Thoughts and Text
Consider these two terms and what they signify: la pensee and l'ecrit. These words are derived from participles. That which has been thought in French is la pensee; and that which has been written down, is l'ecrit.
Philosophy deals primarily with la pensee, thoughts as embodied in writing. What a statement says, its message, is the issue, not so much l'ecrithow it is said. The form in which a thought is expressed is secondary, if at all relevant, to the thought inferred from the text. By contrast, in the study of literature, the thought communicated is inseparable from the text which supports it. Literature is letters. It is inaccurate to say that the text is the sole concern of literary studies, of course; it is the relationship between matter and manner where the focus of literary studies lies, the relationship between text as written and the ideas they transmit.
The World Seen
Text and ideas are serious matters; and scholars in literature and philosophy deal with them in high seriousness. Not surprisingly, then, students pursuing in academic studies, concern themselves predominantly with la pensee and l'ecrit. Subjects of academic studies are for the most part either literary or ideological. Life as we live it, on the other hand, is not totally and exclusively intellectual; it is also physical and material. We live in the physical world, and this is first seen before it is contemplated on and subjected to interpretation.
So, besides la pensee and l'ecrit there is, I propose, la vue: that which has been seen in contrast to that which has been thought and that which has been written down. This constitutes the realm of visual phenomena, and it is too often regarded by academics as a fluff -- less than serious, intellectually.
The Seen as Appearances
In the Western tradition, that which is seen has generally been accorded a lower status in the order of things. It started with Plato, where the world of the visible is not only a pale shadow of the world of ideas but also since it is the world of appearances it is illusory, superficial and deceptive. Anything that is real, serious, and profound is thus on a level above or beneath or beyond the world of appearances, higher and thus deeper, or else more enduring than the world of material things in which we live. Those whose interest lies in the visible world, accordingly, are too often thought to be skimming the surface of things and so lack in weight and seriousness and therefore a somewhat frivolous lot.
This attitude created a dilemma for those who try to deal with the visible world seriously. So long as it is believed that la pensee is ultimately the sole justification of intellectual pursuit, those who pursue la vue can never be, by definition, serious. In order to justify their interest academically, they resorted, therefore, to the argument that it is the deep meaning deep below the surface appearance of the visible things that they are really dealing with when they are apparently dealing with the visible surface. But it is a casuistry to say that the value of the visible is really that which is invisible beneath the visible surface.
It is possible, on the other hand, to argue that la vue is no less significant than l'ecrit and la pensee.
The Seen as Signs
It is, of course, la vue that the art historian is most concerned with. In this respect art history differs from philosophy, which deals with la pensee and from literary studies, which deals with l'ecrit.
For art historians, la vue is what the text is to literary scholars. For it is those physical objects we call works of art, treated as visual phenomena, from which meanings are elicited, meanings that serve as the basis for philosophical thinking about the culture of which they are a part. In fact, not only those privileged objects that we call works of art but material goods at large -- man-made and woman-made things -- make up our visual environment. They are the text that art historians read and try to interpret; visible things, in short, constitute the world of cultural artifacts.
The whole visual environment, in short, serves la vue. The effort to study all visual objects and phenomena indiscriminately is the domain of the history of material culture, of which art history is but one special area; and the theory that underlies it is semiotics, the theory of signs. Visual semiotics studies the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon that all visible things have a capacity to signify.
Showing and Telling
When we say that the visible can signify, we do not mean that showing supplants telling. For in order to communicate that which the seen signifies we must rely on verbal report. Thus, if we can accept the notion that la vue is a cultural text no less than l'ecrit (and for an incomparably longer time, historically), it follows that the study of that which is seen is a three-level effort:
- the study of the visual material in itself, i.e., la vue -- how it is constituted (syntax) and what it may mean (semantic);
- the words that accompany the seen, whether written or spoken, i.e., l'ecrit, that which explicates it, by elaborating on it and duplicating some things about it (but never supplanting it); and
- the thought, la pensee, provoked by both la vue and l'ecrit.
Seeing is believing, perhaps. But seeing induces telling, and seeing and telling together invoke thinking. In short, we in art history both show and tell. Showing alone doesn't do; and telling without showing doesn't either. Showing alone lacks scaffolding for systematic discourse, and if it provokes thinking it is of necessity verbally expressed; and telling without showing bypasses evidence and undermines credibility. Moreover, telling modifies what we see; and seeing qualifies what is told; and therein lies the complexity and challenge peculiar to the study of la vue.
The special lure of art history for those who profess it is this complex layering of the seen, the written, and the thought without a parallel in other academic disciplines. It is history's misfortune that the discipline came to be called art history. Study of the visual world comes closer to the truth. Visual semiotics describes it best.
Copyright - 25 Septermber 1985