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Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism

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Art history and art criticism belong in a wider sense to the humanities, whose aim is the interpretation and comprehension of human actions and intellectual work. Both fields draw their basic methodological tools from the hermeneutical tradition. Their central analytic category is comprehension (verstehen) that seeks to ascribe meaning to the spirit of these actions, or to works of art. The intention of the art historian is to analyse and integrate artistic works in a wider intellectual and social frame, while the aim of the art critic is to examine the values connected with artistic creations. Their roles are not always distinguishable, as analysis, comprehension, interpretation and evaluation often co-exist in the studies of both fields. However, the approach of the art historian should have a scientific character, aiming at objectively valid formulations, while the critic should give equal consideration to subjective factors, acknowledging international artistic values, often taking on the additional role of philosopher or theorist of art. In my paper I examine the varying degrees of subjectivity in the approaches of art historians and art critics. I give emphasis to the methods and language both use, while I approach the categories of artistic values (aesthetic, moral, cognitive) according to their subjective usage, but also to their role in the comprehension and evaluation of art. My conviction is that art history and art criticism are complementary activities, as the former creates fertile conditions for the latter’s complete and essential evaluations.
Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism
Eleni Gemtou
University of Athens, Greece
Abstract
Art history and art criticism belong in a wider sense to the humanities, whose aim is the
interpretation and comprehension of human actions and intellectual work. Both fields
draw their basic methodological tools from the hermeneutical tradition. Their central
analytic category is comprehension (verstehen) that seeks to ascribe meaning to the
spirit of these actions, or to works of art. The intention of the art historian is to analyse
and integrate artistic works in a wider intellectual and social frame, while the aim of the
art critic is to examine the values connected with artistic creations. Their roles are not
always distinguishable, as analysis, comprehension, interpretation and evaluation often
co-exist in the studies of both fields. However, the approach of the art historian should
have a scientific character, aiming at objectively valid formulations, while the critic should
give equal consideration to subjective factors, acknowledging international artistic values,
often taking on the additional role of philosopher or theorist of art. In my paper I examine
the varying degrees of subjectivity in the approaches of art historians and art critics. I
give emphasis to the methods and language both use, while I approach the categories of
artistic values (aesthetic, moral, cognitive) according to their subjective usage, but also to
their role in the comprehension and evaluation of art. My conviction is that art history and
art criticism are complementary activities, as the former creates fertile conditions for the
latter’s complete and essential evaluations.
[Keywords: Subjectivity, Art, History, Criticism]
Art history and art criticism belong in a wider sense to the humanities, the
third largest scientific field, which has distinguishable purposes and
methodologies from the other two, the analytic-empirical and the normative
sciences
1
. The humanities aim at the interpretation and the comprehension of
human actions and intellectual works by drawing their basic methodological tools
from the hermeneutical tradition. Their central analytic category is
comprehension (verstehen) that seeks to ascribe meaning by a kind of subjective
transfer to the spirit of these actions, or to works of art
2
. Contrary to the
nomological approach of the analytical sciences and the regulative-deontological
approach of the normative sciences, the humanities have an explicit value-
orientation in their study of historical eras and cultural meanings.
Art history and art criticism are intellectual activities aiming at the study,
comprehension and interpretation of artworks. Their basic difference concerns
not only the recentness of their objects, but also their objectives: the art historian
studies the works of the past and, by using hermeneutical methods, constructs
systems on a historical and theoretical base, while the art critic is interested in
contemporary art, which he analyzes and interprets with the aim of evaluating it
critically. In this sense the work of the art critic functions as an important tool and
a basic substructure for future historians.
The common point of historical and critical texts, which is the
comprehension and interpretation of artworks, depends to a large extent on their
author’s intuition, perception and experience. Following, however
conscientiously, their chosen methods and criteria, art historians (but also a large
number of critics) attempt valid and intersubjective interpretations that will be
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Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism
judged by the wider hermeneutical community in the course of time. For the
construction of systems and theories they usually follow a scientific methodology,
and for articulating their conclusions they use a strict, unsentimental language.
On the other hand, many art critics evaluate artworks, holding as a criterion and
expressing their own aesthetic experience.
This paper offers a meta-critical approach to critical and historical texts
according to their degrees of subjectivity. Historical and critical texts are
examined through three approaches, divided into the following sections:
I. Subjectivity as a direct intention of art historians and art critics.
II. The subjective factor in the analysis and interpretation of works of art.
III. Degrees of subjectivity in evaluative judgments.
I. Subjectivity as a direct intention of art historians and art critics.
The scientist, either belonging to the analytic-empirical faculty, or to the
humanities, always begins his work from a personal motive in order to choose a
field or an object to investigate. Inspiration, selection and composing of
speculations are based largely on his creative imagination, hence they have
subjective character. However, the analytical scientist is obliged in what follows
to free himself of personal motives and ideologies in order to submit his
theoretical constructions to strict empirical and logical controls with the aim of
establishing objectivity. The purpose of the analytical sciences is the investigation
and the explanation of the world can be achieved only if subjective factors have
been minimized, as they may distort truth. Subjectivity, however, plays a decisive
role in the humanities, which approach intellectual works and human action in an
interpretive rather than explanatory manner.
Some art critics consciously incorporate their intentions into their texts,
thus a meta-critical study must take them into serious consideration. In order to
investigate the degrees of subjectivity, I distinguish three categories of texts
3
:
catalog essays for gallery and museum; reviews published in art and other
journalistic magazines; and monographs on contemporary art, which have the
character of philosophical essays.
In catalog essays, the critic, working on behalf of the gallery, museum or
the artist, always articulates a positive evaluation. In his effort to accent the work
and its creator he/she analyzes and interprets it, attempting to include it within a
wider artistic era or tradition. In this framework, references and comparisons to
the past or to modern recognized artists often function as tools for advancing the
artist and his work.
The method of historicized criticism falls within the more general attempt
to find a stable reference-framework in order to create rational evaluations.
4
Until
the middle of 19th cen., critics evaluated contemporary art in relation to works of
certain past artists or styles: renaissance art of the Quattrocento was judged with
reference to antiquity, while at the end of this period Raphael and Michelangelo
functioned as reference points. In 18
th
century France, after the intense conflicts
between the partisans of Rubens and Poussin, a return once again to the models
of ancient Greece and Rome has been observed. Within the conflict between
"ancients and moderns," paragons were sought in the ancient arts or in the
modern era. With the appearance of the avant-garde at the end of the 19th cen.
and the promotion of the criterion of artistic newness as a standard of judgment,
criticism based upon a historicized approach lost its basis. Soon, however, the
4
Rupkatha Journal Vol 2 No 1
system of artistic "modernism" was constructed, which posited a momentum
generated by a sequence of works and which confronted 20
th
century art. as a
unit with a straight development along a definable trajectory. The value of avant-
garde works was judged in relation, on the one hand, to recent modern works,
and on the other, according to their contribution to the development of pioneering
art
5
Thus, comparisons of contemporary artworks to past standards, recent or
distant, have their roots in the historicized criticism that bloomed between the
15th and the 19th cen. and today remains in use. Its aim is the promotion of
contemporary works, by showing that they are equally important as past
standards, but also that they play an important role as parts of the evolutionary
chain of art. On the other hand, such comparisons give critical essays prestige
and intersubjective validity: the critic doesn’t express his subjective opinion, but
by identifying a contemporary artwork with a timeless masterpiece, it’s as if the
critic is speaking on behalf of the wider art world.
The language in some catalog essays is poetic; it acquires literary value.
Most catalog essays serve a double aim to promote the artist and to appear in
themselves as autonomous “artworks” that give aesthetic satisfaction to the
reader
6
. In both cases the aim is to positively predispose the reader or the visitor
to an exhibition with all that this entails. Their meta-critical study, however, should
be based as much on the criterion of formal truth as on aesthetic criteria,
because their validity and their intersubjective acceptance depend on both
parameters.
Language is often used differently in reviews published in newspapers
and magazines, as these serve a different aim: the critic doesn’t work on behalf
of the artist, but for an institution that presents and analyzes tendencies in
modern and contemporary art. His intention is to record thorough and illuminating
approaches to artworks, which contribute to their comprehension and evaluation
by the audience.
Lately, there has been a tendency of avoiding evaluative judgments in
journalistic reviews: emphasis is given instead to describing and interpreting the
works in objective terms. It’s a revival of the positivist critical tradition that has its
roots in 19
th
century Germany, where the sovereignty of the natural sciences and
their methods prompted the extension of methodological monism to the
humanities. However, explanatory approaches to artistic and intellectual works
can only have a limited scope, as they aren’t capable of determining them
completely. A positivist review doesn’t refer to the values that make a work
interesting and capable of creating aesthetic experience; rather it describes it in
the same way that a scientist would describe a natural phenomenon. But even in
this case, language plays a decisive role: intelligently-selected words with a
descriptive-ontological character simultaneously function as evaluative
judgments
7
.
Monographs on modern and contemporary art often have the character of
philosophical aesthetics essays. Changes in the 20th cen. rendered the
existence of a theoretical and philosophical substructure necessary in order to
redefine the art and justify avant-garde works
8
Characteristic examples are The
Transfiguration of the Commonplace by A. Danto, or The Originality of the
Avant - Garde and other modernist myths by Rosalind Krauss . Originating in
post-modern works the above texts treat questions that concern the definition of
art and the possibilities of elevation to the artistic level of trivial or other aesthetic
5
Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism
objects, (as for example the copies of authentic works by Sherrie Levine). The
language used is direct, often narrative, with many examples from the artistic era
and references to established philosophical theories, which justify personal
positions. A philosophical essay begins with questions and speculations of a
subjective character and aspires to answer them with logical and inductive
arguments. The wider and longer-lasting the acceptance of the philosophical
theory by philosophers, critics and readers, the more powerful its intersubjective
character.
In art-historical monographs the writer also begins from personal motives:
he selects his research field according to his subjective mood and preference for
certain artists, movements or periods or because he judges that there is a gap in
research that should be filled with new and original interpretations. In opposition,
however, to certain art critics, the historian does not embed in his texts his
feelings, but attempts to keep an essential distance from the research object,
using a strict, systematic language without sentimental effusions and subjective
judgments.
Two kinds of art-historical writings exist: narrative and theory. In narrative
the art historian aims to make a story out of the interpreted works of art by
arranging them in a certain order, deciding which work to include or to exclude
and stressing some works over others. When constructing a theory, on the other
hand, the art historian has an explanatory orientation and aims to include the
works in a theoretical framework. Theories in art history seek for underlying
principles that would both explain a work’s specific historicity and provide
sufficient continuity with the past, which would allow the art historian to explain
historical transformations.
II. The subjective factor in the analysis and interpretation of works of art
I have distinguished two categories of texts according to the writer’s
intentions: texts that are characterized by the undiluted subjective positions of
their writers (generally catalog essays), and those that use a scientific
methodology and language for a more objective approach. Now, I will attempt a
closer examination of the second group in order to show that, despite the
intentions of the writers, the subjective factor plays a decisive role in these texts.
Considering that interpretation is the common methodological tool in art history
and art criticism, I will examine the iconographical and iconological theories of
Erwin Panofsky, which are two of the most accepted and intersubjective
hermeneutical methods, and still used by art historians as by art critics until
today.
Before proceeding, however, I would like to clarify the criteria and the
terminology that I will use to approach the above methods. I evaluate the content
of a method on the criterion of formal” truth, in order to show that it is valid. I
have borrowed the term “formal” truth from the formal sciences of mathematics
and logic, where truth does not refer to a correspondence to the objective world,
but is the result of the logical structure of propositions. I make two approaches to
the writings based on the criterion of subjectivity: first, an aesthetic approach that
explores the way a theory is articulated (the style of the argumentation and
language). According to this approach, a theory can be either subjective or
objective. Second, an empirical approach, which explores the scope of the
acceptance of a theory. According to this approach a theory can be either
subjective (meaning that it was not accepted by anyone beyond its conceiver), or
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Rupkatha Journal Vol 2 No 1
intersubjective (meaning that a large number of people accepted it and was
probably influenced by it in the passage of time).
Panofsky aimed at the construction of general principles, by which all
artworks could be analyzed and interpreted, independent of their time and local
conditions. He considered the artwork not only as a direct result of the culture
that gave rise to it, but also as the result of concrete tendencies of the human
mind. Based on this double-faceted interpretation of artworks, Panofsky
attempted to solve the hermeneutical problem
9
by claiming that completed
interpretations are those that approach the work not only as a part of its historical
and cultural era, but also as a human construction.
At the same time he approached the artistic work as a combination of
form and content, rejecting the absolute formalistic hermeneutical system of
Heinrich Woelfflin
10
. Woelfflin claimed that our sensory organs spontaneously
give order to the chaotic world of phenomena, independent of the expressive and
intellectual faculties of the brain. Panofsky believed that the classification of the
sense data is an activity of the higher faculties of mind that are shaped
according to the expressions and the content of the outside world. He did not
accept the differentiation between form and content, as contrary to Woelfflin
he claimed that changes in style imply changes in the content of the work as well.
Thus, valid formal principles could not result only through empirical
observations
11
.
Within this framework he formulated a theory based on the internal formal
qualities of the artistic work, which are the result of the relation of form and
content
12
. His system consisted of opposite pairs, plenitude / form, time / space,
haptic / optic values, depth/surface and merging / divided forms
13
, which have
not only a universal character and reflect the relation of the mind and the work of
art
14
, but they should also function as the means of controlling the relation of its
form and content. Panofsky believed that by constructing an objective framework
for the analysis of the artistic works subjective –psychological interpretations
could be avoided, as they lead to privatized and emotionalized conceptions of art.
Panofsky was influenced as much by Warburg as by the hermeneutical
tradition of the 19th century, which emphasized the distance of the interpreter
from the interpreted object and underlined the huge difficulties that exists in
interpreting artworks in the framework of their historical era. Panofsky disagreed
with Heidegger
15
, who had stressed the subjective parameters of interpretation,
by constructing control and balance systems restricting subjectivity.
With his article Zum Problem der Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung
von Werken der bildenden Kunst
16
Panofsky introduced the hermeneutical
method in art history, based to some degree on Dilthey’s theories. Both believed
that valid interpretations are those whose every part is dependent on the
interpretation of the whole
17
. Dilthey, though, had recognized a close connection
between the work and its creator, interpreting it with the artist’s intentions as the
basic criterion. Panofsky, on the other hand, didn’t aim at the localization of the
artist’s subjective intentions, as he considered it to be impossible, even though
these might exist in the form of a written document by the artist. He conceived art
history as a history of changing relations between mind and world. Art was for
him a type of knowledge, in the framework of which the subject becomes
objective, independent and public.
Panofsky’s iconological method is a hermeneutical approach to art that is
immediately connected to a “general history of the human spirit”. It constitutes the
7
Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism
third stage of his hermeneutical model
18
that was completed in 1955. Its first
stage is the pre-iconographical description (that constitutes the application of
Woelfflin’s formalistic theory) and its second stage is the iconographical analysis
(influenced by Warburg
19
). Panofsky converged with Warburg in his conviction
that for the right comprehension of an artwork essential conditions exist: the
connection of the work to its culture as realized through the interpretation of its
content in analogy with the content of literary works and the connection of its
content to corresponding past iconographic types in the framework of a history of
types. The third stage, the iconological interpretation
20
, aims at a deeper
comprehension of the work beyond the conscious: Panofsky wanted to reveal
the ways that works harmonize subjective impetuses and objective
comprehension of the world. In order to ensure, however, the objectivity of
interpretation, that is realized through a type of synthetic intuition and is
determined to a large extent by the interpreter’s psychology and his
Weltanschaungen ”, he proposes corrective principles such as general
knowledge of cultural history and also a familiarity with what he regarded to
be the human mind’s essential tendencies throughout history.
In spite of these corrective principles, the history of the particular method
reveals that the interpreters have often approached works according to their
personal worldviews. Thus, for example, while Panofsky interprets Durer’s
“Melancholia I” in humanist terms, the German art historian Konrad Hoffmann
(1978) includes the same work in medieval art and considers Durer as a pious
aristocrat of this era and worldview
21
.
The existence of multiple interpretations doesn’t refute the validity of
Panofsky’s theory, but reveals that despite his systematic efforts, the subjective
factor remains decisive, as the interpreter cannot approach the work
independently from his conception of the world and art. It’s generally recognized,
however, that his interpretations have shaped a tradition, have been established
and have influenced many later art historians: this means that they have gained
an intersubjective character
22
.
Panofsky’s worldview though has determined his choices and his
hermeneutical approaches. His basic research object was Italian renaissance art
and the larger part of his theory was based on its fundamental principles. The
notion of balance, used in relation to his five opposite pairs as a criterion for the
evaluation and the nomination of "great" works of art, certainly emanates from the
humanist critical tradition. All his choices are understood as consequences of his
humanist bent: he indirectly absorbs Bellori’s theory about the hierarchy in the
categories of painting, with the allegorical and historical images dominating over
landscapes, everyday scenes, portraits and still-lives, as all his analyses and
interpretations concern the two first categories
23
. Another example is given by his
interpretations of Duerer’s work, especially those that investigate the relation of
the artist to Italian renaissance art
24
. Panofsky considers Durer’s work as a
collision between the empirical northern tradition and the theoretical idealistic
approach of the Italian School, which he definitely promotes as being supreme.
As Sveltlana Alpers
25
observes: “if we turn to Panofsky's masterful study of
Durer, it’s characteristic that he sees Durer as a kind of captive of the alien
northern darkness struggling toward the southern light”.
Panofskys’ interpretations of Durer’s work are connected with his
humanist bent and have a subjective origin
26
. Their clarity, however, their internal
cohesion, their logical sequence and their thorough sourcing render them valid,
8
Rupkatha Journal Vol 2 No 1
while the language used lends them an objective character, at least at a first
reading. A critical reading, though demonstrates the intrusion of evaluative
judgments that have a subjective base. Consider, for example, a simile he uses
in his book “Early Netherlandish Painting
27
that relates the spectator’s
aesthetic experience when seeing Van Eyck’s work: “From the sheer
sensuous beauty of a genuine Jan van Eyck there emanates a strange
fascination not unlike that which we experience when permitting ourselves
to be hypnotized by precious stones or when looking into deep water”. It’s
definitely a subjective judgment in the form of a simile that splits the objective and
distanced language, and at the same time lends it aesthetic value.
III. Degrees of subjectivity in evaluative judgments
Evaluative judgments are those that refer to the values of the artworks
and are included as much in the texts of art criticism, as in the narrations and the
theories of art history. They cover the larger part of the description, the analysis
and the interpretation of the works, as in art there exists an identification between
facts and values. The pure" facts of the artistic works are their dimensions, their
materials, their date and the artist’s signature, while form and content function as
carriers of values: the world of an artistic work is an imaginary world of values,
thoughts, wishes and sentiments (even though the content of the work is
naturalistic, presenting a direct equivalence to reality). Objects or facts that in an
empirical approach are evaluative neutral acquire in art symbolic character and
evaluative significance.
Evaluative judgments play a sovereign role in the humanities, contrary to
their position in the analytic-empirical sciences. There exists a clear
differentiation between ontological–descriptive propositions and evaluative
judgments, with the first having explicit informative character and the second
expressing the attitude and subjective feelings of the one using them. An
evaluative judgment cannot result from a fact, or as Hume remarks (1739-40):
"an ought cannot be derived from an is ". Hence evaluative judgments do not
constitute part of the scientific work in the analytical sciences that are directed to
the explanation of reality. In the case of art, however, where facts and values are
identified, evaluative judgments constitute a basic methodological tool of art
history and art criticism.
At the beginning of my paper I claimed that the art historian interprets
artworks in order to include them in a historical and theoretical system, while the
art critic follows similar methods to evaluate artworks. This distinction does not
concern the use of evaluative judgments that is common in both activities, but the
intentions of the scholars who include themselves in one or the other occupation.
Nevertheless, two kinds of evaluations exist: first, evaluations which are
the result of logical and critical procedures. These are based on complete
interpretations and are justified by the interpreter’s reasoned explanations; and
refer to the significance of artworks not only in their historical era but also in the
development of art in general. Thus, these neither emanate from the subjective
preferences of the evaluator, nor are they connected with the criteria and
dominating values of the evaluator’s era. Such evaluative judgments are
characteristic of art-historical writing and play an important role in art criticism.
The second kind of evaluations derives from pure aesthetic approaches and it
has a subjective character. Interpretation is not presupposed and the evaluator is
not committed to giving logical reasons for his judgments. Such evaluative
9
Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism
judgments dominate in catalog essays and some reviews, especially those
belonging to the postmodern era, which functions as carriers of the energies
created within and the impact of artworks upon the reviewer
28
.
The language used in historical and critical texts is often constituted of
words that are metaphorical and comparative, characterizing the works not only
in their own terms, but also in the terms of their creator’s feelings and action, or
of their recipient’s and interpreter’s reaction to them
29
. The last group of words is
usually avoided by historians and critics who aim at a more distanced and
objective approach to the works, but dominate in catalog essays and journalistic
reviews.
The conviction that aesthetic values are facts connected with the form of
the artistic works is explicitly formulated in the formalistic theories of Roger Fry
and Clive Bell, in the framework of which formalism was changed from an
hermeneutical method aiming at the comprehension of the work to a criterion of
evaluation. Both scholars considered as appreciable only the works dominated
by “pure form”, as no margin could exist for “associated ideas”
30
. These theories
are grounded in philosophical naturalism, in the framework of which aesthetic
values are the intrinsic qualities of aesthetic objects and become perceptible
through the senses.
Contrary to naturalism, idealism conceives aesthetic values as
supernatural entities independent from the senses. They exist in the artistic work
only as the reflections of the ideal values and the sensitive recipients conceive
them intuitively. Influenced by Plato’s philosophy, idealists cultivated a
transcendental theory of beauty that has led to the creation of an idealized art
from the Renaissance to the 19th cen. A third philosophical approach to the
ontology of aesthetic values is subjectivism that does not accept their existence
as elements of the natural world, but only as our intellectual or sentimental
constructions.
The above philosophical theories that investigate the degrees of
subjectivity in the way that we conceive values, are idealism defining them as
ideal elements of the world completely independent from us; naturalism, as
natural elements conceived through the senses, and subjectivism, as our
intellectual constructions. All of these can lead to an extreme relativism that of
course complicates a rational evaluation of art. The fact however, that during
history there have existed constant and unchangeable aesthetic values lends
them intersubjective force: even if we accept that values are human
constructions, we cannot ignore the fact that there exists a common sense of
beauty, a “sensus communis” in all humans that has lead to the admiration of
concrete aesthetic facts and objects through the ages
31
. Sunsets, for example,
will always be a subject of admiration to most humans, as also the great works of
art of the past that, even in the modern era, where the traditional standards of
beauty have been disputed, are recognized as brilliant by the larger part of the
artworld. Our eyes will always be drawn by concrete combinations of colours or
by the principles of symmetry and balance, even if different historical periods and
art-institutions impose different models
32
. In this sense the degree of the
subjectivity of aesthetic judgments is limited not only by the intersubjective
character of concrete values that lends them universal force, but also by rules
accepted as absolute in each era, either through important theoretical texts (eg.
Aristotle’s "Poetic"), or through the artistic tendencies that dominate and
determine the notion of taste
33
.
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Rupkatha Journal Vol 2 No 1
Moral values that exist in the content of visual works also have an
intersubjective base. According to Hume's account of moral action in his
“Treatise on Human Nature”, all humans are naturally moved by a ` moral sense'
or ` sympathy', which is essentially a capacity to share the feelings of happiness
or misery of others. However, works of art should not be evaluated on moral
criteria, but only on aesthetic ones. Moral judgments are included in the analysis
and interpretation of artworks, but they shouldn’t be considered as means of
evaluation. Moral values in art should be approached in aesthetic terms: when
we evaluate a work we shouldn’t be interested in its content, but in the way
content is expressed. Thus, when Dave Hickey
34
evaluates the homosexual
photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe he characterizes them as examples of
"formal beauty" and doesn’t touch upon moral parameters. He uses evaluative
judgments that result from concrete aesthetic qualities of these photographs, as
chiaroscuro and balance, which have an intersubjective and universal character,
creating aesthetic satisfaction independent from the content.
The evaluations of artworks should also not be based on their cognitive
values, since art doesn’t aim at objective truth, but functions more as a motive for
awakening and renewing ways of perceiving reality. An artwork can include
cognitive and scientific elements, which however are presented in an aesthetic
manner offering aesthetic satisfaction rather than enlargement of knowledge.
Conclusions
According to the above approaches to art criticism and art history on the
criterion of subjectivity, both intellectual activities converge (with the exception of
the catalog essays and some journalistic reviews). The analysis, the
interpretation and the evaluation of artworks, as the common element of the
texts, have to a large extent a subjective character, which however does not
negate their validity or downgrade them to products of simple inspirational
activities.
Art historians and art critics who seriously serve their occupation,
investigate methods and corrective principles in order to ensure the validity of
their texts, but also to limit the subjective aspects produced from unverifiable and
idiosyncratic expressions. They systematically control the logical cohesion of their
theories, while they interpret the works based on the sum of information they
have about them and their era, investigate and reveal their interrelations and their
integration in a historical, theoretical and cultural system. They evaluate them,
finally, either directly or indirectly through the choice of words that reveal their
hidden personal estimations.
The aesthetic-linguistic evaluations of the texts show their
subjective/objective character, while empirical studies that concern their
longstanding acceptance by the scientific community reveal their intersubjectivity.
The underpinning theory, that the only valid interpretation is the one that
emanates from the creator himself, cannot be valid. Even if it’s confirmed by a
personal oral or written testimony of the artist its acceptance as the only genuine
and objective interpretation, would downgrade the uniqueness of the artistic
phenomenon: the artwork is differentiated from natural objects or phenomena
because, beyond its objective dimension, it has an indefinable intellectual depth
with multiple levels of reading and interpretation. The relation between the work
and the viewer is multidimensional and permanently altered, offering infinite
possibilities of aesthetic satisfaction and enlargement of our thought.
11
Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism
End Notes
1
The sciences are divided into three categories, according to their methodologies and
purposes: The analytical sciences aim at the objective truth and the explanation of the
world. They apply a nomological approach in order to include their results in a framework
of laws and regularities. To the analytical sciences belong the natural and social sciences
(empirical sciences), and also mathematics and logic (formal sciences). The normative
sciences research ways of regulating the world. They apply a regulative-deontological
approach and their methodology is based on principles that imply criteria of right or
wrong. The most significant normative sciences are Law and Ethics. The Humanities aim
at the interpretation and comprehension of human actions and intellectual works by
drawing their basic methodological tools from the hermeneutical tradition. Their central
analytic category is “comprehension” (“verstehen”) that seeks to ascribe meaning, in a
kind of subjective transfer, to the spirit of these actions, or to works of art. They are value-
oriented. To the Humanities belong, among others, Art History and Art Criticism.
2
In traditional hermeneutics the interpreter has a participant’s perspective rather than an
observer’s, as is the case for the scientific researcher in the natural and social sciences.
However, Gadamer challenged this differentiation by applying hermeneutics in all
cognitive regions and by perceiving interpretation as our only means of approaching and
understanding the world. According to him interpretation is an ontological event reflecting
the interaction between interpreter and interpreted object.
3
James Elkins (in: What happened to Art Criticism, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago,
2003, pp.16-55) distinguishes seven categories of critical texts: the catalog essay, the
academic treatise, cultural criticism, the conservative harangue, the philosophic essay,
descriptive art criticism and poetic art criticism.
4
Two kinds of intentional approach to artworks lead to their evaluation, a rational and an
emotional one. The critic who prefers the rational approach is obliged to have certain
fixed reference points, in order to make reasoned comparisons and justify his/her
judgments on logical arguments. Such fixed reference points are universally recognized
artworks of the distant or recent past, or intersubjective aesthetic values. Emotional
evaluations are preferred by most postmodern critics, who judge the impact and the
sensation of artworks over their meaning and interpretation. Susan Sontag in “Against
Interpretation”,1964, (in: A. Neill & A. Ridley, The Philosophy of Art. Readings Ancient
and Modern, Mc Graw Hill, Boston, 1995, pp. 457-465) claimed that intellectual
approaches to art are against its expressional capabilities and proposed that art reviews
should not include rational interpretations and evaluations, but rather should function as
artworks in themselves, which carry forth the energies of the evaluated piece.
5
J. Ackermann, “On Judging Art without Absolutes”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 5, No. 3, 1979,
pp. 446-7.
6
In 2002, a survey conducted by the Columbia University National Arts Journalism
Program found that judging art is the least popular goal among American art critics. The
top three answers were first, describing artworks; second, providing historical context;
and third, writing well (J. Elkins, What happened to Art Criticism, Prickly Paradigm Press,
Chicago, 2003, pp. 12, 49).
7
Elkins, 2003, p. 41.
8
D. Carrier, “Philosophical Art Criticism”, Leonardo, Vol. 19, No 2, 1986, pp. 170-174
9
The hermeneutical problem in art history concerns the finding of basic principles that
allow the incorporation of artworks in their historical framework and also in the general
system of the development of art. Art theories try to answer both questions: what makes
artworks historically specific, and what motivates changes in art. For a general
introduction to art theories, s. M. Hatt & Ch. Klonk, Art History. A critical Introduction to its
Methods, Manchester University Press., Manchester, 2006.
12
Rupkatha Journal Vol 2 No 1
10
H.Woelfflin (in: Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in
Later Art (trans. M.D. Hottinger), George Bell, London, 1932 [1915]) provided general
descriptive terms, which would capture the development of artistic vision across countries
and ages. He proposed a set of five opposite pairs: linear versus painterly, plane versus
recession, closed versus open, multiplicity versus unity and absolute versus relative
clarity.
11
E. Panofsky, “Der Begriff des Kunstwollens”, Zeitschrift fuer Aesthetik und allgemeine
Kunstwissenschaft, 14, 1920, pp. 321-39.
12
K. Moxey, “Panofsky’s Concept on Iconology and the Problem of Interpretation in the
History of Art”, New Literary History, Vol. 17, No. 2, Interpretation and Culture, 1986, pp.
266-7.
13
E. Panofsky E., Ueber das Verhaeltnis der Kunstgeschichte zur Kunsttheorie”,
Zeitschrift fiir Aesthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, XVIII, 1925, pp. 129ff.
14
The definition of these five opposite pairs is the result of the influence of Kant’s theory
on Panofsky, according to which humans don’t have knowledge of the objects of the
world as they are in themselves, but only of appearances. We perceive and understand
the world through certain perception forms and categories that are common in all human
minds. Panofsky attempted to show that our minds also organize aesthetic experience
acquired by art through certain forms of perception.
15
M. Heidegger, Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik , Vol. 3, 1930, in:
Gesammtausgabe,ed. Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann et al., Klostermann, Frankfurt am
Mai, 1975 .
16
Logos 21, 1932, pp. 103–119.
17
This is the notion of the hermeneutical circle that refers –according to traditional
hermeneutics- only to interpretations within the framework of the humanities. However,
Heidegger and Gadamer radicalized it by promoting it as a feature of all knowledge and
activity.
18
O.Baetschmann (in: Einfuehrung in die kunstgeschichtliche Hermeneutik,
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, pp.68-73) understands Panofsky’s three-
stage model as a supplemental coexistence of scientific and hermeneutical methods.
According to him, Panofsky aims, in his iconology, at the localisation of the causal
relations determining artworks, and by seeing them as cultural symptoms he approaches
them in scientific terms.
19
A.Warburg called his method “critical iconology”, central to which was the tracing of
motifs through different cultures and visual forms. He used analogies between visual and
literary motifs in order to connect artworks with their culture. As a corrective principle for
avoiding subjective interpretations he applied the knowledge of the history of types.
Panofsky adopted his method, as he also understood artworks as cultural symptoms and
sought their deeper significance. Their main difference lies in the fact that Warburg
perceived art as the articulation of social behavior and approached it in psychological
terms, while Panofskys’ approach was rather cognitive, as he understood art as the place
where subjective drives and objective understanding of the world are connected
(Hatt&Klonk, 2006, pp.98-9).
20
In his iconological theory Panofsky was influenced by Cassirer, who had applied Kant’s
cognitive categories in his critique of culture, defining them as “symbolic forms”. Those
were certain expressions of a culture that revealed the ways in which this culture
understood the world. They were determined by a set of a priori functions of the human
mind, but also were subject to historical change. The symbolic forms are parts of certain
realms, such as science, art and religion. Panofsky adopted Cassirer’s concept in his
iconology, the goal of which was the recording of those symbolic forms which are integral
parts of the artworks. A prerequisite of this was the knowledge of all cultural, social and
spiritual circumstances that determine the belief system of each culture and era.
According to Panofsky, perspective is a symbolic form which expresses the ways in
which western civilization understood the notion of space from the Renaissance to the
13
Subjectivity in Art History and Art Criticism
19
th
cen. Perspective is determined by the five opposite pairs of the human mind, but also
is subject to historical change (E. Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form (intro. & trans.
Chr. S. Wood), Zone Books, New York, 1991).
21
Hatt & Klonk, 2006, p.117.
22
D. Carrier, “Erwin Panofsky, Leo Steinberg, David Carrier: The Problem of Objectivity
in Art Historical Interpretation”, The Journal of Aesthetics and art Criticism, Vol. 47, No. 4,
1989, pp. 333-347.
23
E. Panofsky E., Idea: a Concept in the History of Art, (tr.J.Peake), Columbia, S.C.,
1968.
24
E.Panofsky, Albrecht Duerer, 2 vols., Princeton, 1943.
25
S. Alpers, “Is Art History?”, Daedalus 106, No 3, Discoveries and Interpretations:
Studies in Contemporary Scholarship, vol.I, 1977, pp. 1-13.
26
Moxey, 1986, pp. 269-271.
27
E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, 2 vols., 1953,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, p. 180.
28
For the differences between art history and art criticism and especially for the changing
course of criticism e.g in the magazine “Artforumfrom the 1990s to today, D. Carrier,
“Artcriticism-writing, Arthistory-writing, Artwriting”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 78, No. 3, 1996,
pp.401-403.
29
M. Baxandall, The Language of Art History”, New Literary History, Vol. 10, No. 3,
Anniversary Issue: I., 1979, pp. 453-465.
30
E. Prettejohn, Beauty & Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, p.175
31
Kant in his “Critique of Judgment” ascribed to aesthetic judgments cognitive character
by claiming that the basic types of the aesthetic experience, beauty and the sublime, are
determined through his categories and forms of perception. Within this framework, a
principle common to all human beings renders aesthetic experience necessary and
changeless. It is called “common sense and is defined as a common perception of
beauty that constitutes an a priori principle of taste. Thus, the sense of beauty is
intersubjective, functions objectively in our communication with each other, but is
subjective in relation to reality (which –according to Kant- though existing is not supposed
to be approached and comprehended independently of the categories and forms of
perception of the mind). The notion of intersubjectivity in the reception of a theory is used
differently, as it concerns consensus as the result of logical and empirical approaches to
it and not of certain operations of the mind. See also, J. Elkins & M. Newman, The State
of Art Criticism, Routledge, New York & London, 2008, pp. 38-4.
32
Prettejohn, 2005, p. 181
33
A. Tsugawa, “The Objectivity of Aesthetic Judgments”, The Philosophical Review, Vol.
70, No. 1, 1961, pp. 3-22.
34
D.Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Chicago University Press, Chicago,
2009, p.55.
Eleni Gemtou is Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and History of
Science, University of Athens, Greece. Email: egemtos@phs.uoa.gr
... The interpretation and analysis are the milestones of any text written about certain artistic phenomena (Gemtou, 2010). In the same time, such text has a subjective character because of the cultural value of the artistic text. ...
... In the same time, such text has a subjective character because of the cultural value of the artistic text. The term "the aesthetic linguistic evaluation" is used by writers as well as Gemtou (2010) in the contemporary visual art fields, to describe the artistic phenomena when it refers to the pop culture as a source of inspiration. They illustrated in their texts the true relation between the audience and the artwork and finally the artist cultural themes like gender, identity, and feminism. ...
... Eleni Gemtou's notion of history as a form of subjective narration emphasizes the fluid process between criticality (in the selection and omission of data) and creativity (in the interpretation and presentation of their accounts). 8 Unlike fairy tales, which are without pretence or audience expectation of a truthful account, the process of historical narration is complicated when the factual history is too large, too grand or even too horrific to interpret in its entirety. In response, this essay explores fables and personal tales as, in Jean-François Lyotard's term, 'little narratives' which embody subjective truths beyond the objective accuracy of historical accounts. ...
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R_ ATHER THAN ATTEMPT to define and discuss the variety of peculiar problems that confront the contemporary interpreter of the visual arts of the past, these remarks are intended as a consideration of the interpretive system devised by Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky's contribution to art historical theory has recently attracted considerable attention. His work has been the subject of a new book, a symposium at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and a session at the 1985 College Art Association annual meeting in Los Angeles. 1 What prompts this renewed interest in Panofsky's contribution to art historical studies? While it is hard to find a conclusive answer to this question, there seem to be a number of factors involved. First, American art history has become increasingly self-conscious about the theoretical assumptions underlying its scholarly productions. In the context of the radical and far-reaching theoretical transformations that swept anthropology, history, and literary studies in the 1960s and 70s, art history seemed attached to eternal verities. There has been very little discussion of theoretical issues and those attempts that were made to raise them often appeared isolated and tangential to the main concerns of the profession.2 However, it was perhaps the adaptation of philosophical and linguistic theories by literary critics that ultimately proved most influential. Criticism has always played a prominent role in art historical interpretation so that the development of critical theories inspired by the model of literary studies was not an entirely unexpected development.3 The application of critical strategies to the interpretation of the visual arts of the past, that is, the identification of significant intrinsic formal qualities in the works of art under discussion as the basis for interpretation, has necessarily * This paper has benefited greatly from conversations and debates with David Summers which helped clarify my ideas on a number of different issues. I am particularly indebted to Joan Hart for having shared her paper on Panofsky's relation to hermeneutic theory with me prior to its publication. In addition I am grateful for careful readings and suggestions by Paul Barolsky, Herbert Kessler, Donald Posner, Holly Wright, Peter Parshall, and Suzanne Guerlac. I must, however, accept full responsibility for the views articulated here.
George Bell, London, 1932 [1915]) provided general descriptive terms, which would capture the development of artistic vision across countries and ages. He proposed a set of five opposite pairs: linear versus painterly, plane versus recession, closed versus open
  • H Woelfflin
H.Woelfflin (in: Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (trans. M.D. Hottinger), George Bell, London, 1932 [1915]) provided general descriptive terms, which would capture the development of artistic vision across countries and ages. He proposed a set of five opposite pairs: linear versus painterly, plane versus recession, closed versus open, multiplicity versus unity and absolute versus relative clarity.
Der Begriff des Kunstwollens
  • E Panofsky
E. Panofsky, "Der Begriff des Kunstwollens", Zeitschrift fuer Aesthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, 14, 1920, pp. 321-39.
Ueber das Verhaeltnis der Kunstgeschichte zur Kunsttheorie
  • E Panofsky
E. Panofsky E., "Ueber das Verhaeltnis der Kunstgeschichte zur Kunsttheorie", Zeitschrift fiir Aesthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, XVIII, 1925, pp. 129ff.
The Problem of Objectivity in Art Historical Interpretation
  • D Carrier
  • Erwin Panofsky
  • Leo Steinberg
  • David Carrier
D. Carrier, "Erwin Panofsky, Leo Steinberg, David Carrier: The Problem of Objectivity in Art Historical Interpretation", The Journal of Aesthetics and art Criticism, Vol. 47, No. 4, 1989, pp. 333-347.