Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper
New York: Zone Books, 2001. 317 pp.; 1 color ill., 203 b/w. $46.00
"But it's only an interpretation; two years from now someone will come up with another interpretation, and then what have you got." (1) That is Leo Steinberg's impression of the response his work elicited from the profession's graybeards in the late 1950s. Interpretations, by their account, were ephemeral, rendered obsolete in the time it took to write a doctoral thesis. Easily hatched, they were easily dispatched, being mere opinions whose career depended entirely on occasion and rhetoric. Impermanence reached a verdict on their verity. It indicted them as vain, illusory, and deceptive and set them off against their permanent opposite, the hard fact.
From its beginning as an academic discipline, art history patterned its pursuits and pedagogy on the natural sciences. Following this model, foundational work was "done once and for all" in the form of an accepted theory. Future research--what Thomas Kuhn termed "normal science"--constituted mop-up work, facts meticulously gathered to articulate a paradigm established in the past. (2) Hence the resistance, puzzling to outsiders, of scientists to scientific discoveries. Steinberg reminds us what, by the paradigm of the period, a proper art historical "finding" was generally deemed to be: a hypothesis about an artwork's meaning that written evidence (treatises, letters, contracts, wills, and so on) could prove had been the intended significance. Of course, empirical art history accomplished and accomplishes far more than verifying intentions. It discovers, examines, and identifies the objects available to interpreters in the first place. Such primary fact collecting, however, will have been preceded by value judgments, the criteria for which are impossible to establish empirically. One could gather, say, all one's neighbor's extant potato prints and question their maker personally about their intended meaning. Such labor would probably be forgotten, however, not because one's interpretations lacked proof but because the objects had no public champions besides oneself. In the realm of nature, a fact is a fact no matter how small; in the artistic domain, facts, in order to survive, must pertain to things deemed significant, or else rhetoric (suspect to the scientific enterprise) must be enlisted to speak for--and in a sense fabricate--that significance. The longevity of scholarship depends as much on the estimation of its objects as on the solidity of its findings. One old standard for the small but truly long-lived contribution in the humanities would be an accepted emendation of one word in the Iliad. For as long as Homer remains culturally vital, every correct philological finding, incorporated (along with an attribution) into the apparatus criticus of his texts, will stay alive.
Steinberg imagined the reaction of his mentors in 1977, in the preface to the republication of his 1960 Ph.D. thesis, "Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane." By that time, his analysis of this monument's overlapping geometry and Trinitarian symbolism had outlasted whatever skepticism it originally had received. More generally, Steinberg's procedure, perceived as renegade at the time of the dissertation, of deriving and verifying pictorial meaning from the visual evidence alone, gained acceptance as an analytic routine. Under the influence of structuralism and semiotics, and through a critical renascence of speculative work by the discipline's own founders, art history by the 1980s learned to "read" images as if they were yet another type of text, while in the meantime written documents, hitherto treated as the stuff of proof, came to seem as semantically open-ended as images. And with this expanded concept of reading came a new historicism, which, locating the visual arts in a wider, nontextual culture of their time, was beginning to alter preconceptions about what a verbally articulated intention might be. What previously would have been dismissed as "wild" analysis became acceptable and expectable, given these new models of image, text, and culture. University faculty search committees today are more likely to complain, in the absence of an original and methodologically self-reflective interpretation on the part of an applicant, "But it's only a fact."
The longevity of Steinberg's interpretations derives partly from their audacity. Steinberg is the quintessential "agonist" of his profession. (3) He seeks less to contribute to a developing understanding of the objects he studies than to revise so fundamentally what these objects are perceived to be that the critical literature will seem to begin with him. Permanently at war against received ideas, his scholarship annihilates more than it accumulates. Steinberg displays a competitive personality in every turn of phrase. In Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper, gnomic expressions (such as the "jinks of such nimbleness," "the van of his forwardness"), a hypertrophied vocabulary ("septemfluous," "minishing," "complexionally propense"), solemnizing anastrophes (the "body eschatological," "a moment unborn"), and histrionic exhortations ("You non-painters!") exude intelligence and enthusiasm; drawing attention to the thought and the emotion of the author, such a style contrasts with the cool, rhetorically impersonal prose of most old and new art history. While all scholarship tacitly involves some private quest for power, Steinberg makes his bid cheerfully manifest. This ostentation of critical strength has, in fact, a higher scholarly purpose. Interpretative audacity, an elevated rhetoric, and unabashed professional pride contribute to a pragmatic self-reliance that links Steinberg to the original creations he studies.
"Theories," wrote the principal theorist of pragmatism, William James. "become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don't lie back upon them, we move forward, and on occasion, make nature over again by their aid." (4) The longevity of Steinberg's arguments derives partly from the fact that in mounting them, he also remakes the object of his scrutiny, articulating why it should count now and for the future. Certainly, he fixes on indubitable "greats," the art historical warhorses Leonardo, Michelangelo, Diego Velazquez, Pablo Picasso, and the like. But in attending to the canon in the canon, he sets out to produce, against a backdrop of the cliches they have become, a new description of their novelty. For Steinberg, whose influence as a critic of contemporary art may still outweigh his achievements as a historian, masterpieces die when interpretative work on them is perceived to be "done once and for all." His classic essay on Les demoiselles d'Avignon charged that five decades of formalism had effectively killed Picasso's revolutionary painting by presuming to grasp entirely its historical achievement. Reversing the now-hollow celebration of the Demoiselles as modern art's triumph of form over content, Steinberg recovered an underlying erotic plot that undoes the dream of pure form.
The present study opens with a dual specter of terminated exegesis and a vanishing object: "Two questions arise at the mention of Leonardo's Last Supper: Is there anything left to see? and Is there anything left to say?" (p. 12). Steinberg equates having nothing to say with having nothing to behold, since artworks, even physically stable ones, must be continually made new by their beholder. This process of imaginative reconstruction is only more dramatic in the case of Leonardo's great mural in the refectory of S. Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Despite--or perhaps because of--its extreme material impermanence (its longtime restorer. Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, wrote of her Sisyphean labor. "It's enough to make a person want to shoot herself"), the work remains, in the efforts taken to preserve, copy, and comprehend it, hermeneutically "incessant," and nowhere more so than in the pages of Steinberg's new book, which seeks to prove, as an incontrovertible fact, that with this work interpretation cannot cease.
That Steinberg's interpretations survive, outliving their doubters, gets exhibited in the sedimented structure of their successive republication. Beginning often as articles (which themselves proclaim their origin in some precocious lecture), then turned into books (if reprinted, these swell in proportion to the criticism they first occasioned), his arguments celebrate their historical vindication by parading the spolia of all prior battles. The book under review opens with an antiphony of Steinberg now and then, in 1973, when "that early opus ... filled one issue of a venerable quarterly journal which then promptly lost its old sponsor" (p. 12). Are we meant to infer that the event of this single article occupying an entire number of the Art Quarterly prompted the organ's untimely demise? Probably not. But the action, repeated with The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, of monopolizing a periodical with the launch of an outsize argument does project a sense of urgency and risk.
And Steinberg's arguments are often hazardous. It takes courage to contend that during the Renaissance, the pictorial display of Christ's genitals was "comparable to the canonic ostentatio vulnerum." (5) In what Henry James called the eternal dispute between curiosity and delicacy. Steinberg sides with inquisitiveness, although his graceful prose and the praise he lavishes on artists restore a discursive decorum that his inquiry initially disrupts. Where he is unapologetically tactless, though, is in his treatment of his critics. Nearly a third of the revised and enlarged edition of The Sexuality of Christ (almost all of its expansion) is devoted to rebuttal. "The two scholars who worked hardest to deflate ... [The Sexuality of Christ's] argument receive careful attention," warns the...