David Bourget (Western Ontario)
David Chalmers (ANU, NYU)
Rafael De Clercq
Jack Alan Reynolds
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Estetika 47 (2):144-171 (2010)
Perspective, Symbol, and Symbolic Form: Concerning the Relationship between Cassirer and Panofsky During the last two decades of the twentieth century, there was a sudden surge of interest in Ernst Cassirer’s major work, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1923–29), and Erwin Panofsky’s essay, ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’ (1927), an interest that has continued uninterrupted to the present day. Particularly amongst art historians, however, a serious misunderstanding remains evident here – the confusing of ‘symbolic form’ with ‘symbol’. Cultural and perceptual mediations, in which objects (and subjects) are only just in the process of forming, are carelessly turned into arbitrary, isolated objects of art history or pictorial history. Every work, in this view, is regarded as a ‘symbolic form’ to the extent that a representation of the world is ‘expressed’ in it. This article initially reviews Panofsky’s essay in order to establish the context in which the art historian uses the term ‘symbolic form’. His use of it is then compared with Cassirer’s original understanding of the term. A careful distinction is made between ‘symbol’, ‘symbolic pregnance’, and ‘symbolic form’, and this is followed by an analysis of scattered remarks in Cassirer’s writings, and particularly in his posthumous manuscripts and notes, on ‘art’ as symbolic form and on the spatial form that is prior to all perception and art production, as well as his call for a kind of art history that conceives of itself as a scholarly discipline. The article concludes with the recognition that Panofsky not only deliberately, but justifiably – that is, in the spirit of Cassirer, at least – transferred the expression ‘symbolic form’ to ‘perspective’
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