Alex Potts's compelling book on Winckelmann might have been called "Mourning the Impossible Ideal." From its wry and poignant choice of jacket illustrations to its Freudian speculations and daring challenges to received wisdom, it sweeps the reader ineluctably from seemingly mundane matters of antiquarian connoisseurship to profound questions of human consciousness, eliciting during its course the darkest doubts at the heart of art history itself. Rich and dense in its documentation and close analysis of text, the book is finely wrought to coherence through the author's rigorous theoretical consistency and unflinching focus on his thesis. Potts's deconstructive method, inspired in particular by Paul de Man, features the repressed aspects of Winckelmann's idealism as fully as those which are manifest; it brings out its affirmations as well as its costs. Thus, Flesh and the Ideal - a title implying the inevitable contradiction-yet-interdependence of the mortal imperfections of humanity and the grandeur of its dreams - is primarily a sophisticated reading and meditation rather than a positivist exposition or account. Yet one emerges from it believing firmly that only such an approach can ever do justice to a man whose ideas resonate across the centuries, from the robustness of the Apollo Belvedere (Vatican Museum) to Hollywood's slim hero of Apollo 13. If Johann Joachim is finally smiling in the grave where modernity thought it had dumped him, his expression is probably a bit uneasy, too, for Potts's book is expose as much as it is apologia. Yet in resuscitating the anxieties and complexities that permeate Winckelmann's enterprise, Potts has done more credit to his subject's reputation than anyone had previously thought possible.
A dialectical argument, grounded in dichotomies of presence versus absence, affirmation versus repression, desire versus loss, aims to show that the effect of history is not a mimesis or description but a metaphorical representation. For such a demonstration, Winckelmann turns out to be an extraordinarily good example. In his first chapter, Potts demonstrates through comparison with other 18th-century writers how Winckelmann aimed to constitute a "system" - itself a novelty - rather than adduce a series of facts, as was the prior practice in biography-centered histories of art (e.g., Vasari and Bellori). That new paradigm's originality was, first, to present historical development in three phases going from archaism, via an ideal stage, into a decline, and, second, to link those periods to a historical context, albeit considerably idealized. In historicizing the development of Greek art, Winckelmann's theory gave an ostensibly empirical basis to the traditionally accepted superiority of the ancients, whose supposed political and social freedoms he admired. But, in so doing, he unwittingly problematized the usefulness of the Greek model for contemporary art by undermining its claim to universality. Winckelmann was read enthusiastically by Johann Gottfried Herder (and Goethe soon thereafter), but in his commentaries on Winckelmann's writings, Herder perceptively noted this contradiction, despite their shared conviction that culture was rooted in values specific to historical situations. In Winckelmann's time, still dominated by a centuries-old admiration for antiquity, such a paradox was not as yet apparent. Indeed, Potts shows that Winckelmann's stylistic terminology derives conceptually from rhetorical modes described in the writings of the ancients. It perpetuates the links between art theory and rhetorical tradition so clearly established as underlying the previous generation of the arts by Jacqueline Lichtenstein's superb discussion of the great debate on color.(1) Thus, as Potts shows, Winckelmann's claims for Greek art place into conflict two competing world views that are both at the heart of the Enlightenment's belief in progress: a Classical persistence of static goals and transcendent values versus the Romantic view of ongoing organic evolution and historical relativism. Winckelmann's theory signals a paradigm shift that will be fully exemplified in Goethe's grounding of art in principles of nature itself.
Another irresolvable tension dynamically informs Winckelmann's notion of ideal. For Winckelmann, there were two aspects to the ideal - the "high style" and the "beautiful": the first is an elevated form associated with manliness and the spirit of freedom; the second is rooted in gracefulness and refinement, linked to gentle climate and to culture:
In [Winckelmann's] scheme Greek art, as an art that seeks to convey abstract ideas by way of "beautiful" figurations of the human body, does so in two complementary modes, each of their very essence incomplete: a high mode that suggests the presence of an immaterial idea through a comparative absence of sensual refinement of form, and a beautiful mode, characterized by a fullness of sensuality and grace, which is more immediately attractive but can only evoke such an idea at one remove." (p. 68)
Freedom itself is of two kinds: freedom as active self-determination and freedom from need, which permits narcissistic self-contemplation. In no individual work can these terms quite coincide; rather, the one operates more or less to the exclusion of the other. Often, however, a link or sequence is implied between the two. For without the freedom acquired through the virile stage, the stage of gracefulness might not be attained. In Winckelmann's descriptions of certain statues, particularly the Belvedere Torso (Vatican Museum) and the Belvedere Antinous (Vatican Museum), the forms associated with one stage may suggest the next: "the ideal male figure is represented as recollecting or intimating a physical display of its manly capacities, which it could not embody directly without disrupting its harmoniously self-contained beauty of form" (p...