Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them.... The persistence which is expressed in the intention of mourning is born of its loyalty to the world of things. --Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1) Some thoughts by allusion, quotation, mood, and metaphor on mourning, writing, and the history of art
Writing about visual art, like looking at it, can on occasion console, captivate, and enrapture. The act of trying to put into words, spoken or written, something that never promised the possibility of a translation can at rare moments blur the boundaries between author and work, enveloping the writer in a greater world of mutual understanding. (2) Usually language gets in the way. The enchantment that transpires between beholder and work of art has no name because it resists linguistic appropriation. Try as philosophers might, we resignedly call this "feeling" the "aesthetic" and trust that that lone word covers the compelling, unseen, ineffable, mysterious lure of certain objects. Even Bernard Berenson, self-assured connoisseur that he was, recognized that something more was at work in the contemplation of visual objects than empirical knowledge:
In visual art the aesthetic moment is that fleeting instant, so brief as to be almost timeless, when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at.... He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness. When he recovers workaday consciousness it is as if he had been initiated into illuminating, formative mysteries. (3) The experience of visual captivation (when the two become one) is transitory, even ephemeral, however powerful its aftereffects. In "workaday consciousness," its consolation lingers, and like ruins contemplated across many cultures and several centuries in faraway places, these material objects provoke a sad and romantic yearning for something that has long ago passed away. This sensation is not modern. As long ago as the fourth century, Saint Jerome wrote: "The gods adored by nations are now alone in their niches with the owls and the night-birds. The gilded Capitol languishes in dust and all the temples of Rome are covered with spiders' webs." (4) At the close of the last century, the late writer W. G. Sebald mused on what troubled Sir Thomas Browne in 1658 as he contemplated a treasure trove of recently uncovered burial urns in Norfolk:
The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow.... The heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature. (5) Mourning, melancholy, monuments lost, monuments found. The duty of any serious art historian is to discover their many stories and then turn these explorations, through the act of writing, into an ever-growing corpus of visual knowledge. Nevertheless, what kind of scholar is drawn to what objects and why? What psychic role does the act of writing about works of art fulfill? Writing about art of the past is a magical game, full of illusions. On the surface it suggests that we can hold onto the past--tame it, compel it to conform to a reasonable narrative--and that conviction makes us go on. Surely that is not all there is to it. It does not take much insight to recognize that something else pricks this sober veneer of professional commitment. As Roland Barthes once said, "what I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance." (6) The "aesthetic moment," for lack of a better phrase, quietly waits in the background, and when it makes itself felt, it so often hurts. What is it that ails us? or, conversely, sometimes empowers us?
I am going to make a case for bestowing a name on our disciplinary companion: Melancholy. Or perhaps her twin sister, Mourning. Sometimes, despite Freud, it is difficult to tell them apart. (7) Other fields of inquiry also deal with "dead" objects, but the history of art invites melancholy to come along in a distinctly concrete way. Unless we are critics of contemporary art, the works of art with which art historians traffic come from worlds long gone, and our duty is to bring these material orphans into our care and breathe new life into them. As Martin Heidegger once said, "World-withdrawal and world-decay can never be undone. The works are no longer the same as they once were. It is they themselves, to be sure, that we encounter there, but they themselves are gone by." (8) "The humanities ... are not faced by the task of arresting what otherwise would slip away," argued the great art historian Erwin Panofsky in contradistinction to the sciences, "but of enlivening what would otherwise remain dead." (9) The objectness of the object insists on it. A work of art stands before us, as Heidegger would say, in its "thingly character" as it "hangs on the wall like a rifle or a hat"; (10) yet all the living, pulsating cords that once upon a time connected it to a live and busy surround have withered away. True enough, William Shakespeare's original manuscript of Othello, or a recently discovered fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, might, if we were allowed to hold it in our hands, weave similar kinds of melancholic spells around us. So, too, with the score of a Bach partita. For the most part, we encounter these orphans only through reproductions, editions, many successive printings, and performances. An original work of art--a Renaissance painting, for example--exists in our own time and space (even in the artificial ambience of a museum), and it beckons us for corporeal response by dint of its own physical presence. "The thematized world of the past," declares Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, "is metonymically present in the world of recipients through certain objects." (11) By this reckoning, a museum--itself another kind of art historical "writing"--is a place "where the dead, through the care of the living, perpetuate their afterlives...." (12) The kind of professional care with which we respond as art historians resides comfortably in our essays and books, but whence comes the desire to write about these works in the first place? Surely the melancholic awareness of time gone by, the enforced abandonment of place by these material exiles, "pricks" our professional competence and denies an easy access to the loss that we are struggling to ignore. (13)
A couple of proleptic remarks: this essay is addressed directly to the scholarly commitment of writing art history and only indirectly to the role of evocative and meaningful historical objects in our memories, archives, and attics. No doubt, the key to the Bastille that lies quietly in the French National Assembly, or a fragment of an inscription from a recently excavated Mayan tomb, or even the love letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother in 1918 evince a powerful phenomenological pull all their own. The metonym is the message. Nonetheless, the objects to which I wish principally to allude are those that are represented through the genre of writing acknowledged as the discipline of art history. Works of art almost always come to us already mediated. By crossing the axis of aesthetics (hallowed works) with that of history (time gone by), art historians have confronted, over the past century, the oxymoronic challenge of turning the visual into the verbal. Since the eighteenth century, rightly or wrongly, scholars have ennobled certain objects with the mantle of art, thereby separating the realm of artifacts from visual objects that bear the impress of a special aesthetic status. It is this historically and epistemologically identifiable genre of writing that I wish to explore. And while I may well be employing some of the critical and theoretical commitments of visual and cultural studies, I recognize that these contemporary ways of thinking have decidedly different kinds of objects to call their own. The subject of this essay is writing art history as it has been or, indeed, still is.
As the late Maurice Blanchot has reminded us, writing of any sort pushes the raw phenomenological experience further and further into the background. It is an activity that promises warm solace but delivers cool distance. Writing, even that of "ordinary" scholarship, is a product of dread. "One dies at the thought that anything to which one is attached is lost." (14) Of course, art historians are a special breed of "suffering" human beings. To paraphrase Panofsky, we children of Saturn are born wise but not necessarily happy. (15) Since our discipline's founding over a century ago, as scholars we have striven for objectivity and critical distance when it comes to our chosen objects. We are historians, after all, and our mandate is to proceed according to certain established principles of investigation. Berenson, for example, would have been thoroughly convinced of that. No doubt, the foundations of our creed may have been shaken by a powerful series of poststructural earthquakes at the end of the last century, but most of us have gone on in the hope of finding some element of certainty or, at least, understanding, in an archive, an attribution, or an analysis. And perhaps that is just as it should be, else historical knowledge would not "progress." As Georges Didi-Huberman eloquently reminds us, though, sorrow and yearning can emanate from many sources:
Before an image, finally, we have to humbly recognize this fact: that it will probably outlive us, that before it we are the fragile element, the transient element, and that before us it is the element of the future, the...