized and searchable online.6A lovely tote emblazoned with a quote by Zofia Rydet, “Dzień w kotórym nie fotografuję, uważam za stracony.” (A day in which I don’t photograph is a day I consider lost.) is available from the Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych (Foundation for Visual Arts) here.

 

Yuji Agematsu’s cigarette-cellophane street-detritus vitrines. c. 1997-2016.

Since 1997, artist Yuji Agematsu (b. 1956) has, on daily walks in New York City, collected tiny bits of the detritus and effluvia the city continually sheds and coughs up onto its sidewalks. Agematsu’s Celestial Emporium is as fragmentary and strange as Borges’ — (a) an unfurled, secondhand condom, (b) half-licked lollipops, (c) chewed gum, (d) gobs of hair of unidentifiable provenance, (e) broken Q-tips, (f) wee bits of rotting vegetation, (g) mysterious goo, (h) the desiccated claw of a bird long dead, (i) a penny, (j) etcetera, (k) things a reasonable person would try to avoid encountering with a shod foot — comprise a catalog of materials that Agematsu uses to create worlds as intricate and harmonious as our own. Two braided ordering cycles seem to be at work in these worlds. First, of course, is the daily repetition of the artist’s collection ritual, a repetition entering its twentieth year. Second is the rhythm of the objects populating the cellophane-wrapped worlds. Each bit of detritus flourished at some point — the plants grew, the bird flew, the penny was shiny, the lollipop once enticed someone in its original cellophane wrap. Each one died or was lost or was discarded and left to decay. Each bit was then snatched up by the artist’s hand, and restored to a second life in another world. The tension produced by these twinned lifecycles —  the daily repetition of the redemptive labor performed by the artist as he walks through time mirrored in the lifecycle of base earthly  material — birth, efflorescence, death, decay, and rebirth, and re-efflorescence and (re-)decay — is a silent and invisible force that animates this universe, and ours.

 

Korbinian Aigner. Grüner Bietgheimer. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Roter von Sich. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Straßdorfer Frauenbirne. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Späte Blutbirne. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner. Adams Apfel. n.d.

Korbinian Aigner (1885-1966), also known as the Apfelpfarrer (Apple Pastor), was a German priest and pomologist. Over course of his life, he created over 900 paintings of apples and pears, one hundred of which are included in the exhibition.

In the 1930s Aigner was an outspoken critic of the National Socialists and in 1939 was arrested and imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau. Throughout his imprisonment he was able to continue growing and developing apples, and he continued his cataloging practice. In 1945, he escaped and returned his parish, and farming, and painting, until his death in 1966.

Like a specter, the Holocaust haunts The Keeper. It haunts Aigner’s fruit portraits, it materializes suddenly in MM’s drawings of daily life as a prisoner of Auschwitz, it bleeds into Hannelore Baron’s constructions, and it inserts itself into the artist’s biography and photographs of children lost in the centerpiece project of the exhibition, Ydessa Hendeles’  Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) 2002. Catastrophe of different species haunts the galleries as well — death and decompositionhope and madness and the destruction of war — but the Holocaust seeps through the exhibition as a silent reminder that the absurdity of grand ordering systems is no trifling or benign or academic matter — it encompasses murder, slavery and genocide.

Aigner’s work lives on in another way. An apple variety developed by him, originally called KZ-3, but eventually renamed Korbiniansapfel in his honor, is still grown in Germany today. Saplings descended from a tree cultivated by Aigner at Dachau are available here.

This selection of cosmos-building projects, a minuscule fraction of the work included in the exhibition, provides examples of the type of strategies The Keeper presents that cause difficulties for art historical interpretation and critical analysis. Brian Wallis, in his Artforum review of The Keeper, writes that through the exhibition Gioni argues for “a view of culture that is all-inclusive, encyclopedic, iconophilic, canon-busting, and defiantly outside the mainstream. His keepers defy the art-world apartheid of privileged radicalism, the exclusionary system of controlled selectivity, and feigned meritocracy that today so convincingly distorts our perceptions of creativity and its uses.”7 Wallis, Brian. “The Keeper.” Artforum. October, 2016. 271. Wallis describes the strategies that the (so-called) art-world uses in its grand culture-building project, and uses stark terms to do so: apartheid, privilege, exclusion and control. The unpleasant insight Wallis shares is that culture is created through exclusion and barriers, it is a reductive and distorting enterprise. Cosmos-building, on the other hand, as The Keeper abundantly illustrates, works in another way altogether. Cosmos-building in its many incarnations is endlessly inclusive, forever incomplete, always becoming.8The anxiety this strategic contrast creates in some culture-builders is evident in the language of pathology — “hoarding,” “mania,” “compulsion,” “creep factor,” “weirdo,” —  that leaks into some reviews

Cosmos-building and culture-building work in contradictory ways and The Keeper puts this contradiction on institutional display.9Some 43 years ago, art historian Linda Nochlin describes the endless antagonism between the various incarnations of R/realisms and abstraction, as she sees it, in the art historical mode of high moralism. Indeed, the essay is entitled The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law. In it, she describes the same contradictory forces at work in painting. She writes, “Whereas the nonrealist may work through distillation and exclusion, the realist mode implies enrichment and inclusion.” This is seen as R/realism’s fatal flaw, inclusion is a “lack of selectivity,” a sort of promiscuity which in turn leads to a existential “irrelevance.” She writes, “Irrelevance is indeed a prime feature of the intractable thereness of things as they are and as we experience them.” The Keeper presents an catalog of thousands of counterarguments to this fundamental art historical assumption — some objects, art history insists, because it has to, are better than others. While many writers discussing the exhibition stop short at its lush catalog of idiosyncrasy, Jerry Saltz sees through the strangeness and describes the underlying intellectual and academic apparatus that makes The Keeper seem so odd. If we look to the grand culture-building discipline of art history to help us understand The Keeper or help us give it meaning, we would be left sorely disappointed. As Saltz describes, current art history is (still) so rigorously linear, teleological, and parochial that is not of much use outside of itself. According to current notions of art history, Saltz writes, “Artists and isms follow one another in a Biblical begetting based on progress toward a goal to higher stage […] The problem is that anyone who doesn’t fall into this timeline is out of luck.”10Saltz, Jerry. “The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art.” Vulture.com. September 12, 2016. Art history is so self-referential, so compulsively exclusionary that it has exhausted itself of any meaningful sense of vivacity or value. Saltz writes that art history is “dead already; it just doesn’t know it. […][Our art history] is Zombie Art History.”11Saltz.

Saltz calls out this sort of zombified academicism as a stiffened ideology both idiotic and imaginary, as a species of intellectual fundamentalism beneficial only to its practitioners, and no one else. It might be easy to dismiss Saltz’s cri du coeur as an anti-academic polemic, except that the academicians, art history’s practitioners themselves, also have trouble defending the discipline as actually relevant.

Collecting is cyclical, repetitive, human behavior. Repetition is at The Keeper’s core — each separate project relies on repetition’s peculiar power. In Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) 2002, for example, the image of children and their teddy bears repeats and echoes three thousand times. Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s ongoing Weltrettungsprojekt (World Rescue Project) is comprised of hundreds of thousands of her drawings, at times produced at a rate of hundreds per day, are meant as a means of producing a positive counterforce to demonic forces in the world. Ye Jinglu commemorated each year of his life, from 1907 until he died in 1968, with a visit to a photographer’s studio. The resulting portraits, lined up like signal flags, spell out the story of one man’s time-travel. There is a certain sense of melancholy that accompanies these photographs as we see Ye Jinglu’s maturation slowly slide into aging, and the implication of his project’s sudden end.

Many of our great thinkers have taken on the notion of repetition. Freud, of course, described the pathological aspect of repetition-as-compulsion, but Kierkegaard describes repetition as a condition of a fulfilled, meaningful life, requiring both courage and vision. He writes:

Just as [the Greeks] taught all knowledge is recollection, thus will modern philosophy teach that life itself is repetition. […] Repetition and recollection are the same movement, just in opposite directions, because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards. Repetition, if it is possible, thus makes a person happy, while recollection makes him unhappy[…] He who wills repetition, he is a man, and the more emphatically he has endeavored to understand what this means, the deeper he is a human being. But he who does not grasp that life is repetition and that this is the beauty of life, he has condemned himself [to death.] He who chooses repetition, he lives.12Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Oxford University Press. 2009. 5-6.

Harry Smith. String Figure. n.d.

Harry Smith. String Figure. n.d.

Harry Smith. String Figure. n.d.

Kierkegaard’s apparent paradox — re-collecting forwards — in the end, is the engine of  The Keeper. Each project chooses, emphatically, repetition, as each one is pulled by melancholy, nostalgia and recollection. Each project operates, in its own individual way, along Kierkegaard’s eternal piston movement between melancholy and joy.

The exhibition includes a selection of string figures collected by Harry Smith (1923-1991), eminent shaman and famous collector of songs. In them he saw a universal, non-verbal language, but they could also serve as talismans for the the exhibition itself. Each one takes the simplest symbol for eternal cycle, a loop of string, and bends and weaves and knots it into more meaning, and then repeats that transformative magic over and over again. Human hands transform the material — first into the infinite loop and then into something else. Each figure is unique, and each figure is the same, individual and universal in microcosm, in continuous repetition. Like the string figures, each project in The Keeper weaves the base material world into something marvelous.

A lesson regarding art history lies here as well. Art history, as Saltz observes, sees its world linearly. Art history knows its problems are knotty, like a string figure. But rather than find meaning in the figure, art history seeks to undo the knot, pull out the weaving, and straighten the intricate loop into a single line. Then, and only then, can the discipline do its work. Art history can’t do what it does without a beginning and an end, a single line of inquiry, and a rigorous disregard of the marvelous.

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Borges, Jorge Luis. “John Wilkin’s Analytical Language (1942)” in Selected Non-Fictions. Eliot Weinberger, ed. New York: Penguin, 1999. 229-232. This is the passage that set Michel Foucault on the path to write The Order of Things.
2. Borges. 231.
3. Gioni, Massimiliano. “The Country of Last Things” in The Keeper, M. Gioni and N. Bell, eds. New York: New Museum, 2016. 10.
4. Gioni, 11.
5. I suspect it is the same black chaos that gnaws at the edges of Andrzej Stasiuk’s Tales of Galicia, a book of similar time and place as Rydet’s photographs.
6. A lovely tote emblazoned with a quote by Zofia Rydet, “Dzień w kotórym nie fotografuję, uważam za stracony.” (A day in which I don’t photograph is a day I consider lost.) is available from the Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych (Foundation for Visual Arts) here.
7. Wallis, Brian. “The Keeper.” Artforum. October, 2016. 271.
8. The anxiety this strategic contrast creates in some culture-builders is evident in the language of pathology — “hoarding,” “mania,” “compulsion,” “creep factor,” “weirdo,” —  that leaks into some reviews
9. Some 43 years ago, art historian Linda Nochlin describes the endless antagonism between the various incarnations of R/realisms and abstraction, as she sees it, in the art historical mode of high moralism. Indeed, the essay is entitled The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law. In it, she describes the same contradictory forces at work in painting. She writes, “Whereas the nonrealist may work through distillation and exclusion, the realist mode implies enrichment and inclusion.” This is seen as R/realism’s fatal flaw, inclusion is a “lack of selectivity,” a sort of promiscuity which in turn leads to a existential “irrelevance.” She writes, “Irrelevance is indeed a prime feature of the intractable thereness of things as they are and as we experience them.” The Keeper presents an catalog of thousands of counterarguments to this fundamental art historical assumption — some objects, art history insists, because it has to, are better than others.
10. Saltz, Jerry. “The Tyranny of Art History in Contemporary Art.” Vulture.com. September 12, 2016.
11. Saltz.
12. Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Oxford University Press. 2009. 5-6.

Ideas Are Scary

Ideas are scary

They come into this world ugly and messy

Ideas are frightening

Because they threaten what is known

They are the natural born enemy of the way things are

Yes, ideas are scary

And messy

And fragile

But under the proper care

They become something beautiful.

ding

This General Electric ad is now back on the air, and might leave you “mildly unsettled.” The petit truth here is that the world can indeed be a hostile place for new ideas. The grand truth of this strange little story is that beauty is not the only inhabitant of eye of the beholder, but beauty’s inverse — the repulsive — resides there as well. Idea enters the world as a hairy, innocent, woebegone allegory. He is not only an unheimlich twinned embodiment of both disgust and beauty, but also an embodiment of the potential of each of those qualities — both in him and in us. Once Idea undergoes the allegorical transformation, from abstract idea to the gritty world of (filmic) actuality, the hostility he encounters seems to emit from the visceral depths of his tormentors. The hate Idea endures is borne in reptilian-brain reflex.

Art trains us to overcome this reflex. To be able to realize the work of art, in both Panofsky’s and Sedlmayr’s sense, we are required to approach the work with the kindness of an open mind — a deliberate attitude of rigorous empathy, responsibility, and humility. Art history, on the other hand, requires no such effort. Art historians, generally, spend surprisingly little time in the presence of art, preferring, instead, the library. Digging up citations requires far more tenacity than it does tolerance.

There is an important lesson from, of all places, the military-industrial complex, for art historical disciplinarians and other brittle thinkers in this odd ad — ideas aren’t bad, it’s the resistance to them that is so ugly.

— Michael Westfall

The Sense of Humanity Has Not Yet Left Me

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.

 

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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.

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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.”

Toward a Rigorous Study of Art

The gentleman in the center of this photograph, obscured behind a cloud of pipe smoke, is Hans Sedlmayr. In 1931, he published a methodological manifesto entitled Zu einer strengen Kunstwissenschaft (Toward a Rigorous Study of Art, available to English readers in the essential Vienna School Reader).

Sedlmayr posits two orders of Art History. The first is the most familiar and agreeable to art historians. Using documentary evidence, the first order establishes the facts surrounding the work of art and its production — who produced it, who paid for it, when it was produced, and where. These facts, Sedlmayr reminds us, are dependent on the accidental presence of documentation, and are always fragmentary.1Sedlmayr, Hans. “Toward a Rigorous Study of Art” in The Vienna School Reader. Christopher Wood, ed. and trans. (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 134.

Scientific, documentary proof, as rigorous as it may seem, leaves immense gaps of knowledge. These gaps, Sedlmayr argues, can be bridged by an Art History of another sort, one that seeks to understand the work of art itself, and the traces of its production which it contains. The second order studies not just form, but form as motive of a concrete “gestalt.”2Sedlmayr. 135-6. The second order can answer not just “what?” but also the “why?” that provides art’s core.

For Sedlmayr, this second order is the kernel of a “genuine” study of art. The first order leaves the art object dead and lifeless, and leaves Art History as a deep disappointment. He writes:

You come from some robust, lively thing that has affected you, look up the existing scholarship about it, you read and read […], and afterward you have the distinct feeling that you have accumulated a great deal, yet it amounts to nothing. Somehow that which had seemed most important and most essential — the heart of the matter — has gotten lost in the process.3Sedlmayr. 138.

As the first order of Art History reveals its limits, the second order, seemingly speculative and subjective, offers its own problems. Will it veer into emotional, arbitrary, incomplete, unverifiable, belletristic nonsense? It doesn’t have to, Sedlmayr argues. He suggests a number of methodological strategies to establish a rigorous, genuine, and complete study of art, many of which seem like common sense scholarship. No arguing from the individual case to a generality. Comparisons are the antidote to speculation. Collaborate and cooperate with other fields.

The notions of artistic attitude and object world are fundamental concepts of his theory. The appropriate artistic attitude is not just a way of seeing, or a theoretical “reading,” but a mode of a properly sensitized viewer experiencing art with his full perceptive abilities — physical, psychological and intellectual. Isn’t this merely subjective musing? No. Sedlmayr writes:

“On the contrary: just as works of art are repeatedly re-created and formed anew by viewing subjects, each work of art is itself, in its totality, an objective reality, a separate object world that can be examined and accepted like any other concrete reality and that can be penetrated through contemplation or conceptualization.”4Sedlmayr. 145.

Sedlmayr’s method would become known as New Vienna School Strukturanalyse, which seeks to find meaning in not only the “structures” of the artwork itself, but structures within the object world the artwork inhabits, and the relationships within. For example, Sedlmayr’s method seek to find the transcendent character of the work of art. In other words, the artwork indicates other, external manifestations of its own “formal organization.” The orientation of artwork is its temporality. Sedlmayr writes that each artwork “carries within itself traces of its prehistory and the seeds of future transformations.”5Sedlmayr. 170. The radical kernel of these concepts is that they operate within the object world, not through external academic art historical constructs such as artistic influence and period style.

Sedlmayer’s Strukturanalyse requires a rigorous empathy for the work of art, a doubled perspective, and an acquiescence to the schitzophrenic possibility of multiple realities, and then the preference of one outside our own comfortable, subjective self. It sounds impossible, or somewhat daffy. But, I think Sedlmayer gets close to Art History’s tragic core, its inability to fully embrace the object of its study. The avoidance of this tragedy is one of the engines of the discipline, and repelling ideas such as Sedlmayer’s — contingency, nonlinearity, insight — is a driving force. Sedlmayr’s theory is still radical, still marginalized. (Though, there is an additional reason for that.)

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In a recent seminar, we read what I think is an example of a method that hews close to Sedlmayer’s Strukturanalyse. The essay, published in 2011 by Debora Silverman, concerned Belgian Art Nouveau and found in its form and materials a collective, cultural anxiety — a Gestalt — brought out by the horrors of Belgium’s rapacious colonial rule of the Congo Free State.6Silverman, Debora L. “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I,” West 86th 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139-81

The author upped the “structure stakes” over the course of the entire essay. First, she analyzed the source materials of Belgian decoration, then she found the transcendent character of the sinuous Belgian forms pointing to the tendrils of the rubber plant, a source of vast wealth which became a pretext for atrocity. And, finally, she found further formal resonance in the tremor of the colonial lash. It was a thrilling read.

None of these insights came with enough documentary evidence for our dear professor. He told us that the essay had severe problems, none of her connections between art and the art’s “world” could be proven. Entertaining, but a failure as Art History, he determined. He asked for our opinions and agreement murmured through the room. Then I asked him what would happen if we tried to write something that aspired to this essay. He responded, “You would be shot.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

Before I got the words out, he responded by repeating himself, slowly and impatiently, as one does when addressing an insolent child. “You. Would. Be. Shot.”

And that’s how I got a venerable, provincially notable Professor of the History of Architecture to articulate a minor murder fantasy in class one day. Remember, art history students: insight is treason, a capital offense.

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No discussion of Sedlmayr can be had without acknowledging his membership in the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945. Sedlmayr’s biography and the problems it presents to art historians is discussed in Christopher Wood’s introduction to The Vienna School Reader. Sedlmayr compounded his problems with the publication of Verlust der Mitte in 1948. That book, published under the title Art In Crisis here, has to be on the top of any top 10 list of most reviled art books. Ask Benjamin Buchloh.

For our purposes, Sedlmayr’s biography should provide one important lesson, one unfortunate truth about the academy: being an art historian does not necessarily make you a good person.

— Michael Westfall

Notes   [ + ]

1. Sedlmayr, Hans. “Toward a Rigorous Study of Art” in The Vienna School Reader. Christopher Wood, ed. and trans. (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 134.
2. Sedlmayr. 135-6.
3. Sedlmayr. 138.
4. Sedlmayr. 145.
5. Sedlmayr. 170.
6. Silverman, Debora L. “Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism, Part I,” West 86th 18, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011): 139-81

Scab Trashmen

Art History’s long, slow slide towards oblivion made the news again recently. Back in 2014, the UK’s Education Secretary announced new, more rigorous and demanding standards for arts education. Educators then created and approved a new, globally inclusive syllabus expanding the course beyond its previous limits of Western art. This presented an insurmountable problem. The board that oversees the exams reported that they could not find enough specialist examiners to cover the newly expanded subject, and, besides, only 839 students took the exam this year. (By way of comparison, 43,000 sat the Art and Design exams.) Confronted with a crisis of both supply and demand, last month the board axed the Art History A-levels altogether.

This, in turn, led to much hand-wringing. Those who cared valiantly defended Art History as something valuable, something more than just a class-appropriate avocation for posh girls. As one wit has it, “There could be no clearer example of the extent to which we have lost our way than the abandonment of art history and archaeology. Unless perhaps the new education secretary, Justine Greening, were to go on a long symbolic quest to seek the mythical holy grail and, having found the talismanic object, ancient vessel of incalculable wisdom and understanding, shat in it.”

On this side of the ocean, the crisis in Art History takes a far less operatic tenor. Here, Art History is just the prime example of useless academicism, as President Obama once glibly noted. In response to this off-the-cuff slight, the College Art Association defended an education in the humanities, reminding the President that “It is worth remembering that many of the nation’s most important innovators, in fields including high technology, business, and even military service, have degrees in the humanities. Humanities graduates play leading roles in corporations, engineering, international relations, government, and many other fields where their skills and creating (sic) thinking play a critical role.”

While this may be true, this argument is not even close to a defense of Art History. At best, it is an oblique defense of Art History professorsWhat is missing in the CAA response is any indication of Art History’s telos. Through the testimony of its own practitioners, Art History is reduced to a discipline in search of a purpose.

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I find myself falling into this image of old New York. My mind’s eye is cast back a hundred years. A gent in a bowler hat stares out with Stenburg eyes — a blur, a ghost, a rushing time-flâneur. It’s the animals that dominate this frame, the equine magnificence of the twinned grays – all muscle, bone and hoof – their majesty reigned by tack and sullen men. A boy looks out, witness to our witnessing. The image is hyperreal, uncannily precise, a function of the magic of glass and silver, handmade optics and albumen.

I sense a tension. Is it there in the men’s faces, their awkward bearing, their obliviousness to the camera, their attention paid to other, more pressing concerns?

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garbage_strike_crowd

A second frame from that day, from a vantage across the street, shows a hectic scene. A crowd has gathered. The garbage men and their horses are a spectacle, the target of a potential mob, and the police are on hand to keep the peace. In the center of the frame, an act of kindness, my punctum: a man in the crowd reaches up to pat a horse behind its ear, whispering to it, calming the animal amidst the nervous, hostile air. A garbage strike threw the city of New York into chaos almost exactly one hundred and five years ago, a forgotten moment in my city’s history. In November, 1911, thousands of street cleaners and ashmen walked off the job. Mountains of rotting garbage choked the city streets, and hundreds of strikebreakers were brought in to clean up. Riots erupted across Manhattan, bottles and bricks rained down on the strikebreakers and their horses from tenement rooftops, bonfires burned in the streets, and a child was killed in a fracas on E. 107th Street, run over by a garbage cart as the driver whipped his horse to escape the projectiles.

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Like the striking garbagemen, art historians, it seems to me, have walked off the job. Whether rampant careerism and the attendant willful mediocrity that produces, or brittle ideology and the attendant willful blindness that produces, or the congenital intellectual deformities produced by inbred academicism, or creative malaise, or simple exhaustion, or some toxic cocktail of the preceding is the cause, art historians have not been taking out their garbage, so to speak.

The dreadful state of Art History reveals so much opportunity! The scholars have left treasures amongst the trash, so I’ll shovel through it. I’ll be Art History’s scab trashman.

— Michael Westfall

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