Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 3, 2000
Robert S. Nelson Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance Cambridge University Press, 2000. (0521652227)

“Visuality” is to vision as sexuality is to sex; that is, visuality presents the discourse and particularized cultural habits of viewing art, layered upon the physiology of vision itself. This is a term that has been cropping up more frequently in art historical writing lately, e.g. Craig Clunas, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (Princeton, 1998), but it has received little theorizing or application in multiple cultures prior to this volume. Its editor, Robert Nelson, will be known to the discipline from his own recent anthology of critical discourse, Critical Terms for Art History (Chicago, 1996; coedited with Richard Shiff), and as a Byzantinist he is well situated to consider a wide variety of cultural instances of visuality. In some respects, his own center forms a center for this volume as well, with essays dominated by scholars of ancient and medieval periods, supplemented by one on medieval China and one on modern Senegal.

Nelson’s introduction specifically contrasts these alternate, early visualities as active, performative, and productive, in contrast to the Cartesian model of modern visuality as passive and mechanical. He principally evokes scientific theories of vision itself (Alhazen, Pecham et al.) as his favored discourse instead of his proposed “social” concept of visuality (even as he cites critiques of modern, Cartesian cognition). Thus the discourse in play seems to veer between explanations of how vision (like sex; see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex) actually works and how more applied situations of vision’s usefulness in apprehending the divine or some other visible quality.

As Nelson points out in his introduction, the concept of visuality (which he terms “social” in contrast to “scientific”) undermines any settled notion of universality or progress in art or seeing (and ultimately undermines the mimetic premise of such foundational works as Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, 1960). It can also make us sensitive to visual cultures alien from our own habits and norms, from emphatically different periods and regions. Indeed, the subtitle of this volume is the impossible ideal, “Seeing as Others Saw.” And one virtue of the cited critiques of modern visuality is to defamiliarize our own habits and assumptions (especially of vision as being like a picture) for further analysis. In some respects this theorizing of the gaze follows up on theorizing by diverse critical theorists, such as Lacan or Merleau-Ponty, but Nelson is sensitive to both the modernist bias and universalizing claims of those thinkers: “In general our concern is more with seeing as social formative and productive, and thus with visuality more than vision.” He also describes this volume as “the product of the gradual demise of modernity’s separation of nature and culture.” (10)

Two issues, then, arise for this volume. Does it cohere around a common, comprehensible, cultural notion of visuality; and can that concept be utilized for the variety of cultural instances in this book, which suggest that visuality is more of a phenomenon of “local knowledge” (to use the term of anthropologist Clifford Geertz) than any common characteristic? For example, how does this concept compare to the “period eye” advanced by Michael Baxandall for German limewood sculpture?

The volume begins with a study by Irene Winter, focusing on philology in the Epic of Gilgamesh and later texts asserting the primacy of what she calls “cathected” vision in the ancient Near East. Here the verbal evidence is limited, dominated by royal inscriptions (esp. Gudea), but the emphasis on visual awe, connected with the gods, as both viewers and viewed (or both, in the stele of Hammurabi), reinforces the effects produced by large, inlaid, staring eyes of Sumerian votive statuary and later facial features from the region. Gods or kings are the intended audience, and “through seeing, value is perceived.” (29)

Classical Greece and Rome receive treatment from Jas Elsner and Shadi Bartsch. Elsner distinguishes between ritual and mimetic images, which work responses to visual depictions in opposite directions: the former (like Winter’s artworks), reciprocal in terms of being seen by the divine, in contrast to the latter’s seeing subject, outside a self-contained setting, anticipating the Renaissance revival (and Gombrich’s construct). While ritual use of ancient statuary is hardly surprising, it is surprisingly neglected by art historians of the period, who seldom comment on the purposes and settings of the objects. Elsner mines Pausanias and a Lucian pilgrimage text for answers to some of these topical questions. But as he consciously notes (53), some of these differences can be seen as distinctions of kind—narrativity and genre—rather than visuality. Cultural use surely shapes visuality, making it more like a functional “power of images” as surveyed by David Freedberg for religious and erotic spheres (taken up together via Narcissus for the ancient world in the essay by Bartsch); again (with Winter) the outward gaze of a represented divinity towards the viewer or wider congregation forges the crucial spiritual link. Of course, students of medieval art easily recognize the importance of frontal eye contact and the origins of icons, but this distinction also seems to echo and invert Michael Fried’s contrast between “theatricality” (here taken in a positive sense of spiritual address) vs. “absorption” for self-contained mimesis. These conceptual comparisons to more recent, Western analytical tools is not meant to diminish the cogency of Elsner’s own dialectic, but rather to attempt to tease out the usefulness of his cases of visuality towards a broader theoretical construct, operating within different cultural settings. As he points out, the Greek word theoria itself means “vision” as well as “contemplation” or “meditation.” (61)

Visual dialogue between image, especially of the divine, and pious worshiper informs the issues for medieval Christian examples, adduced by Georgia Frank (“The Pilgrim’s Gaze in the Age before Icons”), Nelson (“To Say and to See: Ekphrasis and Vision in Byzantium”), and Cynthia Hahn (“Visio Dei: Changes in Medieval Visuality”). For these authors, viewer participation, either through the physical pilgrimages to the Holy Land adduced by Frank, or else as through the extramission of visual rays in a nearly tactile interaction with an object viewed, as in the case of Nelson’s Byzantine icons. Again, visuality here seems more like a physical and/or spatial reciprocity, and now Nelson’s introductory remarks (reinforced by Bartsch as well as Hahn and Camille) about their current science of vision aptly reinforce the experiential phenomenology of these nonmodern viewers. Nelson’s article also relies upon a familiar text, specifically Patriarch Photios on mosaics, to reconstitute the applied experience of theorized vision and to renew Otto Demus’s powerful analysis of the Middle Byzantine Church and its “icons in space.”

The experiential and spatial aspects of viewing emerge most clearly from Eugene Wang’s chapter on Buddhist China (“Watching the Steps: Peripatetic Vision in Medieval China”), which usefully employs the “spatial practices” of Michel de Certeau to a specific culture. Here both images and texts support one another to suggest meditative practices of visualization, involving both mental travel (you) and sympathetic optical resonance (ganying) to such stimuli as open bodies of water or sunsets. His observations are tied to significant monuments, such as the illustration of a meditation sutra with landscape at Dunhuang Cave 320, and practices, such as circumambulation at pagodas (comparison to Indian Buddhist and Hindu—monuments would be a fruitful dialogue, especially for “eyes only” presentation or mental evocation of theophanies—see Introduction, notes 91-92, in particular the work of Richard Davis). Here is one case where visual presentation and viewer participation elicit cross-cultural comparisons: Wang’s imbedded, paradoxical monastic concept of the “mirror-gateway” could have wider ramifications for the mind/body dialogue (what Wang, 137, terms “the dialectics between the eye and foot”, akin to Riegl’s basic theoretical “optic/haptic” opposition).

Indeed, Riegl (via Demus and in place of Lacan or Merleau-Ponty) informs the formulations of Nelson, who considers that the relationship of exterior unity towards the viewer in these religious works resembles the formulations given by Riegl to the Dutch group portrait. He also seems to join Riegl in asserting that “exterior unity is accomplished not only by elements within the art, but also and mainly by the contemporary visuality or cultural context that surrounds it,” (158) though his illustration of a Rembrandt (rather than Hals or earlier works) actually is further from Riegl’s ideal model for Dutch visual culture (see the recent translation of Riegl’s classic text by Evelyn Kain and David Britt, Getty Research Institute, 1999).

Rather than a continuity of visuality for a culture or a dialectic within it, basic shifts of the primacy and efficacy of vision in apprehending the Christian divine can be gleaned from Hahn’s essay, which suggests that an earlier medieval sudden “glance” as a cue for memory and ideas is replaced around 1300 with a more protracted, affective, and personal “gaze” that adds pictures and book structures to an increasingly private piety. This shift is examined as a more distinct, “Gothic gaze” phenomenon by Michael Camille (“Before the Gaze: The Internal Senses and Late Medieval Practices of Seeing”), who asserts a new primacy of an image, apprehended from without by ray intromission, which becomes internalized for memory and other faculties. He also offers suggestive remarks on the correlation between the use of glass, both colored and transparent, as the analogue of the eye and the importance of light for vision (“illumination”) in this period. But here again theories of vision itself freely admix with more culture specific, historically contingent concepts of visuality.

Perhaps the most focused case study is the Senegal “imagorium” dedicated to likenesses and aspirations of a Sufi cult saint by Allen and Mary Nooter Roberts (“Displaying Secrets. Visual Piety in Senegal”). His gaze, along with his shadow, sometimes comprising a calligram, informs a particular brand of visual piety, culturally determined by the admixture of Islamic and regional sub-Saharan practices. Roberts describes this visuality as a “dialectic between outward display and secret, Sufi truths;” it can be compared to other powerful visual analysis of the interaction between visual forms and belief by other leading Africanists, such as Suzanne Blier (e.g. African Vodun, 1995). Once more this analysis of visuality provides an overlap between belief systems in the “power of images” and the forms prescribed (as well as the forms proscribed) in a particular visual culture.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

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