June 26, 2012
Re-Turning the Hermeneutic Circle
By (University of Virginia)

About twenty years ago, I chaired a session at the College Art Association on Intention, and also published an article in New Literary History entitled “Intentions in the History of Art.”  Then, the question of intention was being heatedly debated, and one of the texts around which debate turned was called “The Intentional Fallacy” by two literary critics, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley.  This is still a relevant basis for discussion.  The essay was a manifesto for formalism in its literary version, the so-called New Criticism, and their argument was especially directed against a long book entitled The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination by John Livingston Lowes, first published in 1924.  Lowes had painstakingly located Coleridge’s Kublai Khan in the language and reading of its day, and Wimsatt and Beardsley rejected such interpretation as the fallacious confusion of a poem with its origin.

Wimsatt and Beardsley also published an essay called the “affective fallacy,” rejecting interpretation by subjective reaction.  The middle, formalist way they offered, based on what they called the “public” dimension of the work—grammar, syntax, figuration—was the consideration of the poem—and by implication all poems, and by further implication, all art—as a significant object in its own terms, to be explicated by the critic skilled in such examination and explication.

To me, the kind of intellectual historical retrieval done by Lowes is illuminating, suggestive, and even indispensable, and a glimpse at The Road to Xanadu makes it clear that the exposition of Coleridge’s poem can hardly have closed possibilities for subsequent interpretation (as anti-intentionalists have sometimes feared). In any case, Wimsatt and Beardsley staked a lot on the “public” dimension of the work of art, but it seems to me naïve to think that this dimension is either ahistorical or undetermined by culture, and it demands historical retrieval and cultural adjustment in its own right.  It is hard to understand, for example, that “the quality of mercy is not strained” if we don’t acknowledge that these words had other connotations in the seventeenth century than they have now.  This is not to say, however, that retrieval is able to retrieve intention, although it might give us a better idea of what Shakespeare’s words might have meant to his audience.  Retrieval can only bring us to a point at which we can begin to think about the alchemy of a poem’s being written just as it was, although of course it is important to get to that point.

Formalism was only the opening shot to be fired against intention.  To telescope a complicated problem, artistic form itself was and is considered to be autonomous and unconscious in its workings, and in this respect it pointed to a deep reorientation in interpretation, first (in the broader history of academic interpretation) to one or another psychological unconscious, then to one or another political unconscious, and to combinations of the two.  Both structuralism and especially post-structuralism proceed from the assumption of deeper formative activities over which the activities of conscious intention float and constantly shift. In what might to be seen as a new version of the affective fallacy, reaction to a work of art serves the purpose of revealing the unconscious motivations of the critic/historian.  In general and in short, the hermeneutics of suspicion have carried the day, and suspicion, which has come to make up theory, or “high theory,” in the history of art, of course may reach, and has reached, all the way down, to question the motives behind the historical enterprise taken altogether.

It should be becoming clear that I think it is necessary to be able to read the lines before you can read between them, but again this is not to say that intention can be retrieved.  In fact, I think it is wrong-headed to try to reclaim the concetto that the most excellent artist may realize in any block of stone, that is, to carve an elephant by removing all of the stone that doesn’t look like an elephant.  Michelangelo himself, the famous first quatrain of whose sonnet I have just paraphrased and then parodied, ended the same sonnet by admitting that he was not in fact able to do that.  If a governing idea—a preceding mental intention, an intention in the sense in which we are inclined to understand the word—is not simply evident in the work, and is also not reclaimable by historical retrieval, the conclusion should not be drawn that meaning in the circumstances for which works of art were and are made—may not be substantially reconstructed.

J. Hester and P. Scowen, Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (1995)

I thought of calling this short paper “Masaccio and the Eagle Nebula,” but I had already submitted the title you have in your programs when this occurred to me.  In any case, Masaccio is below, the Eagle Nebula is above, and I will explain what they have to do with one another as a way of returning to the listed title.  The Hubble telescope, the “people’s telescope,” as it was dubbed after its recent refurbishment, has taken thousands of galactic and intergalactic photographs, most of which are pretty nondescript, of interest mostly or only to astronomers.  Some of them, however, are very impressive, like this one of the Eagle Nebula.  The selection, presentation and reception of these photographs are of course not simple matters, and NASA, which, like other bureaucratic entities, must justify and defend its budgets, uses them in its public relations.  But, whatever the uses to which they have been put, some of the photographs have struck a deep chord, those of the Eagle Nebula perhaps chief among them.  As NASA itself states, this one has become “iconic,” which I take to mean that it has become a star, famous, widely reproduced and recognizable.  It is also “iconic” in the sense that it has been framed and righted as a great anthropomorphic icon, and it has acquired a title, “the pillars of creation,” thus taking its place in the long Western history of religious images, silently entering contemporary controversies with religion’s cultured despisers.

If the cultural and political meanings of Hubble photographs are of interest in their own right, they also have a certain broader authority.  They are results of a great scientific and technological enterprise, and if association with science cannot be said to denote objectivity, it certainly connotes it, and does so at much the same level of popular consciousness at which the photographs have become “iconic.”  That, we are quick to conclude, is what the Eagle Nebula looks like (or looked like from a point above the earth when the photograph was taken) even if 6,500 light years are the condition of simultaneity in this case, and it remains to be seen how the same cosmic region might look if we could somehow erase this mega-sublime distance, take our place in some Newtonian “now,” thus to see the Eagle Nebula as it will appear in 325 human generations.

I have chosen the example of the Eagle Nebula because it has become a minor topos in art-historical theoretical discussion.  The argument is this: While these photographs have the aura of scientific objectivity, they are actually very complex artifacts, in the making of which a certain amount of individual judgment and tweaking were inevitable.  To make the photographs, six cameras were used, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light; the modulations of a black–and-white image provide the scheme for the disposition of the colors indicated by this wavelength data, and it is here that a certain amount of subjective judgment is inevitable. And, as I have said, the image is righted and framed.  The photograph, it is concluded, is therefore not an unmediated image of the Eagle Nebula.

There is something obviously wrong with this argument, because, although it supposedly demonstrates that the photographs are not absolutely veridical, it does so by accepting and even insisting upon the truth of the account of their making.  This is fundamentally important, because it raises the issue of facture.  According to the principle of facture, the first chapter of Real Spaces, every artifact is a record of its own having been made.1 What had to be the case in order for this image to have been made as it was? In these terms, the account of the making of this photograph is a description of the more or less necessary historical conditions from which it (and many others) arose.  These conditions did not determine the image, rather they made the image possible, and they made it possible in terms very different from those that made other artifacts possible.  Every artifact has arisen and arises from such a concrete set of possibilities, and all of these sets of possibilities have their own histories.

To an important degree, Hubble photographs, like other images, are the results of anonymous and collective facture.  The names of the specialists who made one or another contribution to the images are of course known and NASA provides them with the reproductions themselves; this is only the beginning, however, and the photographs are finally dependent upon a staggeringly complex system of modern histories of many kinds, scientific and political, technological and industrial.  Each of these uniquely modern histories provides one of the necessary conditions that made it possible to mount the enterprise of making these images.  Not the least of these was getting the cameras into orbit in the first place.

To return to the question of intention:  Does it make any sense to ask if the people who made the Hubble photographs intended to do just what they did?  The question is probably unanswerable, and certainly cannot be answered simply by looking at what they in fact did do.  It is better to say—and important to say—that they were doing something highly specific, but also deeply—and more or less immediately—meaningful in the world to which they belonged.   We may begin to understand this meaningfulness when we consider the unique but necessary historical conditions in which they were made.


Masaccio, San Giovenale Altarpiece (1422)

The principle of facture I have illustrated with the example of the Eagle Nebula is a general principle, and so also includes Masaccio.  His early San Giovenale altarpiece was painted when he was about 21 years old.  In factural terms, this is also in important respects an anonymous and collective work, although it is by no means as complex in these terms as the Hubble photo.   Masaccio did not make this altarpiece by himself, even if he supervised it; it is unlikely that he cut the wood panels on which he painted, and the materials he used must have had several origins.  We may suppose that he designed the frame, but not that he carved or gilded it.  More generally, he did not invent the highly culturally specific format of the altarpiece, even if he performed a unique variation on the theme.  As a format, the altarpiece is related to patterns of behavior that would have made complete sense to his contemporaries.  He did not invent the iconography (which again would have been very familiar, even if he once again performed a new—and slight—variation).  He might have drawn the centralizing orthogonals on the optic plane uniting the panels after discussion with his friend Brunelleschi, but explanation of the possibility of doing so would require still other histories.

When we look at Masaccio’s altarpiece and the Eagle Nebula as glowing rectangles in this room, they are comparable, as glowing rectangles.  If we wish to explain how the projected works came to appear as they do, what was necessary in order for them to be made just as they were, they are historical worlds apart. These worlds are not unrelated—we now often call the Renaissance the early modern period, the period leading to our own—but both the continuities and the differences between them are of the greatest historical significance.  The point of this argument is not that historical criticism (or art-historical criticism) is scientific or objective (although it could be much more solidly based than it is), but rather that all human artifacts make sense within groups in terms of common purposes, even what Wimsatt and Beardsley might have called public purposes, and, by and large, artists themselves share in the understanding of this sense and these purposes. All human artifacts, as artifacts, have this cultural dimension in one form or another.  In general, there is much evidence for this shared understanding (or, for that matter, for differences from it, or changes in it).

Why does intention continue to be a theoretical problem?  To begin, there may be a simple circularity in the idea of intention.  Perhaps we think of intentions as unified because the results of directed activity are unified, and, if they are not, then we say that they are unsuccessful, or unfinished (and of course there are always unintended consequences).  But in all cases the assumption looms that there was a precedent mental image that either successfully of unsuccessfully directed the activity to its end, an elephant freed from the block.  Perhaps to the degree to which we think of an intention as a model for a result we are still under the spell of Plato, whose fabricator of the cosmos worked from a perfect model, which Plato called a paradigm.  For Plato’s pupil Aristotle, however, art was like nature in working toward an end in an orderly way, but the end, the final result, was the result not only of that intention, but of the artisan’s skill and judgment.  Exekias might have said “I am going to make an amphora,” and we would consider that a statement of intention.  But there is a certain amount of play in the process of successfully realizing an initial intention.  It leaves room for the differences between one amphora and another, and also for the individual development of skill in one way or another.

In fact the distance between the start and the completion of any artifact is of great interest, and of great art-historical interest.  And it once more pointedly raises the issue of facture.  There was no doubt a contract for Masaccio’s painting, a legal agreement specifying what he would do, and he would have been expected to do it skillfully.  We modern Western art people have become more and more interested in the autographic dimension of such skill, to the point that, in reaction, minimal and conceptual artists prefer “fabrication” to individual style and expression.  But the quest for both personality and impersonality makes sense—or forms intentions—only within the tradition of modern Western art making, and in other cases the activity between beginning and end might, for example, be understood and enacted as a ritual. As a final example, we might consider the cartoons of Renaissance painters.  Cartoons themselves were the result of a long process of study, and, resolved as they might finally have been, changes were still possible in the final execution.  Michelangelo burned his drawings so that no one would know how hard he had worked, that is, to make it seem as if intention and result were one thing.  But my point is that there are many possible paths between beginning and end, and each of these processes is as important, and as culturally specific, as the beginnings and ends themselves.

If we think only of beginnings and ends, and assume that they are essentially the same, then we must ignore much concrete historical evidence.  Why and how were intentions or purposes possible in the first place? What do both makers and their audiences already know?  Or, to put this in another way, why ignore such culturally specific expressions and determinants as formats and spaces of use?  Finally, how did it become possible to do what was done?  We might consider again the example of drawing.  Drawing became a routine part of art making, and a major form of art in its own right in Europe during the Renaissance, and, even if there are medieval drawings, drawing as we understand and practice it requires paper, the production of which was invented in Han dynasty China, working its way westward on the Silk Road through Islam to Europe by the late Middle Ages.  In Europe paper became as essential to Leonardo’s drawings as it was to Gutenberg’s printing or Schongauer’s prints.  That is an interesting history, as deeply interesting in its own art-historical way as the introduction of Arabic numerals and algebra, which happened at about the same time (and it might be said, also encouraged the use of paper).

The argument I have made comes close to an outline of the old hermeneutic circle. Interest initiates historical retrieval, which means that we establish as best we can the historical conditions in which the work emerged.  The circle closes when the work is interpreted in light of this retrieval.  This is not to say that there is not a final imaginary confrontation between historian and maker, or that the “little patch of yellow wall” in Vermeer’s View of Delft may not trigger deep memories and associations, even things that stay with us forever, and that we would wish to whisper with our last breath, but to grant that is not to say that Vermeer’s painting, little yellow patch and all, did not come to be as it is, even for Vermeer himself, as the consequence of deep histories, some of which are long, and some of which are pedestrian, and all of which are of art-historical interest before they are of aesthetic interest.


1.  David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (London: Phaidon, 2003). [—C.P.]
About the Author

David Summers is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Art Theory and Italian Renaissance Art at the University of Virginia. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1996. Summers is generally regarded as an expert on Renaissance art and a notable figure in the field of art historical research. Amongst his main contributions to art history is the influential book Real Spaces.

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