Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?: On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity

Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?: On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity

by James Elkins

ISBN: 9780415919425

Publisher Routledge

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Sociology, Arts & Photography/Painting

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One




It is best to begin by setting out some pertinent facts about the growth of the literature, simply to show that contemporary writing is historically anomalous in a potentially significant fashion. That condition, I think, may be especially transparent to working art historians. Writing art history, and reading it from the age, say, of fifteen, it may appear that what gets said about pictures is about right, and that the detail of art historical writing is more or less commensurate with the actual detail of the artworks, or perhaps even insufficient. Certainly, working on a specialized subject--for example on a dissertation--fosters the conviction that the existing literature is inadequate, and that a great deal remains to be said: but it does not usually lead to the conclusion that the amount or the kind of writing is fundamentally strange.

    To see the writing itself as a problem, it is helpful to take a step back from the concerns of any one subject or specialty, and consider the shape of the discipline in a more abstract sense. In this chapter I offer some stories, facts, and figures about the growth of art historical writing, and especially about the length of our texts. At first I want to do this without drawing any conclusions, taking the numbers as what scientists call raw data. Afterward I will consider several of the explanations that might be, or have been, proffered to explain why contemporary historians write so much more than past generations. I am not entirely satisfied with any of the initial explanations, and this opening chapter is principally intended to unsettle the more common convictions about what is happening (or not happening) to the discipline.


According to George Steiner, there are on the order of 30,000 dissertations written each year on modern literature alone. His estimate may be right, because American art history departments account for almost 400 dissertations each year, so it would not be unreasonable to guess that there are nearly 1,000 dissertations worldwide. The two principal indices of artwriting, the Art Index and the Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA) each record a total of around 30,000 entries each year, written by an average of 22,500 different art historians and critics. Certainly the discipline has grown precipitously. The earliest index of art historical literature is the Répertoire de l’art et d'archéologie; its first volume was published in 1910 and has a combined subject and author index which runs to about 4,000 entries. A combined subject and author index for the 1995 Art Index would have on the order of 30,000 entries. As the discipline grows, the number of subjects also increases; the Art Index has 4,773 subject headings in its 1995 volume, up from 2,258 in 1989.

    Another tangible sign of the discipline's growth is the list of journals that are classified as art history. The 1995 Art Index collates 268 journals explicitly on art history, and the BHA includes entries from about 1,125 journals in various fields; by contrast, the first volume of the Art Index, for the years 1929-1932, lists only 150 journals. Most large libraries subscribe to fifty or so journals in art history and criticism--less than a fifth of those listed in the Art Index. Even fifty is too many to read in a month, and an average art historian might subscribe to two or three, and flip through perhaps a dozen more: a first sign that our writing has outgrown us.

    Given the volume of writing, it is inevitable that a great deal of attention has been paid to less well-known artists. The Art Index and the BHA list references to approximately 10,000 artists in their indices each year. Non-canonical, minor, non-Western, or otherwise neglected artists are increasingly likely to be the subjects of single volumes, monographs, and catalogues raisonnées. As of 1995, on the order of 3,000 artists had been described in monographs--substantially more than the 1,000 or so artists described in Janson's History of Art. Along with this interest in what were once called second- and third-rate artists, the expanding literature has also treated "first-rate" artists more thoroughly than ever before. These are two different forms of interest, which I want to mark with two different phrases: I'll call writing on less well-known artists extensive research, and writing on better-known artists and artworks intensive research. The difference is interesting and crucial, since a discipline that writes extensively is expanding its purview and experimenting with new subjects, while a discipline that grows intensively is consolidating its interests and focusing on canonical figures. Art history does both, but it largely advertises itself as doing the first; intensive research goes on more quietly, but may account for just as much of the discipline's growth.


Consider, by contrast, the state of artwriting before the later nineteenth century, and before the inception of art history as a discipline. In Greek and Roman texts, writing on individual pictures is uncommon or rare, and always succinct. Callistratus's Descriptions and Philostratus's Imagines, the two best-preserved sources for the ancient art of ekphrasis, each take about three hundred words to describe most images, and never more than seven hundred--that is, in most editions, from a single paragraph to about three pages per image. The Imagines itself is a short work. Outside Callistratus and Philostratus, descriptions of pictures are even more laconic; Pliny is a perfect example of extensive writing, since he covers a lot of ground but describes most images in a phrase or two. The majority of ancient texts mention paintings rather than describe them, and few offer interpretations. The exceptions, such as Pausanius's famous description of Polygnotus's paintings of the Nekyia and the Iliupersis, prove the rule: and even they are not long in comparison to modern writing. Pausanius's "lengthy" account of the Iliupersis is roughly 2,000 words long; by comparison a recent review of the problem of the Iliupersis by Mark Stansbury-O'Donnell runs to nearly five times that length. The extra length is partly due to Stansbury-O'Donnell's analysis of Pausanius's prepositions (in order to reconstruct the painting, it is essential to understand what Pausanius meant by "next to," "above," "below," and associated terms); but a fair amount of Stansbury-O'Donnell's essay is devoted to analyzing the political meaning of Polygnotus's composition, and showing how it balances the transgressions of the Danaans and Trojans. As always it is far from simple to decide if Pausanius thought such meanings were implicit in his text, and therefore went without saying. The structure of his narrative echoes the painting's structure well enough so that he may have thought he had already done what Stansbury-O'Donnell did for him two millennia later. But whatever the explanation, the difference remains, and it only becomes more stark if we begin looking at other modern reconstructions of the Iliupersis.

    The ekphrasis of the Iliupersis may be the longest surviving ancient description of a single image; the best-known example, Homer's description of Achilles's shield, is only 120 lines long. There are also marginal examples such as Solensis Aratus's poem about the constellations (which was illustrated in medieval and Renaissance editions), but the Phenomena is not a discourse on pictures in the sense I mean here. Aratus does not describe the forms of the constellations as much as the actions of the gods; and similarly, the "pictorial" descriptions in Bion, Moschus, Virgil, and other writers have only indirect and problematic relation to actual pictures.

    Much the same--and at the same level of generality--can be said of medieval practice. As Hans Belting and others have noted, there are numerous medieval texts on the subject of images, but they tend to consider pictures as vehicles of worship or idolatry, or as possessions of the Church or of individual churches. There are long texts associated with the Iconoclastic Controversy, some of which refer to individual images. Most longer documents concern the cost and commissioning of paintings or the use and abuse of religious images, but even the most intricate texts are not about individual pictures in the sense we might take that phrase today. It is commonly noted that the Renaissance was also the renascence of writing on art. As Belting puts it, when "the image became an object of reflection," artists "found themselves driven by new kinds of arguments" that had to take account of aesthetic concepts, optical veracity, skill, invenzione, and a number of other generative concepts. E.H. Gombrich has argued somewhat differently that writing on art is a "leaven" of the art criticism that began with public competitions in Florence in the beginning of the fifteenth century. Gombrich's and Belting's accounts are commensurate with those that stress the rise of art academies, with their attendant literature. There are other ways of explaining the renascence of artwriting; for Panofsky, the increase is linked to the dawning sense of historical change, and the concomitant necessity of locating each generation's place in the movement of culture--"le età," as Vasari said, of art.

    These explanations partly serve different purposes, but they each give evidence of a shift in the volume of writing at the end of the middle ages, and especially of a new emphasis on intensive description. In many respects the Renaissance is the origin of our ways of writing about art: it is the period in which pictures first became the objects of intensive intellection, and were first able to bear the weight of philosophic and critical concepts. By the mid-fifteenth century, pictures had begun to be able to carry the burden of arguments about such seminal concepts as naturalism, relief, grazia, disegno, colorito, perspective, contrapposto, fantasia, and invenzione. Pictures and other artworks were widely discussed, and there were public debates, open letters, invited conferences, academies, public speeches, and philosophic defenses on the arts and on individual artists and artworks. In this context, the period from around 1435--when Alberti finished writing De Pictura--to about 1563--when the Accademia del Disegno was founded with Michelangelo as its tutelary head--is the beginning of the modern understanding of painting. After 1600, with the histories by Karel Van Mander, Joachim von Sandrart, and others, the literature on painting and drawing begins to grow exponentially, so that even Julius Schlosser's encyclopedic Kunstliteratur can barely mention the major titles.

    Still, most Renaissance writing about pictures is extensive rather than intensive, in that the treatises, letters, and dialogues become longer even though the passages on individual images remain short by modern standards. Again there are exceptions--one might name Martino Bassi's dialogue on a relief sculpture proposed for the Milan cathedral, and Gregorio Comanini's dialogue centered on the works of Arcimboldo--but for the most part attention is focused on the idea of painting or on the achievements of artists, rather than the meanings of individual pictures. Vasari is fairly generous in his descriptions; but even pictures that he judges to be important, exceptionally skillful, or complicated only occupy him for a page or two. Although the Vite is longer than almost any monograph that a university press might publish, comparatively little space is allotted to individual pictures: it is primarily extensive, not intensive. It is important to bear in mind just how markedly unmodern Vasari is in this regard; today two or three hundred words is scarcely enough to state the basic facts about a picture--to say something about its leading meanings, or to rehearse its title, date, size, medium, and provenance. In an average catalogue raisonné that basic information occupies a short paragraph, perhaps on the order of a hundred words (including dates, page and volume numbers, and dimensions). Vasari's average descriptions are significantly shorter--on the order of a sentence or two.

    So while Renaissance writers were the first to feel it necessary to speak at some length about pictures, their texts fall significantly short of modern standards of intensive interpretation. Over the next several centuries the extensive literature continued in full force (as Schlosser's bibliography shows), while intensive writing became increasingly prominent. By and large the late Renaissance and Enlightenment texts that matter to art history are those that pay intensive attention to at least a few works. Winckelmann, Le Brun, De Piles, and others continue to be indispensable to the discipline's sense of itself, while any number of "lesser" authors have fallen into oblivion at least in part because they do not engage the peculiarities of individual artworks. Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann has recently demonstrated this in the case of Winckelmann, whose immediate predecessors, writing in German and Latin in the century preceding the History of Greek Art, sometimes make strikingly "modern" points but fail to engage the reader's interest in individual artworks. Reading in the large secondary and tertiary literature on art in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is rewarding for the light it casts on art history's sense of its own history, but it seldom uncovers intensive engagements with artworks.

    The growth of writing on art accelerated in the nineteenth century, and in the last hundred years there has been a surge in both extensive and intensive writing. The contrast with even the more extended examples of Renaissance writing has become extreme. Consider that Vasari allots a little over two pages to Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, while Leo Steinberg's essay on the Last Supper fills 113 pages--it is over sixty times longer than Vasari's account. Giorgione's Tempesta, another painting we will be considering later in the book, attracted only two sentences--or rather, a faulty sentence and a sentence-fragment--during the sixteenth century: Marcantonio Michiel's annotation "A little landscape on canvas with [al storm [and a] gypsy and [a] soldier was by Giorgione"; and "another picture of a gypsy and a shepherd in a landscape with a bridge." Today the painting has been the principal subject of at least 3 full books, and on the order of 150 essays and other notices.

    Contemporary writing is also textually intricate. Vasari does not use footnotes or illustrations aside from woodcut portraits of the artists, but Steinberg requires 29 pages of footnotes and 51 illustrations, including plans, fictive restorations of the space, cardboard models, and even a photograph of a billboard of the Last Supper (plate 5). Vasari gives about ten pages to another central image, Masaccio's frescos in the Brancacci Chapel. By contrast, in the last hundred years there have been at least three book-length studies on the Chapel. In a rough count, the Brancacci Chapel inspired approximately 50 pages of writing before 1800 and on the order of 1,500 pages since then. Steinberg's essay--which we will read in Chapter 3--is not at all typical, but the gross amount of writing on the Brancacci Chapel is. In general, we write much more than past centuries: not just more pages, but also more pages on individual works. In many ways (and not least in the raw statistics) our practice is importantly different from anything in the past: different enough, I mean to suggest, so that it is puzzling that we do not experience the difference as a problem.


The phenomena I am trying to explain in this book are Western in origin and meaning: art history developed from Western assumptions about pictures, and the voluminous responses I am going to consider have only shown themselves in writing done in Europe, America, and places influenced by their versions of art history. In another context it would be possible to expand on the hypothesis that the relevant properties of contemporary non-Western art histories are founded on Western models, and that the West continues to project its sense of Western art and history onto new material. For such reasons the workings of pictorial complexity have resonance outside Western art, although I will not be pursuing non-Western art histories here. Even so, it is helpful to look quickly at some representative examples of non-Western artwriting that is not significantly influenced by the West, in order to bring home the uniqueness of what happened in the West. Our writing practices are odd not only in light of our own Western past: they are also odd in respect to all the known histories of artwriting in all cultures where records survive, from the various inceptions of writing to the present. My first sense of our position, and the germ of the idea for this book, came from reading histories of art written in the West before the nineteenth century, those written about the Western tradition but from outside Western Europe and America, and those written in China, Persia, and India before or beyond the influence of Western art history. Those experiences brought home, as no others could, the oddity and mannerisms of our own writing.

    Several cultures developed their own traditions of written art history and criticism before they made significant contact with the West, and each of them involved far less writing per picture than we would consider adequate. Persian and Indian traditions each possess an extensive native literature on art that is relatively and in some cases entirely uninfluenced by Western artwriting, and none of the texts of which I am aware include extended discussions of individual works or debates about meaning on the scale, say, of the literature on Leonardo's Last Supper or the Brancacci Chapel. In China a well-developed tradition of art criticism goes back at least to the eighth century AD, but before the twentieth century there is no recorded instance of a single painting requiring more than the equivalent of a page of commentary. Native Americans practiced a large number of pseudo-pictographic modes of writing, many involving extensive repertoires of pictorial signs: but there is no literature indicating an extensive exegetical tradition about those signs, as opposed to a practice invested in reading the signs. Ojibwa priests in Minnesota, for example, read their mnemonic signs without the help of an interpretive tradition regarding the proper forms of images, their technique, arrangement, or extralinguistic meanings. The images were passed on from one generation to the next by silent memorization and drawing. Hopi altars are another example of a highly developed pictorial practice; there is no evidence that the practice involved an interpretive tradition centered on individual images. Australian Aboriginal paintings are the occasion for long stories, songs, and mimes, but the pictures themselves call for minimal commentary and they have not given rise to any traditions of criticism.

    Needless to say, a list like this is potentially endless; what I mean to suggest is just that where writing on art has become intensive, it has done so under the diffused influence of Western art history. That is the case today in China, Japan, South America, Australia, and to a lesser extent India and Africa: wherever art history flourishes as a discipline, it does so according to a version of the traditions that are being worked out in Europe and America. Before Western contact, a few cultures had extensive writing traditions (China is the principal example), but none had intensive traditions.


It is tempting, I think, not to see a problem here at all. Especially in light of the examples I have been reciting, it seems reasonable to say that historians know more than previous generations. We write more because we have more to say, and we have more to say because knowledge has been accumulating. This is in a sense unarguable, since we are clearly able to articulate more about pictures than in past centuries. But can we assign our loquaciousness to a surfeit of facts?

    In classical ekphrasis it was enough to "bring before the eyes the sight which is to be shown," as Hermogenes of Tarsus put it. Ekphrases normally state what was later called the sensus litteralis, the ostensive content of a picture. Pausanius begins his description of the Iliupersis by briefly setting forth the subject of the entire painting: "Inside this building," he says, "the whole of the painting on the right depicts Troy taken and the Greeks sailing away." That phrase, Troy taken and the Greeks sailing away, might have become the picture's title in the modern sense, if it had survived. Titles are frequently minimal statements of content, normally restricted to the sensus litteralis. The opposed term in medieval writing is sensus spiritualis, and Pausanius never ventures near it. In modern terms, sensus spiritualis might also be called the "allegorical" or "nonliteral" meaning, when such distinctions are maintained at all. For classical authors, descriptions had a much narrower range: either what I will call the "title" (the shortest convenient phrase or mnemonic for the picture's content), or something longer such as the fabula (the full textual source of the picture), or the sensus litteralis in the form of a re-telling of the fabula or an inventory of the picture's contents. (Thus Pausanius does not follow the Iliad in describing the Iliupersis, but he ranges around the picture describing groups of figures that catch his eye.)

    For ancient writers everything beyond the sensus litteralis was simply not available as the subject of description, neither hinted nor omitted in any comprehensible fashion. The conviction that there is something beyond the sensus litteralis, and that it might be partly put into words, arises fitfully from the beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1672, Giovan Pietro Bellori became the first art historian to note the fact that words are insufficient to describe pictures; and a decade later the concept of the je ne sais quoi was in wide circulation. Our present situation is very different from these glimmerings: whatever earlier centuries took for granted in pictures, we have learned to experience as unwarranted assumptions. We have many more words to find our way toward paintings: if Vasari had them, so David Carrier implies, he might have written at greater length. We have teased out many things that went unsaid, and found subtexts beneath ostensibly neutral descriptions. Ekphrasis has become a charged term, meaning anything but the unproblematic summary of a picture's contents. Vasari, Winckelmann, and even Pliny have become "texts," harboring unarticulated feelings about gender, politics, and the purpose of art. Nothing is as it once seemed, and pictures are no longer objects to be summarily understood.

    Hence most of what we write is not "facts" or information in any normal senses of those words. Still, it's often true that contemporary writers also simply know more than past writers. Vasari is a well-known example: modern editions correct him, and our lists of artists' oeuvres are longer than his. This first explanation--we write more because we know more--is occasionally the most sensible way of accounting for the increased volume of recent literature. Certainly it is the most straightforward explanation, and at the least it explains some quotient of any modern text.


Another way of looking at the problem is to consider the discipline itself. Like many other fields, art history is rapidly expanding. There are more MA and PhD programs than there were only twenty years ago, and many more art historians. The growth may be so intense, and so competitive, that a kind of Darwinian explanation might be in order. Because there are more applicants than jobs, and more assistant professors than tenured ones, perhaps texts have to be conspicuously ambitious in order to take their authors forward. Once it would have been unusual to see a monograph on Raphael's School of Athens, or even on the Parthenon sculptures. Now it is not surprising to find an entire book on the "secret geometry" that supposedly hangs in the architecture above the figures in the School of Athens (according to the author, a stellated polygon provides the proportions for the entire scene), or a long essay claiming that a topographic map of Athens is nascent in the minuscule rocks depicted on the Parthenon frieze. That kind of outlandishly narrow concentration makes good sense from a Darwinian perspective: when they are successful, such projects create new niches where competition is minimal and expertise is concentrated on one person.

    In this view, the growth in both extensive and intensive writing might be explained by looking back to the origins of disciplinary art history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarianism and art criticism. Enlightenment and romantic art criticism have certainly played a part in what art history has become, and contemporary art history has been influenced more than it sometimes allows by Diderot and Baudelaire. Philosophy has also contributed, though we still lack judicious assessments of the influence of such writers as Wilhelm Dilthey and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The current pressure to write would ultimately be a consequence of the incorporation of such influences, together with the expansion of the American university system. We would write a great deal because there are large numbers of us, and we would write voluminously in order to be heard above the background.

    Many parts of this explanation ring true. The sheer volume of writing can probably be correlated with the number of historians who must write in order to find jobs, or improve their jobs, rather than with the art historians who have no immediate pressure to write. It may be that if more accurate figures were available it would become apparent that the total amount of our writing has increased in proportion to the difficulty of the job market. But this second explanation also has its weak points. There's something peculiar about picturing art historians as the passive products of their own discipline, as if they are jostled by the pressures of jobs and teaching and unable to do anything other than comply with the discipline's commands. In order for this explanation to work as an explanation, it needs to acknowledge that historians make the discipline as much as it molds art historians. Despite appearances, we all write as we please: it is our discipline, and the majority of us are content to voice even the most strident critiques within the apparatus of colloquia, journals, and universities.

    This is one of the places where the distinction between extensive and intensive writing is especially important. A given scholar might well feel beleaguered by the imperative to publish, but the writing that engages the largest number of historians is something more than a response to disciplinary demands. Most of the texts that are considered central to their specialties, or to the discipline as a whole, are complex: they are intensive more than extensive, and therefore not typical products of the pressure to publish. A Darwinian fight for survival might well generate the volume of essays recorded in The Art Index or the BHA, but it wouldn't explain the few, compelling, and disproportionately intense readings that provide the subjects of so much of our conversation.


It's certainly true that Darwinian-style pressures rule part of our lives, and many of us play along by being a little compulsive. But intensive writing, in particular, isn't well explained by theories of competition and a growing population. The first explanation (that we need to write at length to spell out everything we know) is also partly true, but perhaps it would work better if it weren't restricted to "facts" and "knowledge"--notoriously slippery categories in any case. Instead we might say that we know more, but that what really accounts for the growth in writing is that we are more aware of what we are doing, more eloquent, and more reflective than writers in past centuries. The very words "picture" and "interpretation" have become so complex very few of us would want to say what they mean. It is not so much that knowledge is accumulating, as that it is deepening. We don't just know more, we know differently. It is possible that Pausanius knew what the Iliupersis "meant" in Stansbury-O'Donnell's sense, but chose not to say: in that case Stansbury-O'Donnell would not know more than Pausanius, but he would be writing differently. Where Pausanius was content to say what he saw, Stansbury-O'Donnell is compelled to say many things about what was implied, and about how Pausanius wrote when he tried to say what he saw. Pictures and their interpretation have become entangled, and we write about each simultaneously.

    This is a particularly difficult explanation to pin down. I have heard it in many guises, and I think it may be a way of saying several things at once. Part of what it means is that the "disparity" (as I'll call it for short) between premodern and modern accounts is a matter of our gradually increasing ability to find meaning in pictures. We have stopped treating pictures as silent narratives (as virtually all premodern writers did) and we have even come to doubt the old Horatian formula ut pictura poesis. The whole literature on "word and image"--which began in the sixteenth century, but only flowered in the twentieth--can be taken as a sign that contemporary art historians are aware, as never before, of the problems of putting text together with image. We are more reflective about interpretation, more aware of its pitfalls.

    An initial impediment to assessing this explanation is its implicit aggrandizement of the discipline of art history. Assigning the disparity to an increased capacity for eloquence, an awareness of the problems of interpretation, or a tendency toward reflective thought comes close to saying we have an improved understanding of images. In the end I think it is a version of the first explanation, with "reflection" substituted for "knowledge." Contemporary art historians would know more deeply, more thoroughly, and therefore better: our ways of looking and writing would be closer to the truth, more faithful to the images. Though this sounds inappropriately self-congratulatory, it must be in some measure what we believe; otherwise we would prefer re-reading Vasari to reading the latest offerings in Renaissance art history.

    What confuses me about this explanation is where it gets its force. Is it possible to think of this as an explanation for our condition, when it refers us back to the condition itself? Do I understand why I am attracted to complex writing, if I am told that I am more reflective than earlier writers? There's a sniff of tautology here: we write more intensive essays because we are intensively self-reflective. In asking whether this third explanation can serve as an explanation, I am drawing near to the most difficult historiographic question of this book: What kind of phenomenon (historical, historiographic, cultural, psychological, scientific, and so forth--the list is by definition open-ended) is to count as a sufficient explanation?


A fourth explanation, roughly as common in my experience as the first three, is that contemporary art historians write more intensively because pictures function differently in our society than they did in the past. Pictures were used very differently by the Renaissance, and so they called for quite different kinds of description. The lack of intensive medieval texts on painting is to be understood as a consequence of the functions of medieval illuminations and stained glass: basically, discussions that went beyond the religious use of images simply did not have meaning. Gradually, as art history came into being, pictures became repositories for kinds of meaning that had not been developed in past centuries. Portraits probably always signified power and gender relations, but it took a discipline devoted to images to tease out their meanings. Abstraction, expressionism, minimalism, and conceptual art have meanings intimately tied to the discipline that first described them. The disparity, in other words, is only a surface effect of a richer vein of meanings that unfolds in society, in patronage, and in the discipline of art history.

    There are certainly improvements here over the first three explanations, since the way is now open to a more inclusive understanding of our version of pictures. We would no longer be compelled to claim that contemporary historians have become aware of what pictures are "really like," because we would not need to say that we have a greater pool of knowledge. Nor would it be necessary--pace the third explanation--to rest content with saying we possess deeper or better insights than past generations. The surrounding cultures would be the sources of meaning that tell us why we see things differently. This fourth explanation can also help clarify the second explanation (that the growth of the discipline is driving us onward), because it could presumably tell us why our culture has produced a discipline that drives us.

    Certainly the question of my title cannot be well described in isolation, as if it were confined to the space between the museum and the library. But I also wonder, even while I acknowledge the play between institutions and the changing function of art, how close this fourth explanation comes to the actual texts of art history. The point is not that our society prompts us to change, but that it prompts us in very precisely definable ways, to produce specific texts. When would it make sense to appeal to general conditions of late capitalism, or the dissemination of popular images, in order to explain a text as intricate as Steinberg's meditation on the Last Supper? The locus of interest, I think, has to reside in the exact forms of complexity we give to images, and the more general the explanatory principle the less able it is to make contact with what is actually written. So when people say that my question depends on the changing nature of culture, I agree, but I still wonder what makes us so fascinated by the politics of the Iliupersis or the position of St. Peter's left hand in the Last Supper. We have inherited, or invented, a certain kind of complexity that cannot be described simply as the effect of the meanings of pictures in academic or intellectual late capitalist Western culture. And which is more in need of explanation, the practice of interpretation or the culture in which it is embedded? What in culture, or cultural history, can be considered well enough understood so that it can serve as a starting point for explaining intensive interpretation?


These first four explanations are the ones I have heard most commonly, and they each have a measure of truth. They often overlap, blurring into a single explanation--something like Things change, and so our writing has to keep up. Reading Janson's History of Art, I can sense the echoes of all four explanations: Janson knows more than most of his sources; he is an exemplar of the rewards of consistent and voluminous publishing; he is reflective about his position in history, and takes time to set it out; and he is clearly the product of a certain evolution of the notions of art, art history, and Western culture. In each of those ways, the History of Art differs from its predecessors such as Pliny, Pausanius, Vasari, Bellori, Sandrart, Van Mander, or Winckelmann. Even when Janson has only a paragraph to spare for a picture, he is sure to imply complexities beyond his text's capacity, and he is virtually never satisfied with the equivalent of the sensus litteralis, or a dramatic ekphrasis. In The History of Art, bland as it has become in successive editions, pictures are intensely demanding objects, implicitly and explicitly overflowing their allotted spaces in the text. The four explanations I have sketched do manage to describe some salient differences between Janson's book and those of his predecessors, but only at the cost of making him into a kind of historical puppet. The explanations picture art historians as fairly helpless heirs of their own accumulating knowledge (the first explanation) or their burgeoning profession (the second explanation), or as the vehicles of some mysteriously deepening skill (the third explanation), or of the culture that surrounds them (the fourth explanation).

    Each explanation tends to erase the question I am interested in by making the disparity "natural," or seeing it as a side-effect of forces at work elsewhere. If contemporary writers are more eloquent, I would want to know why they are driven to eloquence. Surely we would not want to say that an average art historian is more eloquent than Pausanius or Pliny, and Vasari is a formidable model of easy eloquence. And would we want to claim greater awareness of the perils of interpretation than the Greeks? Questions like these lead into two blind alleys. If a given art historian is more eloquent or reflective than a given primary source, then the eloquence itself would stand in need of explanation. Where did it come from? Why does it seem appropriate? And if the historian is imagined as being equally or (as is more likely) less eloquent than the source text, then it would be interesting to know why eloquence and reflexivity are displayed so prominently in contemporary writing and so little in previous texts. What makes us want to write eloquently? What makes us think that reflections on the interpretive act are apposite, or even required? If we understand pictures better than past generations, then what accounts for this sudden efflorescence of understanding, after generations foundered in relatively naive and unreflective oblivion? And who is in control: do our texts passively grow to accommodate our insights, or do we push the discipline to make room for what we want to say? Have our institutions taken over, and burdened us with proper nomenclature, specialized terminology, and institutional protocol? What value should we assign to our prolixity, our easy articulateness, our rhetorical versatility, our conceptual acumen? Are they signs of ever-more-vigilant attention to paintings, or symptoms of an inability to write concisely? Have we gained in critical awareness what we have lost in concision?

    For me, the entire project of explaining the influx of writing by appealing to an agglomeration of facts, or a profusion of art historians, or an efflorescence of understanding, or a sea change in culture, is suspect. I am uneasy, too, about the near-match between these explanations and art history's sense of itself. In part the disparity cannot be explained within art history, since historians' ways of answering it would necessarily have to do with what would be taken to be the fact that pictures are complex. Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, so the argument might run, requires all the attention it has received because in many ways it is as complex as the interpretations suggest. Within the frames of art history, that kind of answer is irrefutable: the historical literature shapes the way we see, and so inevitably it seems about right even when individual arguments and methods are unconvincing. If apparent complexity were my subject, the book could end here, with the tautology that complex pictures demand complex interpretations. But when interpretation is the subject, always the question is why: Why should we write at such historically outlandish length? Why do pictures affect us the way they do? Why do the older accounts seem inadequate? And--in the shortest and best formula--Why have pictures become so puzzling?

    One sign that something strange has happened is that it is difficult to link our texts to the past. Often enough the exotic fauna of postmodern historical thinking cannot be imagined as the organic outgrowth of the simple--even skeletal--rehearsals of fact that satisfied earlier writers. It is crucial in this respect to note that our prolix interpretations have done more than make earlier ones seem elliptic or uninteresting. Older accounts can appear not so much wrong as wrongheaded, and often enough contemporary historians do not trace their work to earlier efforts as much as they dissociate themselves from the past.

    A review of the literature on the Mona Lisa, for example, shows that most ideas spring from a few essays, and ideas succeeding generations have found interesting do not grow in proportion to the number of people who find something to say in print. Instead a relatively small number of ideas has been repeatedly cited and discussed. There is no good correlation between the number of people writing on the Mona Lisa--a number that has been growing sharply over the last hundred years--and the number of claims that have been registered about the painting or about previous scholarship. Some ideas, such as Freud's guess that the face echoes Leonardo's wet nurse's face, have been stated and restated without clear consensus. Others, such as a recent computer study that found similarities between the Mona Lisa and the late self-portrait drawing, have yet to find any response at all. Many subjects have fallen into oblivion: the notion that she smiles from only one side of her mouth, in compliance with Renaissance manners; the idea that the Mona Lisa is a sublimated version of Leonardo's contemporaneous anatomical studies; a pediatrician's diagnosis that the figure is pregnant since she has swollen glands; Carlo Pedretti's interest in the columnar chair, which is reminiscent of Bramante's Tempietto. Arguments about the sitter's identity are a common theme in the literature, but the guesses don't grow one from one another: rather they alternate in strident succession.

    Michael Baxandall has proposed that much of what we see in Renaissance paintings is nascent in Vasari, and I do not know how one might go about disputing that. (Even though Vasari's texts are abbreviated by our standards, and though his anecdotes can seem irrelevant, he continues to be cited and those citations are the thin threads that connect the masses of recent writing to the Vite, Ricordi, and other documents. What, then, prevents us from seeing the spaces between our citations as elaborations of ideas Vasari launched?) Still, it is equally plausible that much of what happens in Vasari is invisible or uninteresting to us. Steinberg does not develop just anything in the earlier literature of the Last Supper; he looks at specific texts and images that bear on ambiguity, or that claim univocal meaning. We underestimate the strangeness of our position when we use the fact that even specialists have a difficult time mastering their fields to explain our writing as the product of a growth of any kind. Many of Steinberg's interests are different from anything in the Renaissance sources. Art historians write at length on particular kinds of problems, and they don't care much for most of the things Vasari saw. What is it about Vasari's admiration for well-executed details like chairs and tables, or his enthusiasm for "divine" faces and "noble" figures, that seems so unpromising?

    All four explanations, in other words, assume that something old grew into something new. Often, though, what's new is entirely new, and any model that implies things have "naturally" grown into postmodern profusion begs the question. The explanations are also essentially historiographic: they make it look as if the answers I am looking for could be found in the history of the discipline, or the history of Western intellectual work in general. But the problem I am trying to raise belongs less in historiography than in self-interrogation and self-critique. The question is less: How have pictures been understood in the past?--and more: What is a picture, that it drives me to respond by writing art history?

    It seems to me the subject has a certain urgency: as historians and viewers, we tend not to reflect on why we understand pictures the way we do. We are isolated from the practices of past centuries more than we often suppose, and our writing bears witness to a kind of reaction that did not leave many traces in past cultures. Our writing is more challenging, more imbricated and dense, more exquisitely reflective, more intensive and profuse, than in any past period. We are alone in the history of writing on art, and we may not think often enough about that strange isolation. (Continues...)

Excerpted from "Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?: On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity" by James Elkins. Copyright © 1999 by James Elkins. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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