What is Post-Formalism? (Or, Das Sehen an sich hat seine Kunstgeschichte)
In this essay I examine an analytic interest on the part of some art historians today (including me) in a proposition that they have partly inherited from Heinrich Wölfflin in the early twentieth century. I will call the proposition “post-formalism.” Because Wölfflin is usually called a “formalist” I will need to say why he might be a godfather of post-formalism today. This will require me to say something about formalism in art history tout court, at least as I propose to understand it for the purposes of coming to terms with “post-formalism.”1
Needless to say, here I cannot review the many formalisms in art history (let alone artwriting more broadly defined) by proceeding text by text and writer by writer, even if I were competent to do so. In addition to Wölfflin, and speaking only of writing published in his lifetime, one would have to deal with texts by Aloïs Riegl, Wilhelm Worringer, Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Albert Barnes, Hans Sedlmayr, Henri Focillon, and Clement Greenberg among others, not to speak of practices on the part of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Hans Hofmann and art teachers such as Denman Ross and Jay Hambidge—a hugely diverse group. I cannot attempt even the most minimal exegesis that would be needed. Selective overviews are readily available.2
Instead I will offer an analytic commentary on the claims of art-historical formalism as an analytic construction in art history, and possibly as a tactical methodological construction. In turn this will enable me to situate “post-formalism” as a philosophy of art history today.
I take a special interest in Wölfflin’s formalism because it integrated the crucial post-formalist manoeuver as I will identify it: the form-making capacity of human intuition—especially if intuition simply is form making—must be historicized. Stated most simply, form is a history. Of course, there have been several “post-formalisms.” For example, art critics and art historians who reacted specifically against Greenberg’s modernism might be called post-formalists, and sometimes they have been. (Indeed, one might even argue that Kant inflected his formalism—a transcendental psychology of the form-making capacity of human intuition—with a post-formalist psychology of the form that is constituted specifically in aesthetic judgment of works of fine art.) In the present essay I take the view that post-formalism in art history became possible at the very moment of the principal inception of formalism in the work of Wölfflin. I will be concerned mostly to say how this possibility has been realized in recent years.
§1. Formalism and Post-Formalism. The overall gist is this. Post-formalism as I will describe it attempts to shift ground from the history of artworks to the history of visual imaging and imagining—what Wölfflin in 1915 in Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe called Sehformen (a neologism often translated as “ways of seeing” or “modes of vision”) and in 1923 revised to Formen der Vorstellungsbild (“modes of imagination” in the English translation of 1932, but probably better rendered as “forms of imaginative appearance” or even “forms of representationality”).3
This shift as I will describe it also involves a movement from an aestheticist “formalisticism” (though this is not a term used in the current self-description of art history) to formalism proper, a sub-Kantian psychology of intuition—of the “forming” activity of sensibility. Formalisticism effects a partial reification of what I will call “formality” (the apparent configuratedness of material things) as “form” in a specialized art-historical sense: form is a unity organized materially (and visibly apparent) in man-made things on the basis of essential habits of intuition, notably (for Wölfflin) sensitivity to “rhythm,” though Wölfflin also believed that some of these habits of intuition vary historically.4 (The things in question, of course, need not be artworks, and in Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment they need not be man-made things at all; still, works of fine art have sometimes been deemed to be impossible without form.) What many writers usually denote by “formalism” in art history is a wholesale reification—full-bore formalisticism in my sense. It puts form “in” the things, converting it from an aspect seen (or formality) to an attribute made. Instead of speaking of the formality of the thing for us as we see it, then, we come—in the formalist conversion forced by the reification of formalisticism—to speak of being aware of its form. (I expand on this briefly in §2 below.) It follows analytically that “post-formalism” in art history and artwriting would certainly try to get beyond formalisticism. Whether and how it gets beyond transcendental formalism is another question.
Given its post-formalisticism, post-formalism (whether post-Kantian or not) should be able to state the relation between artworks and Sehformen. Or at least it sets out to do so. The crucial point here, in my view, is that seeing, visual imaging, does not just have a history an sich or “in itself”—the history of the “optische Schichten,” or “strata of vision,” that Wölfflin said it was the first-order task of art history to uncover. (I will call this “vision historicism”: “Das Sehen an sich hat seine Geschichte und die Aufdeckung dieser ‘optischen Schichten’ muss als die elementarste Aufgabe der Kunstgeschichte betrachtet werden.”5) Imaging also has an art history, which I have tried to describe as the “successions” and “recursions” of “formality,” “pictoriality,” and other aspects of things made specifically to be seen in the seeing that sees them. In a sense, then, post-formalism is also pre-formalism—a grounding of the history of artworks in the art history of seeing. I will address this matter in the middle sections of the essay.
The challenge today is that the art history of seeing (such as it is) is confronted by an expansive foundationalist neurology of seeing that is merely aesthetic, and in a sense aestheticist within its domain, or formalist—a visual neuropsychology that is now sometimes called “neuroaesthetics.” Post-formalism might best be defined, then, as post-neuroaestheticist. (In addressing this side of the story, the present essay follows on my “Neurovisuality,” published in nonsite in 2011.6)
Wölfflin tackled a similar problem in the terms of the psychophysiology of his own day, as did some of the other early formalists already mentioned. (Some were expert psychologists, and formalism is a psychological theory—a method of “virtual historical psychology,” as I have put it elsewhere.7)
But he did not quite solve it because of his tendency toward formalisticism, and the circularity of the analysis that resulted: the form of artworks (identified in the reification of formalisticism) became Wölfflin’s evidence for the historicity of vision (an open question for formalism in psychology) at the same time as the historicity of vision explained the form of artworks. Post-formalism seeks to avoid this circularity. It tries to state a historical relation and therefore in my terms a recursive relation between the form of artworks and the historicity of vision, at least so far as we limit ourselves (rather artificially) to formality or formal aspects. I will deal with this matter in the final section of the essay.
§2. Formalism Proper and Formalisticism. In Kant’s system and in the Kantian tradition—what we might call formalism proper—form belongs to intuition. As Kant expressed the point in the First Critique, form can be defined as “the manner [die Art] in which we are affected by objects”—die Art as distinct, that is, from our knowledge of “content” let alone our empirical contact with the real matter of the objects. As Robert B. Pippin has put the point in Kant’s Theory of Form, in Kant’s doctrine “form is inextricably linked with the knowing subject”; it is the condition of the possibility of our sensory awareness of anything.8
Responding to the First Critique, in 1787 Johann Georg Schlosser sharply criticized what he called Kant’s “Formgebungmanufaktur,” his “pedantic” invention of a forming capacity of the mind—what we might call Kant’s “mere formalism” in transcendental psychology, or formalism proper. In 1796 Kant responded equally sharply and reiterated his primary claim: “If the thing is an object of the senses,” he insisted, “so its form is in intuition (as an appearance).”9 Responding to the First Critique, in 1787 Johann Georg Schlosser sharply criticized what he called Kant’s “Formgebungmanufaktur,” his “pedantic” invention of a forming capacity of the mind—what we might call Kant’s “mere formalism” in transcendental psychology, or formalism proper. In 1796 Kant responded equally sharply and reiterated his primary claim: “If the thing is an object of the senses,” he insisted, “so its form is in intuition (as an appearance).”10
In the terms of the aspect psychology that I have adopted in A General Theory of Visual Culture, constitutive form (when converted from space and time to color, shape, etc.—to color, shape, etc., as constituted in space and time in intuition) is “formality”: the apparent configuratedness (the “appearance” of configuratedness) in things. Needless to say, some of these things have been made specifically to be seen: they have been colored and shaped by someone with a “forming” sensibility who has produced them for the prospect of a “formality”—seeming form—that they might afford to sight. But it is crucial to preserve the theoretical sense in which this relay is a complex recursion—the succession of formality in the visibility of things in historical visualities.11
In the reification, form in this sense—Kantian forms-in-intuition; formal aspects (“formality”) as described in aspect psychology—gets transferred or translocated to the object, as if we perceive—receive or pick up—its “form.” The apparent configuratedness of an object as we constitute it becomes our seeing of its configuration or formedness. Many commentators on art history and criticism use the term “formalism” to designate the reification (or objectification). But it might better be called “formalisticism” (as I will do here) because formalism need not objectify form. It is “formalistic”—but not inherently “formalist” in the transcendental-psychological sense—to proceed analytically as if form subsists primordially in the object, even if it was put there (as one might say) by the intuitional activities of its maker and beholders in visualizing or visibilizing it.
It should be noted, however, that formalistic reifications are not wholly unwarranted in art history. At least, they should not be unexpected; there is a credible reason for them. In its methodological self-invention as a second-order archaeology, art history conjures a real thing (i.e., “form”) to dig up for display to its “looking” when the first-order object (i.e., “the manner in which objects affect us”) cannot be proffered as any (properties of a) physical thing. Formalisticism literally creates a material object as objectified form(ality). Philosophical tradition has enabled art history to trade on this shuttle, as Kant himself had done. As Pippin has put it, “should the object of knowledge be an object of the senses, its ‘form’ is not a property of the object, but is the intuiting activity of the subject. Nevertheless, by his association here with the tradition, Kant admits that knowledge of this form will reveal something like the ‘essence’ of the object—for Kant the universal conditions necessary for it to be an object at all (space and time).” By “association with the tradition,” Pippin specifically means Kant’s starting-points in Aristotelian and scholastic philosophies. To use the very words with which Kant opened the remarks of 1796 that I have already quoted “[a] the essence of things consists in their form (forma dat esse rei, as is said by the Scholastics) [b] insofar as this thing might be known through reason.”13 As I understand the matter, the passage from (a) to (b) qualified the tradition in Kant’s special philosophical terms. Marking the beginning of his formalist transcendental psychology, it introduced what Kant called his “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. But (b) is not intelligible without (a).
Now let us suppose that art history (not to speak of art criticism) understands its primary objects to be material works of art and perhaps, in an extension, items of visual and material culture that need not be identified specifically as works of art. (Recall that Wölfflin said that these things are not the theoretical object of the project of art history, at least considered in themselves; the “elementary datum” of art-historical inquiry is their optische Schichten. In principle this is vision historicism in formalism proper.) In turn it is obvious that art history at that level or in that register can (and perhaps must) proceed archaeologically from (1) form “in” the object to (2) “form” as intuited (“seen”) by the beholder-historian to (3) “form” attributed to the intuiting activity of the historical maker, though psychologically the order—the business of Kant’s transcendental psychology and other formalisms proper—is partly inverse to this (i.e.,  to  to ).
In other words, the reification might have a tactically valid methodological status: formalisticism functions as a forensic archaeological method for an art history framed theoretically as a history of forming activity in sensibility. The problem arises when the methodological reification (that is, the forensics of the recursions of formality) is treated as primary foundation—gets ontologized. This risks mischaracterizing the intuiting activity of the subject (“forming” the object in space and time) as the intuiting of objective form. More exactly for my purposes, it risks conflating them in such a way that the “elementarste Aufgabe” of art history—the historicity of forming, and its specific historicality as it were—becomes hard to identify, and perhaps will be cut out of the story entirely. In §4 below I will return to this matter in the case of Wölfflin’s formalism.
There is another reason for art-historical formalisticism aside from its status as a forensic method of formalism proper. The contiguity between the hugely general terms of Kantian formalism (laid out in the First Critique) and the highly specialized terms of Kantian aesthetic judgment in constituting the “perfected ideals of beauty in the fine arts” (spelled out in one short section of the Third Critique) may have motivated some formalisticist reifications of art as an empirical object specifically made to affect us in its form, that is, as a putatively aesthetic object. But the contiguity does not fully justify the reification. Kant did not simply identify form and artwork as the subjective and the objective faces of sensibility. If anything, the perfected ideal of beauty in art is form reformed—detached from any interest we have in the empirical existence of the object. And this reformed form (the specifically “normative” form) is not “in” the object that is an ideal artwork, just as it was not “in” the images of things that we find appealing from which the ideal artwork is built. It is in sensibility. Still, because the reformed form—ideal art—is not a mere emanation of immediate subjective intuition (instead it is a product of “subjective universality”) it has some claim to be regarded as an objective form afforded to the subject for his or her intuition. Perhaps this model of the history of the forming of artworks as idealizations can be reconciled analytically with the history of their optische Schichten. After all, Kant admitted that his model of the perfection of ideals of beauty in the fine arts invoked an “optical analogy” of the intuitive superimposition of visual images of appealing and attractive things. Taken literally, then, the consolidation of perfected ideals of beauty in an artwork simply is the historical constitution of an optische Schicht as a particular aesthetic horizon. But it will be difficult, maybe impossible, to make this case by indulging the formalistic reification.
§3. Post-Formalism Proper. In the sense that I use the term here, the term “post-formalism” first cropped up (for me anyway) in David Summers’s book Real Spaces, published in 2003—a post-formalist world art history (as he called it) partly intended to describe the “rise of Western modernism.”15 Real Spaces is not only art-historically post-formalist. Summers not only tried to get beyond the formalist reification in art-historical formalism, or what I have been calling formalisticism. It is also philosophically post-formalist, that is, post-Kantian. Summers did not want to start from the forms of intuition (i.e., space and time) as described by transcendental psychology, or to be required always to return to them as the ground. Even Martin Heidegger had done so, though he thought that he had analytically managed to constitute “original time”—over and against space—as the privileged or primary route of the understanding (and its final existential constraint). In turn, Ernst Cassirer severely criticized this view—what he took to be extreme onesidedness. Partly in this light, Summers hopes to redescribe space (one of the “two basic pillars” of the understanding, as Cassirer insisted after Kant and against Heidegger) in terms of what he calls “real space,” that is, the geometrical-optical organization and sociocultural architectonics of topographical “place” and the man-made configurations set up in it, notably pictures.16 He takes his analysis to break decisively from art histories that reify form, thereby opening new art histories—new lineages, for example, of the “rise of Western modernism” that has been treated so often by art historians.
Art historians have usually connected Western pictorial naturalism to the forms of Classical Greek sculptural contrapposto and pictorial construction of fictive depth. In one of the most innovative of his new histories, Summers partly derived it instead from planar constructions of ancient Egyptian depiction. As he put it, “Egyptian painters and sculptors made choices that were to establish the basis of Western naturalism . . . accomplished by the development of planarity into the virtual dimension, with consequences reaching to the present day.”17 I want to emphasize the striking novelty of this art-historical claim. Ancient Egyptian depiction has sometimes been said to constitute “the origins of Western art.” But it has been far more usual (largely under the influence of Hegel’s aesthetics) formally to contrast Egyptian “symbolic” or “conceptual” procedures in picture making with the naturalism of Classical Greek art as the formal “birth of Western art,” that is, of one of its characteristic formalities in visual culture.18
According to Greenberg, for example, “of all the great traditions of pictorial naturalism, only the Greco-Roman and the Western can be said to be sculpturally oriented. They alone have made full use of the sculptural means of light and shade to obtain an illusion of volume on a flat surface. And both these traditions arrived at so-called scientific perspective only because a thoroughgoing illusion of volume required a consistent illusion of the kind of space in which volume was possible.”19 “Sculptural means of light and shade,” “illusion of volume on a flat surface,” and “illusion of the space in which volume is possible” are overly formalistic—reifications of formality. We can convert them (post-formalistically) to modeling in light, flat surface seen as voluminous, and virtual volume seen in space under specified optical, geometric, and architectonic conditions in real space; Summers set out a demonstration in terms of the “axis of direct observation” that he took to be maintained in Egyptian “planarity.” If we do this—I will not rehearse Summers’s careful analysis here—we can see how the Egyptians produced illusion of volume set it in a space in which it is possible. To be sure, this virtual space was organized on the metricized “virtual coordinate plane” that Summers has identified in Egyptian depiction, not in “scientific perspective” in the sense that Greenberg meant. Still, “metric naturalism” and optical naturalism can now be described more accurately relative to each other, and no longer as mere opposites; Summers’s explications of “relief space” in Classical Greek pictorialism, of the “optical plane” in medieval pictoriality, and of “painter’s perspective” in Italian Renaissance pictoriality benefit from—depend on—his antecedent identification of the virtual coordinate plane in Egyptian pictoriality.20 Any phenomenal, technological, and sociohistorical continuities between metric naturalism and optical naturalism can be explored archaeologically (for example, by investigating the transfer of technologies for constructing proportions on the plane from Saite Egypt to Archaic Greece). They need not remain juxtaposed as polarized à la Greenberg, who pushed each formalistic category of immanent form to its “full,” “thoroughgoing,” and most “consistent” self-realization. Real Spaces exemplifies Summers’s training in the traditions of archaeological Strukturforschung, which I share: my first undergraduate teacher at Harvard, G. M. A. Hanfmann, was a student of Friedrich Matz, the best mid-twentieth-century exponent of Strukturanalyse, which he imbibed from Sedlmayr and Guido von Kaschnitz-Weinberg. Strukturanalyse might be the first post-formalism in art history.21 But Summers’s teacher at Yale, George Kubler, was right to say that Matz and others practiced a kind of Weltanschauungsgeschichte—“idealist archaeology” as Kubler called it. That is, they tended to derive the optische Schichten from preexisting Weltbilder, or at least from a “central pattern of sensibility” to be found among poets and artists living at the same time. This was more or less empty. Analytically Weltbilder simply are the optische Schichten.
By contrast, Kubler saw his overall project in examining “some of the morphological problems of duration in series and sequence” as making good on a question that art historians had put aside “when [they] turned away from ‘mere formalism’ to the historical reconstruction of symbolic complexes”—that is, to iconology. His scare quotes imply, it seems to me, that for him “mere formalism” had certain analytic advantages, at least when it was reconstituted as archaeological method. It had advantages, that is, if one could shake off its tendencies to universalize about sensibility (as in Strukturforschung) and to indulge formalisticism in the ontology of (art)making—to treat form as a feature of the artifact, often unique, rather than as an emergent morphological boundary of its artifact-type (or “form class”), in which each artifact is “formed” as much under constraints of its serial position as in virtue of its maker’s sensibility.22
Following Kubler, Summers works inversely to “idealist archaeology”: a worldpicture emerges historically within an optical stratum in human imaging, or as it. (The two most general strata identified in Real Spaces, “planarity” and “virtuality,” would seem to be modifications on the second of the five polarities Wölfflin had set out in Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe to describe the realization of form, namely, plane [or surface] and recession [or depth].) This is a history in imaging, not—or not essentially—a history of ideas or beliefs or worldviews that precede and determine it. As Wölfflin had already urged, excavating this history is the primary task of art history. And Summers did so in a “post-formalist” way, as he saw it, because for him the serial making of assemblages (or environments) of things in real spaces in history is the elementary (quasi-Kublerian) datum of our archaeology, not the form of the artwork as put into it by a spatializing sensibility said to precede the agent’s experience in the world and especially the agent’s experience of socially shaped topography—of particular cultural “places” in “real space.” Stated another way, Summers wants to “world” form (that is, put it in the world) whether or not his “world art history” succeeds in each and every one of its genealogies and chronologies of artmaking considered globally.23
Of course, Summers’s Real Spaces is not the only example of recent post-formalism, though it is notable because it explicitly described itself as such. By now many teachers of art history must have gotten used to hearing students call themselves “post-formalists,” though many of these teachers (including me) probably described themselves as “anti-formalists” when they were students. When I ask my students what they mean, some cite Summers. Others cite Hans Belting’s Bild-Anthropologie of 2001: it proposed Entwürfe für eine Bildwissenschaft said by him to be an “anthropology.” There is considerable overlap between Belting’s and Summers’s descriptions of the functions of images (both writers deal extensively, for example, with substitutive effigies) and in turn with Horst Bredekamp’s recent Theorie des Bildakts, also markedly post-formalist. I will not rehearse these projects here, however. Suffice it to say that the art-historical attainments of post-formalism are now quite clear. In each case—Summers, Belting, Bredekamp—we find the art historian identifying affiliations or even historical connections and cultural interactions between productions that formalism had sometimes overlooked—could only overlook when formalistic.
Certainly Belting and Bredekamp proceed post-formalistically. In Belting’s account of the force of effigies, what counts is the functional substitutability of material effigy and prototype, even if there is no visible “formal” congruence between the visible features of the former object (a thing with “form”) and the latter (which may not be visible at all). It is not so much that form is objectified in the effigy, though effigies have formality. The prototype is objectified when the effigy functions. Belting insists that he does not identify images with pictorial artifacts; indeed, he identifies images primarily with the body and mental imaging. This could allow formalism proper. But it should be “anthropological.” The forms of intuition do not precede bodily awareness in the social field. In anthropology, intuition simply is the body’s imagemaking in the social field.24
If I have any objection to Belting’s Bild-Anthropologie, it is simply that his historical anthropology might not be radical enough to displace transcendental psychology. Of course, Belting’s anthropology situates the transcendental activity of intuition within the bounds of historical cultures that he differentiates one from the next. But this anthropology tends to reify each cultural tradition as a priori collective intuition within its bounds—a “common pattern of sensibility” as Kubler put it in describing the idealist archaeology of Strukturforschung. Indeed, it objectifies that intuition as supposed cultural tradition. Therefore it does not quite issue in a radically historical analytics of imagemaking.
For his part, Bredekamp collates objects that formalistically would not be affiliated as iterations of the same kind of artifact. Rather, they replicate images. To explain this history Bredekamp would appeal as much to the agent’s visual experience (in complex interaction with fantasies, desires, beliefs, and concepts) as to formal sensibility. Indeed, the agent’s formal sensibility simply is this history in his or her visual experience. Bredekamp’s history of Charles Darwin’s diagrammatic visualizations of transmutation exemplifies this theory of the action of images: set down in Darwin’s notebooks of the mid 1830s, the diagrams (according to Bredekamp’s archaeology of the replications) relayed images dating to earlier periods in Darwin’s experience and in the experience of other agents whose imagemaking he encountered historically. According to Bredekamp, then, the image is not so much formed in intuition as primary; rather, it is formed in the relay of images. Better, the historical account of the relay of images simply is an analysis of intuition as essentially historical.25
If I have any objection to Bredekamp’s Bildakttheorie, it is simply that he still requires formalisticism to do some of his historical work. Bredekamp sometimes takes mere morphological similarity in the form of images (regardless of their diverse historical locations in the Sein und Zeit and the Zeit und Ort of the agents) to be the evidence forsituating them as relays of images, as replications. It turns out, then, that the radically historical genealogy that supposedly situates form historically is simply an ordinary formalisticist history of reified form. We’re back where we started. To be sure, in Bredekamp’s history of images, the transcendental psychology of forming intuition is limited to—bounded by—a history of a mind that forms. He offers no “anthropology,” let alone reifications of “collective sensibility.” Still, it is not enough to say that a human mind is held together merely in virtue of the consistency and continuity of its forming activity. This assumes the consequent, and a more radical history of mind might radically dispute the very idea of any such coherence. Images have their effect on us—their “power”—not only because they replicate the form of images that we have assimilated (let alone produced as objects). They also affect us precisely because the form of the image has not already been integrated. (If it has been integrated, “we’ve seen it all before.”) This history needs to be excavated beyond purely morphological (merely formalisticist) descriptions of the images. Again we find that a radically post-formalistic history of imagemaking remains to be written.
Both of these kinds of Bildwissenschaft offer philosophically sophisticated responses to art-historical formalisticism and to formalism proper; whether or not they fully succeed, they seek to address Formen der Vorstellungsbildung nonformalistically. They are post-formalist to the degree that vision—or bodily awareness more generally—has been historicized, or more exactly in the degree to which they can offer a historical analysis of intuition as such. Needless to say, then, they operate in conceptual proximity to psychology and even to neurology and evolutionary biology, though they are not mere applications of the formalisms that can be found there. If anything, in fact, they would seem to demand in the end that we apply art history to psychoneurological formalism. I will turn to this very question in the final section of this essay (§5).
§4. Formalism and the “Wölfflinian method.” A historical question intervenes, however—a loose end in my account so far. What about Wölfflin’s formalism, his history of Formen der Vorstellungsbild, in relation to his formalistic method? Just as postmodernism in art criticism partly involved the rejection of Greenberg’s aesthetics, one might take post-formalism in art history to involve the rejection of “Wölfflinian method.” I refer, of course, to the comparative juxtapositions of photographs or other illustrations of artifacts that Wölfflin used to clarify our comprehension of the optische Schichten. Still, this way of construing post-formalism could mislead us. As I have already suggested, formalisticism may have certain tactical methodological values. And it is not formalism anyway.
Juxtaposition was ubiquitous in Wölfflin’s array of methods. But it was not essential. Wölfflin’s theory did not require it. To expose the Vorstellungsbild of Albrecht Dürer (when the artist was working on his master engravings of 1513-14) to readers in 1926 only required that Wölfflin make a single presentation: an illustration not of the artwork per se, such as a photograph of Dürer’s Ritter, Tod, und Teufel of 1513, but a visual demonstration for us of the artist’s optische Schicht in making it, which Wölfflin included in his later editions of Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers, first published in 1905. (In this demonstration Wölfflin removed all depicted figures and landscape except for the figure of the Knight himself, hoping to dramatize—to visibilize—its linear profile silhouette.) For the theoretical comparison in Wölfflin’s art history is not only between two different pictures constituted in the same or different optical strata in history. It is also between two imagings of the same picture, one clarified—relative to the other—by recognizing the optical stratum to which the picture historically belongs. This phenomenal clarification can be helped by the juxtapositions. But more generally it requires “formal analysis”—specification of the ways in which the artwork exemplifies Vorstellungsbildung, however the analysis is carried out. (Perhaps it is a specification in written discourse and perhaps it is a simulation in visual diagram or model, or perhaps both, as in Wölfflin’s formal analysis of Dürer’s Ritter, Tod, und Teufel.) As Wölfflin’s student Panofsky recognized, what really counts is the distance one travels between seeing the picture outside the horizons of the optische Schicht in which it was constituted historically and considering it within them—moving from our optical stratum (or Daseinserfahrung as Panofsky put it with a nod to Heidegger) to the picture’s visuality. As Panofsky put it in 1938, “this is rational archaeological analysis at times as meticulously exact, comprehensive, and involved as any physical or astronomical research.”26
Panofsky thought that Wölfflin was overly confident about this transfer—about the warrants that enable art historians to shuttle among optische Schichten of different pictorial styles. (For Wölfflin these warrants included experimental psychophysiologies of rhythm in optical stimuli, or in responses to them.) Panofsky condemned “pseudo-formalism,” as he called it when stating his objections in English in 1939 in rewriting a major programmatic statement published in German in 1932: formalism that proceeds from Daseinserfahrung, our imaging of the object given our Sein und Zeit (our being, and especially our aesthetic valuation, in our existentially limited historical time), and never breaks out of it—never reaches the optische Schicht of the object in its proper Zeit und Ort, its historical time and place. He repeatedly instanced the way in which Wölfflin had overlooked the historically particular aesthetic theory—an idiosyncratic canon of proportions—by which Dürer had created visible rhythm in his picture. Wölfflin thought that we can just see the rhythm, or see it with a little help from formalism in its presentation of the artwork analytically clarified to reveal the form imposed by Dürer in imaging the picture. But Panofsky insisted that this analysis was not helping us to see Dürer’s rhythm (as configurational) by way of the artist’s own theory of proportions. That theory had not been art-historically identified until 1915 and by Panofsky himself (or so he supposed—there had been other proposals). Wölfflin’s formal analysis, then, was pseudo-formalism: objectified Daseinserfahrung passed off as analysis—even visual presentation—of “’what we see’” when we see Dürer’s form. Presumably he intended his scare quotes here to designate the tendentious formalistic reification, as if “form” is something that we can see in the object (or can see). As formalism or formal analysis, Wölfflin’s illustration was an analytic simulation of the artist’s forming activity—activity of intuition—in making his picture. But it risked being interpreted as an actual visual presentation of the form—giving us the form the picture can be seen to have if we look through some kind of non- or paraformal visual material, thereby overlooking much of the picture and its symbolism.
As I have argued in A General Theory of Visual Culture, pseudo-formalism in Panofsky’s sense—what Richard Wollheim has called “Manifest Formalism”—generates an infinite regress. Treated as visual presentation of form-as-visible, Wölfflin’s simulation nonetheless is simply another “formed” object (maybe an artwork in its own right) to be looked at in terms of its own form, if we continue to extend the fallacy. By the terms of the formalistic (or Manifest Formalist) analysis, there would have to be another formal analysis (discovering and presenting the form of the formal analysis . . .), and so on without end.
Here we must be careful, I realize. It is possible that one of the intellectual claims of formalism (as formalisticism)—one of its critical resources—is that it accepts the logical possibility of its endlessness, perhaps as an argument (or at least a belief) about the sensuous inexhaustibility of art, perhaps as a philosophy of the irreconcilability of human knowing in its discursive and nondiscursive registers, or perhaps as a practical sociology of varied human interactions when we show art to one another or tell one another about it. Here again we find that formalisticism might be a valid tactical method of formalism proper—even its necessary social and discursive forum (formalisticism is the pragmatics of transcendental formalism) and to an extent the evidence for it (without formalistically defined objects—even as objects of disagreement—one might doubt the very existence of a forming subject). If we drop the formalism proper, however, the formalisticism can be abandoned. Indeed, it need never arise. Rather than having to ask how the artwork “looks,” or “’what we see’,” we can ask different questions. Above all (and if we stick somewhat artificially to the register of visual and visible aspects) we can ask what it looks like. To the extent that we suppose the form of an artifact is constituted in essential primary movements of intuition, the question of how an artifact looks can receive a partly transcendental answer. Indeed, it must receive such an answer if there is no material account of historical variation in the forming capacity as such. But the question of what it is like can never receive anything but a historical answer.28
As late as 1951, Panofsky continued to criticize Wölfflin, at least for American readers. And his influence in America (given the strong pragmatist orientation of art history in the United States) reinforced worries about the supposed subjective origins, scientistic appeals, and transhistorical claims of Wölfflin’s formalism, regardless of its pedagogical appeal as integrated (for example) into the “Fogg Method” of training the art historian’s “eye.” In Panofsky’s wake, then, many North American art historians combined formalism with iconology—an unstable blend of transcendental psychology, critical phenomenology of art, and art-historical positivism that eventually imploded, though not without severe pressure exerted by critics who considered themselves to be anti-formalists.
Should we call Panofsky a post-formalist, then? For my purposes, probably not. Panofsky’s objection to pseudo-formalism in the “formal analysis” of artworks—whether or not it was the “Wölfflinian method” of comparative juxtaposition—was limited to its pre-iconological application without requisite iconological correction, as in Wölfflin’s simulation of Dürer’s Ritter, Tod, und Teufel. There is little evidence that Panofsky wanted to jettison formalism proper, or that he had a philosophical vocabulary in which to do so—at least one that he was willing to accept as a historian and a humanist. And there is considerable evidence that he took iconology to be the historical and humanistic application of formalism proper—that is, to be a culturally particular account of the interaction of “concept” (or symbol) with sensibility in the pathways of transcendental deduction, as Cassirer’s neo-Kantian “philosophy of symbolic form” had proposed. (Of course, Panofsky admitted—insisted—that freely created aesthetic values vary from one human group to another; but both Winckelmann and Kant had said the same thing, and in part as the very motivation for art-historical archaeology conceived as correction of aesthetic judgment.) In my terms, then, the dispute between Wölfflin and Panofsky was mostly about formalisticism in Wölfflin’s occasionally unqualified Manifest Formalism, such as his simulation of Dürer’s forming sensibility in making Ritter, Tod, und Teufel. Panofsky could have had other formalist fish to fry, such as Fry or Barnes. But perhaps it was self-evident to him that their formalisms were historically oriented even though they did not deploy the “rational archaeological analysis” that he recommended.
The “New Art History” of the 1980s also criticized “Wölfflinian method.” For example, in his Rethinking Art History of 1989 Donald Preziosi said that it set up art history as a technological “Panopticon.” On this view, the discipline of art history surveys an archive of illustrations of visual and material culture from around the world—an archive created by the Olympian gaze of missionaries, ethnologists, collectors, curators, and art historians, usually colonial-imperialist and maybe racist. (Of course, the art-history Panopticon also involved photography, expositions, museums, art handbooks, and other institutions beyond the one specifically associated with Wölfflinian pedagogy.)29
In 1989 art history undeniably needed postcolonial rethinking, and for some readers at the time Preziosi’s critique was decisive. But it has lost force in post-formalism, especially in so-called “object biography” (such as Richard Davis’s Lives of Indian Images of 1997), in transcultural art history (such as Barry Flood’s Objects of Translation of 2009), and in world art history (such as Summers’s Real Spaces). Post-formalists can treat the results of nonformalistic comparison not so much as a Eurocentric Panopticon as a postcolonial kaleidoscope. Indeed, object biography, transcultural art history, and world art history would be unthinkable if they could not undertake nonformalistic comparisons. Thus we have already found Summers—to stick to my main example of post-formalism—comparing Egyptian metric naturalism and Classical Greek optical naturalism in terms of the axes of observation adopted relative to the virtual coordinate plane, however one contextualizes the continuities (or not) between these optische Schichten.
§5. Post-Formalism as Art History Proper. In excavating the optische Schichten in which artworks—that is, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and so on—are constituted, and to return to my starting point, post-formalist art history calls for histories of the aesthetic orders and structures (as it were the “art”) of human vision, of imaging and envisioning, that is, of its active imaginative force whether or not any actual historical artwork was (or is) in vision or in view. The optical appearance of visual artworks—the supposed object of Wöfflinian formalism—is becoming less important analytically than the configuring force of imaging, regardless of what is imaged: an artwork; another kind of artifact; a person; a state of affairs in nature. Stated most dramatically, then, in a post-formalist history of imaging it would be perfectly possible for an art historian not to write about artworks or “objects” at all, at least if they are taken to be the primary object of study or the basic unit of analysis—als die elementarste Aufgabe der Kunstgeschichte, as Wölfflin specifically said they are not (situating him as a pre-post-formalist or as the very first post-formalist avant la lettre). In no central theoretical respect would this compromise the post-formalist’s identity as an art historian—as a historian of imaging as artful. In Summers’s analysis of planarity in ancient Egyptian depiction, what counts is the optical “axis of direct observation,” “completion” of volumes, and virtualization of the “coordinate plane”—parameters in imaging and productions of imaging. Any depiction constituted within these parameters of imaging will be so produced, even if “formally” it is a perspective projection. (In this case, an ancient Egyptian beholder accommodated to the optische Schicht of planarity would likely see it—optically “form” it—to be optically incorrect in specifying the real size of the objects depicted on the coordinate plane, or, alternately, would try to “form” it in such a way as to see their social and symbolic status in the size they are depicted to have.) Anything that we say art-historically about the objects—say about the colors of the painting used to “sculpt” virtual volumes in relation to the depicted space—must follow from the primary relations of their optische Schicht.
Of course, the question of “The Object” remains. Artifacts such as artworks do not have the same “materiality” as imaging, even if visual perception should be described as aesthetically ordered. But the aesthetic force of visual art is constituted in imaging it: in seeing it, or in imagining its visibility—aspects it might have when seen. Therefore the question of the art object lies within the questions of imaging as aesthetic. To repeat, then, in a post-formalist art history it is possible—sometimes desirable and maybe essential—not to write about any particular objects at all. This isn’t news in Strukturforschung after Wölfflin or in the archaeology of art (conceived, for example, on Kublerian lines). It is unnerving mostly for formalists mired in formalisticism. Having put the formality in the artwork or object, obviously they have to start with that thing. “Formal analysis” of an artwork, “close looking” at objects, an “iconic turn” to their “presence”: all of these court formalistic fallacy—formalism rampant.
It will not escape notice, however, that I have come close to depending on the same circularity that bedeviled Wölfflin. Sometimes it derailed his art-historical practice: as we have seen, his formal analysis of Dürer’s engraving—supposedly reporting empirically on the historical order of Dürer’s formal sensibility—was mocked by Panofsky as the very nadir of “pseudo-formalism.” How do we excavate the optische Schichten—the visual strata of art as historical—without “formally analyzing” the configuration of artworks? Isn’t imaging, including the constitution of formality, just a black box? Isn’t artistic object-form its manifest correlate? If optical strata are the objects of analysis, aren’t artworks our data?
Yes, artworks—and the wider field of artifacts—are data. But no, we do not use their formality—their form for us—as evidence for the optische Schicht in which they were constituted. Rather, we look at what people in the past did with the things, what they used them to do, in order to infer the network of aspects that the things had for them—aspects not limited to formality but including pictoriality and visible style. We look especially at how they replicated things: which features they chose to preserve, what they allowed to vary. Perspectival effects were not replicated in Egyptian depiction even though they would have to be ubiquitous in imaging the very same pictures. (Summers’s diagrammatic analysis of the virtual coordinate plane in ancient Egyptian “metric naturalism” adopts a natural visual perspective on the depiction in order to illustrate the phenomenon; given specified architectural conditions, anyone—including the Egyptians—could see the picture at this visual angle. But this is not pseudo-formalism because it isn’t showing “what we see”—that is, what the Egyptians saw when beholding these pictures. Rather, it virtualizes the real-spatial parameters of the optische Schicht of Egyptian pictoriality.) We can therefore infer that the optische Schicht within which its pictorial formality was constituted—the apparent configuratedness of such pictures—was not perspectival. On this virtual coordinate plane, “depth” does not mean diminution. One did not and could not use the virtuality to tell him how far away the depicted objects are from the plane of the format, though he could use it to show that they are separated in space—even to show how “big” they are relative to each other.30
Moreover, imaging is not really a black box. Vision science and perceptual psychology bring a mass of anatomical, experimental, and clinical data to bear on vision treated as active configuring of information in light reflected into the eyes, as if Wölfflin’s Sehen an sich were a painter painting a picture. This metaphor has been fully exploited (indeed analytically integrated) in Semir Zeki’s formalist neuroaesthetics, though the “Painter,” of course, is the human visual brain and the “Painting” is the world it sees. Because I have commented on this elsewhere, here I can go straight to the implications for post-formalist art history.31
As I see it, post-formalist art history is post-the-formalism of neuroaesthetics, or it should be. The mass of neuroaesthetic data was not collected in terms of Wölfflin’s theory that vision has a history. In fact, much of it was collected in terms of an opposite hypothesis, namely, that the processing of reflected light in the visual brain can be treated as a historical invariant (barring neuropathology) even though the things it makes to be seen are historically variable—formally multiform. If we extend Zeki’s metaphor, one Painter—the brain—paints all the paintings that have ever been made—that ever will be made for a very long time.
How does the theory of optische Schichten square with this? Wölfflinian vision- historicism, if it is accepted at all, would commit post-formalist art history to the metaphor that there have been many different Painters Painting Pictures—many neurologically real “visions.” And why?
Because literally there have been many different real painters painting different real paintings in the world—people making things to be seen, to be used visually, including pictures and artworks. When the Painter (vision) sees these things, and finds out what can be done with them or how they can be used visually, it will—if adaptive and intelligent—Paint differently. Indeed, it must Paint differently (in greater or lesser measure) in order to find out what can be done with these things or how they can be used visually, especially if the things were made by painters (and Painters) other than himself or herself. Of course, when it Paints differently he or she will paint different real paintings to be seen by other painters (and Painters). The historical cycle will spiral on. New optical strata will be laid down in the accumulated repertory of the Painter that each real painter is (and that each Painter has), and as the art history of his or her seeing: Das Sehen an sich hat seine Kunstgeschichte.
Indeed, we might derive the historicity of vision from mere variance in the replication of pictures that accrue in the visible world and demand to be used pictorially in ways that seem to be commensurate not only with their apparent configuration as we see it but also with their historicity—that is, with our historical awareness that we haven not yet seen what they can show us. It is possible that vision has an art history because pictures can be historical for us: erupting in and rupturing our visual field, our Painting, they create its optical strata. Seeing them as such, we are asked—maybe required—to see things anew.