Unreal Nature

August 6, 2012

The Best

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:19 am

… in the study of older art forms, we can insulate our discipline against subjective judgments only because we safely enjoy a rich and unrepudiated inheritance of such judgments. “Objectivity” leaves it to others to say why the matter at hand is being studied at all. But who are these others?

This is from the collection Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg (2007; 1972). The following is from the essay ‘Objectivity and the Shrinking Self’ first published in 1967:

… Can objectivity be made too much of? When I was a student, a great art historian advised me never to tell my readers or listeners how I came to a problem, or by what steps I proceeded, but to come clean with my findings. His advice has remained so much alive with me that it has urged me ever since to pursue the opposite course.

… A refusal to suspend value judgments may be realistic in its own way. It reminds one that the world of artworks is not self-existent like the animal kingdom, but that the objects of our enquiry depend for their sheer existence on admiration. Art is cherished, or it does not survive. A succession of value judgments, embodied in acts of neglect or preservation, largely determines what we receive from the past. And it is esthetic judgment that largely structures the world of artistic forms at their inception: It was the best artists who got the big royal commissions; the best architects who came to St. Peter’s. Whenever this sureness of valuation breaks down, as in the nineteenth century — when the knighthood bypasses Turner to settle on Sir Edwin Landseer — then the failure to choose what we now regard as the greater value becomes itself the material of history.

To say it in other words, the record of past valuations is integrally part of art history, and that record is meaningless without present revaluations. We know it as an “objective fact” that in the Rome of 1510 the best artists enjoyed the greatest acclaim; that in the Paris of 1870 the best were passed  up; that at the time only the best critics knew it; and that the artistic consciousness of our own century rests largely on the universal acknowledgement of those former misjudgments. We review and judge all past opinions with more of our own, the process being simply the life and afterlife of all art. If Monet did not seem greater to us than Leon Gérome, then a history of nineteenth-century painting in France would not even be possible; only an incomplete index of paintings produced.

… In a lecture some years ago on Michelangelo’s Holy Family tondo, I suggested that the picture worked on several levels of meaning and that its father figure especially was conceived as a compound personification. The artist’s concetto, frequently criticized for its artificial complexity, seemed to support so many possible readings, so much had converged in his final form, that one came away overawed by its simplicity. After the talk, a friendly colleague, who was well disposed toward my attempt, suggested that “of course, when you come to publish this, you will narrow the possibilities down.”

Holy Family, deframed*

What interests me here is the assumption that multiple interpretations for a single image or feature are self-defeating. Two meanings are fairly safe, given the tradition of typological exegesis. But if meanings multiply, even though they should all seem equally plausible and equally compatible with a given appearance, then it is advisable to settle on one alone or on one analogical pair. For three or four meanings cannot be right at the same time, and to be right is after all the objective. This at least is how I understand my colleague’s advice, since he was not questioning any of the proposed interpretations, but was disturbed only by their proliferation. His model of “rightness” derived from classical mechanics, or logic, from conceptions of truth evolved in times other than our own.

But I am conscious of belonging to a generation brought up on Freud and James Joyce. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake were the pabulum of my teens, and I am always ready to welcome another artist who conceives his symbolic forms multi-storied. This means that I am perpetually in danger of projecting my contemporary artistic experience upon the past — which ever respectable art historian knows is reprehensible. But there is another way of putting the matter. If there ever were earlier artists who conceived multi-storied symbolic forms, then ours is the generation equipped to detect it, being trained, so to speak, in the reading of Joyce. And then it becomes our duty (and pleasure) to announce, at the risk even of being wrong, what we are the first to see. And furthermore, if Michelangelo’s Holy Family, for example, should indeed be such a multiple symbolic structure, then it is the simplistic reading imposed on it by earlier scholars which will turn out to have been the distorting projection, an imposition from the age of positivism. It is naïve to imagine that you avoid the risk of projecting merely by not interpreting. In desisting from interpretation, you do not cease to project. You merely project more unwittingly. For there is no escape from oneself and little safety in closing art history off against the contemporary imagination.

[all of the decent size/quality online reproductions of this painting carefully strip off its ornate frame. It is my understanding that this frame is an integral part of the picture and should not be removed!]

My most recent previous post from Steinberg’s book is here.



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