Well, let’s face it: this blog will not earn me any points for contemporary relevance (1). And this particular post won’t help either ….
In a world facing the challenges of migratory and demographic pressures, in a world threatened by a bloated capitalist system in globalizing overdrive, in a world of dazzling scientific and technological complexity… In such a world, what did I do, on a sunny Saturday in October, AD 2010?
Reader, I confess I took the train to a provincial Flemish university town (2) to go and see a precious 14th century illuminated manuscript, the Bible of Anjou , temporarily released from its dark abode.
How out of step with one’s own time (& with the lovely weather) can one get? The sunny street-terraces were full of people eating & drinking, staring mockingly at the fool entering a museum. Even inside the museum itself, I felt as if my peculiar longings were met with contempt.
While awaiting my turn to ask for directions, I heard how an interestingly-artistic looking, casually-trendily dressed woman, who was inquiring about the different museum-levels, clicked her tongue impatiently when the official listed all exhibits, saying with peremptory disdain: “no, I am not interested in the Anjou Bible!”.
Feeling personally chastened, and darkly brooding on the irrelevance of my loves in art, I made my way through the rooms with the permanent medieval collections.
But ah, I soon stopped sulking, because there was that room with the medieval religious statues! Worn wooden statues, with faint polychromatic traces, expressing various degrees of pathos - solemn or rather hand-wringing suffering, grave or rather cloyingly sentimental mother love.
Statues telling the stories of an all but extinct religion, conveying the messages of a faith I do not share, invested with now long renounced collective beliefs, lacking all modern interest in artistic expression of highly individual emotions, far removed from my own daily pre-occupations and struggles. And yet, wasn’t the whole gamut of fundamental human emotions there?
And so, though these statues have nothing to do with me or my world, I felt connected and deeply moved. Also, I felt somehow soothed, perhaps because these statues offer a retreat from my being just trapped in my own transient hopes & fears & emotions. It felt like when hearing a far-off echo, or the distant cries of children playing in a school yard, …. or like when staring in the distance, at a receding, bluish-simmering horizon.
And only then did I really notice the sounds in the room, sounds forming so naturally a part of the setting … melancholy echoing cries of crows like one can hear in the country side in late autumn. The sounds, capturing & expressing so well this sensation of age-old echoing, turned out to come from an audio-installation by a contemporary artist,
And thus, I felt somehow vindicated: wasn’t this indeed proof enough that my sensations, my loves in art are not merely a matter of isolated idiosyncratic taste … that these medieval statues are indeed not yet dead… since they could still inspire a contemporary artistic dialogue?
Hey, but how about the Anjou bible, the alert reader (3) may wonder. Well, it was in yet another room, and it was lovely! Peering into the glass cases, I marveled at those folios with beautifully traced Latin letters, with texts framed by intricately interlacing curves, illuminated by pious bible-scenes and by droll figures tumbling in the margins.
I couldn’t decipher the Latin words, the precise significance of many of the bible-scenes eluded me. Mine was in part naïve marvel as well as awe at the precarious preciousness of it all. And a chuckling fascination for the irreverent menagerie of little figures in the margins: diverse naked little men (with an astonishing range of oddly shaped hats (4) ), Christian knights on horses affronting Muslim fighters on camelback, writhing dragons and other fable monsters, …
The leaflet I had picked up reassuringly showed that scholars were able to trace back each bible-scene, to identify each reference. My own cultural equipment to meet the splendor of these folios was limited to a shallow primary school religious education, to a general curiosity about the diverse manifestations of the human imagination, and to a amateur interest in western art history. A passionate amateur interest in art history!
Art history for me is about a “humanist” interest in how the human mind tirelessly (& uselessly) develops intricate systems of meanings & ideas (all destined one day to crumble & to become irrelevant) . (5) And it is about an aesthetic interest in the history of representation, of form & color & composition, the visible traces of the many splendored variations spawned by human minds. Thus, Art history bears witness to the wide range of human sensibilities & reflective possibilities as they have been realized throughout the ages. (6)
Art history is obviously suffused with cultural relativity, relativity in terms of space and time. Works of art are determined by man-made social values and customs, by man-made religions and philosophies that all come and go.
Art history is about the coming and going of human ways of seeing and of representing the world. And with some of these ways of seeing I feel deep affinities, some leave me indifferent and yet others merely amaze me by their sheer exoticness. But, with some effort of the imagination, and by some learning, and by some un-learning too (of one’s own received ideas), one can arrive at some sort of connection, some sort of appreciation of human artifacts of whatever age or region.
After all, we do all share the basic human equipment of our eyes and hands, and neither has the human condition of fragility fundamentally changed.
So, both as an aesthete and as a humanist I love art history, not to impose the unaltered continuation of standards once deemed classical, nor to block artistic innovations. This love of mine is rather a love of the eye for the many formal realisations of beauty and it is a respect of the mind & the heart for traditions as fragile records of what humans once valued and thought. And these traditions are worth studying, “not [as] a review of bygone concepts”, but because they are a "precious [reminder] of [once living] men’s experiences and values, a human record".
Thus art historical studies help to enlarge one’s own limited frame of reference, and help to revive & recover something of the meaning of these human records from the past. (8)
“For the essence of humanism is that belief […] that nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality – no language they have ever spoken, […], no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal” (9)
Not entirely irrelevant notes
(1) neither for past or future relevance, come to think of it.
(2) And on the train I was woefully escaping from the present daunting world in a book, written by an early 20th C medieval art scholar, about (fading & flaking) wall paintings in Romanesque churches …
(3) Rashly assuming a reader made it till here
(4) If ever I were to be endowed with the necessary time, opportunity and skills – I’d write two thematic art histories: one about shadows and the other about the representation of hats throughout the ages.
(5) Erwin Panofsky – “Art as a Humanistic Discipline” : “It may be taken for granted that art history deserves to be counted among the humanities. But what is the use of humanities as such? Admittedly they are not practical, and admittedly they concern themselves with the past. Why, it may be asked, should we engage in impractical investigations, and why should we be interested in the past? “ A rhetorical question … If we ourselves are not interested in the past, don’t we then seal the total annihilation of everything men ever thought and aspired to, including our own aspirations and ruminations?
(6) “Impractical and useless”, this obviously applies to aesthetic interests as well as to any interest in the past. But so what, in any case, “l’homme est une passion inutile”
(7) Nè nè nà nè naa, catch me if you can! – of course I can brandish an irreproachably postmodern quote to back-up this last ditch retreat : Thierry De Duve, Au Nom de l’Art- “Vous n’êtes plus rien, rien de spécial. Vous n’êtes plus un spécialiste, vous êtes vous-même, sans qualification particulière, un simple amateur. […] Vous n’avez pour tout savoir que votre certitude et pour toute certitude que votre sentiment. Il est irrécusable à vos yeux, il est sa propre preuve. […] Votre goût est un habitus esthétique, mais c’est le vôtre »
(8) Erwin Panofsky – “Art as a Humanistic Discipline” : “The humanities […][have the task of] enlivening what otherwise would remain dead . […] the humanities endeavor to capture the processes in the course of which those records were produced and became what they are” -
H. Focillon – [l’histoire de l’art est une] “histoire de l’esprit humain par les formes”
G. Lukàcs – « conscience- de- soi de l’évolution de l’humanité »
Good Old Hegel : « Geistesgeschichte »
(9) Walter Pater, Studies in Art and Poetry, : “Pico Della Mirandola”
(10) The images of landscapes that illuminate this post are details from ancient paintings (Joos De Momper, Tiziano, Matsys). In two cases they formed only modest backdrops to the main subject. But how much I love to gaze at these little landscapes in teh background, at the blue and green hues, at the shimmering horizons, at the golden browns of leaves, at the dazzling splendor of a sinking sun… how dearly I love wandering through these landscapes…