Interventions: The Melancholy Art/Response: Epithalamium/Response: The Dark Side of Art History/Response: The Far in the Near/Response: Reasons to Be Cheerful/Interventions: The Author Replies

By Holly, Michael Ann; Melville, Stephen et al. | The Art Bulletin, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Interventions: The Melancholy Art/Response: Epithalamium/Response: The Dark Side of Art History/Response: The Far in the Near/Response: Reasons to Be Cheerful/Interventions: The Author Replies


Holly, Michael Ann, Melville, Stephen, White, Hayden, Lang, Karen, Bann, Stephen, The Art Bulletin


Michael Ann Holly

Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them. . . . The persistence which is expressed in the intention of mourning is born of its loyalty to the world of things.

-Walter Benjamin, The Ongr'n of German Tragic Drama1

Some thoughts by allusion, quotation, mood, and metaphor on mourning, writing, and the history of art

Writing about visual art, like looking at it, can on occasion console, captivate, and enrapture. The act of trying to put into words, spoken or written, something that never promised the possibility of a translation can at rare moments blur the boundaries between author and work, enveloping the writer in a greater world of mutual understanding.2 Usually language gets in the way. The enchantment that transpires between beholder and work of art has no name because it resists linguistic appropriation. Try as philosophers might, we resignedly call this "feeling" the "aesthetic" and trust that that lone word covers the compelling, unseen, ineffable, mysterious lure of certain objects. Even Bernard Berenson, self-assured connoisseur that he was, recognized that something more was at work in the contemplation of visual objects than empirical knowledge:

In visual art the aesthetic moment is that fleeting instant, so brief as to be almost timeless, when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at. . . . He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself. The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness. When he recovers workaday consciousness it is as if he had been initiated into illuminating, formative mysteries.3

The experience of visual captivation (when the two become one) is transitory, even ephemeral, however powerful its aftereffects. In "workaday consciousness," its consolation lingers, and like ruins contemplated across many cultures and several centuries in faraway places, these material objects provoke a sad and romantic yearning for something that has long ago passed away. This sensation is not modern. As long ago as the fourth century, Saint Jerome wrote: "The gods adored by nations are now alone in their niches with the owls and the night-birds. The gilded Capitol languishes in dust and all the temples of Rome are covered with spiders' webs."4 At the close of the last century, the late writer W. G. Sebald mused on what troubled Sir Thomas Browne in 1658 as he contemplated a treasure trove of recently uncovered burial urns in Norfolk:

The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow. . . . The heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature.5

Mourning, melancholy, monuments lost, monuments found. The duty of any serious art historian is to discover their many stories and then turn these explorations, through the act of writing, into an ever-growing corpus of visual knowledge. Nevertheless, what kind of scholar is drawn to what objects and why? What psychic role does the act of writing about works of art fulfill? Writing about art of the past is a magical game, full of illusions. On the surface it suggests that we can hold onto the past-tame it, compel it to conform to a reasonable narrative-and that conviction makes us go on. Surely that is not all there is to it. It does not take much insight to recognize that something else pricks this sober veneer of professional commitment. As Roland Barthes once said, "what I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance."'1 The "aesthetic moment," for lack of a better phrase, quietly waits in the background, and when it makes itself felt, it so often hurts. …

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