Art Theory

While the term “art theory” may well have been employed from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment as a means of validating certain philosophical practices of art, art historians in the second half of this century have become particularly uncomfortable with its implications. For when the phrase is applied to their own scholarly enterprise, it suggests that the history of art is an interpretive activity rather than an empirical practice. The internal debates of the 1980s between traditional and revisionist, or “new,” art histories have been waged precisely over this epistemological point. The issue is a complex one, involving the history of the discipline, its gender and class biases, its origins in certain elitist institutions, its resistances to other modes of disciplinary inquiry, and its internal divisions over what constitutes the story of art as advanced in its standard histories.

For centuries, literary historians based their discussion of texts in some part upon theories of imitation and concepts of periodicity borrowed from the general discussion of the visual arts. Lately, however, contemporary literary critics appear to look with bemused superciliousness upon what seem to them to be antiquated theoretical models in art history proper. While most of the other humanities have been engaged in critical selfreflection and metahistorical commentary for several decades, art history has lagged behind for several historically legitimate reasons: its newness as a distinct discipline; the discovery, authentication, and classifying of objects that had first to be accomplished; and the aesthetic status of the objects themselves, a status that resulted in the preference given to description over interpretation in the visual arts. Consequently, most art historical studies in this century have fallen into the prevalent modes of stylistic analysis, iconographic readings, and historical documentation.

Beginning around 1980, scholars began to speak of a “crisis” in the discipline. No longer secure with the idea of empirical research, an insecurity sparked in large part by poststructuralist critiques in literary criticism, historians of art began to speak of “theory” as that something which was ideologically opposed to “history.” At stake seemed to be the conception of Art as such. The crisis mentality eventuated in a hardening of positions: those scholars who long had an investment in positivistic pursuits proudly reasserted their role as “historians” and became outspoken in their dismissal of extra-artistic analyses, particularly those that paraded their origins in psychoanalysis, feminism, semiotics, and Marxism. On the other side, the self-proclaimed “new” art historians (read “theoreticians”) descried the politically invested, what they called the conservatively capitalist, motives of academically entrenched art historians, particularly in England and the United States. Two book titles from the middle of the 1980s, The End of the History of Art? (Hans Belting, 1983, trans., 1987) and The End of Art Theory (Victor Burgin, 1986) suggest that the result of the controversy raging in a discipline long unaccustomed to attack was that feelings of crisis had turned into selfaggrandizing visions of the apocalypse. Matters became a little less strident as the 1980s ended, and it seems possible to map the historical evolution of the disciplinary changes and attempt a brief overview of the variety of theoretical positions that have come to animate the field.

In its modern origins, art history certainly engaged theoretical issues. The noted founders of the discipline in its German Kunstwissenschaft phase were all involved with principles of interpretation. Jacob Burckhardt, Edwin Panofsky, Alois Riegl, Aby Warburg, and Heinrich Wolfflin, to name only an illustrious few, may have been in fundamental disagreement about the central issue in art historical interpretation—why and how styles of art come into being and then pass away again— but not one avoided explanations for the process on the ground that theorizing was something extrinsic to the study of art as art. All in fact offered grand Hegelian schemes to account for the diachronous process at work, and if their focus on the objects (as well as the objects themselves) differed, their primary commitment to interpretation never faltered.

For these early analysts, “theory” would be the term assigned to the mode of explanation, and more often than not, the argument underlying the historical evidence had to do with the cause of stylistic change and whether it could be attributed to factors intrinsic to the history of images or whether the explanation for transformation should be sought in the cultural world that surrounded their production. The points were rarely argued apart from specific historical examples; in fact, it is usually from the complex of talk on individual artists or works or periods or genres that a contemporary historiographer has to extract something that can be called the “theory.”

Jacob Burckhardt initiated the study of art in its sociohistorical context. Although his 1855 Cicerone can certainly assume its place in histories of art based upon the revered principles of connoisseurship, he intended his i860 Civilization of the Renaissance to be a cultural and historical prologue to his analysis of Renaissance imagery. He isolated certain motivating themes evident in literature, ethics, politics, and so on—the development of selfhood, the return to the classics, the sense of the past, the tyranny of statehood—to account for the changing subject matter of Renaissance art. Arguing from the theoretical point of view of a distant observer, Burckhardt claimed that art was always a product of its time and could only be historically understood if it was mapped against a larger panorama of cultural, social, and especially literary meaning.

Riegl and Wblfflin had a decidedly different notion of context. More interested in the intrinsic circumstances in which art is generated, their works can be read as theoretically invested in discovering “hidden” principles at work in the history of form, a history hermetically sealed off from other cultural and intellectual expressions. In Classic Art (1899) and Principles of Art History (1915), for example, Heinrich Wolfflin was intent upon detecting the laws of stylistic change that mandate the evolution of form as it metamorphoses from one style to another. He developed five pairs of opposing optical modalities that he hoped would morphologically account for the changing eye of perception. Using the minor arts, particularly those rooted in ornamental expression, Alois Riegl formulated the concept of the Kunstwollen to account for the history of art in terms of changing modes of spatial perception. In Stilfragen (1893) and Spatromische Kunstindustrie (1901), he elaborated a will-to-form based upon his version of what came to be Saussurean linguistics. Both thinkers helped to undermine the question of hierarchy and value in the history of art. Since all art participates equally in the laws of historical determinism, there are no lesser artists, no lesser arts, no lesser civilizations.

Erwin Panofsky, onthe other hand, has been accused of being elitist and ethnocentric. His art histories center upon the highpoints of Western civilization, particularly Gothic France and Renaissance Italy, and the principles he deduced for artistic expression there became the template for evaluating art for all times and all places. Yet Aby Warburg, while returning regularly to his beloved Florence, also journeyed to the American Southwest to study Indian culture and spent much time in Italian studies investigating popular engravings, astrological symbolism, contemporary literary journals, and other sources that might seem extrinsic to mainstream art history (Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Gertrud Bing, 1932).

In a number of mostly unpublished essays as well as in the organization of his famed institute in Hamburg and London, Warburg developed, and Panofsky then refined, the practice of iconology. If any method can be said to constitute a theory of art, then iconology would have to be recognized as the paradigmatic theory underpinning all critical histories in this century (see in this regard W. J. T. Mitchell’s Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, 1986).

Parenthetically acknowledged, however, must be a vehement counterpractice in twentieth-century art studies: formalist aesthetics and its attendant commitment to the principles of connoisseurship. While not a theory per se, formalism nonetheless constitutes the primary locale of art appreciation in the United States and was responsible not only for the critical response to modem art (e.g., Clement Greenberg’s emphasis on “flatness” as the primary virtue of avant-garde painting [Collected Essays, ed. John O’Brian, 2 vols., 1986]) but also for the organization of American museums and academic departments. Its practice is dependent upon the trained eye of the connoisseur, a commitment to certain aesthetic standards, and an inclination to exclude works of art, modes of interpretation, and classes of artists who do not conform to a preconceived canon of values.

While it did not arise in deliberate opposition to this formalist sensibility, iconology addressed itself to very different sorts of problems and can therefore be more explicitly seen as presaging postmodern sensibilities. Panofsky’s preface to Studies in Iconology (1939) distinguishes three levels of investigation and employs Leonardo’s Last Supper as a pictorial demonstration of the method at work. The pre-iconographic level depends upon practical experience and interprets primary subject matter as distinct from its historical and textual embodiments (e.g., the universal recognition of thirteen men seated at a table laden with food). The iconographic level, which has everything to do with literary precedents, “reads” the pre-iconographic level in tandem with the texts that it illuminates; that is, it identifies its subject matter by recourse to the Gospel story (word here always preceding image). An iconological analysis, the third level, represents “iconography turned interpretive.” The art historian deciphers the painting as a cultural document, expressive of the “essential tendencies of the human mind” as they are crystallized into a particular historical, personal, and cultural moment. Here the Last Supper is not only a testimony to the artist’s idiosyncratic genius but also the “supreme” embodiment of Renaissance ideas and ideals. Panofsky put this method to work in many well-regarded essays and texts, among them Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951), Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955), and Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (i960). His emphasis on the conventionality of artistic expression has been interestingly paralleled in the representational theories of the philosopher Nelson Goodman (Languages of Art, 1976).

Ernst Gombrich has been for a long time the heir apparent to Warburg’s ideals and Panofsky’s monumental erudition. His theoretical career, however, is split into halves. A scholar of the Renaissance, Gombrich’s early writings further extend the iconological method. In Symbolic Images (published in volume form in 1972, but essays written during the 1940s and early 1950s) and Norm and Form (published in 1966, with most of the essays being from the 1950s), he isolates a theme in Renaissance imagery, discovers its antique and medieval precedents in art and especially literature, and then charts its changing symbolism across time in order to arrive at a pictorial index of Renaissance cultural values. In Art and Illusion (1961) and Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963), however, his focus is decisively different. The earlier book, which has had a significant impact on all fields of the humanities, discusses the role of convention in artistic production and makes the claim not only that the beholder’s share in the reading of images is crucial but also that perception is always already conditioned by expectations. Relying on both Gestalt psychology (as does Rudolf Arnheim) and Popperian notions of falsifiability, the book effectively initiated a revolution in thinking about the relativity of vision.

This once radical text has itself been subject to the charge of conservatism from several quarters, the most cogent of which comes from the recent work of Norman Bryson. In Vision and Painting (1983), Bryson claims that the great problem with Gombrich’s work is that he views art as the record of a perception rather than as the site for the production of a sign. One of the few art historians in the past decade who has not remained oblivious to semiotic thinking (Meyer Schapiro being a much earlier exception), Bryson appropriates concepts from Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Ferdinand de Saussure to argue that art in no simple-minded way reflects reality but is instead engaged in the active production of a universe of meaning. It is itself a signifying system actively involved with other systems of signification, particularly those of the social world of which it is a part. In works such as Word and Image (1981) and Tradition and Desire (1984), Bryson has effectively compelled art history to confront semiotics and begin to interrogate the relationship between discursive and visual aspects of both literature and art. Similarly, the work of the literary critic Mieke Bal has turned to the domain of “reading images.” Together Bal and Bryson have co-authored “Semiotics and Art History” (1991), an essay that is most useful for all scholars engaged with issues of both verbal and visual representation.

Challenges to the reigning canon of art historical thinking have also come from more intradisciplinary directions than semiotics. Svetlana Alpers has been insistent upon reformulating the theoretical principles by which we characterize the art of the North. In The Art of Describing (1983) and Rembrandt’s Enterprise (1988), she insists upon the essentially visual culture of the North as distinct from the textual culture of the Italian Renaissance and therefore demanding of different “readings” than the traditional iconological method can give it. Her 1972 essay with Paul Alpers, ” ‘Ut Pictura Poesis’? Criticism in Literary Studies and Art History,” was one of the first attempts within the discipline to come to terms with modes of analysis at work in literary criticism. Michael Baxandall, an influential Warburg scholar, has for the past two decades (in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy 1972; The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany 1980; and Patterns of Intention, 1985) been intent upon deciphering visual images in terms of all the conventions that might structure the consciousness of people living in a certain period, from barrel-gauging skills to Newtonian color theory.

Also necessary to mention is the traditional intersection of art theory and philosophy. The relationship has existed since the Renaissance. In its contemporary form, analytic philosophers such as Arthur Dan to (The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1981; The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, 1986) and Richard Wollheim (Art and Its Objects, 1980) speak directly to the criteria of artistic cognition. Worth noting in this context also is the evolution of phenomenological perception from Martin Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to the recent controversial work of the prominent art historian Michael Fried, who in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980) temptingly argues for a recognition of the bodily involvement (or its lack) between the spectator and the artist and the insistent physicality of the painted image. In a different vein altogether, art history has sporadically and idiosyncratically flirted with Marxism. Works by Frederick Antal (Florentine Painting and Its Social Background, 1948) and Arnold Hauser (The Sociology of Art, 1974, trans., 1982) for many years exemplified the insights that a social history of a period or a style or an artist can bring to the discipline. Since the 1970s, however, essays by T. J. Clark (Image of the People, 1973; The Absolute Bourgeois, 1973; Painting of Modern Life, 1985), Thomas Crow (Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris, 1985), Keith Moxey (Peasants, Warriors, and Wives, 1989), and Janet Wolff (The Social Production of Art, 1981) have done for art history what Terry Eagleton did for literary criticism. In their studies of the conditions of production and the public for whom works of art were intended, they have reanimated the field of social criticism and demonstrated a lively irreverence for the petrified concepts of formalists and iconographers alike.

Perhaps nothing, however, has shaken the very foundations of the discipline as much as the feminist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971 Linda Nochlin asked the provocative question, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (Art News 69 [1971]) and rooted her discussion in institutional expectations about the nature of artistic achievement. Ten years later in Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology (1981), Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock pushed the position further by arguing that only an analysis of women’s historical position could account for the ideological suppression of female artistic sensibilities.

The so-called second generation of feminist art critics no longer attempts to insert the female producer into a canon of male creative values but instead uses the processes of her exclusion to question the motives and value of the discipline as such. Borrowing from Marxist ideology critiques, Pollock’s Vision and Difference (1988) contends that the only viable conceptual framework for the study of women’s artistic history is one that emphasizes the ways in which gender differences are socially constructed. While indebted to poststructuralist French feminist thinkers such as Julia Kristeva (who also wrote several important essays in art theory, such as “Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini,” Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, 1980), contemporary English-speaking feminists such as Pollock, Lisa Tickner (The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-1914,1988), Eunice Lipton (Looking Into Degas: Uneasy Images of Women and Modern Life, 1988), Carol Duncan (“Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting,” Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed. Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, 1982), and Jacqueline Rose tend to focus on the articulation of sexual difference rather than on a definition of a specific female artistic sensibility. They simultaneously restore a certain power to images, for they emphasize that art is as capable of constituting ideology as it is of reflecting it—a political commitment that goes way beyond the mission of art history proposed by either the formalist tradition or the iconological method.

Recent discussions about the nature of visuality, the differentiation of modes of looking, and the specific identity of the viewing subject—debates that come together under the term “gaze”—are deeply influenced by insights primarily developed within feminist literary studies, and particularly within film criticism, originating with Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and continuing through Jacqueline Rose’s Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986) and Kaja Silverman’s Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992). As a recently emerged discipline, film studies has endorsed perspectives traditionally marginalized within both literary and art criticism. The most important perspective that needs mentioning is psychoanalysis (Freudian and Lacanian), a mode of inquiry that, as a theory and as a therapeutic practice, is itself an example of the interaction between word and image, particularly as it concerns ideas about visual subjectivity. Film’s relation to the verbal dimension, through the spoken word but also through the narrative dimension, has contributed considerably to the bridging of the gap between visual and verbal art.

From tangential directions in literary studies come narratology and reception theory . Starting with Barthes’s S/Z (1970, trans., 1974), visual narratologists, such as Mieke Bal, examine the ways in which different narrative agents account for the lack of unification of visual subjects. Like semiotics, this view of narrative implies that the act of looking at a painting is always a dynamic process. Reception theory has had its greatest impact in German art theory. Scholars such as Wolfgang Kemp adhere to the notion that a work of art only functions as a work of art when it is concretized on a particular historical horizon.

Literary critics seem recently to have discovered for art historians the idea that the domain of the visual is not limited to images, let alone to the objects traditionally studied as art. If in the last couple of decades many well-known literary thinkers have turned toward the study of visual art, such a development does not imply a move away from literature, but rather stands for an acknowledgment of the many aspects images and verbal artifacts, in spite of their differences, share. Inversely, the traditional disciplinary approaches in art history have not always been able to address those aspects in images that may be called discursive: narrative strategies, propositional content, the dynamic interaction between image and viewer. Through the work of Jacques Derrida , we have come to see how the histories of discourses on art link themselves inextricably to concerns and interests that lie outside the privileged domain of aesthetic comprehension and its framing sensibility. In The Truth in Painting (1978, trans., 1987), he calls attention to the ways in which notions of value, beauty, form, subject matter, and even the “truth” of history itself are preconditioned by our Western philosophical legacy, a tradition of textuality that has itself always been subject to the dislocating forces at work in the production of language.

Clearly, art history is no longer an empirical and monographic study of monuments, artists, styles, periods, and so on. The “new” art history, in the process of foregrounding the theoretical (as opposed to empirical) commitments of its founders, is now focusing on the history, context, and politics of visual interpretation. It interrogates gender boundaries and the unequal power distribution they encourage. It examines the distinction between the so-called high and popular cultures and their attendant artistic expressions. It engages in a dialogue between art forms in an effort to overcome the privileging of either the word or the image. In short, the general deconstructionist debates in the humanities that are engaging scholars across disciplinary boundaries into more general discussions of cultural critique are also informing contemporary art theory. The relations between the arts, the process of figuring forth physical images, the interaction between theory and critical practice, the investigation of the social embedding and historicity of vision, are all serving to question the object of art’s traditional status as a “still” image. The issue has become less how history can serve art than how art can serve theory (and history) as a basis of cultural and social criticism.

Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing (1983), Rembrandt’s Enterprise (1988); Svetlana Alpers and Paul Alpers, “‘Ut Pictura Poesis’? Criticism in Literary Studies and Art His tory,” New Literary History 3 (1972); Mieke Bal, Reading’Rembrandt’: Beyond the Word/lmage Opposition (1991); Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” Art Bulletin 73 (1991); Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980), Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972), Patterns of Intention (1985); Norman Bryson, Tradition and Desire (1984), Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (1983), Word and Image (1981); Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (i860, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore, 1958); T. J. Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois (1973), Image of the People (1973), Painting of Modern Life (1985); Thomas Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris (1985); Jacques Derrida, La Vérité en peinture (1978, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and lan McLeod, 1987); Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980); Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1961,4th ed., 1972), Meditations on a Hobby Horse (1963); Michael Ann Holly, Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History (1984); Wolfgang Kemp, “Death at Work: A Case Study on Constitutive Blanks in Nineteenth Century Painting,” Representations 10 (1985); W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (1986); Keith Moxey, Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation (1989), “Semiotics and the Social History of Art,” New Literary History 27 (1991); Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), Visual and Other Pleasures (1989); Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (1939); Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology (1981); Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art (1988); Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (1992); Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (1981); Heinrich Wôlfflin, Classic Art: An Introduction to the Italian Renaissance (1899, trans. Peter Murray and Linda Murray, 1952), Principles of Art History (1915).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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