Deceptive work

Stephen Bann, in his article ‘Meaning/Interpretation,’ examines Erwin Panofsky’s notion that truth that can be unravelled by careful study of the iconographic details that both consitute an artwork and ultimately endow it with its particular iconological meaning. Bann shows how Panofsky, in a close reading of Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, nevertheless undercuts this iconographic method to a certain degree. In the piece in question, Panofsky “spends virtually the whole essay in the patient (and necessary) elucidation of the genealogy of the three-headed Prudence,” only to throw analytical rigour out the window with “hazardous and seductive” closing speculations as to whom the figures in the painting represent, and even a suggestion as to the personal significance that the painting would have held for Titian. This is a pseudo-scientific form of interpretive endeavour, one that is founded on an idea of informed and rigorous methodological analysis, but that allows in the end for an underlying, intuitive “more-than visual meaning” (Panofsky) in which the interpreter, after much effort, may be able to arrive at a “secret inward space” (Bann) within the work in question.

Bann decides to test Panofsky’s method by using it in his own analysis of Magdalena de Passe’s mysterious Apollo and Coronis. The work suits Bann’s task well, as it is itself based on another artist’s work and involves potential misinterpretation on the part of de Passe in regards to her understanding of the iconographic meaning of the picture she is recreating, not to mention the possibility of multiple artists’ hands at work in the recreation itself. In his adoption (or even adaptation) of Panofsky’s method, Bann is able to show some of the flaws inherent to Panofsky’s approach, particularly “its assumption of a series of distinct stages, from the ‘pre-iconographic’ to the ‘iconological’ and in its dependence on a stable notion of authorship.” Of greater interest here though is the way in which both Bann’s and Panofsky’s methods take on the air of a kind of detective work. In its oft imitated and popular schemata of mystery solving, the interpreter in such cases first demonstrates their critical rigour through a series of close investigations of the facts at hand, only to at the end, in a virtuoso flourish of scheming cleverness, take all such detective work and transform it into a decisive speculation that aims both to entrap and finger the real motive and culprit identity of the work’s actual intents. This is not to suggest that the enactment of such a performance is not a worthy one – the historical detail and quirks such investigations can dig up can always be of interest in their own right. But note that in each of these cases it is the posture of due diligence and objective restraint that is the key to the setting of the wheels of interpretation and its acceptance into gear.

And what of this seditious acknowledgement of “more-than visual meaning” that, while encouraging the daring but hard-earned closing flights of interpretive fancy, seems to undermine the whole of such an approach? As Panofsky speaks of it, it would seem that it has an intangible but inescapable hold on the interpreter. Must one put it to the side in order to pursue the kind of detective work that makes up a standard art historical approach? But what if one were to embrace the purportedly less critical, and yet perhaps rather more artistic powers of a kind of intuitive critical dialogue with the work from the very beginning, allowing the artwork to “work” its powers on you, accepting its ability to potentially mislead and misdirect, to risk misunderstanding and misprision (a term of Harold Bloom’s, which Bann cites) in return for a less derivative, even “quasi-alchemical” (Bann) kind of creative interpretation? While more unusual in Panofsky’s day, such a mode of imaginative interpretation has of course become a common approach in the field for some time now. I only introduce it here because it relates to a kind of interpretive style of “poetics” which has long been of interest to me, but which I have expended little direct critical reflection on to date. I also happen to have come across a memorable example of it just the other day, which I would like to share at the end of this post.

Michel Foucault is a fearless theoretician, and in many ways even more so in his occasional reflections on art. His exposition of Velázquez’s Las Meninas at the opening of his book Les Mots et les choses is a masterclass in expansive yet incisive theoretical operating. But in his writing on art Foucault can also apply a wonderfully crafty and nimble touch to his writing. His slim volume on Magritte, Ceci n’est pas une pipe, is a perfect example of this, and after reading it one can’t help but see much of the rest of Fouacult’s writing and writing style as rather more free-wheeling and mischievous then its often complex subject material might suggest. The sensation of reading the book is not unlike sitting through an afternoon performance of the ballet. It takes little more than an hour to complete, but in that brief space of time throws you into a kind of gentle reverie of subtly shifting movement. Foucault’s writing even takes on a musical quality of its own at times, its light, almost lyric lines intermingling with Magritte’s sceneries in effervescent tides of thought that ebb and flow across “the calm sand of the page” (28). The book even finishes with a wonderfully emphatic symphonic flourish of its own, which I won’t spoil here.

The passage which I want to quote at length below delights in and of itself, but I cite it here as an example of a kind of creative flight of poetic interpretation that, rather than pretending towards a procedural task aimed at arriving at a supposed secretive inward space of the artwork, embraces from the very beginning the open imaginative space that art clears for its fanciful interpreters. It is upfront in its openness to the folly and fun of interpretation itself, embracing the many divertisements that such meaningful misprision allows for. Such a critic admits that he or she is always guilty in one way or another. But this is not to suggest that such an admission should be taken lightly. For all its potential for play, it still enacts a kind of serious acknowledgement to what Coleridge famously referred to as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” This kind of critical poetic faith can easily be construed as being a “pipe dream” of its own, nothing more than an addictive opiate clouding the thought of its dreamy devotees. And yet, it is precisely not a pipe dream to anyone enveloped by that very artistic smoke that both suspends and heightens our ability to believe and disbelieve. Or to return to our original investigation, in a dissection of the best detectives of any age would we not, in many such cases, expect to discover the very mind of a master criminal?

And so to the excerpt from Foucault that inspired these ruminations. It is a moment that appears at the end of a chapter approximately midway through the book. One can choose to reject or rejoice in the critic’s imaginative approach here, but suffice to say whichever way one chooses to take it, one cannot deny that Foucault has drawn deep from Magritte’s particular tobacco and, via the tantalisingly unravelable mystery of a pipe, is managing to form some choice plumes of poetic persuasion.

On this basis, we can understand Magritte’s second version of This Is Not a Pipe. In placing the drawing of the pipe and the statement serving as its legend on the very clearly defined surface of a picture (insofar as it is a painting, the letters are but the image of letters; insofar as it is a blackboard, the figure is only the didiactic continuation of a discourse), in placing the picture on a thick, solid wood tripod, Magritte does everything necessary to reconstruct (either by the permanence of a work of art or else by the truth of an object lesson) the space common to language and the image.

Everything is solidly anchored within a pedagogic space. A painting “shows” a drawing that “shows” the form of a pipe; a text written by a zealous instructor “shows” that a pipe is really what is meant. We do not see the teacher’s pointer, but it rules throughout – precisely like his voice, in the act of articulating very clearly, “This is a pipe.” From painting to image, from image to text, from text to voice, a sort of imaginary pointer indicates, shows, fixes, locates, imposes a system of references, tries to stabilize a unique space. But why have we introduced the teacher’s voice? Because scarcely has he stated, “This is a pipe,” before he must correct himself and stutter, “This is not a pipe, but a drawing of a pipe,” “This is not a pipe but a sentence saying that this is not a pipe,” “The sentence ‘this is not a pipe’ is not a pipe,” “In the sentence ‘this is not a pipe,’ this is not a pipe: the painting, written sentence, drawing of a pipe – all this is not a pipe.”

Negations multiply themselves, the voice is confused and choked. The baffled master lowers his extended pointer, turns his back to the board, regards the uproarious students, and does not realize that they laugh so loudly because above the blackboard and his stammered denials, a vapor has just risen, little by little taking shape and now creating, precisely and without doubt, a pipe. “A pipe, a pipe,” cry the students, stamping away while the teacher, his voice sinking ever lower, murmurs always with the same obstinancy though no one is listening, “And yet it is not a pipe.” He is not mistaken; because the pipe floating so obviously overhead (like the object the blackboard drawing refers to, and in whose name the text can justifiably say the the drawing is truly not a pipe) is itself merely a drawing. It is not a pipe. No more on the board than above it, the drawing of the pipe and the text presumed to name it find nowhere to meet and be superimposed, as the calligrapher so presumptuously had attempted to bring about.

So, on its beveled and clearly rickety mounts, the easel has but to tilt, the frame to loosen, the painting to tumble down, the words to be scattered. The “pipe” can “break”: The common place – banal work of art or everyday lesson – has disappeared.


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