Research GROUPS & PROJECTS
'The CLEVER object' - reading group
Session Synopses by Matthew Hunter
Session 2 - 23 May 2008
Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Katie Scott
We began with KS and FL saying how much they disliked Prown. KS in particularly went on about how his claims to be studying works mindlessly—through the senses directly, without the mediation of culture—is completely bogus; how the work of art history is always about teaching yourself to distrust what your senses tell you. We went on from there mostly to discuss Gell on the enchantment of technology. Key points that came out of our discussion were about the supposed “homology” between material, technological process and social relations—where Gell claims that effectively what Bernini can mysteriously do to marble in sculpting a bust of Louis XIV, the “real” work of art as enchantment is to inform the viewer that Louis can do the same to you. We tried to get to the bottom of exactly what Gell means with this homology and “scheme transfer”, a concept he apparently borrows from Bourdieu in a pretty fast and loose way. The question that KS had was: is Gell positing a causal relation between process and social relations? That is, does the technological manipulation of materials formulate the actions of social collectivities (or vice versa)? Or, is it merely a parallel?
Another key topic was that of asymmetry, and Gell’s claim that the more asymmetrical the relations between the object’s virtuosity and the beholder’s ability to reconstruct exactly how the thing was made constituted the degree of its enchantment. Yet, this is not entirely the full story as—so Gell’s thought experiment with a photograph that replicates Peto’s still life shows—there must be some shared basis of understanding of a technique between maker and audience for the work to have any power. So Gell claims, because no one understands the processes of photography (or because they are thought to be merely mechanical), the average viewer would accord the painting much higher status insofar as its is more clearly an instance of the transubstantiation of materials (pasty stuff into “things”) that we value. Therefore, as in Latour’s concept of the cascade, a work of technology (here, inclusive of science and art) is dazzling, overwhelming and therefore successful to the extent that the informed viewer (or member of the informed public) has to submit to it out of sheer mystification or inability to reckon with it.
The question then came up: isn’t this a pretty one-note account of what makes art works powerful? Indeed, so few artists, as KS pointed out, have any real interest in virtuosity. And this creation of an imbalance between viewer and work—while arguably in the realm of the sublime, which we didn’t talk about at all—goes against so much of the principles of classical aesthetics where the emphasis is on harmony, balance and so on. MH asked about what happens when the secret of the technology is revealed; where the mechanism that creates the disjunction between the object’s dazzling power and the beholder’s dazed response is leveled. Gell himself makes allusion to this when he refers to how, like any cult, art has to conceal the means of its own production. But, MH brought an example of how the virtuosic object can readily become despicable: that trompe l’oeil painting in the basement of the British Library. So he explained: “I was fooled by it the first time and found myself marveling at how it produced the illusion of movement on a flat surface. Yet, now I just find the thing hateful; I internally shake my fist at it as I walk past, muttering something like: you fooled me once, but you won’t fool me again. Rather than being captivated by this technological contrivance and thus compelled to submit to its terms, I just find it irritating and am peeved by its material persistence.” Like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, these virtuosic objects in other words can only retain their interest so long as they are concealed in secrecy—or else they just become despicable. While iconoclasm seems to be the other side of this coin, it was discussed if/how Gell’s account should somehow reckon with the precariousness of what KS called the “white and black” faces of magic a little more. And along these lines, this led us back to the discussion of how cleverness always risks just being bad faith, as in the case of metis. As valued as it was in Greek culture, it also risked leaving people angry as in Menelaus in Antilochus’s race.
Session 3 - 28 May 2008
Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Joanna Woodall, Caroline Arscott, Liz Reissner, [one person I didn’t know]
After reading over the synopsis of the previous meeting, we began our discussion of Joseph Koerner’s “Factura” and two chapters from Michael Baxandall’s Limewood Sculptors. FL explained his choice of these two pieces as proximate to his won interest in the question of how to make theory out of facture—to make meaning out of making—while also observing that he thought the Baxandall was much more successful than the Koerner. This launched a discussion of what Koerner really means by factura. JW suggested that it was close to Latour’s notion of mediation. Others noted how he seems to sketch, if not really articulate, how accounts of facture might move beyond the connoisseurial and ultimately nostalgic lure of proximity to the artist’s body.
It was generally agreed that working from the data of making was important but insufficient to art historical interpretation broadly speaking. MH asked if the kind of contextual framework offered by Baxandall in his appeal to the kinds of mercantile skills first introduced in Painting and Experience really constituted a convincing matrix with which to forge factura into larger interpretation. While FL said that it was precisely this point (i.e. “The Period Eye”) that felt most Baroque or overwrought to him, CA suggested that we see this book as actually loosening its grip. What we see here, she urged, was Baxandall emphasizing the disjunction between the complex sculptures he’s analyzing and the grids or formulae set out in Painting and Experience.
This led back to the question of the examples used by Koerner in his text: are they deeply generative of their theory as they seem to be in Baxandall? Or are they merely emblematic of perhaps entirely independent ideas? MH proposed an account of the metaphorics of factura in the two texts; while, as thematized around his reading of factura as “noise,” Koerner’s text might be seen in relation to the metaphors of the playing of a vinyl record where the pressure between image and materiality or object and beholder creates the frictional action of factura whereas in Baxandall what’s interesting in factura emerges through metaphors of wood and cellular growth—from the inside out. CA offered a very compelling reading of Koerner’s work—and this piece specifically, with its focus on the Ghent altarpiece—that stressed the importance of the tension between the heavenly and the embodied, fallen experience of beholding. So CA claimed, Koerner’s argument is that what is interesting about painting ca. 1400-1850 is the tension or conflict between the ambition to illusion and the intractable fact of embodied vision. Factura for Koerner is a relation to the body, which changes from the premodernity of Van Eyck to the modernity of Menzel (his two key examples in this text).
The strapped binocular case depicted by Menzel then became key to our discussion. Is it a fetish? Or does this whip-like arabesque and the receptacle to which it is connected signal a new kind of relation of thing to the modern body—insofar as (a la Jonathan Crary) it is a technology of vision that brings the spectator out of their internalized, camera-obscura regime of visuality and into a distanced, fragmented model of modernist embodiment? The debt of this claim to Heidegger was considered; is Koerner trying to negate Heidegger’s model of the thing while celebrating things in a very Heideggerian way? JW proposed that we see a shift in factura from Van Eyck to Menzel as a movement from object to viewer.
This led to a discussion of factura as manifested in painters like Titian and Cezanne with LR raising the question of exactly what differentiated the marks of making in the two painters. Recalling Koerner’s discussion of Rembrandt’s late canvasses and their proximity to shit along with Philip Sohm’s reading of Titian’s “stains,” MH suggested that whereas premodern facture—with its implication of the body—always risked becoming abject, the modernist discourse of faktura positioned it as an instance of liberation, transcendence. CA revised this, saying it was less that modernist facture was transcendent than that it was purely material because somehow detached from the fragmented modernist body. However, it was collectively agreed that such arguments might or might not be entirely convincing when confronted with a Jackson Pollock.
We concluded the session by trying to reconcile what we had learned about factura with the earlier discussions of technology, traps, and enchantment. Could it be said that a clever object discloses some but not all of its making? Or, that it shows itself in a way that reveals its dazzling intelligence to the viewer while nonetheless continuing to trap or overwhelm the beholder—to work as an agent—rather than allowing the viewer to escape and see it as mere despicable trickery (i.e. the BL trompe l’oeil)?
Session 4 - 4 June 2008
Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Caroline Arscott, Liz Reissner, Florina Kostulias
The session began with MH reading a synopsis of the previous meeting. Conveners MH and FL then gave a brief explication of the choices behind the readings for this week: Pamela Smith’s “Artisanal Epistemology” and Peter Galison’s “Cloud Chambers: The Peculiar Genius of British Physics.” FL noted the presence of a strong biographical element in both of these texts. It was queried whether this was the influence of disciplinary tradition within the history of science (wherein “stories of great men” still find a place) or perhaps even revealed the hand of the publisher (as both books are published by University of Chicago Press). CA observed that, for her, Galison’s narratival approach fit with the nineteenth century Romantic imagination and the worldview of the agents who were at the core of his story. Still, FL pointed out that Smith too had structured her account around big names (Dürer, Leonardo, Jammnitzer and so on), all of whom were glossed as “artisans”—a refreshingly subversive label, as CA noted.
Discussion then centered on whether the cloud chamber could be thought of in relation to the working category of the clever object. KR asked if it was the chamber that was clever or the various experimental strategies into which it was introduced. MH observed that he had the cloud chamber itself as a useful case for thinking about clever objects insofar as Galison positions this instrument as a hybrid entity formed at the conjunction of two major traditions in modern particle physics—what he calls “image” and “logic.” So Galison argues: while it partially answers to the “mimetic” tradition of experiment whereby the scientist aims to recreate natural phenomena in the laboratory, the cloud chamber as developed by Wilson was also crucially informed by the “logic” or quantitative-analytic tradition of physical inquiry. The experiments into which the instrument was emplotted and even the physical structure of the instrument itself answered to this bifurcation; thus, it might be said to embody intelligence or cleverness in a particularly interesting way. Thinking in light of the previous meeting’s discussion of factura and especially Koerner’s reading of the interplay between illusionism and material resistance in painting, CA asked how we might parse out the tension between the mimetic action inside the cloud chamber; the analytic or abstractive enterprise into which cloud chambers were enlisted; and the material resistance, factura or noise generated by the instrument. The very interesting overlaps between the strain under which mimesis was put in both art and science of the later nineteenth century through attempts to represent natural phenomena were noted.
The question of the “object-ness” of the cloud chamber was then examined. MH asked if the cloud chamber might be seen to torture everyday notions of object in a way that previous readings had not done. For, where previous art-historical narratives had generally begun with specific, material artifacts and made arguments more or less from them, Galison’s “cloud chamber” is no one particular thing. It is rather an accretion of designs, modifications, theories and experiments. FL called attention to the mass production of the cloud chamber noted in the chapter. Would a mass-produced cloud chamber be as “clever” as the one generated by Wilson? Would it be so if it were only used casually—perhaps for the production of charming optical effects as a kind of light entertainment? In other words, asked CA, what is the status of commerce in this story? For whereas commodification seems to threaten the seriousness of knowledge made with a mass-produced cloud chamber, commerce provides a central engine for the cultures described by Smith. (Although it was not noted at the time, I don’t think this is an entirely fair characterization of Galison; he makes much, especially later in the book, of commerce-based metaphors and indeed emphasizes in this chapter how the cloud chamber was formed in the “trading zone” between image and logic traditions.)
The final portion of the discussion then focused on Smith. Following from CA’s observation on the importance of commerce to Smith’s story, MH proposed that this book should be seen as an extension of what might be called the Zilsel or “craftsman and scholar” thesis. According to this claim, what was important in the formation of modern science and what used to be called the Scientific Revolution was less grand theory or mentalities but the flow of communication—typically sparked in urban, commercial centers and by mercantile classes—between university-educated scholars and those who knew how to work with their hands. CA observed that Dürer acted like a bridge for Smith between these scholarly worlds and those of the artisans. This provoked a wide-ranging debate on the extent to which the author was justified in reading figures like Dürer, Leonardo and so on as artisans even as she quoted them claiming to be in possession of special, divinely-given powers that differentiated their work from that of other men—in other words, as they claimed to be artists. Attention was drawn to the following passage from Smith interpreting Wenzel Jamnitzer’s Merchel Table-Center of 1549:
Jamnitzer clearly meant to display his own powers of creation in this work as well as his ability to imitate nature, both in the sense of producing an accurate representation of nature and in understanding the processes of smelting and metallurgy (or alchemy) in order to create this representation. (78)
What is this supposed to mean? Does imitation really amount to scientific knowledge? Is the claim that the work combines imitative rendering of natural surfaces (vegetal fronds, life casts, etc.) and emulation of the generative forces that make metals and structures within the earth? Might this be evidence of how such objects are clever?
Pursuit of such questions prompted open discussion on the hyperbolic levels of “realism” ventured in this and other works of Renaissance metalwork. Drawing from his own research, FL noted how he was trying to theorize the agency of incredible intricacy in vegetal forms of metalwork, which CA likened to Roland Barthes’ account of the “reality effect” in nineteenth century literature. Rather than calling attention to the opacity of the medium, such inundations of detail paradoxically conspire to convince the percipient of the reality of the text or spectacle.
Session 5 - 11 June 2008
Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Katie Scott, Liz Reissner, Caroline Arscott, Joanna Woodall
After the previous week’s synopsis had been read, the conveners explained that the readings had been chosen pragmatically. Cole’s chapter on Cellini’s saltcellar was selected in preference to his Art Bulletin piece on blood, for example, because the former explicitly thematized intelligence, while the Basalla was just fun to read and a useful complement to other things. KS observed that she was pleased that both pieces dealt with artifacts of the table; eating utensil and so on. Discussion began around the intricacies of Cole’s argument—how enamel, glass-making and other activities fit into his narrative; what the relative status and relation of these techniques was in the period and so on.
This opened into a broader conversation about what Cole had included and excluded in his analysis. The piece is a stunning work of erudition. But, asked MH, does it amount in the end to a very fancy specimen of iconography? Where exactly, FL asked, is the presence of (say) Smith’s artisanal epistemology or maker’s knowledge that would seem to be so important? Here, KS called our attention to Cellini’s description of the salt-cellar, which emphasizes its size in relation to the body (palms, bracchia, etc.) Aside from a few gestures to how the object may have served as a conversation piece, Cole says very little about if/how the saltcellar would have been used. If, as he implies, it never would have actually been employed as a vessel for salt, does this undermine the very clever analysis he spins out concerning the metaphorics of salt, the cellar as a self-portrait, and thus using the object as “picking Cellini’s brains”? What about the allusion he makes to the cellar being rolled down the table? Was this an accommodation of its heft? And, MH asked, if we allow that it would actually have contained salt at some point, how might we think about the physiological consequences it enacted upon users as they fondled its sultry goddess and ingested the thirst-inducing and sensory-stimulating contents it vehiculated?
Following from these concerns, a second major strand of our discussion related to the object’s “rationality.” Is Cellini’s object, as Cole so intently argues, ultimately a specimen of incredible humanist erudition wherein each component makes meaning through witty allusion to learned tropes? Or is it a more fraught encounter between recalcitrant materials (especially enamel as KS pointed out, where the element of chance was frequently to the fore); changing demands of patronage; and traditions/limits of making in the workshop? Along similar lines, CA observed how despite Cole’s thematics of intermingling (earth and water, etc.) and expressed sensuality of the object, there was little emphasis give to generation. Salt, in Cole’s account, was manufactured and not born. This opened into a discussion of the object as a boat and, therefore, presumably subject to the whims of Nature—not only guided by Providence (as Cole claims), but also open to Fortuna and chance.
These ideas guided the third major trajectory of discussion. Can an account of an artwork as a trap along Gell’s lines really make allowance for luck? Does the work as magical enchantment have to be understood in terms of a discourse of mastery and leaving nothing to chance? KS raised the question of Cellini’s text, Principles of Sculpture, as a decoy that purported to explain what was at work in the objects but was really a collection of red herrings that leads interpretation away from the heart of the matter while also making the objects seem all the more miraculous. JW asked how accounts like this could accommodate the accomplishments often most valued in artistic making—improvisation, risk-taking, and dealing with chance.
We then concluded with a brief discussion of Basalla. Some of us found the text to share in Prown’s unproductively taxonomic approach to the field or to suffer from conceptual articulation (definition of exactly what utilitarian is supposed to be, etc.), while others found its insights—especially on toys, miniaturization and so on—stimulating.
Bibliography suggested by discussion:
Bill Brown, Things […]
Robin Kelsey, “The Problem of Luck in Photography,’’ in The Meaning of Photography (Yale University Press, 2008) and Robin Kelsey, Photography and Chance (University of California, 2009). See also:
Session 6 - 19 June 2008
Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Katie Scott, Liz Reissner, Caroline Arscott, Ken Arnold, Sabine Wieber
As our final scheduled session, the group met at the Wellcome Collection where we were hosted by Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programs. After a brief introduction to the Collection, KA led us on a tour of the temporary exhibition space on the ground level and the displays of permanent collections (in Medicine Man and Medicine Now) on the first floor. He noted how the massive collection of over a million artifacts assembled by American-born pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome has now been scattered through numerous museums worldwide. Thus, what goes on display in the Collection’s galleries is often effectively rediscovered from other museums. Often, KA noted, what museums hide is even more important than what they show, as they allow artifacts to gather the sense of strangeness.
We adjourned to a conference room where KA gave a talk entitled “Clever Cabinets,” explaining how he had come to his work at the Wellcome through his research on the history of early collectors cabinets in seventeenth century England. Responding to LR’s question about how he defined his field, KA observed that he understood material culture as objects and things exhibited. He was particularly interested in what happens to objects when they went on display, seeing the collection as part of show business. MH asked if, as Hal Foster had proposed in his reading of Warhol’s “screen tests” in his lecture “Andy Warhol and the Ruptured Image” at the Courtauld in fall 2007, this situation of display ever became an ordeal under which objects “cracked” under the spotlight of exhibition or if, to the contrary, they became surprisingly “exhibitionist.” KA noted that, while his own vocabulary was slightly different (with objects instead slumping or standing tall and proud), this was a major consideration of staging an exhibition. Objects that might appear “showstoppers” in the storage room could become duds once they went public (and vice versa).
These considerations opened onto KA’s slide lecture on early modern collections and anatomical “theatres” as spaces of performance. KA noted how the Wellcome has sought to recuperate these dimensions of the collection, calling our attention to an evening of events called “Flesh” (see: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/News/Media-office/Press-releases/2007/WTX041596.htm) where surgeons, butchers, bodybuilders and numerous others had been recruited to perform their knowledge on bodies. We were shown numerous incredible photographs of Wellcome, his collections and their shifting installation, as we marveled at images of the “hall of spears” and other objects that might seem only very loosely connected to Wellcome’s guiding concern for human interest in the preservation of health. Gradually, this segued into a conversation in which our assigned reading of Bruno Latour’s “Drawing things Together” figured more prominently. Part of what we tried to explore is how the model of science presented by Latour (in which ever-more economical, mobile and combinable forms of graphic “inscriptions” serve to increase a scientist’s strategic advantage and thus to render more steep the cost of dissenting opinions) might fit with the object-sensitive mode of display practiced at the Wellcome and theorized by our group. Could a productive cleavage be identified here between the way that science treats its objects (as raw material to be reduced into inscriptions) versus the way that various forms of cleverness (i.e. metis, enchantment, etc.) might inhabit objects?
Because our engagement with the readings was only preliminary, we agreed to meet for a final “encore” session. This also provide the group with an opportunity to critique pieces by both of the session’s conveners and to discuss future ways in which the project might go.