Deconstruction and the Modern Renewal of the Renaissance
September 14, 2010 1 Comment
Deconstruction and the Modern Renewal of the Renaissance
Written for ART HIS 57 at UCLA with Professor Charlene Villaseñor Black on March 3, 2010
The assignment asked whether or not deconstruction has a place in the study of art history. This was my first essay that dealt with anything related to the theories of art history. I got an A on this assignment, but I must admit, this essay reads like a student trying to think critically and explain cogently ideas that are too complex for the student’s ability. Enjoy?
Sylvan Barnet, author of Short Guide to Writing About Art, wrote that “a good critic can convince us… that we have undervalued a work” and that “works of art are not the unique embodiments of profound meanings set forth by individual geniuses; rather, works of art are the embodiments of the ideology, (ways of understanding the world) of the age that produced them.” To these ends, deconstruction releases the seemingly untouchable and universally admired works from the servitude of traditional or conservative interpretations and suggests the questioning of their undisputed strongholds in the art historical canon. After all, art history as a discipline arose out of the Renaissance’s resurging interest in human creations and thus many of the meanings assigned to works of art have since stagnated, rendering the analysis of art as immutable and absolute. In the particular cases of the Renaissance and Baroque, eras in which numerous works retain a steely invincibility from criticism or disparagement, deconstruction can be a meaningful methodology to cleanse existing channels of discourse and facilitate the trailblazing of new ones. The general philosophy of deconstruction as outlined by Laurie Schneider Adams in The Methodologies of Art and Michel Foucault’s deconstruction of Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas illuminate a new, unique means for the Renaissance and Baroque to be discussed in modern terms that propel the study and discourse of art history in inventive directions.
The deconstruction of signs in Methodologies reveals the essential provocations and inquisitions that can subvert widely held art historical assumptions. With Derrida’s so-called “incessant questions that are reminiscent of a small child determined to find the truth,” he exposes the conventions of art historical writing that have largely concretized interpretive meaning. Deconstruction’s signifier-signified flexibility is the first step the methodology takes to undo centuries of unchallenged ideology. Under Derrida, meanings are not fixed because they are dependent on context. But even within a particular context, meanings are contingent on the meanings of other words, which are also in flux. Such contingencies render all meanings in texts deferrable and consequently much more malleable to the specific analysis. Because art history relies on the extraction of meaning from visual monuments, it often falls into linguistic binaries, which can be limiting factors on the communicative tools art historians use in the dialogue. Such binaries incarcerate the living, transformative aspects of history and perpetuate art histories originating from similar assumptions.
The presence/absence binary is particularly problematic for Renaissance and Baroque art. For example, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding is notable example for complicating the traditional marriage portrait premise. According to Erwin Panofsky, Jan van Eyck’s elaborate signature could both proclaim his presence at the ceremony and his presence as the painter of the image. But there is little evidence to prove that he actually attended the ceremony even if he was present to sign the painting. Ultimately, though the convex mirror shows figures that could include the artist himself and thus his actual presence, there are many other paintings of the same tradition where contemporary figures were placed beside historical ones as though they occupy the same time and space. But because the Arnolfini Wedding is a painting and not a photograph, Roland Barthes suggests that we cannot know for certain that the subjects were arranged in the manner as depicted.
Because the presence is indeterminate and meanings are mercurial, deconstruction largely considers the artist irrelevant. Under deconstruction, there is neither a “divine Michelangelo” for Giorgio Vasari to extol nor a Giotto to thank for creating a new form of mimesis. When the artist is irrelevant, artistic genius becomes a humanistic construct and accordingly biography is filtered out of art analysis. Without the biographical methodology, the tools of deconstruction seem to be simultaneously limited and limitless—a deconstructionist would ignore Caravaggio’s violent and bloody life or Rembrandt’s personal and economic tragedies, considering them to have no bearing on the artists’ representations; she would instead focus more on incorporating formal elements into a deconstructionist reading. On the other hand, the polysemic aspect of deconstruction makes the signified infinitely interpretive. For this reason, many rebuttals of deconstruction critique its opaqueness and its reliance on the texts it deconstructs, and thus its negativity and destruction in academia.
Ultimately however, these pitfalls are not truly unique to deconstruction. Art historical methodologies in general are not perfect and their application is not necessary and sufficient for thought provoking or meaningful art interpretation—the importance is in the exchange of ideas to culturally enrich the discipline. Deconstruction’s writers can greatly challenge how the viewer approaches artworks, such as when Derrida exposes the literature regarding Van Gogh’s shoes. Though not a Renaissance or Baroque artist, the usefulness of the praxis is adequately displayed as Derrida goes from questioning the “pairness” of the shoes in the painting (and commenting that they are more like an old couple) to discussing the shoes as substitutes for a phallus. Deconstruction’s exposés provide a reorientation of traditional notions of difference—such as the fact that art historians were imposing meanings that could not be proven—and challenges the interpreter to resolve what has been known to what could be known about a work.
Notable academic and deconstructionist Michel Foucault’s analysis of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas circumvents some of the aforementioned criticisms and presents different opportunities for deconstruction to take shape in art historical analysis. Foucault’s text focuses on his analysis of how the formal qualities of Las Meninas are ordinarily consistent with the mode of representation in the 17th century as well as the ways in which the work is a metapicture with unstable meaning.
Foucault argues that the painting is about painting (and thus a metapicture) because representation is portrayed as representation “in its pure form.” This is because the spectators of the painting (both the viewer today and the king and queen of Spain during Velázquez’s time) exchange infinite unfixed gazes with the painter and the princess, the spectator becomes the subject as well. But we do not see what Velázquez is painting, just that he stands beside a large canvas, painting what is in front of him—this prevents from showing to the viewer a specific representation of the subject. Hence, as a painting about 17th century representation in broad terms, the mirror on the back alludes to what stands before the artist himself, the existence of the subject before him being the “purest” of all representations. Because what is being represented is the purest of all representations, the represented is an unstable entity and Las Meninas is a scene looking out at a scene.
Foucault’s description exemplifies much of deconstruction’s usefulness in the context of art history. Most fundamentally, he eliminates aspects of analyzing the work that cannot be proven without definitive evidence; aspects many art historians take for granted when formulating readings of Velázquez’s work. He articulates his ignorance of who is in the painting, stating simply that “the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation” and that relying on the names—such as Doña Maria Agustina Sarmiente—perpetuates the artifice and finger pointing of using language to explain the visual. Thus, his interpretation releases Velázquez’s work from being interpreted under traditional terms, the very terms that have placed Las Meninas on a pedestal and integrated Velázquez’s aristocratically minded biography into the work’s meaning. Deconstruction has given art history an interpretation of an oft-considered “seminal” work that is unconventional in its application of formalism and refreshingly renewed the manner in which posterity can consider the work. Foucault navigates around the pitfalls of completely erasing biography from the analysis by analyzing Las Meninas in a dynamic historical context and he avoids the despair of deconstruction’s instability of meaning by presenting it as a meaning within itself. Thus, Foucault’s brand of deconstruction is not entirely negative or destructive. In spite of this however, Foucault is frequently consistent with the methodology’s partiality for opaqueness and his lengthy sentences, parallelism and inversion of words, and the constant linkages between points do not make him (or the methodology as a whole) accessible. Some find deconstruction to be embellished formalism, but the methodology’s contributions to modes of thinking about art history rejuvenate art interpretation in ways attributable only to the skepticism of what is accepted of Deconstruction.
Derrida and Foucault’s deconstruction of signs in art have given the Renaissance and Baroque a taste of a perspective that was not already born from it. Oftentimes, it is easy to forget that though art has spanned the existence of human creativity, the actual study of its various forms came out of a particular context. In its own attempt to reinvent the context of art interpretation, deconstruction has provided the people of art history with a useful methodology to consider, just for a moment, the subversion of the banal status quo of the art world.
Erwin Panofsky, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” Burlington Magazine 64 (1934): 117-27.
Laurie Schneider Adams, The Methodologies of Art (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).
Michel Foucault, “Las Meninas,” The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (NY: Vintage, 1973).
Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2008).
 Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2008).
 Ibid., p. 27.
 Erwin Panofsky, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” Burlington Magazine 64 (1934):117-27.
 Michel Foucault, “Las Meninas,” The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (NY: Vintage, 1973): 16.
 Ibid., p. 9.