Art History as the Science of the Image?

Interview with Ernő Marosi

On the margins of a lecture series


József Mélyi: Horst Bredekamp, in his lecture series in Munich and for many years prior, has often spoken on the subject of art history as a potential historical science of the image.

Ernő Marosi: To be honest, I feel that the notion that art history could be a science of the image is one-sided and to a certain extent contrary to the traditional frameworks of art history. Of course, this might be an ultraconservative viewpoint. From its beginnings, by no means was it only a science of the image, but much more than that, and perhaps this could be interesting from the perspective of image theory too. It is not that art history within the framework of the concept of art treats the image as we imagine as based on some kind of image-producing automatism. Here we might think of the camera, which maps things according to a predetermined optical conformity, be it for the eye or for the physiological and psychophysical processes which occur in our eyes, as in a camera, following the appearance of optical phenomena, in our brains. I feel that this is a possible route in the perception of art history as a domain of pure visuality, if originally, however, not entirely identical with the interpretation of art. Thus, if here, taking the Crocean conception of pure visuality as our starting point, we attempt to define art history, or in the same way, if we follow the Wölfflin, Riegl branch of the stylistic history of the turn of the century, there is a resolute ambition for the definitively optical definition of art – or in the case of Riegl, of other sensory domains and as an optical transition – then we progress along a sort of reduction of art history. It is not only visuality and vision that belong to the thematic sphere of classical art history. In this sense, the history of art cannot be reduced to imagery. If it is a part of art history, today the history of the image is certainly an extremely important part, but this cannot be identical with the entirety of art history. To simply demonstrate this, the following catchwords emerge: architecture, sculpture, the applied arts, the most varied spheres of the composition of objects. Thus, in this sense it is true that modern art historical writing in such spheres attempts an interpretation not of their technical, but their sensory essence, as a vision; nevertheless, I feel that we cannot ignore the question of what actually happens with the artefact, with the object, within which a creative artist – to use a really dirty modern word that is often and easily misunderstood – codes the (to use another similarly callous type of word) message, which finally reaches us as a visual sign. I consider this an extraordinarily important question because I do not believe in any kind of “virtual” art history. I am perfectly aware that the concept of art is a virtual concept; if, however, I simply reduce the concept of art to the creation of pictures, I then in fact relativise the role of memory, and I relativise the role of those individual objects whose site of safekeeping will be the museum. This engages with a third problem, that likewise concerns a question of relativity. If I comprehend works of art as objects and not simply as virtual images, then infallibly the problematics of quality and selection arise. It is obvious that we can never conserve all of life. As proceeds from the state of the museum, we cannot circumvent the requisite of quality, which plainly expresses itself in the decision for preservation. These are the three momentum that prompt me – in a conservative manner, departing from the perspective of the dilettante, strongly from the collection, and clinging fiercely to objects – to question the perception of the entirety of art history as a science of the image. Not to contest, of course, that there does exist as well the potential for a general science of the image concealed within, but at least in my own interpretation, there is significantly more than that.

J.M.: Neither Bredekamp nor Belting assert that art history should become exclusively a science of the image. They contend, rather, that this could be realised in an interdisciplinary manner, in which art history could play a vital role, in the case that its borders are expanded and its conservative viewpoint is revised with reference to the Warburg principles, and advertising, television or the various branches of applied graphic arts, for example, are lifted into its domain.

E.M.: I would say that this has already taken place.

J.M.: They would not contest it. What they put forth is that art history should take on the leading role in an interdisciplinary science of the image.

E.M.: This is absolutely true, but this does not imply for a moment that due to art history”s character of being a leading force, the misunderstanding of other disciplines should follow. Of course, this also touches upon such questions as the extent to which the history of architecture or sculpture remains specific and the extent to which it is reduced to the generated image of architecture or sculpture. In Goethe”s description of architecture of the time, one of his cardinal tenets was that if a blind person or someone blindfolded were brought into a building, he would, in fact, become perfectly aware of the qualities of the building through his other – bodily, acoustic – senses. I would ask if here we do not return to the ancient theme of Paragone, which focuses on vision as the most refined of the senses, this most intelligent, most intellectual form of sensation as opposed to the other forms of perception that are connected with an object or to the ground.

J.M.: One of the neuro-researcher lecturers of the Munich series, Wolf Singer, even devised a sequence categorising the forms of sensation.

E.M.: That is a different question, if the natural scientist builds according to his own findings or perhaps by the fashionable opinions of society. That is to say, with good reason or not, here I must raise the question of the extent to which one type of artistic taste can influence the model building of natural science. On a completely different level, this has often led to tragic results, e.g., when psychiatrists began to deal with the artistic representation of various psychic phenomena. With magnanimous simplicity, they connected defined mental illnesses with stylistic phenomena. The research carried out in connection with the art of the insane in the fifties and sixties took as its departure point that certain stylistic phenomena in art history are sick. In this, the category of entartete Kunst prevailed unequivocally. In fact, I question as well what kind of artistic ideal stands behind today”s researchers.

J.M.: Our collaborative work with the vision researchers led to quite interesting experiences. It became clear that we work with completely disparate concepts of the image.

E.M.: At such times, it is a good to ask the question: what is the opinion of the vision researcher about art. With this, I have met with an entirely different kind of relation. I have recently dealt quite a bit with the description of apparition in the Hungarian chronicle and hagiography literature. These apparition-descriptions can be interpreted with more or less results as images. They have a style, and if the person is relatively familiar with the eras, one can search for an analogy, including in a painting. Here immediately the problem of the chicken and the egg emerges. Which came first? The vision, which is illustrated, or the seen image, that induces the vision? And in this moment, we mix the questions of artistic imagery into the domain of literary history, which then becomes a real problem of the chicken and the egg, as it occurs within the category of common fantasy. I believe that this is of the essence in an interdisciplinary approach, as well. We have to lay all our cards on the table. I cannot imagine that an electronic representation does not possess some determined style. We all know that the representation of Bohr”s atom model is a nice geometric pattern, and by now we are far beyond that. Today sequences and extremely abstract diagrams visually describe exactly the same phenomena. In any case, I feel that the question of style is also of the essence from every interdisciplinary perspective. The natural scientist works from some sort of public domain in just the same way as the artist, and we cannot directly recognise his/her ideas. Here I imagine style in the sense of some sort of media that represents a common basis for fantasy and visualisation. For art history, just as for natural science. Until we approach this point, until we summon defined methods, the danger of a short circuit will stand, in fact; i.e., that we will suddenly recognise something in the natural sciences that might be the key to our own problems. Of course, there are at least two hundred years of experience: there was always a model that art history at some point began to treat as historical material, while the natural sciences regularly threw these out and transcended to another model. This leads to another problematic sphere: the history of science. The history of science preserves those interpretational models that natural science regularly throws away. The natural sciences would like to forget about them, while the human sciences are systematised in the subject matter of human thinking. Frankly speaking, I am not sure whether, with the exception of mathematics, in the other natural sciences, old problems are brought out at all.

J.M.: Does the pictorial turn exist, as far as you are concerned?

E.M.: No, and in part, this follows from what I have said thus far. I do not believe that visual thinking can be divided from the traditions. Consciously or unconsciously, proceeding even from opposing logic, we often run up against the beaten track. It is better if we do it consciously, rather than in the belief that we have renewed something. I believe that there is a tradition of the interpretation of the image, and that this tradition cannot be broken; that there is no turning point to be found within it. If it is the convention to speak of a turn here, it relates not to the software, but to the hardware, so that one might say that there is indeed a turn in the technical conditions, but this would already be another subject.

J.M.: Thank you for the interview.