Thursday, May 3, 2012

Gombrich, Popper, and Eric Kandel's book-2

This is the obverse die of a 28mm coin for the Danubian (Moesian) mint of Nicopolis ad Istrum when Auspex was governor, probably about AD 195-6.  The 'pit' in the center is an artifact of manufacture, and the roughness on the emperor's neck is corrosion.  The coin is made of brass.  For its relevance here, see at the end of the essay.

On the incorporation of art and science
In the first half of this essay, I only wanted to emphasize the importance of realizing that Klimt and Freud (and Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoftmansthat, too) were of the generation that began with frank romanticism, so that their initiation into the Modern was different from that of their disciples.  It was different to have been born in the late 1880s or the 1890s.  I think of these cohorts in terms of my own family generations, different as the latter were, as the generation of my grandparents.  Here I want to emphasize the cohort of my own parents, born in the 20th century but before the first World War.  Resorting to my favorite musical composers, I think of it as the generation of Benjamin Britten (Franz Lehar's Das Land des Lächelns  certainly was later, but he was born in 1870).  It is also the cohort of Ernst Kris, of Ernst Gombrich, and of Karl Popper, whom I think of as the last group unlikely to have been radically affected by the second half of the 20th century and all its miracles, from penicillin  to radar to Facebook, although Popper died only in 1994.  This is that generation of my own parents with which I seem to find a special affinitiy.
Now, Eric Kandel himself is younger still, only five years older than me (though I admit the importance of his having spent his childhood in Vienna), only a year older than Shirley Temple, three years older than Queen Elizabeth II, four years, indeed, younger than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (you will pardon me for naming persons who at various times seemed important to me).  Even so, I do understand why he did not want to wait interminably to publish his new book.
The latter half of the last century was that in which electronic technology not only came to permit universal social media and blogs like this one but real-time scans of the living brain, so that the question is whether so far they have provided the evidence that Gombrich still lacked for visual creativity on an empirical basis.
I would not mention the several legitimate meanings for "Style", if it were not so obvious that many writers seem to use the word without awareness of its different uses:
a) For regional traditions, such as Celtic style, Hopi style, Transcaucasian style, et al.
b) For the style of major art historical periods, as usually framed, such as Antonine style, Byzantine style, Romanesque style(s), Northern Renaissance style, Mochica style, Post-Impressionist style, and many more.
c) Personal style, such as Pheidias, Praxiteles, Donatello, Titian, Gentile da Fabriano, the Master of Flémalle, Georges de la Tour, and all the rest down to today.  The Manner of a known artist also may be cited.  A personal style is often securely identified also when the artist's name is unknown (I am quite sure that the die-engraver of the coin at the head of this post had a name; it is a remarkable fact that the names of artists of the Roman Empire, even of large works, are mostly unrecorded).
As Popper and others have pointed out, though quibbling over hair-splitting definitions is pointless and even delusive, being aware of the colloquial uses of common words that one uses is important.
Now, concerning personal style, what it is and what makes it:
The Language of Style
We might speak of the Meaning of style, but my intention is to differentiate iconic meaning, communicating graphic signifiers, from the forms and marks communicating what only the visual as such can communicate or, in music, what only audible forms can communicate meaningfully, just as only mathematical written forms properly communicate mathematical ideas and only the written and oral forms of the words and syntax of can do for verbal language: even the best marble urn, such as the Medici Krater (which was, I think, the one that Keats had in mind) is no substitute for Keats's Ode, and the Ode does not mean much of what the Medici Krater intended, either.  Because in Art and Illusion itself, even Gombrich (who certainly knew the difference) largely focused on the rôle of creating illusions of light and space, it is that book's examples and discussions that also dominate Kandel's.  Yet, between the lines of his text and in his TV appearances, one knows that what only the visual language itself can say conveys to Kandel what it truly means to him (else, why the labor of producing such a book?).  And it is at least as intellectual as it is emotional.  Sir Thomas Beecham's quip, that most people don't really like music but only the way it sounds, reflects his impatience with the multitudes who buy albums of nothing but adagios or nothing but flute music or guitar (for example), because these persons tend actively to resent instruction in the forms of music (especially Classical but increasingly also Jazz).  Some minds, evidently, do not get the full range of meaning from many composers; Brahms comes to mind (hence the title, "Aimez-vous Brahms?", though meant somewhat playfully).  Persons who want to skip right from loving Beethoven to hating Wagner and serial music, tend not even to mention Brahms.  Similarly, many people like pictures mainly as illustrations of stories that they know or make up or, less so, as a sort of catharsis for scenarios that they fear.  Very likely, pictures of men or women in erotic situations appeal to them not much differently from hotel-room porno channels on the television set.  This is not to say that erotic content is insignificant or even, per se, naughty.  Only, how good it is depends on how great the artist was who made it.  Similarly, which I find distressing, many tourists visit the ruins of the hospital at Arles because that is where Vincent was mad—and similarly for other artists and writers.
The Personality of Style
Writers, not to mention museum tour guides, persist in calling personal style a miracle (OK in the Latin sense but not as meant promotionally and not as usually understood in religion, for that matter).  The same may be said of Greek thauma.  Great personal style, whether in a poet or a painter / sculptor / architect..., is rare.  It is valuable, valuable to all who get its meaning, valuable in its power to convey what matters about the time or place it belongs to (Parthenon, Pantheon, Hagia Sophia, Chartres, S. Andrea al Quirinale, Tour Eiffel, "Falling Water"...not to exclude any others), though sometimes their real value becomes obscured by ballyhoo.  To me, it is indifferent whether the artist's own life was interesting to anyone but himself or herself.  Studying ancient art, I am easy with masterworks that are anonymous.  Their actual personality, for want of a better term, is undiminished by their anonymity.  And, by the way, that buildings are executed by contractors and masons and artisans and technicians of many other kinds, that coins are struck, that intaglio prints are often made and published by printers, that bronze statues are cast in foundries and not always finished by their creators, has nothing (or precious little) to do with their originality.  Admittedly a stock bust of a philosopher made for a private or civic library, come down to us in copies turned out in commercial ateliers and often retouched and polished for country houses or libraries in post-Renaissance times, may have lost much of whatever artistic power the original may have had: I do not have a very high opinion of that bust of Parmenides that I used as a heading for part 1 of this post, and that is why I looked for a real coin portrait for part 2. This is perhaps the best place, too, to say that, in my opinion, Sigmund Freud's collection of antiquities bespeak his interest in them as signifiers (rather like things in dreams) rather than works of art as artists, such as his wonderful grandson, Lucian, would understand the word.  The usefulness of mentioning Lucian is that his personal way of painting is the most important, not the fact that he painted nudes, not without erotic content (more than the internet images suggest).  Nor was Lucian Freud, in my opinion, primarily self-expressionist or realist or any other label; rather, it's all in his painting (that is not a statement that a philosopher like Popper would approve of, but it's the best I can do).  It's just as with Vincent van Gogh: it's the painting that matters; he knew that, he wrote about it in his letters.  Edward Weston 'speaks' in his photographs, irrespective of what he was working on with his camera, with his visual mind.  For great photographs are just as unique to their makers as great paintings or etchings.
The corollary
The corollary is that not all viewers, not all readers, not all listeners have the same gifts for learning everything possible from visual, nor from verbal data.  From the latter, the brain takes in auditory, visual, and other data, which, as Damasio and Kandel explain are assembled, interpreted, and stored as memory.  Each brain, and so the mind created in each of them, does this analogously, barring neurological issues, according to the whole mentality that is first innate and subsequently formed by diet, society, family, and so forth (too much to guess, or to list).  Inasmuch as much more intricate, it is much more personal than, say, the fingerprint.  It also is much more intricate than handwriting or than the unique forms that each person's speech makes of the language(s) learned.  I often have wondered about the minds that are possessed, so to speak, by the history of art or even by plain connoisseurship (say, for a big auction house).  I have guessed that they are both innately and culturally conditioned to be more or less equally verbally rational and visually rational.  Yes, visual thought, visual reasoning, like mathematical or musical thought, is rational, though its reasoning can be made verbal (in all these ) only to a very limited extent.  BUT NOT-VERBAL DOES NOT EQUAL NOT-RATIONAL!  I should guess that the emotional and rational component is comparable in the the verbal and the visual and the musical (folks say that mathematical language is almost purely rational, but mathematicians do not behave as if it were).  I guess that art historians are not quite artists and not quite writers, but that is a rather simplistic sort of logic.  Of one thing I am confident: to say that n is a great mathematician and that n' is a great artist are equally reasonable statements in terms of what we may one day know about the behavior and economy of the human brain.
Meanwhile, we seem to be stuck where early psychiatry was: almost all the serious experimentation has been done with sufferers from limitations: agnosia, autism, and the rest.  It is intensely interesting and important, but, like Freud's famous cases (more Viennese than not, more female than male, more middle class than either aristocratic or poor, more born at the end of the 19th century than not...) they are neither representative nor exhaustive.
The experimental neuroscience of the last quarter century is not nearly enough.  That is why I have relied on the same kind of reasoning, based on a lifetime of whole days in museums and cities, whole semesters of poring over pictures and pots and coins, and in the evenings coming home to listen to a lifetime's accumulation of recordings on shellac, vinyl, and compact disks, collecting as many as three dozen performances of a single song cycle or of sonatas or quartets or cantatas, as one always did.  One must understand why one comes to treasure some of them far more than others, why one can name a particular performer or quartet in most cases, even if the performance in question is being heard for the first time.  Initially, one suspects that the first ones that one heard will remain favorites, but no, only to a limited extent, that of fondness, in most cases.
I have never understood how anyone can have taken seriously the van Meerghen fakes purported to be Vermeers, for even five minutes.
As for that coin portrait of Septimius Severus, at the head of this page, dating from the end of the second century of the Christian era, when, as Alois Riegl pointed out, the tradition of more than half a millennium of representing in low relief the sense of a solid head (or figure) existing in light and air in space, is seen to be slipping away, not to be fully re-embraced and re-created until by Donatello and Desiderio, and of course we don't really know what Septimius looked like.  Yet even by unknown die engravers such as the one who worked for Auspex we can see the illusion perfectly realized.  In one more generation, even for the aristocratic Gordian III, though we have beautiful contours, the illusion is nearly abandoned, and in another half century, under the Tetrarchs, figures are like cut-outs on cookie sheets.  The explanations for this (not due to any incompetence) are many and too complicated to be rehearsed here.  If you can read Riegl's German, it's in Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, or you can read Otto J. Brendel (a beloved professor at Columbia University), Prolegomena to the Study of Roman Art (not that he rehearses Riegl in any detail, but it is an essential book, in any case).
If only I may live long enough to learn much more.
P.S. Yes, Chinese art has its own realization of visual illusion, which is independent of that in the West.
P.P.S  Yes, I neglected to dismiss Riegl's governing concept of Kunstwollen, though his analyses of the formal changes remain instructive and valuable.  It was the latter that helped me to accept Late Roman Imperial art in its own terms.
Florence, Uffizi.  The Medici Krater.  The likeliest candidate for Keats's "Grecian Urn".  This one is very Augustan Neo-Attic, that is, intensely Neo-Classical, although the statue of Artemis is less so.  It lives very happily in a gallery with a great Andrea del Sarto altarpiece for company.  The black-and-while details give better resolution, but this shows the whole great vase.

(1) The proper title of the little exhibition catalogue, which may be hard to find, was Viennese Expressionism 1910-1924  The Work of Egon Schiele, with work by Gustav Klimt and Oscar Kokoschka (organized by the Committee for Arts and Lectures of the University of California, Berkeley).  University Art Gallery, February 5 through March 10, 1963, and Pasadena Art Museum, March 19 through April 21, 1963.  The text by Herschel B. Chipp is pp. 7-15, the plates illustrating the catalogue, pp. 22-55.
(2) The sites found by Google for Karl Popper are numerous and varied.  I found those from Stanford and the University of Michigan most informative: http:/plato.stanford.sedu/entries/Popper/  and
See also www.stephenjaygould/org/ctri/popper
(3) Though I do not recommend it (because it is muddled), I did publish an essay on Style (but see the last paragraph in its note 1) in Corinthiaca: Studies in Honor of Darrel A. Amyx (edited by Mario a Del Chiaro and William R. Biers), University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1986.
(4) On the obverse dies made for Pollenius Auspex of Septimius Severus at Nicopolis ad Istrum, see
my own web page,   The obverse shown here is no. 2.