Posts Tagged ‘The Period Eye’

Art History Looks at Clifford Geertz

MATERIAL CULTURE:

ART HISTORY LOOKS AT CLIFFORD GEERTZ

By Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

 

“Art, Clifford Geertz once remarked, “is notoriously hard to talk about.” [1] However, Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, gives art historians a way to talk about art through material culture.  Art history is, definitionally, history, and the goal of the art historian is to discover the meaning of a material object by reconstructing the context in which the object was created.  An anthropologist usually works in the present with the material culture of the present, but the two professions share a common goal—the comprehension of the meaning of the artifact.  In anthoropology, “material culture” refers to the construction of a “thick description” of a local (contemporary) culture by a detached observer, usually an anthropologist or sociologist.  The methodology of building a thick description, layer by layer was by the renowned anthroplogist, Clifford Geertz (1926-2006).

Thick description does not imply a literal description which would not generate meaning.  Because the goal of the observer is to retrieve meaning, the methods employed are semiotic, with objects constitututing a form of language and of cultural communication. A material analysis of a culture encompasses that culture’s actions, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts for the purpose of semiotically reading a particular event or a certain object at a singular point in time.  The semiotic reading [2] cannot be accomplished without the creation of a “thick” or multilayered, “description” of the conditions that make possible, not just the production of meaning, but also meaning itself.  In other words, in any cultural context there are only a certain range of possibles that exist and these possibles are linguistic as well as social.

The ultimate outcome of a “Thick Description,” [3] of a slice of a culture, goes beyond a semiotic reading [4] and seeks to understand the way a society thinks.  If this brief description of thick description  sounds familiar to an art historian—it should, because there are intersections between Clifford Geertz and art history, but, perhaps, not the ones that seem most immediately apparent.  As the result of what could be called a “thick description” of Medieval culture, Erwin Panofsky, in his famous book, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, linked architecture and medieval intellectualism to a common condition or range of possibilities he termed “a mental habit.”  Panofsky’s “thickness” can also be seen in his well-known iconographical methodology in which he layered the study of art into greater levels of thickness: from the symbol (icon) to the meaning of the symbol (iconography) to the meaning of the symbol in culture (iconology).

In the best Foucauldrian fashion, one must explain what material culture is not.  First, as is indicated by the word “material,” material culture is not a form of idealism and is not a theory (idea)  of culture. Material culture has to be a study of objects located in a particular place at a particular point in time. Second, while material culture is certainly a form of philosophical “materialism,” Geertz’s theory is not connected in any way with Marxism.  In fact, Marxism is never mentioned in the discourse of material culture, except to note in passing that Marxists object to Geertz’s lack of attention to issues of class and power.

Marxism, whether vulgar, reflexive, neo, or what have you, is a theory, which analyzes a social system from the perspective of that determining engine, economics in general and capitalism in particular. [5] Marxism also operates in terms of the dialectic: thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, critiquing the teleological movement, the dynamic movement, of historical forces over time.  Marxism is a critique of wealth, power, and class oppression.  An anthropologist never critiques or judges a culture, nor does s/he have a political agenda—ideally—that is.

Material culture, in contrast, is not a theory.  [6]Geertz never worked out or revealed a theory; rather material culture is a method—-[7]of study, observation, and elucidation.  Finally, the Geertzian method must be synchronic [8] and can never be diachronic—caught up in time. [9] Next, since material culture is a method, not a theory,  [10] the procedure stands apart from both modernist and postmodernist theories, while at the same time making use of those insights.  The young anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, began his career by omnivorously consuming, appropriating, and employing a whole array of new ideas tumbling out of that 1960s, a merging of philosophy and literary theory.  Postmodernism comes out of this disciplinary mash-up, but Geertz, unlike the postmodern scholars and philosophers of the sixties, did not look forward, but looked backward in order to build his semiotic foundation.

It is at the intersection of anthropology and semiotics that the intellectual paths of Clifford Geertz and art historians begin converge.  Long before the term “blurring the boundaries” of disciplines sunk to genuflected jargon in art history, Geertz found inspiration from Ludwig Wittgenstein, [11] Fernand de Saussure, [12] and Michel Foucault.  Geertz built a stratified, or thick description, of an object in culture in order to interpret it semiotically in a fixed fashion, but Geertz turned to Ludwig Wittgenstein who unfroze meaning by declaring, in Philosophical Investigations, “Meaning is in the use.”  [13] In other words, Geertz understood that meaning was embedded within a specific culture at a certain time, and, that although meaning is constantly in flux, always changing, the thick description was a study of semiotics through use in the acutal or material culture. As he stated,

Behavior must be attended to, and with some exactness, because it is through the flow of behavior–or, more precisely, social action–that cultural forms find articulation. They find it as well of course, in various sorts of artifacts, and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another. It is what Cohen, the sheikh, and “Captain Dumari” were doing when they tripped over one another’s purposes–pursuing trade, defending honor, establishing dominance–that created our pastoral drama, and that is what the drama is, therefore, “about.” Whatever, or wherever, symbol systems “in their own terms” may be, we gain empirical access to them by inspecting events, not by arranging abstracted entities into unified patterns.

By objecting to “abstraction” and to “unification,” Geertz made the point that, although meaning changed over time, the linguistic content of any object is also necessarily time-bound to one temporal point.  The flexiblility of meaning, caught up in the “ongoing patters of life,” therefore, precludes any fixed or frozen model or theory.  Although Geertz, because of his connection to cultural linguistics, is sometimes lumped together with Barthes and Derrida, [14] his project is not to read texts but to write texts. What Geertz shares with those philosophers is that he embraces the postmodern notion that academic and scientific writing is a form of literature or écriture, and he writes deliberately in a metaphorical style, [15] embracing the Lyotardian concept of the “figure” in the “discourse.”  It not that Geertz reads Derrida, it is that one can do a Derridan reading of a Geertzian text. [16] Certainly, there is a degree of Kristvian intertextuality [17] in Geertz, but, for a field ethnographer, a word far more suitable than “intertextuality,” [18]would be “connections” or what Dilthy called “connectedness” or “context” (Zusammenhand) [19] or Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances” among cultural elements.

In the beginning of Thick Description:Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, Geertz stated,

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

 

Geertz accepts the postmodern concept of a consciousness that is socially and linguistically constructed, but he does so via Kant by way of Ernst Cassirer [20] with a drive-by for Foucault.  For Geertz, the individual, or Foucault’s fictive “Man,” is never the object of study.  Like Foucault, Geertz rejected the abstraction of Man, instead he posits an agent within culture. A person is an actor situated within a thick cultural matrix, acting and reacting, with limited agency, out of pre-existing cognitive structures, a priori producing culture. [21] Therefore, the consciousness of the human subject can never transcend the fact that language constructs the mind.  But, as would be typical of anthropolotists and scientists of his time, Geertz tended to assume a designated cultural agent, who seemed to be a privileged male.  Marxists, feminists, post-colonial critics have, rightly, criticized Geertz for not including the voices of the dispossessed.  The voices of women, for example, cannot be retroactively added to field research for each thick description is bound up in a synchronic moment in time.  Once silent voices can be included only in a later thick description that would undoubtedly recreate a culture that was entirely different from that of the alpha males.

Having spent half my time briefly noting what Geertz does not do, for example, his method is not a Barthesian linguistic “activity,” it is time to ask what does Geertz do and where does his method intersect with art history?  At the Warburg Library. [22] Impacted by the neo-Kantian revival in the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) [23] created diachronic analyses of cultural symbols from the perspectives of psychology and semiotics respectively.  It is their colleague at the Library, Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), who is closer to Geertz, because Panofsky’s art historical approach is synchronic [24] and, inspired by Saussure, semiotic.  As Michael Ann Holly pointed out a quarter of a century ago, Panofsky’s method has been drained of what we might call its  “thickness” by his followers who thought in terms of decoding symbols rather than interpreting a culture. [25]

Few art historians followed Panofsky past iconography into iconology, [26] except for Michael Baxendall,  who is Geertz’s guide to understanding art through his Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy[27] Just as Panofsky attempted to recover the medieval mindset or “mental habits and controlling principles” in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Baxendall recreated the particular Renaissance worldview through Piero della Francesca’s paintings. [28] Baxendall developed a concept called, “the period eye,” or a manner of thinking and seeing and making.  “The period eye” explains why different artifacts emerge with different purposes and with a distinct appearance that allows us to “date” them.  As  Alan Langdale explained in Adrian Rifkin’s book,  About Michael Baxendall,

Geertz’s aforementioned “Art as a Cultural System,” took Baxendall’s concept of the Period Eye as paradigmatic of a rigorous and deep anthropological anaysis of a society’s visual culture.  For Geertz, Painting and Experience represented an advance in the analysis of visual culure’s embeddedness in the myriad activitiesof a society.  Geertz saw the book as a work which, more than many other studies attempting to link the sytle of the works of art with society or culture, meticulously articulated the mediating elements out of which such transfromations were made…[29]

In “Art as a Cultural System,” Geertz stated,

This realization, that to study an art form is to explore a sensibility, that such a sensibility is essentially a collective formation, and that the foundations of such a formation are as wide as social existence and as deep, leads away not only from the view that aesthetic power is a grandiloquence for the pleasures of craft. It leads away also from the so-called functionalist view that has most often been opposed to it: that is, that works of art are elaborate mechanisms for defining social relationships, sustaining social rules, and strengthening social values. Nothing very measurable would happen to Yoruba society if carvers no longer concerned themselves with the fineness of line, or, I dare say, even with carving. Certainly, it would not fall apart. Just some, things that were felt could not be said — and perhaps, after awhile, might no longer even be felt — and life would be the greyer for it. Anything may, of course, play a role in helping society work, painting and sculpting included; just as anything may help it tear itself apart. But the central connection between art and collective life does not lie on such an instrumental plane, it lies on a semiotic one. Matisse’s color jottings (the word is his own) and the Yoruba’s line arrangements don’t, save glancingly, celebrate social structure or forward useful doctrines. They materialize a way of experiencing; bring a particular cast of mind out into the world of objects, where men can look at it. [30]

Geertz discussed “conceptual structures” that are revealed through the act of building a thick description in this fashion,

Such a view of how theory functions in an interpretive science suggests that the distinction, relative in any case, that appears in the experimental or observational sciences between “description” and “explanation” appears here as one, even more relative, between “inscription” (“thick description”) and “specification” (“diagnosis”)–between setting down the meaning particular social actions have for the actors whose actions they are, and stating, as explicitly as we can manage, what the knowledge thus attained demonstrates about the society in which it is found and, beyond that, about social life as such. Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the “said” of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinants of human behavior. In ethnography, the office of theory is to provide a vocabulary in which what symbolic action has to say about itself–that is, about the role of culture in human life–can be expressed. [31]

For the art historian, the connections among intellectuals who examine culture, its habits and practices and artifacts are intriguing.  We can make direct connections between Geertz and Panofsky and between Geertz and Baxendall and between Baxendall and Pierre Bourdieu. [32] Panofsky investigated “mental habits,” Geertz conceived of a “thick description,” Baxendall discussed the “period eye,” and Bourdieu coined the term “habitas.” [33] All of these writers are reading each other and all of their coined terms are connected to the desire to explain how cultural meaning takes on a particular shape.

What Panofsky called “mental process of a synthetic and subjective character,” which engender meaning is that which ultimately interests Geertz, but we must not think in terms of a diachronic zeitgeist.  Geertz created a thick description of a limited number of acts and actors, who, while speaking thought a culture, can speak only out of themselves and within their own time. [34] The thick description of a local culture [35] at a specific point in time can be compared—and Geertz does—-to early Foucault’s notion of the épistèmé, but with caution.  Certainly thick description sounds like the Foucauldrian archive, but although Foucault rejects a seamless diachronic view of cultural progress, he still examines cultures over time, albeit with time disrupted and ruptured.  Nevertheless, Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge suggested that gaps and lacunae in knowledge need to be expected and accepted, making the inevitable “thinness” of “thick description” understandable.

Any art historian laboring in historical archives is aware that the most careful collection of primary sources can produce only a product that looks like a sponge—more of less thick and full of holes, like Swiss cheese.  While Geertzian method is obviously consequential to a historian working within a Panofsky-esque framework, several questions come up.  First, art historians could be more precisely classified by working method.  Anyone attempting to recreate an archive of a dead culture is traveling in a foreign country—the past—as David Lowenthal [36] expressed it, and is thus working as an anthropologist.  Whether or not one wants to boldly go where Baxendall goes, that researcher is more precisely a cultural historian, working though Panofsky to Geertz, recreating a thick, ultimately semiotic, description.  [37]

The combination of history and semiotics has attracted the attention of the New Historicists to Geertz, but what of the oxymoronic contemporary art historians?  The Geertzian method removes the false dichotomy between fine and popular art—that much is obvious—but his method also breaks the confines of visual culture and transforms the historian into a cultural observer, into an anthropological watcher, who investigates and records and describes—like Balzac. [38] As with any good researcher, all preconceived ideas, all assumptions, all theories, all hoped-for outcomes must be abandoned at the entrance of the project.  For example, a study of contemporary museum practices is not Geertzian, when those practices are critiqued.  A simple, careful, and methaphorically rich thick description should suffice.  Clifford Geertz does not do systems analyses, for he is seeking a culture’s épistèmé of which the system is merely a symptom [39] of a particular mode of thinking.  However, Geertz has always used the time-honored Warburgian method of compare and contrast [40] in order to thicken and bring his description to life and to account for the change of meaning through use over time.

Geertzian culture is always local, that is limited, and the scope of his research is always narrow and modest.  An art historian or cultural historian has the luxury the cultural observer does not.  For the cultural historian, time stands still, and the selected slice can be thickened over years of archival research. [41] For the cultural observer of—say the art scene—-the moment is fleeting and  Pierre Bourdieu’s “field of cultural production” must be seized in the immediacy of its “habitas.” [42]For both kinds of art historians, [43]interpretation is the goal, but the overriding question is when to stop  this interpretation.  When Panofsky heard an over-interpretation of Arnolfini’s  supposed identity, he reported,

I was dumbstruck, my hair stood on end, and my voice stuck to my mouth. …There is, however, admittedly, some danger that iconology will behave not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astronomy.  There is, I am afraid, no other answer to this problem other than the use of historical methods tempered, if possible, by common sense.


[1] Clifford Geertz, “Art  as a Cultural System,” in Local Knowledge. Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology(New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 94.  He also complained about the “craft approach,”  or formalism, in art.

[2] For a thorough discussion of semiotics and context, see Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” in Art Bulletin, Volume 73, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 174-208.

[3] Stephen Greenblatt described Geertz’s indebtedness to Gilbert Ryle for the term “thick description.”   Greenblatt defined Ryles’ thick description as “ an account of intentions, expectations, circumstances, settings, and purposes that give actions meanings.”

Stephen Greenblatt, “The Touch of the Real,” in The Fate of Culture. Geertz and Beyond, edited by Sherry B. Ortner, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 16.

[4] Geertz established his semiotic position:

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate is essentially a semiotic one.  Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.  It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

Later he said, “Culture, this acted document, is public.”

Clifford Geertz, Chapter 1, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, (Basic Books, 1973), p. 5  and 10.

[5] Geertz commented in Local Knowledge that

…purist dogmas…of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses…but…they head us off precisely in the wrong direction—toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life…

Clifford Geertz, L.K., p. 48.

[6] Geertz stated,

Theoretical formulations hover so low over the interpretations they govern that they don’t make much sense or hold much interest apart from them. This is so, not because they are not general (if they are not general, they are not theoretical), but because stated independently of their applications, they seem either commonplace or vacant.

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 25.

[7] See Fred Inglis, Chapter 5 “Portrait of a Method,” in Clifford Geertz Culture,Custom and Ethics, (Malden, Mass., Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp.107-132.

[8] According to William Sewell,

…adequately realized synchrony is more important to good historical analysis than adequately realized diachrony.  In the eyes of professionals, it is more important for a historian to know how to suspend time than to know how to recount its passage.

William H. Sewell, Jr., “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in The Fate of Culture.  Geertz and Beyond, edited by Sherry B. Ortner, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 41.

[9] Fred Inglis recounted that

Geertz’s immediate example of How to Do Cultural Studies on these terms is Paul Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory.  Fussell shows how writing about the war by those who fought it (writing which takes in diaries, postcards, letters, journalism, historiography, as well as the great poems and autobiographies) had to match the factual iconography of trench warfare with that traditional imagery of Romantic Englishness most of the Anglophone side brought to it.

Inglis, op cit., p. 131.

[10] Silverman states

Through his hermeneutic and culturological orientations, Geertz assails structuralism and other theories which account for culture through reductionistic explanations, purported prime movers and supposed bottom-line realities.  Geertz’s relativism typically materializes in an attack on Lévi-Sraussian structuralism.

Silverman, op cit., p. 127.

[11] Geertz attributed his position to

…that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, “The Later Wittgenstein.”  The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish…I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master.

Clifford Geertz, “Preface” in Available Light.  Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. xi.

[12] Ferndinand de Saussure studied language in terms of langue and parole, that is, the system of representations that makes meaningful speech possible within a culture at a particular time and place.

[13] In his essay, “Thick Description,” Geertz noted that

…cultural forms find articulation…in various sorts of artifacts and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 17.

[14] “Thick Description” is a “depth model” compared to Derrida’s mode of analysis, which stresses the surface of texts and places the reader inside, rather than outside, the field of study.

[15] Eric Kline Silverman noted that

He was the first American anthropologist to employ a textual metaphor for understanding culture.  In Geertz’s writings, however, we do not find a single, clearly articulated elaborate theory of the text….His textual metaphor emeres from a series of conceptual themes—it is not one notion of several orientations.

Geertz approaches cultural meaning through a symbolic or semiotic framework.  The was particularly influenced by Susan Langer…Geertz defines cultural symbols as medels of and models for social reality.

Eric Kline Silverman, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?”  in Reading Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilly (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990) p.121. 125

[16] According to Stephen Greenblatt, Gilbert Ryle’s

….thick description is manifestly a quality of the explication rather than of the action or text that is explicated; it is not the object that is thick or thin but only the description of it.  A thick description thus could be exceedintly straightforward or, alternatively, exceedingly complex, depending on the length of the chain of parasitical intentions and circumstantial detachments…..Thickness is not the object; it is in the narrative surroundings, the add-ons, nested frames….Thickness is no longer seems extrinsic to the object, a function solely of the way it is framed.

Stephen Greenblatt, op cit, pp. 16-17.

[17] In his book, Intertextuality, Graham Allen explained that while both Saussure and Bakhtin used concepts of intertextuality, it was Julia Kristeva who acutally coined the term. Graham Alan, Intertextuality (London:Routledge, 2000), p. 11.

It should also be noted that Kristeva introduced the term in La Révolution du langage poétique as “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another, accompanied by a new articulation of the enunciative and denotative position.

[18] According to Silverman, Geertz is wary of intertextuality, except in the instance of thinking of parts in terms of the whole or the whole in germs of the parts.

Silverman, op cit., p. 137.

[19] Dilthy commented,

It is a relationship of whole to parts…Meaning and meaningfulness…are contextual.  One would have to await life’s end and could not survey the whole on the basis of which the relations between the parts can be determined until the hour of death.  One would have to await the end of history in order to possess the complete material for the determination of its meaning.  On the other hand, the whole exists for us insofar as it becomes understandable on the basis of the parts.  Understanding always hovers between these two approaches.

Cited in Michael Ann Holly, Panofsky and the Foundation of Art History (Ithaca: Corrnell University Press, 984). p 40.

[20] Ernst Cassirer,  Language and Myth, translated by Suzanne Langer, (New York) Dover Publications, 1946, and Symbol, Myth, and Culture.  Essays and lectures of Ernst Casirer, 1935 – 1945, edited by Donald Phillip Verene, (New Haven)Yale University Press, 1979.  Langer is another connection between Geertz and Cassirer as Geertz was very much influenced by Langer.

[21] Geertz thinks in terms of “cultural texts” or public texts that are representational and durable.  In Local Knowledge he stated,

The key to the transition from text to text analogue, from wirting as discourse to action as discourse, is, as Paul Ricour has pointed out, the concept of ‘inscription:’ the fixation of meaning.

Clifford Geertz , Local Knowledge, p. 31.

This “fixation” of meaning refers to  what Silverman describes as

….an enduring aspect of culture which expands meaning of the text proper but to which the text semantically points.

Silverman, op cit., 132

[22] For a discussion of the connections among these three figures see Silvia Ferretti, Cassirer, Panofsky,+ Warburg, translated by Richard Pierce(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)

[23] Byron Good and Mary-Jo  DelVecchio Good commented that Geertz’s anthropological  works are

grounded in the work of Ernst Cassirer and his viosion of “symbolic forms” as mediating between Kant’s a priori categories of mind and the perceived world, actively constituting “image worlds” (in Cassirer’s terms) of language and myth, religion, art, history, and science.  But all of this becomes an ethnographic theory of subjectivity when made local…

Byron Good and Mary-Jo  DelVecchio Good, “On the ‘Subject’ of Culture. Subjectivity and Cultural phenomenology in the Work of Clifford Geertz,” in Clifford Geertz and His Colleagues (Chicago) University of Chicago, 2005, p. 100.

[24] Panofsky stated

Every historical concpt is obviously based on the categories of space and time…The cosmos of culture, like the cosmos of nature is a spatio-temporal structure…the succession of steps by which the material is organized into a natural or cultural cosmos is analogous, and the same is true of the methodological problems implied by this process.  The first step is, as has already been mentioned, the observation of natural phenomena and the examination of human records.  Then the records have to be “decoded” and interpreted, as must the “messages from nature” received by the observer.  Finally the results have to be classified and coordinated into a coherent system that “makes sense.”

Erwin Panofsky,  Meaning in the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955) p. 7.

[25] To support her point, Holly adds the testimony of Giulio Carlo Argan, who called Panofsky “the Saussure of art history.”

[26] See Erwin Panofsky, “Introduction,” in Studies in Iconology.  Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, (New York) Dover Publications, 1972.

[27] Geertz maintained he relied upon Baxendall who “takes precisely the approach I here advocating.  Baxandall is concerned with defining what he calls the “period eye.”  Geertz continued, “The famous solidity of Renaisance painting had at least in part its origins in something else than the inherent properties of planar representation, mathematical law, and binocular vision.”  Baxendall, he noted connected “the moralism of religious preaching, the pageantry of social dancing, the shrewdness of commercial gauging, and the grandeur of Latin oratory.  Geertz described “the painter’s true medium” as “The capacity of his audience to see meanings in pictures.”

Geertz, L.K., op cit., p. 108.

[28] In a later and related work, Baxendall attempted to reconstruct the intention of the artist in Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation  of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

[29] Alan Langdale, “Aspects of the Critical Reception and Intellectual History of Baxandall’s Concept of the Period Eye,” in Adrian Rifkin, editor, About Michael Baxendall Wiley-Blackwell, 1999,  page 18

[30] Clifford Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System,” in Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, New York: Basic Books, 1983, available on the web, no page.

[31] Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit

[32] See Omar Lizardo, “Pierre Bourdieu as a Post-Cultural Theoriet,” Cultural Socioogy, 2010, available on line.

[33] See Pierre Bourdieu’s chapter “The Social Genesis of the Eye,” in his book The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field: Stanford University Press, 1996.

[34] Geertz asserted

The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life.  And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter…

Geertz, L.K., p. 97.

[35] Geertz said that

To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted…a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them…

Geertz, L.K., p. 120.

[36] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

[37] Geertz described thick description as “microscopic.”

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 21.

[38] Geertz said,

Thick description…(aims) to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics.

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 28.

[39] In Studies in Iconology, Panofsky refers to Cassirer’s conflation of cultural symbols and symptoms.  He warns that the historian must make sure the intrinsic meaning of the work be checked by relating it to other like works.

[40] Silverman comments that Geertz

…rejects two common constructions of history—the period approach and the developmental approach…Both views employ linear concepts of temporarlity, the dominant historical fiction in western intellectual discourse…After having rejected those two approaches to history…Geertz uses comparative material written about both past and present…

Silverman, op cit., 143.

[41] Geertzian methodology suggests that art historians need to research further afield, outside of the presumed arena of art history, if s/he wants do produce a “thick description.”   A “thick description” replaces formalism, connoisseurship, and all other narrow viewpoints, with a broad cultural perspective re-created out of Wittgensteinian “bundles of family resemblances.”

[42] Pierre Bourdieu actually devised his notion of “habitas” after studying Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scolasticism (1951). See Bourdieu’s “Post to Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism” in The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory, by Bruce W. Holsinger.

[43] Geertz remarked

that the conjoining of History and Anthropology is not a matter of fusing two academic fields into a new Something-or-Other, but of redefining them in terms of one another by managing their relations within the bounds of a particular study: textual tactics.

From “The State of the Art,” from Available Light, p. 127.

Bibliography

[1]  Clifford Geertz, “Art  as a Cultural System,” in Local Knowledge. Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 94.  He also complained about the “craft approach,” or formalism, in art.

[1]  For a thorough discussion of semiotics and context, see Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” in Art Bulletin, Volume 73, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 174-208.

[1]  Stephen Greenblatt described Geertz’s indebtedness to Gilbert Ryle for the term “thick description.”   Greenblatt defined Ryles’ thick description as “ an account of intentions, expectations, circumstances, settings, and purposes that give actions meanings.”

Stephen Greenblatt, “The Touch of the Real,” in The Fate of Culture. Geertz and Beyond, edited by Sherry B. Ortner, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 16.

[1]  Geertz established his semiotic position:

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate is essentially a semiotic one.  Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.  It is explication I am after, constructing social expressions on their surface enigmatical.

Later he said, “Culture, this acted document, is public.”

Clifford Geertz, Chapter 1, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, (Basic Books, 1973), p. 5 and 10.

[1] Geertz commented in Local Knowledge that

…purist dogmas…of the material determination of consciousness on the social science side may have their uses…but…they head us off precisely in the wrong direction—toward an isolation of the meaning-form aspects of the matter from the practical contexts that give them life…

Clifford Geertz, L.K., p. 48.

[1] Geertz stated,

Theoretical formulations hover so low over the interpretations they govern that they don’t make much sense or hold much interest apart from them. This is so, not because they are not general (if they are not general, they are not theoretical), but because stated independently of their applications, they seem either commonplace or vacant.

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 25.

[1]  See Fred Inglis, Chapter 5 “Portrait of a Method,” in Clifford Geertz Culture,Custom and Ethics, (Malden, Mass., Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp.107-132.

[1] According to William Sewell,

…adequately realized synchrony is more important to good historical analysis than adequately realized diachrony.  In the eyes of professionals, it is more important for a historian to know how to suspend time than to know how to recount its passage.

William H. Sewell, Jr., “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in The Fate of Culture.  Geertz and Beyond, edited by Sherry B. Ortner, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p. 41.

[1] Fred Inglis recounted that

Geertz’s immediate example of How to Do Cultural Studies on these terms is Paul Fussell’s classic The Great War and Modern Memory.  Fussell shows how writing about the war by those who fought it (writing which takes in diaries, postcards, letters, journalism, historiography, as well as the great poems and autobiographies) had to match the factual iconography of trench warfare with that traditional imagery of Romantic Englishness most of the Anglophone side brought to it.

Inglis, op cit., p. 131.

[1] Silverman states

Through his hermeneutic and culturological orientations, Geertz assails structuralism and other theories, which account for culture through reductionistic explanations, purported prime movers and supposed bottom-line realities.  Geertz’s relativism typically materializes in an attack on Lévi-Sraussian structuralism.

Eric Kline Silverman, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?”  in Reading Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilly (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990) Eric Kline Silverman, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?”  in Reading Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilly (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 127.

[1] Geertz attributed his position to

…that posthumous and mind-clearing insurrectionist, “The Later Wittgenstein.”  The appearance in 1953, two years after his death, of Philosophical Investigations, and the transformation of what had been but rumors out of Oxbridge into an apparently endlessly generative text, had an enormous impact upon my sense of what I was about and what I hoped to accomplish…I am more than happy to acknowledge Wittgenstein as my master.

Clifford Geertz, “Preface” in Available Light.  Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. xi.

[1]  Ferdinand de Saussure studied language in terms of langue and parole, that is, the system of representations that makes meaningful speech possible within a culture at a particular time and place.

[1]

[1]  In his essay, “Thick Description,” Geertz noted that

…cultural forms find articulation…in various sorts of artifacts and various states of consciousness; but these draw their meaning from the role they play (Wittgenstein would say their “use”) in an ongoing pattern of life, not from any intrinsic relationships they bear to one another.  The quotation by Wittgenstein comes from his Philosophical Investigations, United Kingdom: Part 1, Section 43, Basil Blackwell, 1953.

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 17.

[1] “Thick Description” is a “depth model” compared to Derrida’s mode of analysis, which stresses the surface of texts and places the reader inside, rather than outside, the field of study.

[1] Eric Kline Silverman noted that

He was the first American anthropologist to employ a textual metaphor for understanding culture.  In Geertz’s writings, however, we do not find a single, clearly articulated elaborate theory of the text….His textual metaphor emerges from a series of conceptual themes—it is not one notion of several orientations.

Geertz approaches cultural meaning through a symbolic or semiotic framework.  He was particularly influenced by Susan Langer…Geertz defines cultural symbols as medels of and models for social reality.

Eric Kline Silverman, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?”  in Reading Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilly (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990) p.121. 125

[1] According to Stephen Greenblatt, Gilbert Ryle’s

….thick description is manifestly a quality of the explication rather than of the action or text that is explicated; it is not the object that is thick or thin but only the description of it.  A thick description thus could be exceedingly straightforward or, alternatively, exceedingly complex, depending on the length of the chain of parasitical intentions and circumstantial detachments…..Thickness is not the object; it is in the narrative surroundings, the add-ons, nested frames….Thickness is no longer seems extrinsic to the object, a function solely of the way it is framed.

Stephen Greenblatt, op cit, pp. 16-17.

[1]  According to Silverman, Geertz is wary of intertextuality, except in the instance of thinking of parts in terms of the whole or the whole in germs of the parts.

Silverman, op cit., p. 137.

[1]  Dilthy commented,

It is a relationship of whole to parts…Meaning and meaningfulness…are contextual.  One would have to await life’s end and could not survey the whole on the basis of which the relations between the parts can be determined until the hour of death.  One would have to await the end of history in order to possess the complete material for the determination of its meaning.  On the other hand, the whole exists for us insofar as it becomes understandable on the basis of the parts.  Understanding always hovers between these two approaches.

Cited in Michael Ann Holly, Panofsky and the Foundation of Art History (Ithaca: Corrnell University Press, 1984). p 40.

[1] Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, translated by Suzanne Langer, (New York) Dover Publications, 1946, and Symbol, Myth, and Culture.  Essays and lectures of Ernst Casirer, 1935 – 1945, edited by Donald Phillip Verene, (New Haven) Yale University Press, 1979.  Langer is another connection between Geertz and Cassirer as Geertz was very much influenced by Langer.

[1] Geertz thinks in terms of “cultural texts” or public texts that are representational and durable.  In Local Knowledge he stated,

The key to the transition from text to text analogue, from wirting as discourse to action as discourse, is, as Paul Ricour has pointed out, the concept of ‘inscription:’ the fixation of meaning.

Clifford Geertz , Local Knowledge, p. 31.

This “fixation” of meaning refers to what Silverman describes as

….an enduring aspect of culture which expands meaning of the text proper but to which the text semantically points.

Silverman, op cit., 132

[1]  For a discussion of the connections among these three figures see Silvia Ferretti, Cassirer, Panofsky,+ Warburg, translated by Richard Pierce(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)

[1]  Byron Good and Mary-Jo  DelVecchio Good commented that Geertz’s anthropological  works are

grounded in the work of Ernst Cassirer and his viosion of “symbolic forms” as mediating between Kant’s a priori categories of mind and the perceived world, actively constituting “image worlds” (in Cassirer’s terms) of language and myth, religion, art, history, and science.  But all of this becomes an ethnographic theory of subjectivity when made local…

Byron Good and Mary-Jo  DelVecchio Good, “On the ‘Subject’ of Culture. Subjectivity and Cultural phenomenology in the Work of Clifford Geertz,” in Clifford Geertz and His Colleagues (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005), p. 100.

[1] Panofsky stated

Every historical concept is obviously based on the categories of space and time…The cosmos of culture, like the cosmos of nature is a spatio-temporal structure…the succession of steps by which the material is organized into a natural or cultural cosmos is analogous, and the same is true of the methodological problems implied by this process.  The first step is, as has already been mentioned, the observation of natural phenomena and the examination of human records.  Then the records have to be “decoded” and interpreted, as must the “messages from nature” received by the observer.  Finally the results have to be classified and coordinated into a coherent system that “makes sense.”

Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955) p. 7.

[1]  To support her point, Holly adds the testimony of Giulio Carlo Argan, who called Panofsky “the Saussure of art history.”

[1] See Erwin Panofsky, “Introduction,” in Studies in Iconology.  Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, (New York) Dover Publications, 1972.

[1]  Geertz maintained he relied upon Baxendall who “takes precisely the approach I here advocating.  Baxandall is concerned with defining what he calls the “period eye.”  Geertz continued, “The famous solidity of Renaisance painting had at least in part its origins in something else than the inherent properties of planar representation, mathematical law, and binocular vision.”  Baxendall, he noted connected “the moralism of religious preaching, the pageantry of social dancing, the shrewdness of commercial gauging, and the grandeur of Latin oratory.  Geertz described “the painter’s true medium” as “The capacity of his audience to see meanings in pictures.”

Geertz, L.K., op cit., p. 108.

[1] In a later and related work, Baxendall attempted to reconstruct the intention of the artist in Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

[1]  Geertz asserted

The chief problem presented by the sheer phenomenon of aesthetic force, in whatever form and in result of whatever skill it may come, is how to place it within the other modes of social activity, how to incorporate it into the texture of a particular pattern of life.  And such placing, the giving to art objects a cultural significance, is always a local matter…

Geertz, L.K., p. 97.

[1] Geertz said that

To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted…a new diagnostics, a science that can determine the meaning of things for the life that surrounds them…

Geertz, L.K., p. 120.

[1]  David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

[1]  Geertz described thick description as “microscopic.”

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 21.

[1]  Geertz said,

Thick description…(aims) to draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics.

Geertz, “Thick Description,” op cit., p. 28.

[1] In Studies in Iconology, Panofsky refers to Cassirer’s conflation of cultural symbols and symptoms.  He warns that the historian must make sure the intrinsic meaning of the work be checked by relating it to other like works.

[1]  Silverman comments that Geertz

…rejects two common constructions of history—the period approach and the developmental approach…Both views employ linear concepts of temporarlity, the dominant historical fiction in western intellectual discourse…After having rejected those two approaches to history…Geertz uses comparative material written about both past and present…

Silverman, op cit., 143.

[1]  Geertzian methodology suggests that art historians need to research further afield, outside of the presumed arena of art history, if s/he wants do produce a “thick description.”   A “thick description” replaces formalism, connoisseurship, and all other narrow viewpoints, with a broad cultural perspective re-created out of Wittgensteinian “bundles of family resemblances.”

[1]  Geertz remarked that

…the conjoining of History and Anthropology is not a matter of fusing two academic fields into a new Something-or-Other, but of redefining them in terms of one another by managing their relations within the bounds of a particular study: textual tactics.

From “The State of the Art,” from Available Light, p. 127.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bal, Mieke and Norman Bryson, “Semiotics and Art History,” in Art Bulletin, Volume 73, No. 2, June, 1991

Baxendall, Stephen, Patterns of Intention. On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995)

Cassirer, Ernst, Language and Myth, translated by Suzanne Langer, (New York) Dover Publications, 1946, and Symbol, Myth, and Culture.  Essays and lectures of Ernst Casirer, 1935 – 1945, edited by Donald Phillip Verene, (New Haven) Yale University Press, 1979

Ferretti, Silvia, Cassirer, Panofsky,+ Warburg, translated by Richard Pierce(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)

Geertz, Clifford, “Art as a Cultural System,” in Local Knowledge. Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983)

Chapter 1, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures, (Basic Books, 1973)

Preface” in Available Light.  Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

Good, Byron and Mary-Jo  DelVecchio Good, “On the ‘Subject’ of Culture. Subjectivity and Cultural phenomenology in the Work of Clifford Geertz,” in Clifford Geertz and His Colleagues (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005)

Greenblatt, Stephen, “The Touch of the Real,” in The Fate of Culture. Geertz and Beyond, edited by Sherry B. Ortner, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999

Holly, Michael Ann, Panofsky and the Foundation of Art History (Ithaca: Corrnell University Press, 1984)

Inglis, Fred, Chapter 5 “Portrait of a Method,” in Clifford Geertz Culture, Custom and Ethics, (Malden, Mass., Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2000)

Lowenthal, David, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Panofsky, Erwin, Meaning in the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955)

Sewell, Jr., William H.,  “Geertz, Cultural Systems, and History: From Synchrony to Transformation,” in The Fate of Culture.  Geertz and Beyond, edited by Sherry B. Ortner, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999)

Silverman, Eric Kline, “Clifford Geertz: Towards a More ‘Thick’ Understanding?”  in Reading Material Culture, edited by Christopher Tilly (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990)

 

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