Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 6, 2001
Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson Looking In: The Art of Viewing G + B Arts International, 2001. 240 pp.; 26 b/w ills. Paper $24.00 (9057011123)

It is difficult to imagine a more stimulating and challenging meditation on visual theory than the one presented in this book. We are offered an initially unfamiliar vision of Mieke Bal’s work: early writing on narrative theory; chapters from Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition (Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Prepostrous History (University of Chicago Press, 1999); aspects of her underappreciated but seminal work on museums; and some of Bal’s most recent thinking on Marcel Proust and on contemporary art. Bal links these chapters with clarity and honesty, providing something of a narrative of her primary concerns and goals. Central themes are picked up throughout the collection, but with remarkably little repetition. On exhibit instead is Bal’s innovativeness as a reader of images and cultural critic and her skill as a passionate advocate for a new type of visual studies. Because the book is part of a series—Critical Voices in Art, Theory, and Culture—designed to foreground the theoretical position of its contributors through dialogue with other prominent figures in the field, we are enlightened further by Norman Bryson’s probing Introduction to Bal’s essays and by her intimate but never self-indulgent Afterword.

Bal is a profound theorist of the image and its work in our culture, but it would be misleading to summarize her main theoretical claims. She always localizes and historicizes her theoretical labors in objects, their reception and semiotic activity. Concepts, works of art, and theoretical positions are shown to be dynamic effects, not resting places or points of high ground achieved. Stimulating a reader, student, or colleague to see such effects—not because Bal points out what others have missed, but rather that these effects are worth seeing and understanding—typically involves a rigorous reading of detail, whether in an individual work of art (the nail hole in the wall in Vermeer’s Washington Woman Holding a Balance [ca. 1664], which suggests that the painting within a painting has been moved), or in a broader interpretative context (the narrative of display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York). Bal persistently works against “media-essentialism” (265), the common assertion of irreducible difference and separation between the visual and textual. Why art historians on the one hand and literary theorists on the other so frequently maintain this territorial hierarchy (in either direction) is worthy of more comment by Bal and others, but that they do so impoverishes our understanding of necessarily “intermedial” discourses such as the word and image imbrications in mythological and Biblical images (Bal writes extensively here on Narcissus and Lucretia) and in gallery displays, several of which are brilliantly interpreted in this collection. Reflecting in her Afterword on criticisms of her approach, Bal writes that “in my bold moments I think I [do] more for the emancipation of the image from the tutorship of language than most art historians…I [have] empowered it, by making it just as strong, by giving it striking force, by giving it agency in today’s culture” (266). Images and their culture are not safe or innocent—as Bal shows, for example, in her feminist examination of Rembrandt’s pictures of Lucretia and the visual and textual rhetoric of rape. Neither is the art history she practices safe: returning “semiotic power to the visual image” (172) releases from traditional institutional limitations its volatile and “preposterous” nature, one that constantly insists on an interaction with contemporary concerns.

Running through these essays is not so much a revisionary theory of history—a set of principles—as a dedication to doing art history in new ways. Bal’s notion of “preposterous history”—explored fully in Quoting Caravaggio—insists on the “willful anachronism” (188) that present and past are mutually constituted. Contemporary images that use and revise Caravaggio, for example, change his art. This nuanced version of presentism shows how individual works are altered by what hangs adjacent to them (Bal’s memorable activity of “reading walls”), by texts that appear in their orbit, and by entire museological narratives. Preposterous history reverses “normal” art-historical chronology to claim that the past can only be an “aftereffect” of present interpretive activity (270). Bal challenges us to think that this is the pattern of a “genuinely historical art history” (77), one that maintains respect for the past as different by treating it as a “subject” in the present instead of as a dormant relic available only for intellectual reconstitution. The potent explanatory power of this position permeates Bal’s book. In an extraordinarily revealing reading of two paintings by Cranach, David and Bathsheba and Lucretia, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin-Dahlem, Bal allows us to see that the viewer’s interaction with these paintings is not, for example, an original artistic intention nor, say, a patron’s program. Neither is it only the attendant Biblical narratives and their iconographies. Considered fully and in the present tense of preposterous history, we are addressed by the “‘expository agent,’” “the agency that structures the display, like the narrator in a literary text” (166). A full art history must analyze the intricacies of this agency, as Bal does.

As Bryson’s detailed Introduction and her own Afterword attest, Bal is also a complex agent in her own texts. More aware than most of the limits of self-analysis, she nonetheless provides a full and personal chronicle of her intellectual affinities and aspirations. She has been consistently motivated by “concepts, intersubjectivity, and cultural processes” (260). Concepts, such as “focalization,” are never for Bal “easily replaced by a more common word” (260). They are precise and have the promise of utility. A renowned teacher, Bal claims further that concepts as “the tools of intersubjectivity…[must be] defined in such a way that everyone can take them up and use them” (260). It is a utopian goal to be sure, but Bal consistently makes her ideas both clear and demonstrably important to broadly conceived cultural processes and issues. Acknowledging the lead of Lorraine Code, she has evolved an ethic of “intellectual friendship,” an intersubjective engagement with art objects (as subjects) and with her many interlocutors.

Scholarship as open and searching as that exhibited in these pages will always attract criticism. That Bal invites controversy is one of her great strengths and contributions to the study of images. But because she seeks “aspects rather than essences” (77) in her inquiries, serious criticism should lead to a deeper understanding of the works and issues at hand, not to some final, winning judgment. For example, Bal’s passion for the detail leads to, and perhaps requires, a pattern of radically inductive argumentation. The folds of just one “abstract” painting by David Reed are asked to embrace great theoretical and historical complexity. Should she consider more of his work, or more importantly, other contemporary work in this genre? Would, for example, Moira Dryer’s abstract paintings confirm or challenge what Bal writes about Reed? These questions lead us back to protocols of method and to the details engaged. Bal doesn’t entertain such objections any more than she feels obliged to survey Rembrandt’s or Vermeer’s production generally, or, in her essay on Narcissus and the mirror, to look at the numerous artists who have responded to the myth. But drawn into her conversations in these texts, one feels able to discuss all issues.

Mark A. Cheetham
Professor, Department of Art, University of Toronto