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Attachments of Art History

Issue 01: The Worlding of Cultural Studies (Winter 1998)

Stephen Melville


I want to start by talking a bit about imaginations of what we tend to call “historical distance,” and then to push that talk toward a thought about the forms of objectivity available to the history of art. In doing so I hope also to be able to demonstrate something of one art historical object; it is a part of my argument that there is no imagination of art history or art historical method that does not depend upon, does not emerge from, such demonstration.

Let me begin by simply remarking there is no compelling reason in the nature of things to imagine that what separates us from the past is best named “distance” nor any particular reason to think that this separation is different in kind from other ways in which we are separated from one another (we don’t actually know what qualification “historical” is adding to the notion of a “distance”). This is, of course, not to say that the notion of historical distance is not native to us, both in general and more specifically as art historians; it is in fact a notion in which we are very much at home.

As concerns art history, much of our, perhaps more or less specifically American, dwelling in this notion has been powerfully shaped by Erwin Panofsky, so I will start there. I take the following points to have been more than adequately established now, largely through the efforts of Michael Podro and Michael Ann Holly:

1. Panofsky imagines appropriate distance to be integral to the work of the history of art.

2. The model for such appropriate distance is established first of all in the art of the Italian Renaissance.

3. This appropriate distance is characterized by a clear distinction between subject and object and thus also a correct understanding of the relation between motif and content.

4. The model for such objectivity is given by the practice of rational perspective.

Francesco Maffei / Bernardo Strozzi / Paolo Pagani, “Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist / Judith and the Head of Holofernes”

Panofsky works out this position in a series of essays written in Germany in the 1920s. The most important of these are Perspective as Symbolic Form and The History of the Theory of Human Proportions as a Reflection of the History of Styles, but one can also include the 1930 essay on the first page of Vasari’s Libro and several further essays on Dürer from the 20s. The essays on perspective and on human proportion are, in effect, a pair, jointly testifying to the Renaissance adjudication of subject and object and so structuring discussions of art historical method around this polarity.

Much of this is clearly visible in the major methodological statement Panofsky produces in the U.S., “Iconography and Iconology,” and I will take it as not in need of any further special remarking. Instead, I want to focus briefly on the example Panofsky uses to conclude the methodological portion of the essay–”a picture by the Venetian seventeenth-century painter Francesco Maffei, representing a handsome young woman with a sword in her left hand, and in her right a charger on which rests the head of a beheaded man.”1 The question is whether this is a Salomé or a Judith, and Panofsky makes a convincing case for redescribing it as a particular variant type of Judith with the head of Holofernes. I see no reason to quarrel with this identification, at least not in any direct way. What mostly interests me, for the moment, is the way the example layers a moment of decapitation, a moment of rejoining motif and content, and a moment of radical distinction between Judith and Salomé. One might note that while Panofsky’s proposed grafting or regrafting of the title Judith and the Head of Holofernes to the painting has apparently taken, the painting has itself in the meantime been grafted to various other hands, that of Bernardo Strozzi and, more recently, Paolo Pagani.2 This is way out of my own scholarly depth, but it seems worth mentioning that although Strozzi’s oeuvre displays, pretty much from the beginning, a recurrent interest in large plumes and swords, perhaps particularly in the hands of women, “his” Judith would seem to belong to a particular period of his art in which he seems above all interested in decapitations, as it were regardless of the particular agent or victim–so we have a run of Davids with the head of Goliath, Salomés with the head of John, and Judiths with Holofernes. It does not seem much of a stretch, at least under this attribution, to argue that the insistence that Judith and Salomé, John and Holofernes remain palpably distinct is one brought to the material by Panofsky, and of uncertain force or relevance for Strozzi, in whose hands the distinction might be subject to a degree of drift or blurring or might even be no more than nominal. In this, he might be in some ways similar to Caravaggio, who will in fact stand in for him to some degree later in this paper. Two general points from all this then: First, Panofsky is–this will not be news–considerably more interested in the meaning of paintings than in their painting, and is particularly closed against the thought that the painting might itself override its meaning.3 Second, and more interesting, Panofsky’s example here is clearly and grossly overdetermined: it is, like so many of his early objects, a concealed but active allegory of what he proposes as method–and what it shows is a violence at its heart.

Panofsky knows this–or perhaps its better to say that he knew it once, in 1932 when he wrote, in a text that did not make the passage to English but was instead supplanted by “Iconography and Iconology:”

In his book on Kant, Heidegger has some remarkable sentences about the nature of interpretation, sentences that on their face refer only to the interpretation of philosophical texts but at bottom characterize the problem of any interpretation. “Nevertheless, an interpretation limited to a recapitulation of what Kant explicitly said can never be a real explication, if the business of the latter is to bring to light what Kant, over and above his express formulation, uncovered in the course of his laying of the foundation. To be sure, Kant himself is no longer able to say anything concerning this, but what is essential in all philosophical discourse is not found in the specific propositions of which it is composed but in that which, although unstated as such, is made evident through these propositions . . . . It is true that in order to wrest from the actual words that which these words ‘intend to say,’ every interpretation must necessarily resort to violence.” We do well to recognize that these sentences concern also our modest descriptions of painting and the interpretations we give of their contents to the extent that they do not rest at the level of simple statement but are already interpretations.4

“Iconography and Iconology” is the developed forgetting or repression of this position, and its invocation of Salomé or Judith is, one might say, the symptomatic return of a violence that remains both integral to and invisible within the theory and practice of interpretation advanced to art historical centrality by that essay.


If we turn from Panofsky toward Heidegger, the ground will be sufficiently shifted that we cannot expect to find the topic of “historical distance” directly available under this name or some equivalent to it, so I will begin by simply pointing to some of its more or less scattered aspects.

The first is the one we have already seen: something of what Panofsky sets up as “historical distance” now appears as the “distance” (if that is the right word) between thought and unthought–that is, it has become internal to the object of interpretation. It no longer appears as “historical distance” because “history,” understood as something like the object’s continuing and transformative presence, is one of its effects. Such distance is something to be more nearly discovered in the object than a precondition for our approach to it.

A second aspect becomes visible if we turn back to the early formulations of distance itself in Being and Time. The analysis of human spatiality is fundamental to Heidegger’s account of being-in-the-world and what he calls “the worldliness of the world.” Human being, Dasein, “being-there,” is for Heidegger fundamentally characterized by a primordial entanglement or engagement with the world that places itself always beyond itself, thrown into ecstatic projection. Thus:

When we attribute spatiality to Da-sein, this ‘being in space’ must evidently be understood in terms of the kind of being of this being. The spatiality of Da-sein, which is essentially not objective presence, can mean neither something like being found in a position in ‘world space’ nor being at hand in a place. Both of these are kinds of being belonging to beings encountered in the world. But Da-sein is ‘in’ the world in the sense of a familiar and heedful association with the beings encountered in the world. Thus when spatiality is attributed to it in some way, this is possible only on the basis of this being-in. But the spatiality of being-in shows the character of de-distancing and directionality. . . .

De-distancing means making distance disappear, making the being at a distance of something disappear, bringing it near. Da-sein is essentially de-distancing. As the being that it is, it lets beings be encountered in nearness. . . . Only because beings in general are discovered by Da-sein in their remoteness, do distances and intervals among innerworldly beings become accessible in relation to other things.5

Our dealings with things are always already an overcoming of distance, and there is no possible reduction to a situation of simple and rationally negotiable distance (things cannot be put in perspective).6 One useful way to rephrase this is to say that the distance we are the overcoming of does not belong to us but is something like a dimension of objects as such; severance or distantiation is a condition of our proximity to them (and so also, contra Panofsky, prejudice is not a barrier to but a condition for interpretation).

This is, in general, the direction in which Heidegger takes these thoughts in his later writing; in particular, Heidegger’s imagination of the work of art seems a particular regathering and redistribution of these two earlier moments.

I will not try to review the whole, rather complex, writing and argument of “The Origin of the Work of Art,” but instead simply pick out a few key assertions pertinent to my argument. The work of art is held to be the origin of things in such a way that the “thingliness” both of the work and of the thing is held to be, in effect, an abstraction from the self-secluding of the “earth” within the “world” opened up by the work7–this is, one can say, the moment of severance or distantiation that appears as such only under the condition of de-severance or de-distantiation. Here again Heidegger is concerned to trace the logic of this into the work itself, so the work appears as, in its inmost structure, a “rift”–say, an establishing of distance as the very means of the work’s intimacy with itself (what one might call its autonomy).8 Heidegger’s formulations here are difficult and worth hearing:

But as a world opens itself the earth comes to rise up. It stands forth as that which bears all, as that which is sheltered in its own law and always wrapped up in itself. World demands its decisiveness and its measure and lets being attain to the Open of their paths . . . . The rift does not let the opponents break apart; it brings the opposition of measure and boundary into their common outline.9

Some of what I think needs hearing in this is the way in which the passage from what is “sheltered in its own law” to the demand for “decisiveness” and “measure” is precisely a critical passage, a passage into the space of judgment, and one might hear also the way in which the rift, bringing measure and boundary together, functions as a limit, as what both contains and opens, defining the dimensions of the work and doing so by means of a kind of cutting that both cuts in insofar as it opens the work and finds the terms of its internal measure, and cuts out insofar as it marks the work off from what is not it.

Within the abstractness of this description one can feel the pressure of various more concrete images–most strongly a certain image of sculpture, probably derived in large part from Rilke’s writings on Rodin, and, to a lesser degree, an image of painting that can come to a certain focus well beyond, certainly, Heidegger’s own ken (one might think, for example, of Pollock). Heidegger himself finds it easiest to render these thoughts concrete in dealing with poetry, where he can attach measure to meter (as well as the caesura that interrupts it) and so make most fully apparent the play between internal articulation and external boundary that at various times one will call “composition” or “structure.”10 One way Heidegger phrases this is as follows:

The strife that is thus brought into the rift and thus set back into the earth and thus fixed in place is figure, shape, Gestalt. Createdness of the work means: truth’s being fixed in place in the figure. Figure is the structure in whose shape the rift composes and submits itself. This composed rift is the fitting or joining of the shining forth of truth. What is here called figure, Gestalt, is always to be be thought in terms of the particular placing (Stellen) and framing or framework (Ge-stell) as which the work occurs when its sets itself up and sets itself forth.11

But here some important things are beginning to slip in Heidegger’s account: the term “Ge-stell,” offered as a sort of summary of the work of figuration proper to art and most especially to what Heidegger calls its “createdness” (as opposed to its preservation, which would be the giving of the work over to history, thus the fact that its originality does not escape its own effects), this term “Ge-stell” will soon play a leading role in Heidegger’s description not of art but of technology, which in its form as aesthetics amounts to the covering over or forgetting of art’s actual work of origination, something from which Heidegger is actively working in this essay to wholly separate the work of art.12 In this passage we glimpse the Ge-stell in its actual supplementarity, naming both what is essential to and completing of the work and what is imposed upon it from the outside that is, in this case, one of its effects. It is, one might say, the revenge or at least the becoming explicit of the frame so carefully elided or sublated in the essay’s pivotal encounter with Van Gogh’s shoes.

Jean-Luc Nancy, working in the wake of Derrida and within the Derridean recognition of the supplementarity of the Ge-stell, in effect turns Heidegger’s imagination inside out in trying to describe what he calls “the unimaginable, the gesture of the first imager.”13 Nancy thus insists on the primacy of the rift or cut over the presence to which it gives rise.14 As he puts it, the hand of the first imager

advances into a void, hollowed at that very instance, which separates him from himself instead of prolonging his being in his act. But this separation is the act of his being [in Nancy’s French, l’acte de son être, in which one can also hear l’acte de son naître, the act of his birth.] Here he is outside of self even before having been his own self, before having been a self. In truth, this hand that advances opens by itself this void, which it does not fill. It opens the gaping hole of a presence that has just absented itself by advancing its hand. . . .

For the first time, he touches the wall not as a support, nor as an obstacle or something to lean on [all of which might equally have left prints, none of which will have counted, will have done this work–at least not until this work has been done], but as a place, if one can touch a place. Only as a place in which to let something of interrupted being, of its estrangement, come about. . . .

The world is as if cut, cut off from itself, and it assumes a figure on its cutaway section. . . .

The line divides and sets out the form: it forms the form. It separates at the same moment–with the same deftness, with the same drafted line–the tracing animal and his gesture . . . .

Not a presence, but its vestige or its birth, its nascent vestige, its trace, its monster [one will want to hear in this last “monstrance” and “demonstration”].15

These revisions make the history the work effects not a destiny but a drift with no greater or deeper ground than the self-division of the mark that is the very condition of its appearing.16 Like Heidegger, Nancy sees this as having the force of “pure fact,” (“factum est,” says Heidegger) but this createdness is now itself already also displacement, given over to both preservation and loss, constitutively a vestige. This can–should be–taken as a reading or revision of Hegel’s “Absolute,” as also of Heidegger’s rewriting of it as “Ab-solvent,” cut away. And it is a reading of this Absolute that does not let it escape its material conditions, thus one that grants art its own irreducible history–on the difficult condition that the history be always of a vestige. Historical distance and presence are the two edges of the same cut, and that cut is what we stand before with, for example, Maffei’s or Strozzi’s or Pagani’s Judith or Salomé holding the head of John or Holofernes. These disjunctions are the stuff of the painting’s identity, the places in which its meanings are both caught and adrift, that to which they are answerable.


Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, “Judith and Holofernes.” Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica, Rome.

There are a number of ways to describe what’s in play as we pass from Panofsky to first Heidegger and then Nancy–it’s a kind of trade-off between history without an object and the emergence of an object in which one’s interest is not clearly historical, and in terms of intellectual history this is, among other things, the exchange at stake in the passage from Kantian to Hegelian aesthetics. Since what I am interested in pursuing here is a certain imagination of objectivity, I’m particularly interested in saying that in this passage we witness the reabsorption of “historical distance” into the object from which it first arose, and that with this we are returned to the proper ground of questions of objectivity in the history of art. The notion of “objectivity” I’m appealing to is somewhat obscure, or at least unusual, so what I’d like to do in the remainder of this talk is try to sketch out a version of it. I want to be clear in advance that my intentions here, although in some sense serious, are also clearly more demonstrative or provocative than properly scholarly. The sense of objectivity in question, I may as well say, is not “scientific”–it has essentially to do with “having an object,” and doing so within a thoroughly relational context.

Since I set off from a decapitation, I’d like to stay with that theme but return from the uncertainties of Maffei and Strozzi and Pagani, about whom I know nothing, to Caravaggio, with whom the theme can be said to gain its hold on their attention and about whom I know at least a little, although not much.

Jackson Pollock, “Convergence” (detail), oil on canvas, 1952, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Museum.

There is, unquestionably, a violence at work in Caravaggio’s painting, and one of its most prominent expressions is clearly to be found in his various Davids and Salomés and Judiths. My general claim has been that, faced with such paintings, Panofsky can only reduce them to distinct meanings and has no way of capturing the interest that informs them precisely as paintings. A cheap way to make the point–that I do not for all its cheapness take to be completely empty–is to pair the 1597-98 Judith Beheading Holofernes17 with a Jackson Pollock and then to suggest that Caravaggio is interested in his subject because it permits him the moment of pure paint–the great multiple jet of blood–that is what also interests and informs everywhere Pollock’s painting (the same painting, perhaps, that I earlier suggested might seem well caught by Heidegger’s remarks on rift and line and abyss). I do indeed want to say something of this kind, but I want to do it along a slightly different trajectory, one for which I can make a slightly more responsible and expansive case, although I also hope that I can keep something of the simultaneous dumbness and improbability of the pairing. So I want to talk loosely around another pair–Caravaggio once again, and Christian Bonnefoi, a contemporary French painter in whose work I have been interested for several years.

What would make these a pair worth discussing would be a presumed shared interest in cutting. This appears at first as merely a thematic concern in the Caravaggio, while in Bonnefoi’s case it is embedded in his practice as a painter in ways that arise quite directly out of a fundamental relation to collage, so this juxtaposition as it stands without any further elaboration looks at best metaphorical and willful.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, “Medusa,” oil on canvas, circa 1608, Florence, Uffizi.

There are at least two relatively recent studies of Caravaggio that move in my direction: Louis Marin’s To Destroy Painting18 and Michael Fried’s “Thoughts on Caravaggio.”19 Neither of these can be taken as in any way definitive–Fried’s piece is overtly speculative and prospective, while Marin’s is considerably weakened by its shakey appeal to optics (in part because of its uncritical acceptance of Panofsky on perspective). The two studies also have very different theoretical foundations and stakes–Marin is working out of a very particular semiotic model while Fried is continuing to explore a sort of phenomenology of painting closely related to his earlier work on Gustave Courbet. Within these limitations one can nonetheless say that both share a view of Caravaggio’s work as containing a violence integral to it as painting. Both are also inclined to approach this violence by considering Caravaggio in terms of a deep and generalized engagement with issues of self-portraiture and mirroring; and both understand the logic they unfold around these issues to crucially involve also a moment of beholding (Fried) or a space of representability (Marin) that belongs both to the painting and to its viewer–a fact of what I would call its exposure. Thus, for example, Marin argues at one point that the logic of the mirror, especially the convex mirror implied in this Medusa, is, in and of itself, “decapitating,” separating head and body, as gaze and hand, thus also breaking up the otherwise perfect reversibility that binds seeing and making, gaze and hand, painter and model within the ideal self-portrait. Marin’s actual argument here seems to me wrong–there is nothing actually decapitating about the mirror as such; it does not impose, although it may invite, any distinction in the handling of head and body (and this invitation is undoubtedly stronger in curved mirrors than flat ones because such mirrors do make the general difference between center and periphery count. Fried in effect recovers what matters here by focusing more clearly on the simple studio fact that a practice of self-portraiture always depends upon an arrangement of mirrors that is, from the outset, at odds with any “perfect reversibility”–that is, there is always one place in which one regards oneself and another place in which one represents that self, and the self-portrait is then always a negotiation with the movement between these two places or moments. Fried argues that in Caravaggio’s case, the artist’s refusal to follow the then-standard practice of correcting for the mirror’s right-left reversal and the unique dispositif informing this practice results in the painting’s appearing always as a displacment of itself. As he summarizes this particular point:

. . . the logic of this particular mode of mirror-representation . . . is such that the painting appears to insist on its virtual identity with the absent mirror while at the same time representing itself–itself “orginally,” in the process of being painted–as nonidentical with the picture surface.20

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, “Death of the Virgin,” oil on canvas, circa 1605, Paris, Louvre.

The painting does not stand in the place of the mirror but shows itself as a mirror displaced from itself. Marin makes a very similar point in insisting that Caravaggio’s painting “transgresses its own boundaries within itself, that is, within the diverse spaces that it brings together and encloses.”21 This is to say that Caravaggio’s painting happens, in the terms I’ve used earlier in this paper, as the finding or securing of a limit.

Overall, Fried urges the centrality to Caravaggio’s painting of a “double or divided relationship between painter and painting–at once immersive and specular, continuous and discontinuous, prior to the act of viewing and thematizing that act with unprecedented violence . . . .”22 Marin’s equivalent formulations here stress how far Caravaggio’s Medusa in particular appears as nothing other than a rift, cut, or caesura. Both of these analyses can be usefully set along side Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin–a more informal piece of work that finds its repeated point of appeal in the play between the represented drapery and the canvas itself, a play Nancy attaches both to the ravishing force of the painting and to its way of making the painting a pure threshold in which separation and adhesion occupy the same problematic place: “From the inside of (the) painting to the outside of (the) painting, there is nothing, no passage. Here, (the) painting is our access to the fact that we do not accede–either to the inside or to the outside of our selves.”23

Despite the differences in approach that separate Marin and Fried, both of their accounts can be called “structural” insofar as they are concerned to find analytical terms that allow both formal and thematic address to the work and that can show it as generative of specific effects (and here one can add that both Fried and Marin are deeply interested in Caravaggio’s ability to project instantaneity as the effect of a more complex quasi-temporal structure of “moments” or “aspects”).

Christian Bonnefoi, “Hyperion III,” 1979, 200 x 200 cm., Private Collection.

Christian Bonnefoi’s work emerges from a relatively continuous postwar French tradition that takes painting as more nearly a material than a visual practice–a practice crucially grounded in such things as canvas and stretcher and pigment. One can see a distant reflection of this line of work in, for example, Nancy’s noting, in his drapery-driven Caravaggio piece, the way “the eye touches on the underside of the paint, on its support, its subject, its substance, and its cloth or stuff”; and one can see it as well in Derrida’s insistence, in his address to the quarrel between Heidegger and Schapiro, on employing a figure of “lacing” that passes back and forth through the depth of the canvas. More historically aware versions of it inform the writings of Hubert Damisch and Yve-Alain Bois, with whom Bonnefoi for a time collaborated in the French journal Macula. And one final, oddly unanchored reflection is perhaps to be found in Fried’s picking up, as part of his dealings with Caravaggio, on the French term “dispositif” to name the particular mirror-logic he sees in the work. The scope and history of this term remains a bit obscure to me, but it figures in both Lyotard and Damisch, has on occasion been used to render Heidegger’s “Ge-stell,” and is central to Bonnefoi’s own attempts to describe the workings of his paintings.24 At least loosely, a dispositif is a set-up exterior to painting that provides a way for painting to happen, something capable of assigning painting its structure, or, as one might say in a different idiom, discovering its medium. For Caravaggio, on Fried’s account, this would lie in a particular right-angled arrangement of mirrors; for Bonnefoi’s painting, it lies in collage, which teaches in its own way that painting is made up of divisions through which it finds its proper surface. A Bonnefoi painting is made up of a certain play of cuts or divisions that articulate the pictorial surface that we see as a function of its (invisible) material and temporal depth, and I want, of course, for you to see this as importantly the same as what Marin and Fried pick out at work in Caravaggio–an admission of dividedness as the stuff of painting itself. And I want you to see this as offering not simply a painterly but also a historical alternative to or complication of Panofsky’s way of rendering aesthetic unity and historical distance as one another’s support and guarantee.

Christian Bonnefoi, “Babel IV,” 1984, 200 x 230 cm., Private Collection.

I don’t imagine that I have done the work that would secure this vision for you, but I hope I have done enough to allow an interest in its scope and consequence. What I have perhaps done is indicated two widely separated moments of a field in which painting shows itself as specifiably “not collage,” that is, as a field of edges describable as cuttings out, or foldings, to which one might want to add certain kinds of stamping or impressing. If painting can be described as a field of what is not collage, this would evidently be not because collage is foreign to it but because collage can appear as a way of making wholly explicit a violence and heterogeneity already at work within it. So I’m offering Caravaggio and Bonnefoi as moments within the articulation of a concrete theoretical object called painting and described in a very particular way. One might go on to ask how far Velásquez or Manet participate in this object–or gain their visibility within its field. One might, moving to the limit, ask the same of the work of Frank Stella.

Christian Bonnefoi, “Y.A.B.,” 1986, 165 x 130 cm., Private Collection.

And if one wanted now to pick up on the easy and abandoned juxtaposition of Caravaggio and Pollock that I so briefly proposed earlier, it’s worth noticing that it would no longer be matter of something like a moment of pure paint captured in Caravaggio and freed into itself by Pollock. Rather, one would now have a question about an inner working of something like cutting or collage (a rift design perhaps) in Pollock as what enables an appearance of “pure” paint–but the underlying logic would be grounded in a work of cutting, of absoluteness or “absolvence,” that one would have been taught to see by Caravaggio. This is a shift in the grammar of certain questions that interests me directly as someone working with contemporary French and American art. And this is to say that the particular model of objectivity–having an object–I’m sketching here does not go apart from my own attachment to certain works.25

I am then proposing a view of art historical objectivity that does not depend upon–indeed refuses–the mediation of historical distance in favor of discovering an internal rhythm of dis-severance or ab-solution that shows what counts as event, as historical attachment or detachment, within and among works but also between works and their shifting circumstances. Such objectivity–any objectivity of this general kind–cannot happen apart from its objects, which is to say it cannot proclaim itself in advance of the work it shows, and it cannot claim to show everything. Its interest in theory is not methodological.


Albrecht Dürer, “Self-Portrait in a Fur Coat,” lime panel, 1500, Pinakothek, Munich.

When I say that what I have tried to sketch is a model for how art historical objectivities are constituted, I do not mean that sketch to stand simply as an alternative to Panofsky’s settlement of historical distance. It should count also as a reading, or a diagnosis, of the actual structure of what Panofsky so successfully made seem a natural way of standing toward something called “the past.” That is to say, Panofsky engenders his objectivity in ways wholly parallel to those in which I have constituted mine–fastening himself to certain objects and teasing out of them the terms of their own historicity–but he does so in a way that systematically forgets or conceals its own foundations, appearing as a mode of detachment wholly distinct from the attachment it also is. The working of this deeper logic nonetheless remains readable within Panofskyan objectivity, perhaps above all in or as his attachment to the work and figure of Albrecht Dürer.

There is, after all, a history that passes from Northern German St. Johns-on-a-charger not only through Carvaggio and such followers as Strozzi, Pagani, and Maffei, but also through the vera icon–interestingly touched upon by Marin in his discussion of Caravaggio–and that finds one of its ultimate and pivotal expressions in the self-portraits of Albrecht Dürer, self-portraits that are intimately bound up with, among other things, Dürer’s systematization of human proportion, which Panofsky then takes as evidence of the emergence of a grasp of subjectivity appropriate to the objectivity of the perspective Dürer also formalizes. The moment here is complex–and it is been both illuminated and evaded by Joseph Koerner in a recent study of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien, that, like this paper, means ultimately to show something of the inner rhythms of historical detachment and attachment.26 A considered account of that study might lead one to further remarks about how Panofsky’s art historical detachment not only ties itself to a particular notion of appropriate fit of motif and content but also finds a crucial prop in Dürer’s self-attachment, and so also to further consideration how Panofsky’s “founding” of modern art history repeats Dürer’s “origination” of Northern art’s history. These last remarks might then open into a still further consideration of the pairs Panofsky/Dürer and Heidegger/Hölderlin that would thicken and transform the terms of the field I’ve tried to sketch.

The theoretical issues that set up this talk have, then, never stood apart from the objects that support them, because there is no other place to stand. And because that place is always divided, art history is pledged to the invention of objectivities that are the consequence and measure of the absoluteness of its objects.

© Journal of InVisible Culture, 1998

  1.  Erwin Panofsky, “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art,” in Meaning in the Visual Arts (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955), 36.
  2.  It should be noted that Strozzi is one of those to whom Panofsky appeals in establishing a North Italian type of “Judith with a Charger.”
  3.  This paper is shameless in its willingness to trade “meaning” against “painting” for the sake of its argument. But of course in any adequately imagined or addressed case, this will not be simply a trade. The core point is to conceive meaning always as an effect rather than a precondition of a practice or structure.
  4.  “Zum Problem der Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung von Werken der bildenden Kunst,” Logos XXI, 1932, pp. 103-119. As cited from Ballangé’s translation by Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant L’image: Question posée aux fins d’une histoire de l’art (Paris, Éditions de Minuit1990), 126-127.
  5.  Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York, 1997), 97. The Macquarrie and Robinson translation supplied “dis-severance” for Heidegger’s “ent-fernung.”
  6.  This doesn’t mean that it may not also be true that things are always in (one or another) perspective. What’s at issue is not perspective or even rational perspective so much as its value, or the terms of its embeddedness in the world.
  7.  I don’t take the Heideggerean meaning of these terms to be obvious to all readers. They can usefully be taken as what is left of the more standard “content” and “form” by the time Heidegger has worked his way through them. One can also plausibly take earth and world to be opposed as something like “sheer stuff” and “significance,” with the proviso that sheer stuff only appears under conditions of significance.
  8.  Heidegger here seems to be revising or radicalizing Kant, making what Derrida picks out as the “coupure pure” still more deeply internal to the work itself.
  9.  Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. A. Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 63.
  10.  Heidegger’s primary poetic reference is, of course, to Hölderlin, and his explorations of meter and measure in this context should be considered also negotiations with Hegel’s “speculative proposition.”
  11.  Heidegger, “Origin,” 64.
  12.  On this, see Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row,1977), especially “The Age of the World as Picture.”
  13.  Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press,1996), 74.
  14.  This is perhaps overstated; outside of the contrast with Heidegger it would be more accurate to say that Nancy is concerned to register an interlacing of presence and absence in which neither term has primacy.
  15.  Nancy, 75-76.
  16.  Nancy goes on to write of the first painter seeing the approach of “a monster who holds out to him the unsuspected reverse side of presence, its displacement, its detachment, or its folding into pure manifestation, and the manifestation itself as the coming of the stranger, as the birth into the world of what has no place in the world”.
  17.  Galleria Nazionale.
  18.  Louis Marin, To Destroy Painting, trans. Mette Hjort (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
  19.  Michael Fried, “Thoughts on Caravaggio,” Critical Inquiry 24 (Autumn 1997): 13-56.
  20.  Fried, 31.
  21.  Marin, 123.
  22.  Fried, 22.
  23.  Nancy, 61. It should be noted that I have simply dropped the thread of self-representation in favor of the more general question of cutting, limits, and so on. That self-representation can occupy a place of particular privilege within the object I’m sketching is an important feature of it.
  24.   Bonnefoi has been particularly insistent on the priority of technique over “form” in his work.
  25.  If I am unable to know how serious I might be about the whole Caravaggio-to-Bonnefoi example I’m playing with here, it is one I am nonetheless willing to take seriously the more closely it bears upon questions of painting in the wake of Manet, and in these terms the invocation of Stella marks a major crux. The fiddling about with Pollock, “purity,” and “absoluteness” is also potentially serious in something like this way. One might, for example, look again at those moments in which Pollock cuts into his skeins of paint.
  26.  See Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

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