Critical Inquiry 12 (4):753-768 (1986)

Adrian Stokes , long admired by a small, highly distinguished, mostly English circle, was the natural successor to Pater and Ruskin. But though his place in cultural history is important, what is of particular interest now to art historians is his theory of the presentness of painting, a theory which offers a challenging critique of the practice of artwriting. From Vasari to the present, the most familiar rhetorical strategy of the art historian is the narrative of “the form, prophet-saviour-apostles,” in which the first artist poses some problem that his successors develop and their successors solve.1 Such very different books as Art and Illusion and Art and Culture deploy that plan. The three periods of naturalism in E. H. Gombrich’s narrative—antiquity, Renaissance religious narrative, nineteenth-century landscape—function like Clement Greenberg’s sequence—old master art, early French modernism, American abstract expressionism. Gombrich and Greenberg disagree about how to narrate art’s history and about which works to include in that narrative—Gombrich asserts that cubism closes the canon while for Greenberg analytical cubism anticipates Jackson Pollock—but in each case, the art historian aims, as the novelist does, to tell a satisfying story and achieve narrative closure, and so how we think of the artworks the historian discusses depends in part upon the structure of the narrative. In a certain mood, we may find this fact intolerable. Why should a mere text tell us how to see the painting we may stand before?Stokes’ attempt to respond to this mood belongs to a tradition of early twentieth-century antihistorical thinking. For Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin’s sculpture aimed to “refer to nothing that lay beyond it.” For Ezra Pound, an image “is real because we know it directly”; Henri Gaudier-Brzeska could read Chinese ideograms without knowing that language because those ideograms are transparently meaningful images. For Wyndham Lewis, a musical piece is inferior to a statue, “always there in its entirety before you.”2 Such an artwork need not be interpreted because it contains “within itself all that is relevant to itself.”3 All art is accessible to the gifted observer, and time is, in an interesting double sense, irrelevant. We see directly the meaning of works even from distant cultures; the visual artwork is experienced all at once, outside of time. If these claims are correct, what is the artwriter to do? Speaking of the Tempio Malatestiana, Hugh Kenner points to this issue:There is no description of the Tempio in accordance with good Vorticist logic: one art does not attempt what another can do better, and the meaning of the Tempio has been fully explicated on the spot by Agostino di Duccio with his chisel.4 1. Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition 1350-1450 , p. 75.2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin, trans. Jessie Lemont and Hans Trausil , p. 19; Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir , p. 86; Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man , p. 174.3. Frank Kermode, Romantic Image , p. 107.4. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era , p. 428. David Carrier, associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie-Mellon University, is coauthor, with Mark Roskill, of Truth and Falsehood in Visual Images and author of the forthcoming Artwriting, a study of recent American art criticism. He is working on a history of art history
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