Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 29, 2021
Bret L. Rothstein The Shape of Difficulty: A Fan Letter to Unruly Objects University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2019. 228 pp.; 38 color ills. Cloth $29.95 (9780271082424)

I doubt that this review can do justice either to its subject or to its author, though I was somewhat comforted to read that Bret L. Rothstein himself admitted to disliking puzzles. Still, I may not be the right person to review this book, for I confess that I also loathe most puzzles. Deeply frustrating, they make me feel unworthy to share the company of intelligent beings who appreciate them. What is it that allows some people to “get” a puzzle in a matter of minutes while others futilely ponder them, not getting anywhere? Another pause before proceeding: this book is about puzzles, not games. Games are those rather harmless distractions we play with other people. They are (mostly) lighthearted and social, rather than serious and solitary experiences. Games test our abilities against those of others, while puzzles test our abilities against ourselves. In one, the rule or order of play is predetermined; in the other, the order—if any—needs to be discovered.

The puzzles described, analyzed, and interpreted in The Shape of Difficulty: A Fan Letter to Unruly Objects are not only beautiful, and thus aesthetically provocative, but also intentionally intriguing. The book has been produced with an extraordinary attention to its object status. This handsome volume with royal blue cloth covers, expertly designed pages, and an interesting font additionally contains illustrations that are frankly breathtaking. Some may regard this as hyperbole for a volume dedicated not to Rothstein’s scholarly field of Northern Renaissance art but to a discussion of mainly modern and contemporary objects meant to be held and manipulated. However, these objects leap off the page, confidently asserting their three-dimensional nature. Many are executed in varnished woods of different colors, making them look like exquisite modernist sculptures that could grace the collections of major museums—the equivalents, perhaps, of small Italian Renaissance bronzes. As abstract sculptures they need no further justification, but their unusual shapes and eye-catching silhouettes quickly convey that something else is up.

One of the attractions of the invitation to review this book was that it is about objects, and in light of the interest in materiality that has been sweeping through art history, I thought I might learn something. That certainly proved true. These objects are startling in their ontological presence. They provoke our curiosity; we want to know more. What genius created them, and—if they are not intended to be modern art—for what purpose? Much ado has recently been made of the “agency” of objects, the ways that works of art solicit attention and seem to participate in their interpretations. Not just intended for admiration, these puzzles act to fascinate and entertain. They not only demand our visual focus but also ask to be picked up and examined. They allude to untold mysteries that might be ours if only we had the wit and the concentration to work out their secrets. Rothstein is keenly aware of their seductions and finds language to do justice to the impassioned search, the subtle to-and-fro, the recognition of their objective presence as well as the perceptive projections that must inform their resolution. He writes: “Enigmatology [the art of making and solving enigmas] drives self-reflection, insofar as it continually asks us what we think we know. Through it we become errant, forever searching” (51).

Rothstein has given much thought to what these objects do and how they do it, offering four concepts with which we might understand the enterprise of enigmatology that encompasses these puzzles: I paraphrase them as simplicity, complexity, de-emphasis, and misdirection. The first type of puzzle, simplicity, demands that the “aspirant” (player) dispense with common sense and habit while continually revising intuition; complexity requires that we recognize an order within an apparent chaos; de-emphasis leads us astray by masking important clues; and, finally, misdirection deliberately sets out to deceive. It is apparent that Rothstein’s search has much to do with his career as an art historian. The challenge of enigmatology is a version of the perennial one to make meaning of the world or, in his case, the past. The study of Flemish paintings of the fifteenth century, his field of specialization, was once characterized by a search for “hidden symbolism” that effectively turned the pictures of, say, Jan van Eyck into puzzles (Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Harvard University Press, 1953). Rothstein, however, looks deeper than this, wondering what sort of knowledge is involved in the solution of puzzles and whether this knowledge is a form of hermeneutics or epistemology. What is it that impels the aspirant to face greater and greater tests of dexterity and intelligence? His own words convey his point more clearly: puzzles might “be best described as investigations of interpretive potential. Driving us to ask when, whether, and (eventually) what meaning might be” (145).

Rothstein’s argument brings to mind Johan Huizinga’s important book Homo Ludens (Man the player; 1938, English edition Routledge, 1949). Both puzzles and games seem to involve more than an intellectual dimension. Huizinga remarks that most students of games suggest that they must serve some purpose, that they are the means by which some other human goal is achieved. He, on the other hand, insists that play is culture, that play is a quintessentially human activity and therefore indistinguishable from all else that makes humans human. The argument resembles recent accounts of knowledge in which distinctions between intellectual and embodied, theoretical and practical, professional and social are called into question. From Bruno Latour’s account of laboratory discoveries decisively shaped by the professional and social environments in which they are made (Laboratory Life, coauthored with Steve Wolgar, Princeton University Press, 1986), to Pamela H. Smith’s view of Renaissance science as a form of embodied discovery in which the hand was as important as the mind (The Body of the Artisan, University of Chicago Press, 2004), the mind/body distinction, which once maintained a cordon sanitaire around knowledge’s cerebral status, has been effectively eroded. When viewed in this light, the intellectual and kinetic abilities called upon to create and solve Rothstein’s puzzles would appear to belong to a human intelligence that is as sensual as it is abstract, as physical as it is psychic. Rather than a theory of knowledge, these puzzles offer a hermeneutic practice of never-ending interpretation. In sketching this appreciation of puzzles, Rothstein offers us a sensitive and perceptive introduction to their charms as well as their importance.

Keith Moxey
Barbara Novak Professor Emeritus, Barnard College/Columbia University