Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 22, 2014
Keith Moxey Visual Time: The Image in History Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. 224 pp.; 8 color ills.; 21 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780822353690)

Though it is a far-reaching critique of the kind of historicism that contents itself with studying the past without regard for the present, Keith Moxey’s Visual Time: The Image in History is not an attempt to liberate us from history. On the contrary, it is a critique of historicism in the name of history, and it never loses sight of the urgent issues that have fueled historicism, especially in the last century. In the final chapter of the book, for example, Moxey argues that art historians adopted historicist distance after the Second World War as a means of guarding against ideological error. In order to show this, he tracks the critical fortunes of Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald as they rose and fell over the course of the twentieth century, especially during the period of National Socialism, when many German art historians conscripted them into a transhistorical narrative of the German spirit. In the wake of the war, this project of turning to the past for affirmation of present political interests—regardless of what those interests were—came to be seen as inherently dangerous. In response to this danger, postwar art historians attempted, as best they could, to address the past from a respectful distance.

The German émigré Erwin Panofksy was the great theorist and practitioner of this historicist distance. In both his early and late work, Panofsky treats history as a series of unique and unified cultural formations, arguing that this (his) modern view of history emerged during the Italian Renaissance in conjunction with linear perspective: “In the Italian Renaissance the classical past began to be looked upon from a fixed distance, quite comparable to the distance ‘between the eye and the object’ in that most characteristic invention of this very Renaissance, focused perspective. As in focused perspective, this distance prohibited direct contact . . . but permitted a total and rationalized view” (Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art, New York: Harper and Row, 1972, 108; cited in Moxey, 15). By contrast, according to Panofsky, the Middle Ages lacked any conception of the classical as such, and therefore routinely split antique forms from their antique meanings, turning images of Phaedra, for example, into icons of the Virgin Mary.

As Panofsky describes it, this modern sense of history not only guarantees historical distance but also assures us that each period is an organic whole, its various aspects synchronized with one another. Once one posits such a whole, it becomes possible, perhaps even tempting, to identify an individual who embodies it. According to Moxey, Panofsky discovers such an embodiment of the German Renaissance in Dürer. In Panofsky’s celebration of this exemplary figure, Moxey detects a return of the politics that Panofsky had tried, for the urgent reasons mentioned above, to repress. The political stakes of this privileging of the individual over the collective become clear, Moxey contends, in subsequent literature on the artist: “by stressing Dürer’s incomparable gifts . . . [followers of Panofsky], consciously or unconsciously, supported the political agenda of a democratic and capitalist West Germany” (158).

In the scholarship of Panofsky and his followers, politics also return, Moxey suggests, in claims for the universality of Renaissance Humanism and all it entails, including a linear conception of history. Citing Dipesh Chakrabarty and other scholars of postcolonialism, Moxey shows that such a conception is neither natural nor politically neutral. In its place, he calls for a “heterochronic” art history sensitive to the many temporalities that are not in step with the West’s modernity. Moxey not only asks that we recognize the various temporalities excluded from Panofsky’s Western canon; he argues that art historians will serve even this canon poorly if they fail to acknowledge the capacity of all works of art to create their own time: “The work of art is . . . something that has the power to break time by addressing us directly and by demanding an aesthetic response” (31).

In reaching across time, Moxey is careful to explain, works of art do not collapse historical distance. Instead, they demand a rewriting of that distance—in each case. Every experience of a work of art is, among other things, a confrontation with the time that separates it from its viewer. To simply take historical distance for granted, as if it could be quantified in the way one might calculate distance in a mathematically derived perspectival system, is too simple. We cannot rely on pre-established chronologies and periods, such as the “Renaissance,” to tell us how much or little we share with a given image from the past. In Panofsky’s historicist model, distance is a predictable, objectifying tool; in Moxey’s “heterochronic” model, by contrast, historical supersession is uneven and the relation between the art historian and her or his object of study is always an admixture of continuity and discontinuity, the intimate and the strange.

Though he makes his own preference for a “heterochronic” art history clear, Moxey does not underestimate the difficulty of the issue: “These essays ally themselves with persistent questions,” he writes, never pretending that they can be settled for good (8). Moxey asks how others have approached the problem of the image’s place in time with genuine openness, which makes his book a powerful work of historiography, among other things. Visual Time gives us “our” moment, without imagining that it is unique or unified: “The pendulum has now swung from the semiotic back in the direction of the aesthetic—where the art historical project began” (4). As Visual Time unfolds, it becomes clear that, though this swing of the pendulum is indeed a return of sorts, the “aesthetics” to which Moxey refers is not simply the aesthetics of old.

Rather than elevating works of art above time, as an old-fashioned aestheticism would do, Moxey allows them to actively solicit us across time. In recent years, as Moxey says, the discipline of art history has “overwhelmingly dedicated its resources to understanding the work in the moment in which it was created. It is no surprise then,” he continues, “that the discipline should have been tempted to treat the image as something dead and inert.” Only “if the time of the work is not restricted to the horizon of its creation, [can] its status as an agent in the creation of its own reception . . . shine through” (3). If we are to understand the agency of the work, Moxey believes, we must attend to its existence in the present—its being here before us now.

In the case of paintings, he suggests, this means paying attention to their surfaces. When looking at the portraits of Hans Holbein the Younger, for instance, Moxey reflects on their flatness, which most scholars have dismissed as merely decorative or primitive. Taking up Otto Pächt’s largely neglected structuralist insights, Moxey writes: “Holbein’s pictorial rhetoric, his style, depends on surface rather than depth. His sitters dominate the spatial locations in which they are placed on the basis of their two, rather than three, dimensionality” (120). Countering easy assumptions about Holbein’s mimesis, Moxey shows that the “preternatural presence” (108) of his portraits depends not only on illusionism but also on the sensuous coherence of the picture plane. Through a taut arrangement of planar forms, Moxey argues, Holbein imbued his ostensibly secular portraits with the talismanic power of religious icons, at a moment when many of his contemporaries were responding to Reformation iconoclasm by purging their images of magic.

Surface is again paramount in the chapter “Bruegel’s Crows,” where Moxey focuses on seemingly minor details of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings. He lingers over the crows in The Return of the Hunters (1565) because they “live as much on as in the illusionistic landscape” and thereby resist iconological decoding (101; emphasis in original). Though Moxey intends to counter readings of Bruegel’s work that are so focused on meaning as to be blind to facture, he has no intention of dispensing with meaning altogether: “The potential for both meaning and unmeaning in the painting,” he says, “is what allows it to continue to provoke different reactions . . . over the course of time” (83). Moxey’s description of how Bruegel’s crows confound surface and depth leads one to notice where The Return of the Hunters blurs other (meaningful) distinctions as well: the uncanny resemblance between these crows and the black silhouettes of the skaters in the far distance confuses the categories of human and animal; the resemblance between the pointed roofs of the houses at lower right and the peaks of the mountains above confuses the categories of nature and culture; the resemblance between the paw prints in the snow at lower left and the gray patches that stand for the crowns of leafless trees dotting the fields in the distance confuses a whole host of distinctions; and one could go on.

Since all this confusion concerns the slipperiness of the relation between Bruegel’s patches of paint and what they signify, it would seem to call for a mode of reading sensitive to the arbitrariness of the sign. Moxey, who was a key figure in awakening the discipline of art history to poststructuralism, is perfectly aware of this. In Visual Time, however, he is attuned to other things. In this project, he wants to direct our attention to what he calls “presence”—“the ‘presence’ of the work of art—its ontological existence” (3)—as we encounter it in Holbein’s picture planes, Bruegel’s patches of paint, and elsewhere.

Rooted in the work of W. J. T. Mitchell, Gottfried Boehm, and the literary historian Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, the concept of “presence,” as Moxey uses it, resists definition. It would rather proliferate than be pinned down. It allies itself with being, agency, visuality, materiality, immediacy, and magic. It demands to be encountered and experienced rather than “read.” Above all, “presence” is life—especially for Mitchell (W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005, 6–11). In Visual Time, “presence” plays a double role. It works not only against historicism but also against a poststructuralism that Moxey feels has become limiting. Characterizing a recent trend in the humanities, he writes sympathetically: “a post-Derridean disappointment with the referential power of language has been replaced by a fascination with the power of objects and the languages they speak” (57).

Fascinated by the power of images, Moxey faults historicism and poststructuralism alike for holding the work of art at a distance from us. But, I find myself wanting to interject that historicism, at least in Panofsky’s mode, creates distance by privileging the very “presence” that Jacques Derrida, among others, deconstructs. Historicism creates distance in deference to “presence,” maintaining that the work of art was indeed fully present to itself and to its viewers in the context for which it was first intended. Returning the work to that original context, the historicist thereby distances it from herself or himself. To the extent that historicism is an effort to restore the work to the singular moment in which it was purportedly present, it could be said to be a kind of presentism. This is, of course, to turn the accusation of presentism against the very camp that usually levels it: instead of being the error of using present-day concepts to interpret the past, this presentism is the error of believing that the past was wholly present to itself. Though not every historicism is presentist in this sense—poststructuralist historicisms in the tradition of Michel Foucault would be among the exceptions—the historicism that Moxey is working against in Visual Time is.

This presentist historicism is eminently vulnerable to poststructuralist critiques of the metaphysics of “presence,” which leads me to wonder if “presence” is, finally, the best name for what Moxey is getting at in Visual Time—in Bruegel’s uncanny crows, for example. Or has poststructuralism shown “presence” to be too important to the very historicism that Moxey is taking to task to be serviceable as a tool for getting beyond it? To put it slightly differently, is Moxey’s formidable critique of historicism in Visual Time an extension of poststructuralist critiques of the metaphysics of “presence” or a break with those critiques? While Moxey himself suggests the latter, I hear a good deal of continuity between Visual Time and Moxey’s earlier poststructuralist work. But I suppose Moxey anticipates these questions, since they concern the “heterochrony” of his own book, that is, its own admixture of continuity with and discontinuity from the past. However one characterizes the relation of Visual Time to poststructuralism, its trenchant analysis of historicism stands, challenging us to give a much fuller account of the works of art we study and their being in time.

Amy Knight Powell
Associate Professor of Art History, University of Southern California

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