Mourning and Method

By Holly, Michael Ann | The Art Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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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.

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