Durability

Peter Lamarque

  • The Critical Historians of Art by Michael Podro
    Yale, 257 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 300 02862 8
  • A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming
    Macmillan, 639 pp, £17.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 333 23583 5
  • The Test of Time: An Essay in Philosophical Aesthetics by Anthony Savile
    Oxford, 319 pp, £20.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 19 824590 4

The idea of development, either in the work of individual artists or in terms of ‘schools’, ‘movements’ or styles, is a dominant feature of our conception of European art. There is no theoretical problem more pressing in art history than that of explaining such development. How do we get from Cimabue’s Madonna Enthroned to Raphael’s Alba Madonna, or even from Brunelleschi to Bramante? And why do such changes occur?

Of course development need not imply progress. Progress must by its nature be relative to a specific end or goal, and although we might speak of an artist or group of artists progressing within a style or in the use of a technique, the idea, optimistically advanced by Pliny and Vasari, that the history of art is itself a linear progression towards some ultimate ideal can be afforded little credence. Development, though, is different; the implication is at most that of structured change. It is this concept that permeates our art-historical vocabulary – in general terms like ‘influence’, ‘tradition’ or ‘period’ as well as in terms of value: ‘original’, ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’.

Things might have been otherwise. Development in art is not inevitable, nor of necessity desirable; and its course is rarely predictable. Think of ancient Egyptian art, with its extreme conservatism and conventionalism, prompting Plato to remark, admittedly with some exaggeration, that it had remained unchanged for ten thousand years. Novelty and originality were simply not merits in the Egyptian aesthetic and it was just such austere conservatism that Plato himself so admired. Yet in spite of Plato, and in spite of recurrent bouts of neurotic nostalgia, European art, over a mere 2500 years, has been characterised by a relentless pursuit of change, of new forms and materials and meanings.

There is no shortage of explanations for the historical evolution of European art. For some it is obvious that the social and economic turmoil of these two and a half millennia – how different, they observe, from the relative stability of the Nile valley – was sufficient as a determinant of artistic restlessness. Pursuing this line, others will insist that the very forms and styles themselves are merely predictable reflections in the superstructure of a changing economic base. There are yet others who see the individual ‘genius’, with a creativity transcending historical determinism, as the ultimate thrust behind artistic innovation. And in turn suitable psychological theories are at hand to gobble up such explanations into an all-embracing and scientific Kunstwissenschaft.

But there is nagging resistance among art historians to any such reductive explanations of their subject-matter. Social history and psychology might illuminate, but they can never usurp, the explanatory task of art history. For must there not always be at least a residue from any reductive theory which calls for an explanation internal to the institution of art itself? Isn’t the relation between Giotto’s Raising of Lazarus and Ghiberti’s Raising of Lazarus a century later, or between the abbey church of St Denis and Amiens Cathedral, at least partially a relation reflecting an autonomous development within an artistic tradition, a development irreducible to non-aesthetic determinants?

Michael Podro, in his difficult, scholarly and condensed book The Critical Historians of Art, carefully charts a debate on just these issues among a group of German art historians in the century between 1827 and 1927. By no means all of his selected group are household names, even in the houses of art historians: Schnaase, Semper, Göller, Riegl, Wölfflin, Schmarsow, Frankl, Springer, Warburg and Panofsky. But the problems they address and the aims they espouse will strike a chord in anyone interested in the explanation of development in art. Podro invites us, not so much to endorse their conclusions, of which he is often sharply critical, but to assess the strengths and weaknesses of certain lines of thought. We soon recognise the complexity of the issues involved. What makes the book difficult is that detailed exposition of the theories tends to be sacrificed in favour of critical comment. Podro is too anxious to engage in the debates himself to linger behind with the reader who hasn’t done his homework. The condensed style, the assured scholarship and the uncompromising presupposition of background is reminiscent of the author’s The Manifold in Perception: Theories of Art from Kant to Hildebrand (1972), of which this book is a direct successor.

Podro identifies two central issues: the relation of art and freedom and the problem of how to retrieve the art of the past. The freedom of the artist is conceptually linked with such ideas as creativity and originality, and these we have seen underpin our concept of development. There is more than just freedom of expression involved. Inherited from Classical theories of art and ethics are two notions, freedom of composition and freedom of composure, which become subtly connected, so Podro explains, for the critical historians: that is, the artist exercises control over his material, in his composition he transforms the work of his predecessors, but the artist, too, attains a composure, an autonomy of mind, a detachment from the world. The two ideas, an artist’s control and his detachment, lead to a corresponding idea of the detachment of art itself, and hence to the intriguing conception found in Schnaase, and later in Riegl and Wölfflin, of an autonomous development in art, a self-transformation: the freedom of the artist comes to imply the freedom of art.

The clearest example of this autonomy is Riegl’s discussion of the development of ornamental motifs. For example, he argues that the acanthus motif emerged, not in imitation of the acanthus leaf itself, but as a formal elaboration on earlier motifs. There is an inner necessity to the change explicable only, in Podro’s words, through ‘our innate urgency for gap-filling, repetition and symmetry’. It is this urgency, realised in artistic intention, which Riegl calls Kunstwollen. We find a similar theory in Wölfflin, perhaps better-known in this country through his Classic Art and Principles of Art History. Wölfflin wrote at length on the development of styles and techniques, giving us such technical concepts as ‘linear’ and ‘painterly’, ‘planimetric’ and ‘recessional’, and ‘closed’ and ‘open’ form. His explanations were detailed and elaborate, even advancing a cyclic view of stylistic development. The echo of Riegl is in the isolation of a ‘root of style’ independent of cultural determination, arising exclusively from a visual tradition in painting.

Podro offers some powerful criticisms of Wölffin’s theory of an autonomous visual tradition and the idea of self-transformation of style. He rejects the notion of any clear distinction between what an artist derives from earlier artists and what he derives from other sources. And he questions, as did Panofsky, how we might establish the critical relevance, towards an understanding of works of art, of Wölfflin’s empirical generalisations about style. There are many different relations that works can stand in to earlier works and any number of different features, however superficial, that they have in common. In a word, the ‘visual tradition’, on its own, can simply be cut in too many ways. Perhaps these criticisms point up an underlying problem in the very enterprise of many of Podro’s critical historians. Whether it is Schnaase’s teleology of ‘conflict and resolution’, or Semper’s search for an Urform or Urmotif behind designs, or the conceptions in Riegl and Wölfflin of the self-transformation of style, the quest for a general scheme of history always seems too ambitious, too much of an imposition on the data.

Podro’s later generation, Springer, Warburg and Panofsky, came to see this. With them, the particularity of a work of art is re-emphasised, as well as its rootedness in a social, religious and psychological context. But if these writers abandoned any systematic explanation of artistic development, they were still confronted with the second of the problems Podro raises, that of the retrieval of art from the past. For the earlier generation, Göller, Riegl and Wölfflin, this problem was solved, in conjunction with the problem of autonomy, through the psychological theory of Herbart which postulated an innate feature of the mind, the pursuit of order, to be found in all artistic endeavour. Psychologism offered a ground for the accessibility of art as well as its development. But that solution is no substitute for the hard slog of detailed interpretative analysis which came to be epitomised in Warburg’s meticulous studies of late 15th-century art, with their careful tracking of sources and imagery. Perhaps Panofsky, in his a priori reflections on interpretation, is more like the earlier systematic historians than Warburg, at least in his postulation of an absolute viewpoint from which to regard the art of the past. Unfortunately, Podro offers only a densely summarised account of this writer’s considerable output.

Two contemporary English art historians, Hugh Honour and John Fleming, have produced a monumental work of retrieval, systematic certainly, but without the ambition for philosophical synthesis of their German predecessors. They bring to A World History of Art a depth of knowledge and erudition that affords an effortless survey of artistic development across the millennia, with just the right blend of critical and explanatory intervention to stop the whole becoming a mere catalogue of masterpieces. A balance is kept between historical background and artistic tradition, and no questions are begged in the debate about autonomy.

The work’s closest rival is probably the late H.W. Janson’s History of Art, which has served a generation of American students so faithfully. It differs from Janson in the inclusion of more material on non-European art, with substantial sections on Chinese and Japanese work as well as bits on Africa and Central America; Janson slips all this into a postscript. By keeping to a strict chronological order, the juxtaposition nicely reveals how different even basic presuppositions about art can be: but at the price of interrupting the inexorable flow of European art and of exposing by comparison what looks like a more halting flow in non-European contemporaries. Although Janson is available here, the nearest British rival must be E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which is well established on the art-historical curriculum. Honour and Fleming offer a broader field than Gombrich but engage less in theoretical reflection. There is more history, for example, than aesthetics in their explanatory model.

What must count heavily for Honour and Fleming is the sheer exuberance, vitality and enthusiasm of their prose. Among Europeans, Signorelli, Samuel Palmer, Henry Moore and Dosso Dossi, in spite of his current £2 million price tag, don’t appear, but their absence is compensated for by the appearance of Bartholomäus Spranger and François Boucher.

Behind any such encyclopedic enterprise as that of Honour and Fleming lie complex assumptions about artistic value. High aesthetic worth is not the only criterion for inclusion in a history of art. Considerations of influence, exemplification and familiarity also play their part. Theorists of art, and even aestheticians, will often shy away from confronting questions of aesthetic evaluation. Not so Anthony Savile, who in The Test of Time offers a full-scale investigation of the matter, unashamedly, and unfashionably, bringing to the fore such notions as depth and beauty and artistic stature. The aim of this thoughtful book is to analyse and to vindicate a test of aesthetic merit which up to now has seemed little more than a tossaway cliché: ‘time will tell.’ The catch phrase ‘the test of time’ is often associated with desperation in artist and critic alike: the neglected artist will dream of the accolade of future generations while muttering about the blindness of his contemporaries, or the critic, unable to make his judgments stick, will appeal to posterity to vindicate his acuity and perceptiveness. Temporal notions do seem to inform our evaluations: avant-garde, before his time, passé, ephemeral, dated, period piece, timeless. But we are oddly inconsistent, for while we praise a period piece we deplore what is dated, and while we seek out the avant-garde what we most admire is the timelessness of great art. Savile comes to the rescue with a no-nonsense philosophical rigour. This, to my knowledge, is the first full-length treatment of time in aesthetics, and the unusual topic highlights old controversies in an intriguing and exhilarating manner. It prompts searching questions for the art historian about the reasons for durability in the works he studies.

The argument of the book falls roughly into two parts: first, the clarification and definition of the test of time, and, second, an examination of what evaluative inferences can be drawn from it. Surprisingly perhaps, Savile defines the test of time – strictly, the conditions under which a work can be said to have survived the test of time – quite independently of any evaluative implications or connotations. So, on Savile’s account, to say that a work has survived the test of time does not entail or mean that it is of any aesthetic value, but merely gives one a reason for believing that. In denying any conceptual link between survival and value, Savile reveals his aims as more modest than some might have hoped, and more modest too, I suspect, than the expectations behind our pre-theoretical appeals to the test.

In spite of being value-neutral in themselves, Savile’s conditions for survival are demanding, designed to weed out those artifacts whose durability, for example, resides only in being safely tucked away on a museum shelf. A ‘work of art securely survives the test of time if over a sufficiently long period it survives in our attention under an appropriate interpretation in a sufficiently embedded way’. Two important ideas get further elaboration: surviving ‘in our attention ... in a sufficiently embedded way’ and surviving ‘under an appropriate interpretation’.

The former idea, that of ‘embeddedness’ in the culture, has to bear a great deal of weight in order to let the subsequent evaluative inferences through. One obvious problem is the tenacity of works whose survival rests not on aesthetic merit but on quite the opposite: for example, on gross sentimentality, obscenity or vulgarity. Savile devotes an entertaining chapter to such apparent counter-examples, arguing in effect that sentimental, obscene and vulgar works only seldom have the right degree of embeddedness to warrant their claim to secure survival. The argument here is not just that such works hold the attention of the wrong people (though there is an element of that – ‘to be embedded a particular work of art must exercise those who, on aesthetic matters, we see as having the sharpest eye and most steadfast gaze’), but that because of a Principle of Transparent Understanding more or less anyone is bound in the end to come to see the works for what they are and this will weaken their chances of genuine staying power. Although the analyses of the three notions of sentimentality, obscenity and vulgarity are intrinsically valuable, a certain amount of squeezing and pushing is going on here to save the overall argument. Savile comes perilously close to giving an evaluative sense to ‘embeddedness’ – thereby, contrary to his project, simply legislating against the survival, or ‘genuine’ survival, of anything but the meritorious.

Then there is the idea of surviving ‘under an appropriate interpretation’. For Savile, a work can only be said to survive the test of time if the attention it commands is directed to a ‘canonical interpretation’ of the work. Here he is at his most controversial, defending, again unfashionably, a strict thesis of historicism in opposition to any view which allows autonomy of interpretation. Historicism anchors a work, meaning and all, to its historical genesis. One idea of what it might be for a work to survive the test of time would imply that the work brings something fresh to each generation, that it is open to new readings and new applications through successive ages. But this is not how Savile sees it. Rather, to survive is to survive under a canonical, and unchanging, interpretation which, he argues, must be ‘the best available contemporary reading’ of the work. There contributes to this view – in addition to the weaknesses Savile finds in autonomy theories – an argument that the very identity of a work of art is bound up with a particular reading of it; and of course any judgment of survival presupposes a judgment of identity. Whatever its merits independently of historicism, Savile’s condition here for the test of time seems too severe. For one thing, does it not rule out the Bible, so restlessly reinterpreted, as a survivor of the test? And isn’t that a paradoxical consequence? Perhaps the Bible is always an exception. Nevertheless, the condition must impose a drastic limit to the works that survive. How many of us, Warburgs and Panofskys apart, attend to even the best-known works through ‘the best available contemporary reading’?

The bridge between the test of time and the evaluative inferences it supports lies in a discussion of the pressures that time imposes on works with respect to our continued attention. Such pressures include displacement, where new forms replace old, and disturbance, where the canonical understanding becomes eroded. Which qualities of art, then, are most likely to withstand such pressures? Savile makes out an eloquent case for profundity and beauty. Our lasting attachment to works of depth and beauty, he argues, springs from timeless and universal cognitive desires: for understanding and for coherence. It is a pity that the discussion of beauty, compensating no doubt for the sloppiness of earlier treatments, is presented through a series of daunting symbolic analyses. Savile is concerned with judgments of stature and greatness, rather than with mere relative goodness. Great art takes us ‘to the limits of what we believe possible’. His thesis is that we can appeal to stature of this kind as providing the best explanation of why a work genuinely resists time’s unremitting pressures.