On Art and the Experience of Art

Art and the Experience of Art: a review on Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-century Italy

Art as History

There are two points from Baxandall’s book that I find very valuable in the study of art, history and society: a painting as a material which functions as an historical/archival evidence, and the vocabulary (and language) used in its description by the artist, patron or viewer’s experience of the painting as also indicative of the sensibility, point of view, underlying concept/s and social relationships existing at that time it was made. I find Baxandall enlightening as he details on one of the foundations upon where and when our perception and cognition on art was buit.

In the opening sentence of his introduction: “A fifteenth-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship”. Baxandall refers the paintings as ‘cached’ data wherein layers of information or knowledge can be uncovered and retrieved — “the pictures becomes documents as valid as any charter or parish roll” (p.152). Baxandall’s use of both visual and textual sources, and the important role of context, condition or circumstance as method of analysis and interpretation aim to expose the cultural, political, social-economic life and relationship/interaction among people as well as the environmental condition of that given period and place in history. Thus by contextualizing a painting and incorporating its desciptions written in 15th-century Italy, Baxandall points to the uncovering not only of the signification and techniques of a painting but also the sociality, the political and social relationships in its production and consumption/experience thereby giving us a picture on what it was like being a Quatrocentto person. With this knowledge it enables us to comprehend and appreciate the works and kind of life of an entirely different era; an era though far from our accustomed and contemporary appreciation or taste in art (at least mine), yet we can also relate to in terms of social relationships, such as the business of creating, consuming, and experiencing art.

The painting, however, cannot be fully understood unless translated into a set of vocabulary and deduce therefrom any information behind the painting. Since ”Art” is a learned discipline which embodies a set of theories and methods, it definitely also has a set of vocubulary to describe art and creative works. Its impact lies wtih the knowledge that art having structural and ideological influence in the understading and experience of art, how art is being taught in school, written by those with authority (the institutions, the elite, the learned and the “lettered”), can create generations of people to uphold certain beliefs that, in time, becomes the convention.

Western social historians of art such as Hauser explain that societal transformation led to conditions that also develop (western) aesthetic experience. The Quattrocento vocabulary, however, has its sort of lasting effect since it is still used in today’s reading and writing of art. Words such as “pure, easy, gracious, ornate, varied, prompt, blithe, devout; relief, perspective, colouring, composition, design, foreshortening; imitator of Nature, lover of the difficulties” (p. 151) are very much ingrained in our way of looking at pictures and the role of artists, and in fact search for these elements to interpret, experience and categorise any kind of creative work (or label a work as art). We respond to art in a way we were taught how to respond. This learned vocabulary has defined our perception and cognition/recognition of art, which has became basis of our experiencing art. As Baxandall said: “understanding the picture depends on acknowledging a representational convention”. (p.33)

From an understanding of visual perception to giving attention to visual experience, having a visual sense and a habit of analysing visuals, pictures, or any sensorial perceptions involve also a practice of nomenclature — applying terms to what is felt, seen, heard, etc.  Training in a range of representational conventions, drawing from the environment, relating to what we see vis to abstract and conceptualised representation, intends to signify “an aspect of reality within accepted rules.” (p. 32) Also certain ideology, profession, literacy, experience, leads the viewer to be more discriminating or discerning on a particular area, element, or property of the work such as the technical, sensory, formal and expression properties. Some may see first a disproposionate limb, p particular hue of aquamarine, the patriarchial content, or maybe the zen-like effect of experience.

Therefore, the “period eye” is a “learned” eye, trained and/or subconsciously transplanted insofar as specificity is concerned. The significance of Baxandall’s book to the contemporary is the manner on which he was able to dig into the experience of art in 15th-century Italy (specifically commissioned religious paintings), but this is in no way meant that we absorb in toto the very same vocabulary and apply the experience of a Quantrocentto (elite and lettered) person, the past with a different context, as our own.

Baxandall in the New Art Histories?

Where to place Baxandall? Jonathan Harris finds it, at first, difficult to place Baxandall in the recent developments of the art history discipline because Baxandall “has never included a consistent discussion, or definition, of ideology of the kind that has always been key to work within Marxist and feminist art history.” (Harris, p. 43) However, Harris eventually settled that Baxandall hovers between the ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘radical’ and ‘traditional’ art history because for Harris, Baxandall “is certainly highy sceptical … of notions of the primacy of ‘the visual’ within the work of art historians”. By quoting from Baxandall’s 1985 essay: “We do not explain pictures: we explain remarks about pictures — or rather, we explain pictures only in so far as we have considered them under some verbal description or specification” (Baxandall: 1985; in Preziosi p.45) — on which Harris comments: “a rather understated implication is that art historians, in making the latter reality for the former ambition, deceive both themselves and the readers”. Harris also found T.J. Clark having a similar point that “art history should be seen as really about arguments and principles of explanations — ways of understanding — rather than blandly about ‘approaches’ and ‘methods’ of looking as though these could be detached from questions of position and value”.

In this manner, Baxandall though maybe not explicitly ideological, he may be considered as “new” art history through his questioning of position and value by ways of exposing the negotiations between artist and patron, the resources and materials used and exchanged, and by considering a specific “historical view of consciousness” (Sontag) of a local culture and social class through evaluation of the local verbal description or specification written at the time the picutre was made — the same issues that T.J. Clark raised in his essay “The Conditions of Artistc Creation”.

It is also in this manner that Baxandall complements the study of non-western art by seeking local vocabularies of local traditions and cultures on a given society’s cognitive style or as Baxandall’s coined the term “period eyes”. In “Is Art Global?” , Elkin explains that “cognitive styles are admissible on the level of particular local cultures, within specific temporal horizons, and even within certain strata of society, but are largely incompatible with plotting the space of art history into large geogaphically, linguistically, and nationally defined entities. They imply the existence of local traditions, or period eyes, connected to very specific places and periods within the large abstract categories such as “Western”, “European”, “Chinese”, or “Latin American” Art. (Elkins, pp. 96-97)

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz made reference on Baxandall to deal with inquiries regarding local cultures’ experience on art. Geertz started in his essay “Art as a Cultural System”, that “art is notoriously hard to talk about. It seems, even when made of words in the literary arts, all the more so when made of pigment, sound, stone or whatever in the non-literary ones, to exist in a world of its own, beyond the reach of discourse. It not only is hard to talk about it; it seems unnecessary to do so.“ We are schooled to talk about art by reaching for metaphors or analogies to describe, analyse, and judge art. We place art in categories, in period styles, in some form of taxonomic structure or system. We approach art by dissecting its content, shape, form, composition, tones and color. The study of art has become reduced to technicalities and formalism. But how does art serve in the “general dynamic of human experience”?, Geertz asks. The cultural significance of an artwork is always a ”local matter…no matter how universal the intrinsic qualities that actualise the emotional power that may be”, he explains. To explain an artwork is to seek a sensibility rooted in its sociality. A local culture that does not share the same western vocabulary of art or speaks about art using the same formalist and stylistic properties are most times seen as lacking a concept on art and aesthetics. However, Geertz said that local communities always talk about art, but not in the same way as how we do, “not just in their immediate shapes but in the way of being-in-the-world they both promote and exemplify, extends as well into their drummings, carvings, chants, and dances “ This “being-in-the-world” means the “everyday lives, myths, trade, or whatever”, and may I add, being in nature.

In trying to further understand art, we have also forgotten how art is to be experienced through the senses aside from the visual because we are obsessed with seeking interpretations or explanations. Susan Sontag, in “Against Interpretation”, imagined that “the earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual.” However, this does not mean that we unlearn and definitely cannot be innocent as we were once was before all these learned theories. Instead, she said that “we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice”. In so doing, she suggests to veer beyond the idea of content, or seeking an explanation of a picture, which she sees as “a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism”. (Sontag, p.2).  Overemphasising the idea of content, she said, brings us to this neverending debate on interpretation. Interpretations were done so as to understand. But then when interpretation is being applied, it consequently “summoned” to reconcile the past with modern understandings or cultural lens. Alternatively, Sontag suggests that “interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness.” How to do this in the contemporary is to have a vocabulary of “really accurate, sharp and loving description” of forms…(and not) to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture”. (Sontag, p. 8-9) Sontag finds the need to change our perception and approach to art and instead go back on how art should be experienced sensorially especially now in our contemporary society where we are being bombarded with a multitude of stimuli that dulls our senses. “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more”, she concluded.

Therefore, returning to Baxandall, from the material (a painting in 15th-century Italy, for example) and its description, studying the arts in the new paradigm is not merely finding what an artwork means (since interpretations cannot be completely avoidable), but rather to let the material and its sociality/experience show the way to understanding. As Sontag puts it: “to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is”. (Sontag,p.10) Eventually, questions will arise relating to how the present context shapes our interpretation of the past, and how the past shape the present.