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Patterns in the Shadows

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

Michael A. Holly

Writing about the distant past. Recycling images from a time long gone, putting them “on display” yet again. Why do art historians do it? What kinds of intellectual and psychic needs does it satisfy? In comparing history to science, Erwin Panofsky once poignantly remarked: “The humanities . . . are not faced by the task of arresting what otherwise would slip away, but of enlivening what would otherwise remain dead. Instead of dealing with temporal phenomena, and causing time to stop, they penetrate into a region where time has stopped of its own accord, and try to reactivate it;”1 a sentiment reminiscent of Walter Benjamin who claimed that “an appreciation of the transience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses of allegory.”2 By this reckoning, history-writing is an allegorical art of the first order. Often invoked as the trope that defines modernity, the concept is also appropriate for characterizing the postmodernist historian’s dilemma: why do those of us who write about the past still cling to the hope that historical meaning can be discovered, even as we recognize the absolute futility of finding out where? To quote Julia Kristeva in Black Sun, historical interpretation is merely the “flaring-up of dead meaning [within] a surplus of [new] meaning.”3

I take it as axiomatic that all written histories are narratives of desire, full of both manifest and latent needs that exceed the professional mandate to find out what happened and when. And, surely, given that the focus of our historical labors is always towards recovering what is lost, one of these primal desires must be labeled melancholic. There is a vast body of psychoanalytic literature, of course, devoted to the causes and attributes of this pathological state. Theorists from Freud to Karl Abraham to Melanie Klein to D. W. Winnicott, among many others more recently, have written extensively on mourning and the melancholic disposition. For right now, I want to extract three fundamental interpretive commitments that those who conceptualize the past with this metapsychological discourse all share, although each, of course, is inflected differently in different writers.

The first is that there is “good” and “bad” mourning, normal or pathological. Freud early on distinguished between simple mourning and melancholia, for the “crushed state” of the latter, he claims, refuses to relinquish the lost world, leaves the past unresolved, maintains a relationship to what has come before that continues to fester “like an open wound.”4 Of course, in reality the two terms are often synonymous, and pure forms of either mode of grieving are unusual, even in Freud; it makes more sense to speak of a “continuum or layering.”5 In this essay I want to maintain the distinction, if only tropologically, in order to characterize certain kinds of art history writings. Secondly, despite this pathology, as Aristotle recognized and Dürer visually allegorized, the “black bile” that infects the physiology of its saturnine victim can be clarified and liquified into a fountain of creative inspiration.6 To quote Benjamin again, who saw in this engraving an anticipation of the world-weariness of the Baroque sensibility: “the utensils of active life are lying around unused on the floor, as objects of contemplation. . . . Pensiveness is characteristic above all of the mournful.”7 The melancholic personality, though often in solitary retreat from the world, can also evince a manic, creative side, a symptomatology that invests the state of melancholia with redemptive possibilities.8 “Loss, bereavement, and absence,” according to Kristeva, “trigger the work of the imagination and nourish it permanently as much as they threaten it and spoil it.”9 And in doing so, they invoke the third, principle which Melanie Klein has called the activity of “reparation”10: the absence of the past is most effectively–and poignantly–compensated for through the presence of objects, which is to say that the work of mourning is often expended and worked through material things. For several decades, varying perspectives on object-loss and object-recovery, in fact, have constituted the primary way of conceptualizing and differentiating the processes of mourning in psychoanalytic theory. “It is typical of the patient in established pathological mourning”11 [what Freud called melancholia], “that the significance of the ‘stranded object’ [in Eric Santner’s evocative phrase12] does not fade as it does in uncomplicated mourning. Rather, it increasingly commands his attention with its aura of mystery, fascination, and terror.”13

All three of these traits have implications for the historiographic episode that I am about to relate, but it is the last that has the greatest resonance for art historical scholarship in general, engaged as the discipline always has been in the elegiac paradox of writing about an absent past through the enduring material presence of works of art. Recovering their meaning is our mission. What are all these remnants of the past, these fragments of time doing here? From whence comes this mania for collecting–altarpieces, masks, papyri, garden sculptures, etc.? As Adorno once remarked, “the German word museal [museumlike] has unpleasant overtones. It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying.”14 Across the ages, these fragments of the past, as Benjamin allegorized, amass into a heap of often-unrecyclable ruins that grows skyward under the melancholic eyes of Angelus Novus, the angel of history who is pushed backwards by the winds of change through time. In the aftermath of actual loss, the very materiality of objects (objects lost, but continuously refound) presents art historians with a profound challenge for ever seeing the past as over and gone.

I want to think about the ways in which art historical writing as a genre is derived from, or even empowered by, a melancholic connection to the past through the historical objects of art it appropriates as its own. Yet, to see how the past haunts the present in the historiographic record, I need to make the topic manageable by selecting a specific example. Michael Baxandall’s collected writing provides an apt melancholic allegory.

A bit of a biographical aside. Nearly a quarter of a century ago I entered my first year of graduate training in art history, sure of what I hoped to find. I wanted to read canonical Renaissance monuments as documents, as visual embodiments of certain cultural and social attitudes, and to do so I sought an education in the word and image studies of the Warburg school. That first semester brought several shocks to the secure investigative paradigm I had devised: encountering a text by Derrida in a late medieval literature course; being assigned the task of writing all that I could possibly “see” in the details of a seventeenth-century allegorical painting; and hearing Michael Baxandall (straight from the Warburg Institute, no less) present a startling lecture on why the engineering ingenuity that led to the construction of the Firth of Forth bridge might have implications for writing the history of art.

Disparate as these challenges may have seemed at the time, in retrospect it is easy to regard them as historically intertwined. It was a disciplinary moment pregnant with the possibilities of what was to come, a time in which both the published essays and the public musings of Michael Baxandall were poised to play a crucial role. The treachery of language, the unsettlement (for good or ill) of deconstruction, the anguish over objectivity in historical writing, all were issues that would clearly motivate his many and varied writings. The perplexing irony that confronts the historiographer of this recent disciplinary past, however, is Baxandall’s reluctance, even principled refusal, to situate his work–at least overtly–inside this larger field of debate. It is as though poststructuralist thought had passed him by even though he was in the midst of its unsettlement. Consequently, one of the intriguing issues about his corpus of writing for me is the question of why sustained attention to problems in historical explanation always appears grounded in the conviction that one can seek clarity only by remaining in the shadows, in the reflected light of contemporary theory. His muteness is most suggestive, not only for understanding his particular evolution as a historian and critic of the visual arts, but also for considering how his work could itself be read as an allegory of the desires and insufficiencies of a poststructuralist history of art. Ironically, Baxandall has earned this commendation–with which he might not be so comfortable–in the process of arguing how the discipline is destined to remain forever “sub-theoretical.”15

Rather than pedantically try to locate some of the many sites in his texts upon which I can trace the ghostly footprints of an engagement with critical initiatives from speech act to discourse theory (of which I know he was well aware), I would prefer to consider Baxandall’s collected essays as a powerful exercise in the art of writing history melancholically, an exercise in the art of renunciation.16 All of his work is grounded in an acknowledgment of loss, in the recognition of time’s passing. And critical theory, he seems to suggest, only serves to distance us further from the “superior” objects–those evocative material ruins–that seduce our imaginations into eternally unconsummated encounters.17 Among many other things, Baxandall’s scholarly career has been a sustained reflection on the impossibility of closing the gap opened up between words and images in the practice of art history that he inherited, the discipline that supposedly exists in order to bring the two realms of experience into some sort of congruency.18 In this awareness, I would argue, he has been as sensitive as Derrida to the incapacity of language to make contact with its referent, although this position has not inhibited him from trying. The sage conscience of the discipline of art history, the intelligent voice that has for a long time tempered critical excess, put interpretive issues into historical perspective, and reminded us all of how we should and should not proceed when it comes to the historical explanation of works of art, is nevertheless philosophically committed to an act of renunciation, to the futility of ever actually being able to write the history of art. In this sentiment, I would reiterate, Baxandall’s is a fundamentally postmodernist point of view. The elegiac motives of his historical narratives are as transparent as his historical insights.

On the other hand, Baxandall really does believe that art history, as a humanistic discipline, stands apart from other fields of contemporary inquiry. His defense of its distinctiveness–grounded in the fundamental distinction between words and images–is evident in everything he has ever written.19 The visual arts demand different modes of attention (a key concept in every text)20 than other historical artifacts. Part of the explanation for this conviction lies in his awareness of the paradox that although visual objects created in the past continue to exist in the present, their original meanings have been almost forever lost to time. The result of this kind of condition, as Giorgio Agamben has phrased it in reference to the poetry of mourning, is a “loss without a lost object. . . . in melancholia the object is neither appropriated nor lost, but both possessed and lost at the same time.”21 The recognition of near defeat, however, is what initiates the process of consolation, aimed towards the achievement of what recent object-relations theorists might call “elegiac reparations.”22 The implications of this state of affairs for delving into the historiographic unconscious of the word and image studies of the Warburg tradition are obvious. The only way to “recover” the meanings of the objects that always already exist, even in part, is through linguistic endeavors. “The humanities”–I remind you of the earlier passage from Panofsky–”are not faced by the task of arresting what would otherwise slip away, but enlivening what would otherwise remain dead.”23

The intellectual tradition out of which Baxandall comes can thus be identified as playing a crucial role in both how and what he writes, but with a twist. It is the inexorability–indeed the paradox–of early modern works of art both being here and not being here simultaneously that has generated not only the allegorical excitement of his writing, but also two generations of Warburg Institute scholars who preceded him. And to a historian, not so surprisingly, they were iconographers of both the figure and trope of melancholy. In Baxandall’s own reflections on the representational afterlife of the Renaissance, I want to argue, the subject matter of melancholy has become less significant than its translation into a historiographic point of view.

As far as predecessors go, the most demonstrative in his fascination in general with visual artifacts as psychic repositories of time, and the astrological embodiment of the melancholic temperament in particular, was, of course, Aby Warburg. In his desperate lifelong project of proving how the forces of enlightenment and reason should ultimately triumph over the forces of darkness and irrationality, he charted the accomplishments of Luther, Ficino, and Dürer, each of whom was able to overcome superstitious speculation by transmuting the ancient demonic influences of Saturn into emblems of Renaissance creativity. The iconological enterprise that Warburg “invented” was devoted to tracing the Nachleben, or afterlife, of antique images as they reemerged in supposedly more domesticated guises in later ages. One could claim that the Warburg Institute itself was founded on the premise that the survival of images (however elusive) provides us with the only (indirect) access we (might possibly) have to the shadowy and potentially threatening legacy of the past. In his library’s Mnemosyne project, Warburg compulsively arranged and rearranged assorted reproductions of visual artifacts, both historical and contemporary, on large exhibition screens in the hopes of detecting underlying connections among them.

A similar fascination with both the presence and absence of cultural memory from the ancient to the early modern world was perpetuated in Warburg’s successors’ more sober academic interests. Refining the iconological “method” of monitoring the migration of a pictorial theme from one social and intellectual world to another, Fritz Saxl and Panofsky published their influential monograph on Dürer’s engraving of Melencolia in 1923. Extending Warburg’s investigations into the fortunes of this centuries-old astral personification, the two Institute collaborators were able to trace the iconographic route through which the medieval conception of a saturnine and debilitating temperament had metamorphosed in the Renaissance into an allegory of the incapacity of genius to put its theories into practice.24

Perhaps the thinker who can best map the psychic terrain upon which I wish to locate Baxandall’s idiosyncratic brand of melancholic history writing, however, is Walter Benjamin, the perennial outsider. Try as he might to gain the recognition of the scholars of the Warburg Institute (Panofsky in particular), Benjamin was fated to pursue his inquiries into melancholia in isolation. Composing The Origin of German Tragic Drama25 in the mid-twenties, he generously acknowledged Warburg, Panofsky, and Saxl as sources. The intellectual home, however, that he had hoped to attain from these contemporary allies, who, one commentator charges, might even have “averted his early death,” was not forthcoming.26 But that is another, more sorrowful story. What makes the ideas of Benjamin so suggestive for a late twentieth-century reading of the works of Michael Baxandall is not so much his lack of institutional support from thinkers in early twentieth-century Germany with whom he shared a fascination with the historical vicissitudes of the figure of Melancholy, as is his poignant understanding of the transhistorical connections between the “discarded” ruins of the past and their contemplation by melancholic historians on the other side of time.

Ostensibly, Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama is about Baroque “mourning plays” (Trauerspiel), convoluted productions in which martyrs are sacrificed to ancient values that they themselves are doomed never to fulfill. A deeper reading quickly reveals, however, that the text (unrecognized except by a few for the first thirty years of its existence) comprises a “chain of reflections on the nature of aesthetic objects, on the metaphysical presumptions of allegory, on language in general, and on the problem, obsessive to Benjamin, of the relations between a work of art and the descriptive-analytic discourse of which it is the target.”27 Today the work is heralded as one of the most significant texts in twentieth-century literary criticism, principally because of its explorations into both the impossibility of achieving “objective” meaning on the part of the “subjective” interpreter, and, nevertheless, the absolute necessity of doing so. The phenomenology of the ways in which sentiments become bound to objects (or fail to) was, for Benjamin, a study in the dynamics of the melancholic disposition:

Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them. . . .The persistence which is expressed in the intention of mourning, is born of its loyalty to the world of things. . . . The concept of the pathological state, in which the most simple object appears to be a symbol of some enigmatic wisdom because it lacks any natural, creative relationship to us [had been memorably emblematized for him by Dürer’s portrayal of Melencolia, in which]. . . the utensils of active life are lying around unused on the floor, as objects of contemplation.28

While Benjamin’s own meditation on the ruins of the contemplative life has nothing directly to do with thinking about the connectedness of an archival art historian (Baxandall or otherwise) to the material objects that are the raison d’être of professional inquiry, its metaphorical suggestiveness for this most primal of disciplinary obsessions is undeniable. There is nothing self-evident about the compulsion to write present words about past works of art. In Benjaminian terms, such activity could be construed as an allegorical enterprise (saying one thing while attempting to grasp a very different other) of the first order. Words will unceasingly misrepresent images, and in their mismatch unlock the gates of an interpretive hell through which the demons of ambiguity, indeterminancy, and meaninglessness come tumbling out. Images are inevitably lost to the forms of intelligibility with which the world of the humanities has grown most epistemologically secure: that is the essential paradox of writing the history of art.

Of this predicament, Michael Baxandall is acutely aware. A history that is rooted in written documents is difficult enough to execute; a narrative written out of a “loyalty to the world of [visual] things” is an assignment in exasperation. The very tactility of objects that have survived the ravages of time in order to exist in the present confounds the historian who must retroactively turn them back into past ideas, social constructs, documents of personality, or whatever a couple of generations of Warburg scholars have traditionally been up to in the variety of their iconological quests. Ransacking the holdings of libraries and archives in order to provide context is an accepted disciplinary pursuit, but its legitimacy masks something of its basic absurdity. In their obdurate resistance to such an easy mediation between past and present, the still stilled works of art are capable of provoking a heuristic despair that is difficult to overcome. The “contemplative paralysis” that arises from the recognition of an inability to write definitive history (or, even more perhaps to act in it) is, for Benjamin, the essential trait of the mournful sensibility.

Because of the futility of its efforts to make the impermanent permanent (which is to say the permanent more permanent), to arrest the flux of time into images that both defy and glorify its passing, the allegorical understanding has been assured the status of the quintessential postmodernist art, an achievement that places this literary trope on a par with a variety of late twentieth-century art practices devoted to ruins, fragments, hybrids, and supplements. Such is the thesis of Craig Owens, who not so long ago elaborated an insightful and persuasive theory of postmodern art based on the return of the “allegorical impulse.” “From the will to preserve the traces of something that was dead, or about to die,” he claimed, “emerged allegory.” Drawing its “nourishment” from melancholy, the postmodern sensibility of the late twentieth-century revels in the awareness of its own mortality: “the inevitable dissolution and decay to which everything is subject.”29

Though profoundly melancholic, such an interpretive sentiment, as Benjamin had both hoped and anticipated, is not devoid of redemptive possibilities. “An appreciation of the transience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity,” which happens to be “one of the strongest impulses in allegory” can also yield its own scholarly consolations: “Pensiveness,” as he moralized, “is characteristic above all of the mournful.”30 Mourning does not necessarily obviate–in fact, it might be responsible for–the ecstasy that can arise from a confrontation with the lost “other”. The melancholic attitude is not only responsible for acts of renunciation; it can also ultimately engender an historical practice that is founded on an ethical obligation to the past in all of its reality, however fragmentary and incomplete its afterlife in the library or museum may be. The opacity that is the hallmark of the allegorical sensibility is precisely what motivates the unceasing efforts to activate the past over and over again: “Allegory [is] the arbitrary rule in the realm of dead objects.”31 Past objects are “dead” only until they are enlivened by present understanding; yet, on the other hand, it is always their presence in the first place that provokes the contemporary historian into interpretive action. The relationship is one of dialogue, “where the present is real but the past is also real.”32

The resonance of these sentiments for thinking about Michael Baxandall’s lifelong work seems to me to be patent. It is this allegiance to the thing itself, and not its discursive explanations in the philosophical, historical, and theoretical words that have a tendency to envelop and thereby seal away the visual immediacy of a work, that might explain Baxandall’s reluctance to make any interpretive move that does not take its cue from the representation itself. The inadequacy of language and the impossibility of historical recovery are the two negatory premises from which his ultimately affirming work derives. “The basic absurdity of verbalizing about pictures,”33 has been a theme coursing through all of his writing, but so too has been the clear commitment to the inexorability of doing so. It is the tension between the two that has generated both melancholic resignation and methodological caution as two sides of the same coin. His Patterns of Intention obviously represents the culmination of this attitude, but, in one guise or another, it has been there from the start.

Ostensibly Baxandall’s Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition, 1350-1450 of 1971 is, as the lengthy subtitle suggests, about the rise (or recovery) of art criticism in the early Renaissance.34 A deeper reading quickly reveals, however, that the text, like Benjamin’s, comprises a chain of reflections on the nature of language, the concept of pictorial composition, the art of classification, and on the problem, obsessive to Baxandall, of the relations between a work of art and the critical discourse of which it is the target. The problematic is a straightforward one: “Any language, not only humanist Latin, is a conspiracy against experience in the sense of being a collective attempt to simplify and arrange experience into manageable parcels.”35 Attending to paintings is the product of naming rather than looking. This is the most primal, unavoidable, and irrevocable loss. What does not fall within the purview of established schemes stays in remainder, always on the outside of the framing propensity of language.36 That absence is then deepened by time’s distancing. Language makes vanish what it first sought to preserve: the compelling visuality of the work of art. As it struggles to signify what once was, the rhetoric of the art historian represents, in the terms of deconstruction, “not the thing but the absence of the thing and so it is implicated in the loss.”37

Yet, surely that overstates the case. Despite late twentieth-century critical theory’s obsession with the emptiness and meaninglessness at the heart of language, Baxandall still carries something of the faith in its recuperative powers. To paraphrase Freud, an acknowledgement of loss initiates the authentic “work of mourning” the past. The salvation of historical discourse in both Benjamin and Baxandall depends on it. At the same time as it takes something away from the beholder of works of art, language offers the powerful consolation of “a system of concepts through which attention might be focused.”38 Embracing “dead objects in its contemplation in order to redeem them,” attention (in Baxandall the concept nearly merits capitalization) serves as the temperate historian’s antidote to melancholia, or “pharmakon” in Derrida’s terms: both the poison and the cure.39 What Baxandall had found so admirable about the humanist enterprise was its ability to think “tightly” in words about visual matters, a mission that eventuated in the giant historical leap forward in art criticism between 1300 and 1500. “The difference, ” he says, was “measurable in categories and constructions lost and found.”40 Finding something is better than losing it. It is just easier to talk about some things rather than others.

As his next book, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, set out to demonstrate, one of those things was addressing Quattrocento paintings as a “deposit” of “a commercial relationship,” or as “fossils of economic life.”41 Of course, one could read this popular empirical text as an elaborate defense against the brooding contemplativeness of Giotto and the Orators. There are no dark unknowables lurking here; only manifest pictorial codes derived from vernacular conventions, such as traditions of measurement, the economic worth of paints, and habits of gesture in sermons and dance. Perhaps that is what makes this text so accessible. Categories of experience are highlighted so as to enable the viewer to “attend” to Quattrocento works of art in “distinctly Quattrocento ways.”42 Language here clarifies rather than obfuscates, and its careful use assures the student of the Renaissance that she or he can actually gain access to this “special intellectual world.”43 The idiom of this text always promises transparency. There actually once was a historical world out there, whose visualizing activity became embodied in its works of art. Deciphering it is fundamentally a matter of recognizing the brightness of the signs.

It is the shadows, however, that I prefer to attend to in the work of Baxandall, no doubt taking my cue from his own fascination with the penumbral as most recently manifested in his Shadows and Enlightenment of 1995. “How,” he asks there, “do shadows work, not just in the physical world, but in our minds?”44–an interesting question not only for perceptual psychologists but for historiographers as well. In Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany of 1980 there is a wonderfully descriptive passage that provides some insight into Baxandall’s own capacity for paying attention to the ephemerally perceived. Trying to capture in words the visual effect of a Tilman Riemenschneider wooden altarpiece in a dusky church interior, he sits in front of it for many hours in order “to let the sun run its course.” From the shadows of early morning, to the “dead period in the middle of the day” that causes it to look “rather like its photographs” (a melancholic irony for those who can only look at it through reproductions) to the crepuscular aura of late afternoon, he watches the Last Supper change not only in illumination but also in significance.45 Given my predisposition to heed the pensive melancholy in so many of Baxandall’s words, I cannot but read the description of his physical experience here as a metaphor for his own metaphysical preoccupations. The easy mediation between present and past in Painting and Experiencehas metamorphosed in this text into a dimmer, more resigned affair, but one not without its compensatory satisfactions. Even though the analytic confidence in the retrieval capabilities of language is sustained in this stunning study of a neglected artistic genre, at the same time Baxandall demonstrates no reservations about delighting in what remains unnamable:

There is no question of fully possessing oneself of another culture’s cognitive style, but the profit is real: one tests and modifies one’s perception of the art, one enriches one’s general visual repertory, and one gets at least some intimation of another culture’s visual experience and disposition. Such excursions into alien sensibilities are a main pleasure of art.46

Melancholic joy, in other words, need not be an oxymoron. In Roland Barthes’ last book, the bittersweet Camera Lucida, written at the same time as Baxandall’s Limewood Sculptors, he invokes what he calls the “punctum,” the unnamable something frequently present in old photographs and that for him was embodied in an ideal photograph of his dead mother. The punctum is what testifies to a kind of “subtle beyond–as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see.”47 A similar sentiment seems to underwrite all the varied topics and periods upon which Baxandall has turned his own attention. It is as if he himself has scanned the artistic canon, seeking, like Barthes, for that insight or moment of contact that he already knows is forever foreclosed. “What I can name,” Barthes remarks, “cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name,” however, “is a good symptom of disturbance.”48 “A good symptom of disturbance,” of course, is most likely either the cause or the effect of melancholic yearning. It is the source of a similar “subtle beyond” in the works of Baxandall that I have been struggling to name: the attitude or conviction that eludes definition but yet seems to shadow all the many things he has had to say. Fortunately, he has left a couple of clues lying around–it is tempting to picture them as the discarded objects in Dürer’s engraving of Melancholia–in his own curiously “ruined” historiographic exercise of 1985.

In a remarkable essay, in an issue of Representations on the assigned topic of “Art or Society: Must We Choose?”, Baxandall boldly drew attention to the shortcomings to which his particular brand of historiography was subject. Setting out to parallel Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fourteenth-century pictorial allegories of good and bad government in the Siennese town hall with political and social events surrounding their execution, he ended up writing a consciously fragmented allegory about good and bad art history writing. His original essay on art-in-context, he claimed, in short, could not be written. Plagued by the sense that “there was something wrong about anything approaching a one-to-one relation between pictorial thing and social thing,” he despairs of ever making matches between “analytical concepts from two different kinds of categorization of human experience,” which is, essentially, to return to the futility of explaining works of vision through verbal constructs.49 It all comes back to the perfidy of language and the inevitable melancholy it trails in its wake. Short of descending into sheer inactivity–the psychic state of Dürer’s personification of Melancholia–there are only two solutions: either write a poor and perfunctory social history of art or retreat to the basics and attempt to sort out the use of incongruous analytic concepts: “I hope. . . that we might do what we do rather better if we were clearer about what it is we are doing.” 50 In this disingenuously simple statement, the hidden agenda for the apparently confident Patterns of Intention (published in the same year, 1985) was laid down.

The book is a wonderfully provocative, but maddeningly cautious, meditation on trying yet again to make words say something authentic about images. That it both masterfully succeeds and self-consciously falls short (after a formidable number of constraints are levied upon what can be legitimately claimed) is entirely consonant with Baxandall’s wry sense of what it means to try and write an art historical narrative:

The problem [as always] is the interposition of words and concepts between explanation and object of explanation. . . . [W]e explain pictures only in so far as we have considered them under some verbal description or specification.51

As Baxandall is chronically aware, what is left out of this habitual disciplinary praxis is the “authority of pictorial character, forms and colours,” and other such crucial aspects of visuality. The solution of “inferential criticism”–that which “entails the imaginative reconstruction of causes, particularly voluntary causes or intentions within situations”52–that he proposes is typically one born on the margins of pictorial intelligibility:

. . . their authority is primary, if we take the visual medium of pictures with any seriousness at all; they, not symbols, are the painter’s language. . . . It is possible to give a shadow-account of articulation by not flouting it.53

Yet indirection is not the only course of action open to the savvy critic: concepts and objects “should reciprocally sharpen each other”54 at every turn, with one revealing qualification. Whatever we infer historically about works of art–which is to say however much we reconstruct “briefs,” contexts, circumstances, and situations–in the end the narrative’s ostensive relation to the historical picture is itself mediated by the present:

We are interested in the intention of pictures and painters as a means to a sharper perception of the pictures, for us [my italics]. It is the picture as covered by a description in our terms [his italics] that we are attempting to explain.55

On this unacknowledged poststructuralist foundation of subjectivity, Baxandall’s interpretive edifice stands.

What it refuses to sacrifice to the demands of self-reflexivity, however, is the conviction that the past, though lost, merits every one of its serious attempts at comprehension. While the gulf between past and present, word and image, assures the historian of art that her or his enterprise will always be an incomplete, and hence melancholic, one, the quest for pictorial meaning is far from nugatory (and in this sense ends up being more mournful than melancholic in classic psychoanalytic terms). While “the starting point” in any art historical narrative, as he claimed in Patterns of Intention, “is a sense that there is some sort of affinity between a kind of thought and a kind of painting,”56 when it comes to some art (“only superior paintings will sustain explanation of the kind we are attempting: inferior paintings are impenetrable” [!]57), neither historical nor critical words of explanation are sufficient: “Painting persist[s] against, or simply despite, the grain of theory.”58

Like Walter Benjamin, Baxandall finds himself “marooned” in a world of “stranded objects” that demand recognition, and oftentimes that translates into “reading” them from a vantage point on the other side of time.59 Heeding the intellectual and social contexts that have enveloped works of art through history is one of the routes towards appreciating their primary intentions.60 But, and this must be emphasized, such historical understanding will never quite take us there. The chasm between words and images, past and present, can never–unlike the Firth of Forth–be bridged by a dazzling act of interpretive ingenuity. In the midst (and mists) of loss, the perceptive historian must above all keenly attend to the paintings themselves and focus on their distinctly pictorial constructions of meaning. In the process, she or he will put into effect a fair critical, though inevitably flawed, program:

What we have [for example, in Chardin’s] A Lady Taking Tea [in its own way a more domestic portrait of saturnine melancholy or pensive solitude than Dürer’s] is an enacted record of attention which we ourselves, directed by distinctness and other things, summarily re-enact, and that narrative of attention is heavily loaded: it has foci, privileged points of fixation, failures, characteristic modes of relaxation, awareness of contrasts, and curiosity about what it does not succeed in knowing.61

In the concluding paragraph to her essay on “Beauty” in her own book on melancholy, The Black Sun, Julia Kristeva memorably remarks that the imaginative capacity “of Western man” discovers itself anew through its “ability to transfer meaning to the very place where it was lost in death and/or non meaning.”62 A more eloquent evocation of the motives underlying Michael Baxandall’s rhetorics of loss than that–however “irrational and wild”63 he would consider my historiographic sentiment to be–I cannot imagine. Continuing curiosity about what the scholar will never be able completely to know seems to me to be the most noble, though undeniably melancholic, critical endeavor of all.

This historiographic example of one notable art historian, I hope, can itself serve as an allegory of art historical writing in general, which is, I have been claiming, an essentially sentimental occupation. I am tempted to argue that the discipline of art history is eternally fated to be a melancholic one, primarily because the objects it appropriates as its “own” always keep the wound open (the cut between present and past, word and image)–resistant to interpretation, they nonetheless insistently provoke it. Of course, writing never heals. And yet, there are degrees of relationship to the past that range along the spectrum from melancholic to the mournful, from the productive to the incapacitating. The point is: Past images, material objects of art, are forever beyond the capacity of present words to capture. Melancholy– let us acknowledge it–must be the constant companion of the historian. An historical work will always elude the traps of contemporary points of view. That recognition is as much a cause for celebration as it is consolation. There is, as Nietzsche forewarned us, “a right time to forget as well as a right time to remember.”64 If meaning is the ultimate loss, then new meanings must be made.

© Journal of InVisible Culture, 1998

  1.  Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,” Meaning in the Visual Arts (Garden City: Doubleday, 1955), 24.
  2.  Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1925), 223.
  3.  Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 102.
  4.  Sigmund Freud, “Trauer und Melancholie” (“Mourning and Melancholia,” 1917), trans. James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 19, 239-258.
  5.  Eric Santner, Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory, and Film in Postwar Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 3.
  6.  For recent intellectual histories of the concept of melancholy (especially in the pseudo-Aristotelian text of the Problemata), see both Max Pensky, Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), and Harvie Ferguson, Melancholy and the Critique of Modernity: Søren Kierkegaard’s Religious Psychology (London: Routledge, 1995).
  7.  Benjamin, 139-140.
  8.  As seen, for example, in the writings of Walter Benjamin. See Pensky, passim.
  9.  Kristeva, 9.
  10.  Melanie Klein, The Selected Melanie Klein, ed. Juliet Mitchell (New York: Free Press, 1987). See, for example, Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, From Klein to Kristeva: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Search for the “Good Enough” Mother (Ann Arbor, 1992), 10. The authors point out that Klein’s focus on reparations in her later writings leads directly to Winnicott’s focus on external objects and the environment. See D. W. Winnicott, Psycho-analytic Explorations, ed. Claire Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, and Madeleine Davis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989).
  11.  Vamik Volkan, Linking Objects and Linking Phenomena: A Study of the Forms, Symptoms, Metapsychology, and Therapy of Complicated Mourning (New York: International Universities Press, 1981), 101.
  12.  The title of Santner’s book. See footnote 5.
  13.  Volkan, 101.
  14.  Quoted in James Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington, Indiana, 1990), 184; from Benjamin, “Valery Proust Museum,” in Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Massachusetts,: MIT Press 1981), 175.
  15.  Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 13; later in this same text (35) he refers to his deliberately “very low and simple theoretical stance.” In an early review of this book, Adrian Rifkin remarks how Baxandall always manages to convey “a tone of boredom and disdain at the engagement with philosophical difficulty . . . discharging his involvement as an unwelcome obligation. . . . but as he is anyway deeply implicated in a complex of debates, he may as well have been more open about their terms of reference,” Art History 9 (June 1986): 275.
  16.  Freud, of course, in “Mourning and Melancholia” drew a very deliberate distinction between the symptoms, causes, and effects of these two psychic states. I have chosen to elide them here in order to characterize a more generalized historiographic attitude, although there are times when it is more analytically useful to consider the unconscious dimensions of melancholia.
  17.  Patterns of Intention, 120.
  18.  Svetlana Alpers was aware of this predicament from the start: “The most commanding definition of meaning in the visual arts in this century–iconography according to Panofsky–has a textual base. . . . But is there really no difference between an image and a text, such that one’s attention to it, and hence one’s account of it, would be different? Baxandall’s answer is, clearly, yes.” The New Republic, July 14 – 21, 1986, 36.
  19.  Here he forecasts W.J.T. Mitchell’s preoccupation with the same issues in his Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: Universityof Chicago Press, 1986).
  20.  In his recent Shadows and Enlightenment, New Haven and London, 1995, 135-136, Baxandall uses the concept of attention to emblematize his general approach to the social understanding of art:

    A viable model for thinking about some aspects of art and culture is precisely as a market in attention itself, an exchange of attentions valuable to the other. We and the artist collude in a socially institutionalized assignation to barter our respective attentions. He values our attention for many reasons, and not only because it may be associated with whatever sort of material reward the culture offers: his social identity and his sense of his own humanity are complexly involved in the transaction. We, on the other hand, attend to the deposit or representation of his attention to life and the world because we find it enjoyable or profitable, sometimes even improving. The transaction is not symmetrical: he values the attention we direct at him and his; we value the attention he directs at life and the world. He values us as representatives of a general humanity; we value him for a specialised faculty, even if perhaps articulating a general human quality. But the pattern is still that of a market, with choice on both sides and reciprocal agency.

  21.  Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, trans. Ronald L. Martinez (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 20-21.
  22.  Wendy Wheeler, “After Grief: What Kinds of Inhuman Selves?” New Formations 25 (1995): 90.
  23.  Panofsky, 24.
  24.  “Dürers ‘Melencolia I’: Eine quellen- und typengeschichtliche Untersuchung,” Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 2, 1923.
  25.  Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels , conceived in 1916, written in 1925, and published in 1928, has been translated by John Osborne as The Origin of German Tragic Drama.
  26.  George Steiner, in his “Introduction” to The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 19. For a history of this “non-encounter” between Benjamin and the Warburg Institute, see the footnotes to Max Pensky’s account, 263-264, as well as Thomas Levin, “Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Art History,” October 47 (Winter 1988), 77-83. For a study of Benjamin’s connections (or lack of) to both the Warburg Institute and the Vienna School of Art History, see Wolfgang Kemp, “Walter Benjamin und die Kunstwissenschaft. Teil 1: Benjamins Beziehungen zur Wiener Schule,” and “Walter Benjamin und die Kunstwissenschaft. Teil 2: Walter Benjamin und Aby Warburg,” Kritische Berichte des Ulmer Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft 1, no. 3 (1973): 30-50 and 1, no. 3 (1975), 5-25, respectively.
  27.  Steiner, 15.
  28.  Benjamin, 157, 140.
  29.  “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” parts 1 and 2, reprinted in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. S. Bryson, B. Kruger, L. Tillman, and J. Weinstock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 60, 77.
  30.  Benjamin, 223, 139-140.
  31.  Ibid., 232.
  32.  Michael Steinberg, “Introduction: Benjamin and the Critique of Allegorical Reason,” in Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, ed. M. Steinberg (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996), 3.
  33.  “The Language of Art Criticism” in The Language of Art History, ed. Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 73. The essay is an abbreviated version of “The Language of Art History,” published in New Literary History 10 (1979): 453-465.
  34.  Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition, Oxford, 1971.
  35.  Ibid., 44.
  36.  In acknowledging this descriptive excess, Baxandall anticipated Derrida’s more iconoclastic claims on the same subject several years later. See his The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), which was first published as La Vérité en peinture in Paris in 1978. One indeed could make the claim that Baxandall was himself one of the first art historians to evince the “linguistic turn,” at the same time as he abjured it.
  37.  Richard Stamelman, Lost Beyond Telling: Representations of Death and Absence in Modern French Poetry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990), 39. Paul de Man, Maurice Blanchot, and Louis Marin Ò as Stamelman points out in lengthy quotations Ò have evocatively made use of the dependence of language on the “void.” In Demanian discourse, in particular, Eric Santner has remarked, “the speaking subject is perpetually, constitutionally, in mourning: for the referent, for beauty, for meaning, for home, for stable terms of orientation, because these losses are always already there as soon as one uses language.” See his Stranded Objects, 15.
  38.  Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators, 49.
  39.  And the beginning, perhaps, to a twelve-step recovery program (like the twenty-four “cause-suggesting features” in the construction of the Firth of Forth bridge, or the appropriation of Cristoforo Landino’s sixteen terms that “constitute a compact Quattrocento equipment for looking at Quattrocento paintings”). See the first chapter in Patterns of Intention, 26, and last chapter in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 111.
  40.  Giotto and the Orators, 6.
  41.  Painting and Experience, 1-2.
  42.  Ibid.,27.
  43.  Ibid., 86.
  44.  Shadows and Enlightenment, 9.
  45.  The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 189-190.
  46.  Ibid., 143.
  47.  Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981), 59.
  48.  Ibid., 51.
  49.  “Art, Society, and the Bouguer Principle,” Representations 12 (Fall 1985): 39-40.
  50.  Ibid., 43.
  51.  Patterns of Intention, v, 1.
  52.  The definition comes from his “The Language of Art History,” 463.
  53.  Patterns of Intention, 132-133.
  54.  Ibid., 34.
  55.  Ibid., 109.
  56.  Patterns of Intention, 76-77.
  57.  Ibid., 120.
  58.  Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence, with Svetlana Alpers (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), 2.
  59.  The terms are Santner’s, 12.
  60. “Intention,” he asserts, “is referred to pictures rather more than to painters. . . . It is not a reconstituted historical state of mind, then, but a relation between the object and its circumstances,” Patterns of Intention, 42.
  61.  Ibid., 102.
  62.  Kristeva, 103.
  63.  Patterns of Intention, 135. These are the two characteristics of historical and critical analysis that Baxandall manifestly shuns.
  64.  Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, 2d ed., trans. Adrian Collins (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts Press, 1957), 8.

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