Panofsky come lately

We have been noting for some time the increased attention the New Yorker has given to neurological studies: the eminent Oliver Sacks’s great column ‘A Neurologist’s Notebook’, including articles on the ability (or inability) to recognise faces, on the relationship between music and amnesia, on visual imagery in the mind’s eye and on stereoscopy, as well as a profile of the neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, an article on neuroenhancing drugs, on how metaphysics is coping with neuroscience’s advances (this one is especially good) and on memory capacity in vegetative patients, etc., and, in a slightly different way, Malcolm Gladwell’s application of scientific methods onto social or apparently random phenomena. They are all very interesting, but this increased exploration of human’s lack of conscious control over their actions seemed to us, firstly, narcissistic — who isn’t interested about how their mind works? but how can we use this information? — and secondly, perhaps facilitating an abdication of responsibility over one’s actions in a time of increased individualism.

However we were reminded of how the brain registers gestalts — or visual clues that add up to a shape that we can recognise — when looking at some of the images from the Côte d’Ivoire conflict. (These have been pulled off various news sites but they are all from Reuters and so probably from the same photographer?)

What’s striking about them is how they conform to classical art-historical modes of composition, where figures often form a triangle — think of paintings of the Madonna and Child, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (his Marianne painting), or the triangle that you can see (with its tip being the man waving the flag) in Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.

Erwin Panofsky, a German art historian active in the early 20th century, is often called the ‘father’ of iconography, and his insight was to separate and analyse the ways that viewers recognise formal configurations. One of these is learned and cultural: so when we see a triangular image of a larger figure and a smaller figure, we ‘see’ the Madonna and Child. Jeff Koons knew this, in his portrait of Michael Jackson with Bubbles, and so did Paul McCarthy, in his Michael Jackson Fucked Up (Big Head):

When we register this classical composition of the images of the conflict in the Côte d’Ivoire, I think we are being given to understand their significance — that is, from their replication of and conformity to art historical examples that we know to be ‘serious’ or ‘important’, we register images and their subject as similarly noteworthy, though contemporary. There is lots to be said about these images’ aestheticising these black African figures but it is more interesting to return to this idea of the gestalt image and our ‘immediate’ reaction. Panofsky’s question in reading art-historical forms is the same as the neurologists’: how do we form judgements? For Panofsky, we make these through knowledge that exists on a number of different levels, ranging from knowledge gained through personal familiarity to knowledge stemming from living within a shared religious or cultural context (or within a particular Weltanchauung). Panofsky’s interest in our reading of these forms is much like the neurologist’s interest in how a brain responds to certain stimuli — he is looking for a consistent cause and effect response between certain forms and certain reactions.

So the New Yorker’s neurology kick has its art-historical predecessors (Panofsky was just one of a number of people studying this subject at the time). However, we’d rather our Panofsky when dealing with the issue of these well-composed photojournalistic images — social contexts and belief systems are things one can think through; CAT scans are not. Beware the impulse to think you do not have enough knowledge to analyse and so you should maybe stop trying, which I think could be an unintended consequence of these warm-water New Yorker articles.

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