Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 1, 2000
Thomas E. Crow The Intelligence of Art Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 148 pp.; 12 color ills.; 34 b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (0807849006)

Thomas Crow is one of the most exacting and vigilant of art historians, never prone to following received opinions, methods, or practices. His way of thinking has sometimes produced works that are exemplary in their circumspection and nuance; the theory of society and art embedded in the opening chapter of Modern Art in the Common Culture has yet to be adequately answered.

The Intelligence of Art is an attempt to say more generally, but with the precision afforded by individual examples, where the discipline of art history might find promising models. Crow is especially concerned with what he takes to be art history’s current inability to account for artistic change. The excessive “theoretical emphasis on the fixed, contemplative gaze,” he says, has hampered historians’ ability to “follow the logic of change” (102).

The book looks closely at three cases: Meyer Schapiro’s work on the portal sculptures at Souillac; Claude Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of Northwest Coast Native American masks; and Michael Baxandall’s Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany. In a final chapter, Crow contributes original material on depictions of extreme emotions in mid- to late eighteenth-century French painting.

The central concern in each case is to demonstrate how properties intrinsic to the artwork can guide our understanding of artistic change. In the case of Souillac, the devil and the apostate Theophilus replaced the expected Christ in Majesty, precipitating a series of other shifts and skewed oppositions. In the Northwest Coast imagery, the passage of mask types across communities resulted in a series of opposites and variants, in accord with a rigorous logic that Lévi-Strauss discovered. In Crow’s reading, Baxandall’s book prefigures and makes metaphoric the pressures of the Reformation on the sculpture industry by describing the technical properties of Limewood (it cured and was susceptible to cracking in ways suggestive of the pressures of the surrounding economic and religious changes). And in eighteenth-century France, while one interpretive tradition held that extreme emotions should be masked, another held that all passions were in theory representable by physiognomic science.

As with any committed, careful engagement with art historical method, Crow’s book entails positions that cannot be easily or fairly reduced to the space of a book review. Here I’ll limit myself—rather drastically—to two points that may matter to potential readers and to those who, having read the book, may wish for further contexts and critiques:

The first of these concerns the relations between Crow’s accounts and namable schools of interpretation. It needs to be said, even though Crow deliberately does not, that the project of the book is in its main lines a return to structuralism. Crow doesn’t say that for several reasons. He does not intend to defend the interpretive practice that has now become known (and simplified) as “structuralism”; and he does not want to generalize his readings by tying them to any named interpretive regime. He is alert to the ways that recent art historical scholarship has tidied its account of structuralism, as well as to the fact that writers like Lévi-Strauss were well aware of intellectual currents that have become, by a common process of historical amnesia, the property of French-oriented postmodernism. Yet because Crow takes a central philosophic and analytic cue from Roman Jakobson, via Lévi-Strauss, it still needs to be said that what counts in the apprehension of art is the appearance of differential structures, rather than the one-to-one identification of objects and symbols, or real-world referents (70, 89, passim). In practice, what matters is the appearance of “a limited set of conceptual oppositions” (89) involving polarities and oppositions that have been displaced or have otherwise traded signs.

Structures of difference are complemented in Crow’s account by an interest in times and places where those structures are changing. This aspect is also present in structuralist thinking, but Crow accents it in a manner that would not have been possible before the 1990s. It is as if structuralist methodology were reexamined with a postmodern eye for sudden change, “exceptional volatility,” “catastrophic” alterations in existing practices, “the historical phenomena of breaking down—the literal sense of the term ‘analysis’,” “violent acts of displacement and substitution,” and “exceptional intensity in artistic innovation” (5, 50, 53, 102).

It would be possible to go on in this fashion, situating Crow’s book in and among the movements and decades it plumbs. Schapiro’s sense of the structure of artworks, for example, is connected to a definable moment in modernism, as Michael Camille has pointed out. Crow talks about the properties of the “object itself” (5, 35, 77), and if art history means to let the “material do the work, and thus restore some validity to the ideal of objectivity” (77), then it is necessary to ask whether it matters that the compositional patterns Schapiro finds in Souillac are related to contemporaneous analyses of abstraction. In the end, however, such explanations would run against the grain of the book, which is to provide a viable framework for current research.

A second point concerns Crow’s methods of understanding historical change. Crow wants to be in a position to explain historical change without ending either as an iconographer, preoccupied with “esoteric theology and philosophy encoded in visual symbols” (105 n. 1), or else as a postmodern theorist, employing theories that are “not subject to modification” in the course of analysis (5). In particular, he wishes to avoid a common fault of those two approaches: an assumption that the work consists of a series or system of self-sufficient signs without necessary connection to historical and social change.

I cannot assess the viability of Crow’s model for historical change in this context. It works with precision in the texts he cites and the one he adds, but certainly there is much that could be discussed. In science, laws of change through time are not necessarily studied better in cases of catastrophic inflation or deflation. The study of phase transitions, for example, utilizes different equations for states within a phase (such as water slowly heating) and those at cusps or borders. Why should it be true that in art history, relative calm and continuity are analytically invisible?

And here’s a subject for a symposium: the four periods Crow discusses had similar social structures, which he describes in detail (79). Because it is necessarily true that other changes in art are not susceptible to the analyses proffered here, one might ask whether other kinds of models could be found. Along those lines, it would be interesting to talk about periods where drastic social changes produced little effect on the art, as in the case of the Ming-Qing dynastic transition in China. In other words, Crow’s call for renewed talk about historical change could be answered.

There are few printer’s errors. Page 26 repeats a sentence; on p. 57, l. 15, read “figs. 18, 19)”; on p. 86, l. 1, read “Timanthes’s.”

James Elkins
E. C. Chadbourne Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago