Mourning and Method

By Holly, Michael Ann | The Art Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Mourning and Method


Holly, Michael Ann, The Art Bulletin


In the sight of an old pair of shoes there is something profoundly melancholy.-attributed to Gustave Flaubert

Why do we write about works of visual art in the first place? Why do subjects (us) need to talk about objects? What kind of a dialogue, even game, is taking place? In the past, I have tried to make a case for the variety of ways that works of art both literally and metaphorically prefigure their subsequent historical and interpretative understandings.1 It had long been a commonplace of poststructuralist thinking that all the energy for interpretation emanates from the "subjective" side of the equation, and I wanted to restore a certain agency to the objects themselves.

In the following essay, however, I want to address the character of the field between: the magnetism that perpetually binds subjects and objects, an exchange enacted under the pall of mourning. I am haunted by some memorable, melancholic sentences by two fellow art historians, long dead, with whom I have spent considerable scholarly time communing. First of all, Erwin Panofsky, writing in 1955: "The humanities are not faced by the task of arresting what would otherwise slip away, but enlivening what would otherwise remain dead."2 And then, over a century before, Jacob Burckhardt, writing in 1844: "I feel at times as though I were already standing in the evening light, as though nothing much were to come of me.... I think that a man of my age can rarely have experienced such a vivid sense of the insignificance and frailty of human things.... I'm a fool, am I not?,"3

In his letters, Burckhardt is always the nostalgic observer on the other side of history, the outsider looking in, the spectator who admires but can never inhabit the sunny vistas from which he is separated in time. "This," he exclaims, "is where I stand on the shore of the world-stretching out my arms towards the fons et origo of all things, and that is why history to me is street poetry."4 He saw the "'culture of old Europe' as a ruin," and he doubted that historical events, especially contemporary ones, had any meaning at all. The crucial paradox of history writing, as Burckhardt knew a century and a half ago, is that it validates death in the present while preserving the life of the past. My question arises from that conundrum: How might melancholy, regarded as a trope, help art historians to come to terms with what I see as the elegiac nature of our disciplinary transactions with the past?

I begin with Burckhardt's and Panofsky's lamentations in order to set the tone for considering a certain paradigm of Renaissance art historical scholarship in terms of the theme of melancholy-not the iconography of the humor (fairly standard), but rather its translation into a historiographic point of view. A political or intellectual history that is rooted in written documents is difficult enough to execute; a narrative written out of a loyalty to visual objects frequently proves to be an assignment in exasperation. The very materiality of objects that have survived the ravages of time in order to exist in the present frequently confounds the cultural historian, who retroactively sets out to turn them back into past ideas, social constructs, documents of personality, whatever. Works of art metonymically, like links on a chain, express the lost presence.6 Images are so often what we "depend on in order to take note of what has passed away."7 The contemplative paralysis that arises from recognizing one's inability to make contemporary words connect with historical images-that is, to write a definitive history of art-was for Burckhardt, as it was over half a century later for Walter Benjamin, that prescient theologian of melancholy, an essential trait of the mournful sensibility.

On its sunny surface, the practice of connoisseurship in Renaissance studies would seem to be about as far from sharing such shadowy sentiments as one could go, but in this context I would prefer to regard it as just a different kind of historical performance provoked by a sense of loss.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Mourning and Method
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.