Ancuta Mortu

Reassessing Art History’s Humanism: An interview with Whitney Davis

Ancuta Mortu

Reassessing Art History’s Humanism: An interview with Whitney Davis

On  September 26, 2022, Prof. Whitney Davis (UC Berkeley) delivered a keynote address at the inauguration of the new Centre for Modern Art and Theory (CMAT), hosted by the Department of Art History at Masaryk University in Brno.

We provide here a short outline of the lecture, followed by an interview with Prof. Davis.

Fig. 1: Professor Whitney Davis, lecture in Brno. Source: own image.

The inaugural lecture, entitled “Art History and the Tyranny of Humanism”, critically addressed the intellectual and institutional affiliation of art history to the humanities, and most notably cautioned against a blind allegiance to humanistic frameworks that are strongly polarized toward particularism, i.e., a study of objects in their individuality and singularity. The main points covered in the lecture comprised a theoretical landscape of various humanistic configurations to which art history as a discipline has developed strong ties, with a focus on Panofsky’s program of iconology and its shortcomings, as well as questions that arise within these frameworks, namely the need to account for “transhistorical constants”.

To Whose Humanities Does Art History Belong?

The lecture began with a contextualized and historically informed landscape of the academic humanities in North American and European contexts, from which emerged two conflicting visions of the humanities, understood either as one of the “two cultures”1 defined in opposition to the sciences and to their quest for reductive generalizations, or as a program advocating the unity of human knowledge and the organic relation between distinct specializations.

Panofsky’s Iconology and Its Limitations

Panofsky’s influential essay “Art History as a Humanistic Discipline”2 served as a guide for reassessing the definition and development of art history both from a methodological and epistemic point of view. Though acknowledging the “productive descendance” that Panofsky’s program of iconology – or “symbol-ology”3, in Davis’s terms – has generated in taking further the Cassirerian philosophy of symbolic forms, a more or less direct influence that we can find, for instance, in the art theoretical works of Nelson Goodman, George Kubler or David Summers4, Davis rightfully pointed to the shortcomings of iconology, that are more visible in today’s art historical scholarship. One such limitation is the anthropocentrism attached to symbol-making practices, which fails to consider the role that natural processes5 and nonhuman life forms play in the “co-generation of art” or aesthetic communication. According to Davis, overcoming such one-sided humanism or “speciesism”, would open the way to a “non-anthropic art history or aesthetics”, an endeavor that was already taken for instance by one of Panofsky’s contemporaries, the anthropologist Franz Boas6 in his studies of Native American arts.

Fig. 2: Kwakwaka'wakw transformation mask-71.1951.35.1, 19th century, wood, textile, graphite, 34 x120 x 25 cm. Source: Musée du quai Branly, CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

A related limitation of Panofsky’s iconology that Davis stressed, is methodological particularism, or the exclusive focus on individual objects and human intentional practices of meaning-making in diverse contexts, which comes with historicizing and anti-presentist overtones.

Art History and Transhistorical Constants

To overcome particularism, or the “tyranny” 7 of a polarized understanding of humanism, Davis proceeded to present the other direction in which the humanities could go in appealing to invariants, with the ultimate aim of bringing the two stands together in a “dialectical interaction between individual phenomena and generalizing laws” along a “transdisciplinary humanistic continuum”. Davis thus proposed that due consideration should be given to what he calls, borrowing a term from J. B. S. Haldane via Hegel, “concrete universals”8 or “transhistorical constants”9 in professional art history, which can be devised through processes of abstraction either toward the general or the particular. Examples of transhistorical constants explored or mentioned in the lecture include:

– Panofsky’s “antithesis between differentiation and continuity”10 in formal values, a relation presumably inherent in all art,

– the “aperspectival /cloud/” in Western naturalistic painting thematized in Hubert Damisch’s art theoretical work,11

– the transhistorical essence of art, implicit in Christopher Wood’s non-avowed Adornian aesthetic commitments12 and

– “visuality”13, as understood in Davis’s terms, or the potential liability of pictorial ecologies to affect the evolutionary adaptation of human perception.

Overall, the lecture had a very ambitious breadth that aimed to unfold the uneasy relation of art history to its humanistic nature and opened the way to new developments that will be determinant for art history’s self-definition and cognitive futures.

Prof. Davis has kindly agreed to pursue the conversation on the topics addressed in his lecture and respond to our questions.

Ancuta Mortu: Thank you very much for accepting this interview. It’s been an honor and joy to have you here with us in Brno. My first question regards the promises of the methodological project of a “transdisciplinary humanistic continuum”. You pointed to Gombrich as a mediating figure who engages with the scientific systems of knowledge of his time (psychology, information theory, biology, etc.). What kind of frame would provide the coherence of a non-historicist humanism today and what would be its significance for art history? Could you say a bit more about how “interdisciplines” such as world art history, (comparative) anthropology of art, digital art history, archaeology of art, or neuroaesthetics14 might be (or succeed in) realizing this project?

Whitney Davis: I think it would be difficult for anyone today to produce the kind of transdisciplinary humanistic synthesis that Gombrich achieved in the 1950s and stated in Art and Illusion, which was substantially finished by 1958 and published in 1960. Gombrich was able to build on his broad, comparative training in German-language art history in the 1920s, working with mentors like Julius von Schlosser and Emanuel Löwy, which already embraced substantial interactions with theoretical psychology (his 1950 Story of Art, which made him famous, was based on the vast global corpus of artifacts and artworks published in the multivolume Propyläen Kunstgeschichte between the early 1920s and the early 1940s, which is as it were the “archive” that stands behind the book); to engage psychoanalysis (in his collaborations with Ernst Kris); to incorporate new technical knowledge about information theory and communication theory which he acquired during his wartime work in England in monitoring German radio broadcasting; and critically to assess the pros and cons of the available psychological frameworks of his day in both European and Anglo-American contexts (Gestalt psychology, F. C. Bartlett’s schema theory worked out in the laboratory of experimental psychology at Cambridge, hard-core behaviorism in the USA, emergent “evolutionary” or “purposive” behaviorism, neurophysiologies of perception [Donald O. Hebb and others], and emerging cognitive paradigms [Jerome S. Bruner and others]), all of which he read carefully and critically (and for which he had the good fortune to have knowledgeable intellectual companions in British academe, such as Friedrich von Hayek at the London School of Economics, who knew the theoretical material as well or better than he did [see Hayek’s remarkable book The Sensory Order]). At the same time, of course, Gombrich was pursuing detailed studies of Renaissance iconography and symbolism in which a lot of these ideas were “applied”—e.g., psychoanalysis in his studies of Leonardo’s “grotesques,” Bartlett’s schema theory in his studies of Renaissance emblems.

Today (that is, in 2022), I think, the challenge is to assess the relevance (or not) of dominant sciences of our time for histories of culture, art, and pictorial representation. For one thing, vision science and the cognitive psychology of perception have made immense strides since Gombrich’s day. It seems obvious to me – but never take anything for granted! – that art historians would want to be reasonably well equipped in the basics of these disciplines. But the trick, I think, is finding the mediating problematic that bridges empirical psychology and cultural history. To my mind, the psychology of “attention” is one such mediating problematic: the question not just of “how we see” but “what we look at for meaning,” which clearly abuts the question of the historical making of artifacts, such as pictures, that are specifically made to be looked at (presumably), and which, arguably, intervenes recursively in the natural routines of vision (for instance, by constructing peculiar objects that aren’t ordinarily encountered in the natural environment). I’ve been writing recently about the implications of the present-day science of perceptual attention for art-historical ideas about “close looking” and related practices that we attribute to artists, art historians, and informed beholders of art in the past and the present. Insofar as art historians defend “close looking,” they would surely want to look into the empirical evidence about it, which isn’t entirely straightforward. On the one hand, “patterns of attention” reveal something about historically and culturally shaped social experiences and interests, as Baxandall argued, but, on the other hand, psychological research suggests that attention is highly selective—it suppresses and misses a lot of what, objectively, is there to be potentially “visible”—and that it’s likely that people actually often don’t “see” what art historians would precritically and pretheoretically attribute to their visual uptake of aesthetic and cultural information. In other words, there are some interesting areas of theoretical and historical dispute, needing discussion among scholars who are willing to look at both sides of the coin.

For another thing, evolutionary-developmental paleoanthropology has played a major role in the systematic work of some art historians, including David Summers and myself. Summers suggests, for instance, that one of the basic achievements of human cognition—the process of “abstracting to the notional,” as he puts it, of, for example, seeing a “plane” in a smooth surface (that isn’t absolutely planar in a geometrical sense)—was consolidated in late prehistory and that its material effects are visible in Magdalenian artifacts (c. 25,000–12,000 years ago)15. And he projects an entire “world art history” from this base: his story of the world-historical developments from “planarity” to “virtuality.” But though I greatly admire his effort, he doesn’t provide an entirely convincing account of why “abstraction to the notional” emerges as a perceptual-cognitive competence of evolutionarily modern humans. Regardless, it’s pretty obvious to me that prehistoric studies are playing a larger role in art history than ever before; it’s noteworthy that a number of art historians have started writing about prehistoric materials, though they weren’t initially trained in that area. But many art historians aren’t yet used to thinking historically in deep-time evolutionary terms, and, especially, in thinking in taphonomic terms, that is, in terms of the fact that the prehistoric record is mostly missing, and therefore that focusing on “the object” (“closely looked at” or not) can be analytically misleading.

Fig. 3: Aurochs, horses, and deer, Upper Paleolithic art, c. 17,300 BC, red ochre, black manganese dioxide, Lascaux caves, France. Source: Lascaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

To take a third example, a more “stochastic” approach, as I’d call it, and which is “normal science” in both natural and social science disciplines, leads to the availability of “humanistic” methods that aren’t rooted in the established research environments of the museum, the collection, the archive, and the library, which contain as it were the positive evidence of what has actually survived from the past into the present, but instead are vested in forensic methods of reconstruction that enable us to repopulate entire missing landscapes of artifactual production. (George Kubler thought along these lines analytically, but he didn’t actually use algorithmic methods.) Just as one imagined “art history without names,” one can imagine “art history without objects.” This sounds radical: but actually, it’s a very simple extrapolation of a humanistic perspective: “the object” simply isn’t the appropriate unit of analysis (or, as a population biologist would say, “level of selection”) for the study of human creation, for—as I’ve argued throughout my work—human beings create in replicatory series and assemblages. “Digital art history” is pioneering in this respect, when it’s at its best: its methods of visualization, virtualization, large-scale data processing, and all the rest, enable us to get away from fetishisms of (surviving actual) objects in order instead to populate a field—stochastic or even “quantum” if you like—in which certain properties of an object-universe are more likely or less likely to be observed in a particular slice of time/space. Increasingly, fetishism of “the object” reveals itself to be what it is historically: a product of colonial appropriations and extinctions, of art markets and academic markets, of privileged access to conditions of visibility and viewing, and other factors that are hot topics in the critical reevaluation of the humanities today.

Now any one of us might have greater or lesser interest in these and other approaches and find them more or less helpful in our research as art historians. The several “interdisciplines” you mention—comparative anthropology of art, world art history, neuroaesthetics, etc.—are frameworks that can appeal to certain communities of scholars (inside and outside disciplinary art history) depending on the kinds of questions they’re interested in as historians. Because Summers is, like many historians, a developmentalist (though not a progressivist, like Gombrich), he’s interested in how one gets—in tiny incremental historical steps over thousands of years across many traditions of artifact and picture making—from “planarity” to “virtuality” and onward to what he calls “metaopticality”16, which is the visual-cognitive paradigm in which any modern historical tradition that has adopted a Cartesian coordinate space as its framework for “space” as such is constrained to operate, for better or for worse (for him, there’s a huge downside in the loss of cultural senses of “place”—here’s where his liberal humanism, his concern for the authenticity of the production of any and all human beings, really shows forth). I’m less of a developmentalist than he is, and therefore I see the question he has focalized as the irreducible ever-present tension between planarity and virtuality in any and all contexts of production. (If you like, for me there’s no less “virtuality” in Paleolithic painting than in Renaissance perspective.) That’s an important difference of emphasis that generates quite distinct histories of art by Summers and by me, even if we deal with exactly the same artifacts. (I’ve outlined a bit of this in my considerations of Summers in Visuality and Virtuality, which I won’t repeat here.) He and I share an intellectual rooting in the comparative anthropology of art but, in view of our other theoretical commitments, we end up in somewhat different transdisciplinary frameworks.

Let’s look briefly at another transdisciplinary framework you mentioned. Personally, I’m not much interested in “neuroaesthetics” (among practitioners like Chatterjee) simply because I’m not much interested in empirical aesthetics—that is, why people “like” what they do, or respond “aesthetically” to certain phenomena rather than others. But I’m somewhat interested in one branch of the empirical neurobiology of vision—namely, the highly technical research (well reported by Semir Zeki in Inner Vision) on the functional specialization and localization of cell-complexes attuned to certain particular stimuli—because I’m increasingly interested in what I think of as the deeply “humanistic,” and indeed urgently political, question of visual “disability.” Most art historians just take it for granted that the human beings they’re writing about—artists, collectors, beholders of all kinds—were and are all endowed with “normal” vision (that is, normal stereopsis or binocular resolution of parallax, normal color vision, normal acuity, etc., etc.), and that empirical variance in visual perception in a human social group needn’t be factored in to the existing approach to sociocultural variation. But this assumption is flatly incorrect (I myself am amblyopic, and therefore I have no “depth perception” as perhaps you might experience and think of it), and, in today’s environment of social inclusiveness, increasingly unacceptable. Here one sees the dramatic need for an interdiscipline that hasn’t yet emerged—one in which art history, to be responsibly historical at the most basic level of recognizing human variance and diversity, would need to be aware of vision science.

Stepping back from all this, the area that has always interested me lies as it were between the natural and life sciences on the one hand and the culturally oriented “humanities” on the other hand, namely, in what is often called “social science.” (This might be clear from my frequent references to psychology and anthropology.) The key question, for me, is the weight that we should place, as historians, on people’s own language for and accounts of the “rules” they’re following in (and as) their “culture,” their “way of doing things,” and of the “meanings” that rule-following and culture makes available, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, on determining factors in their social and cultural life that are not governed by such rules and lie outside the domain of a particular historical social group’s reflective language for itself. Particularist historicists are usually committed to the idea that, for example, we should aim as historians to understand ancient Greek sculpture (say) “in ancient Greek terms,” which happen to be quite rich with specific respect to techne, mimesis, and all the rest, and which in turn requires the established philological and iconographical methods of conventional cultural historicism. This is the classic “emic” approach, and it’s frequently seen as “humanistic” because it recognizes the reflective autonomy of the other and the supposed obligation of the historian to set aside their own frameworks of thought and belief. However, I’m more of an “etic-icist,” that is, I’m tolerant of explanations of people’s sociocultural life, activity, and production that don’t depend on, and might even contradict, internal endogenous accounts and the record of the self-understanding of a group. In writing about Greek sculpture, I don’t feel finally beholden to the ancient Greeks’ ideas about and language for their productions—and indeed in important respects I would want specifically to challenge them. One could argue that this “etic” approach is “humanistic” because it engages truths about human life that might not be accessible “from within”: though one knows about themselves that they are following a particular “cultural” rule (e.g., obeying the traffic laws), it’s impossible definitely to know about anyone else, however proximate socially, that they too are following that same rule, and to that extent even belong socially to the supposed culture. My “general theory of visual culture” tries to balance emic and etic considerations, and in a sense to balance the reality of sharedness in culture (we follow a common rule) and the reality of diversity or variance in culture (we don’t follow a common rule, knowingly or not). (I won’t go into all that here.) To my mind, a “transdisciplinary humanistic continuum” maps historical problems along this etic/emic continuum from perception and cognition (as studied, say, in empirical neuropsychology) through social relations (as studied, say, in economics and social anthropology) to emergent “cultures” (as studied, say, in cultural history and in the “humanities”); no one part or passage of this continuum is more “historical” than another, nor does attention to one or the other part or passage of the continuum make one any more, or any less, of a “humanist.”

AM: To pursue this line of thought, assuming that there is more to historical analysis than historical particularization and related historicizing processes, how can one understand this in relation to transhistorical constants? What role, if any, does historical analysis play in devising concrete universals? I’m thinking here mostly of your study on “visuality”17, but you could perhaps explain a little more the rationale behind it.

WD: In art history, “transhistorical constants” often take the shape of claims such as Damisch’s, which I highlighted in my lecture—namely, that “it’s impossible to apply one-point linear-perspective projection to the depiction of cloud-like phenomena.”18 (Set aside whether this is right; Damisch says it is and works out an elaborate analysis.) If Damisch is right, this is transhistorically the case for any and all perspectivists, from Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 1400s to James Turrell today. Stated baldly, it’s perhaps not super-interesting because it’s sort of self-evident. But the “concrete universal” generated by/for any particular historical practitioner of perspective, say Brunelleschi, or say Turrell, is interesting, because they do indeed depict cloud-like phenomena in a perspectival framework: they are interestingly and productively constrained, and the solutions they come up with are highly specific to their resources, theories, practices, and communities at the same time as they are transhistorically relevant.

Fig. 4: James Turrell, Space that sees, Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Source: Xsteadfastx, CC BY 3.0<> via Wikimedia Commons.

Art historians aren’t really going to quibble with “transhistorical constants” that are, as it were, generated as internal to the history of art—its universe of objects and methods—such as the example just cited: all historians of perspective know that from the beginning there was a known problem, of interest to theorists and painters alike, with respect to the parts of a depiction that could not be completely mapped in terms of the recession of orthogonals to the vanishing point. (Summers has a really good treatment of the problem of the “tunnel” of geometrically perspectived virtual space in a picture that includes other areas of non-perspectived space.)

But as soon as one steps outside that framework, people get anxious. Again, Summers is a good example. For him, Euclidean geometry—the geometry of the point, line, and plane, and of “figures” such as triangles and clouds—is transhistorically constant (a straight line is always the shortest distance between two points on a plane). And—here’s where it gets tricky—all human makers have always accepted and investigated the Euclidean propositions and proofs (Summers’s “etic” claim) whether or not they had any cultural tradition in which those propositions and proofs were stated, demonstrated, and communicated (an “emic” historicist question). (Even when post- and non-Euclidean geometries are available, to “exemplify” them in a pattern or a picture drawn on a plane is inevitably going to pass through Euclidean conformations.) Art historians, as the reviews of Summers’s book show, are uneasy about this. Practical pre-Euclidean “geometry” (say, Thales’s, or, say, the ancient Egyptian surveyors’) maybe didn’t implicitly obey Euclidean principles as a transhistorical constant but articulated different standards of regularity. Let’s take a closer look at this, just to make the point clear.

Is it in fact true that a straight line is always the shortest distance between two points? Well, no, it isn’t always true: because the straight line that seems to lie on the plane might depict a path that goes deep into depth, and one of the two points might be understood to lie far away in that depth (that is, on a different plane parallel or orthogonal to the “front” plane). Therefore, a sinuously winding line on the plane that connects two points at the same depth (that is, on the same plane) could be “shorter” in the distance traversed than the straight line (connecting points on different planes) in the picture right beside it on the surface of the wall or canvas or whatever. (It is true, I think, that a straight line is always the shortest distance between two points on a plane. That’s a geometrical constant. But it is not true that two points on a surface are geometrically situated as two points on the same plane; here, the “concrete universal” is the surface properties as perceived, relative to the transhistorical geometric constant. It is certainly not true that a material surface, such as sheet of paper, is perceptually identical to a geometrical plane; rather, what I call a complex “succession” must be involved.) In Visuality and Virtuality I show that this issue—the question of “recessionalized” straight lines on the plane—encumbered Egyptian pictorialists who struggled with a “non-Euclidean” ambiguity within their “Euclidean” framework avant la lettre. But possibly it’s our attribution of the Euclidean framework that creates the supposed historical problem in the first place: the Egyptians’ Euclidean “planarity” was actually shot through with “virtuality” that Summers would have us find only in later traditions (a point I’ve already mentioned), which perhaps suggests, in the end, that “Euclidean geometry” was not an unalloyed transhistorical constant, as Summers requires. Strictly speaking, the “Euclidean” transhistorical constant (i.e., plane geometry) was always intersected by a “Cartesian” transhistorical constant (i.e., the algebraic geometry of three-dimensional coordinate space): pace Summers, that’s my statement of a transhistorical constant.

I’m painfully aware, to be sure, that emically-inclined historicist art historians will dislike me even more than they dislike Summers, for I’m being even more “anachronistic”: it seems somewhat okay to attribute Euclidean intuitions to pre-Greek surveyors, as Summers does (after all, those surveyors’ work was explicitly enfolded by Euclid in his uptake of their methods), but Cartesian intuitions too, as I’m suggesting? Regardless, Summers and Davis make the “etic” claim that a definable transhistorical body of graphic expression obeys “Euclidean” (Summers) or “Euclido-Cartesian” (Davis) principles of spatial virtualization regardless of any and all “emic” representations by the historical actors in their cultural frames. You can historicize indigenous concepts of and values in space, spatialization, etc., all you want, and show their relevance to particular practices and products of graphic expression. But you will not be able to produce an example of graphic production that isn’t wholly constrained by Euclidean or Euclido-Cartesian principles (probably enunciated by many indigenous thinkers other than Euclid and Descartes—that’s a separate but fascinating and necessary historico-humanist question). That, I think, is obvious. What isn’t obvious is that my Euclido-Cartesian forensics of Egyptian virtual pictorial space opens up questions that an “emic” historical approach overlooks, to the detriment of its own “humanist” historicism. (That, I take it, is the point of our conversation here.) Because the emicist assumes the Egyptians simply could not “think” virtual coordinate space because they were entirely non-Cartesian in their thought-world, they miss a profoundly constituting aspect of Egyptian pictorial representation even in its own terms. When I can show that Egyptian pictorialists worked on the plane as having virtual depth, an entire tradition of graphic expression comes to look completely different. And far from thinking I’ve imposed an outside “etic” forensics that has nothing to do with the ways in which the Egyptians “emically” experienced their own pictorial problems “in their own terms,” I venture to argue that my forensics identifies the problems that were actually most pressing and productive—in “emic” terms, though linguistically unstatable—for the Egyptian pictorialists themselves, and motivated their creative virtuosity. (Virtual pictorial space had ontological significance and substance for them.) Transhistorical analysis therefore meets—and ideally becomes one with—particularist history; they are the two necessary sides of the one coin of the history of human productive imagination.

I’m not going to try to adjudicate this particular example any further, though obviously I’m interested in it for the purposes of my own special research on ancient traditions of depiction (a key text would be Derrida’s doctoral dissertation on Husserl’s treatment of the “origin of geometry”). (In fairness to Summers, he would, I think, accept the “Cartesian” coordinate space generated by the semi-circular cup that was ground out in the “Euclidean” plane surface of the little Magdalenian lamp from Lascaux which starts his world art history.17

Fig. 5: Oil lamp, found in Lascaux cave in Montignac, Dordogne, Aquitaine, France. Magdalenian culture, 17,000 BP, Musée National de la Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Source: Sémhur, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rather, I simply note the great weight of—the many consequences that flow from—one’s commitment to a particular transhistorical constant or constants, which I believe one should state explicitly when the constants have consequential implications for historical analysis (though many transhistorical constants, of course, will be operating in our work unrecognized and/or inconsequentially). (“Transhistorical” doesn’t mean “universal”; it means applying to a particular stated range of historical instants.) Here are other examples: “art” is extremely rare, almost never produced or possible socially (T. J. Clark; therefore art historians’ reflexive designation of their objects of study as “artworks” is almost always shallow and obfuscatory); no two-dimensional depiction of an object can be unambiguous (Gombrich; therefore we need an explanation for the resolution of the configuration into this rather than that recognizable object); an artifact is always an iterative replication of its class (Kubler; therefore, supposedly, artifacts produced later in the series are more constrained by the weight of replicatory variation and innovation that has already accumulated: a “modern” art is always less original than a more “ancient” one, though it could be flamboyant and idiosyncratic). I admire the work of art historians who, at risk of narrowing their analytics, discover a transhistorical constant that enables them to remap the universe, the record, of art-historical objects, and indeed redefines the art-historical object as such. The “concrete universals”—e.g., Tatlin’s monument is one of the only possible “works of art” in the avant-garde tradition (Clark); post-contact Pre-Columbian style could only survive for a few generations when its replicatory foundations were undermined (Kubler)—are generated analytically with respect to the relevant transhistorical constant(s). Anything can be a concrete universal. But the “concreteness” and the “universality” of the thing are only focalized for us analytically in an explicitly stated transhistorical framework.

AM: Which brings me to the question of the passage from transhistorical constants to transhistorical values, and most notably aesthetic values. You mentioned in your lecture Panofsky’s decry of “appreciationism”18 in humanistic professional art history, to which he opposes rigorous historical contextualization, suggesting that, if I understood you correctly, this might be a methodological limitation of the act of art evaluation. On your account, is there a place for aesthetic, value-making processes in the art-historical “analytics” of concrete universals and if so, how should one approach them?

WD: Panofsky’s condemnation of “appreciationism” was perhaps more official than personal because he did allow his personal aesthetic preferences (e.g., his love of Correggio and Titian) to shine forth, and he did make iconographical contextualizations on the basis of essentially aesthetic criteria (e.g., challenging Wölfflin’s formalistically reductive analysis of Dürer’s engraving of Knight, Death, and the Devil as unbefitting the aesthetic achievement of a great master artist).

Fig. 6 Antonio Allegri da Correggio, Camera della Badessa, Monastery of San Paolo, Parma. Source: I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

But we all know the general shape of the issue, which we can readily recognize in the negative form when, say, a member of the audience at one of our lectures complains that all our historical analysis of a painting has not really gotten at its value as “art” and perhaps has even drained out the pleasure of art for that particular beholder, who isn’t especially interested in the artifact as a symptomatic cultural symbol that was only functionally operating, even as “art,” in a particular time and place. Panofsky is absolutely clear that “appreciationism” is only a first step and that at a certain point in historical investigation we must rigorously exclude our own aesthetic evaluations even if they have perhaps motivated our selection of the material in the first place.

But I think differently. I’m very interested in the relationship between aesthetics—the philosophy of art, but also the social practices of making aesthetic judgments—and art history, and I’ve written extensively about it throughout my career. I’ve spent a lot of time in the professional disciplinary spaces of aesthetics—its journals, its conferences, its debates—in which few art historians are visible at all, at least in the USA, though quite a few art historians do feel free to opine on philosophical aesthetics (mostly by dismissing it; the philosophers, by contrast, seem largely to welcome an art historian’s perspective, however unsubtle from their point of view). That relationship has been generative for me. As a more local practical matter within disciplinary art history itself, I think it would be pretty difficult to write the history of professional art history without dealing with its entanglements with various more or less official and systematic philosophies of art. (Oddly, however, there are plenty of histories of systematic philosophies of art, often very distinguished, that don’t deal with those philosophies’ entanglements with professional art history, or even with the historical record of art making engaged by philosophy—a point I’ve tried to engage somewhat in my book Queer Beauty.)

With regard to “aesthetics” that might be relevant for art historians, I’m also cautiously sympathetic to James Elkins’s idea that art historians can experiment with adopting non-Western aesthetic terminologies and frameworks, as opposed to adopting “Western” ones (e.g., Adorno’s). And while I’ve argued that Western aesthetic historicism, including Adorno’s, is probably essential within world art studies (precisely because that historicism offers the most fully developed critique of the crisis of art making in capitalist modernity, now a worldwide or “global” problem), I’m entirely open to the productivity of Elkins’s idea (certainly not unique to him) that one could try to explicate Cézanne’s paintings in terms, say, of Asmat ideas about compelling and/or enigmatic and/or power-projecting configuration. In Asmat aesthetics, virtuosic enigmatic configuration just outside the bounds of recognizable patterns and motifs = the unassailable power of its producer, wearer, or bearer. For Adorno, quite conversely, the very same sensory structures bespeak the necessary crisis of intelligibility which marks the authenticity of art as resistant to and within a normalizing social regime of meaning: the enigmaticality of art put forward socially as the antidote to authoritarian power. Who’s right about the essential role of art with respect to social authority, transhistorically? —the Asmat or Adorno? Art for war (Asmat) or art against war (Adorno)? Who or what decides? Is the question malformed? Can any general global aesthetics survive the tension between the Asmat and the Adornian concepts of the role of art, with respect to the fundamental ground of social conflict? Is there a synthetic Adorno-Asmatian Aufhebung? For me, these are all real questions—but, sad to say, they are not much engaged by art historians. (In a sense Jakub Stejskal here in Brno, who straddles the philosophy, the anthropology, and the history of art, has been developing implications of these kinds for a general aesthetics applicable to a world art history.) Obviously, there’s nothing controversial about saying the obvious: that as an historicist one would want to know about, even work within, the terms of the endogenous aesthetics of the social group or cultural tradition one’s working on, even as I’ve already urged that an exclusively “emic” approach is unsustainable and undesirable.

But your question is about transhistorical aesthetic values, not the aesthetic values set up in this or that or one or another historical system of aesthetic terminology and practices of judgment—Adorno’s or the Asmats’ or whatever. I suppose that art historians are committed to the view that there is art in the world (though see the meditations of hard-core post-Hegelians, nicely discussed by philosophers like Robert Pippin and Alexander Nehamas, who might be prepared to claim that art in its deepest sense ceased to be made when its cultural task was assumed by philosophy—that “art” continues to be made but not as essential to humanity). And most of them are probably committed to the view that there’s a lot of art and that it comes in a lot of forms (though T. J. Clark says there’s hardly any of it). And some of them are probably committed to the view that art is a “panhuman phenomenon” (that’s the editors of World Art Studies, though there’s a debate in prehistoric paleoanthropology about “art” as human-species-defining, or not).

I’ll let analytic philosophers worry about the construction of a transhistorical ontology of art (good work, to my mind, can be found in the writings of Gregory Currie, Jerrold Levinson, and others I’ve often cited, and I’ve recently written somewhat critically about the transhistorical ontology of art—as “embodiment of meaning”—developed by Arthur Danto, though in earlier work of mine I applied his analytic method of “indiscernibles”). In general, I’d like to see more interaction between art history and aesthetics, somewhat defying Panofsky’s strictures.

If I were pressed to defend a transhistorical aesthetics, it would probably be a mix of a position recently defended by my Berkeley colleague Alva Noë (in Strange Tools, though it’s not unique to him)—namely, that art productively defamiliarizes the mundane world in its representations of it—and a fairly orthodox Kantian position—namely, that cultural canons of art, that is, of its success, beauty, worthiness, moral interest, criticality, etc., are formed intersubjectively and therefore implicitly engage historical questions about our sociability, autonomy, equality, and freedom as social subjects. (For me, a big problem in empirical aesthetics is that it makes aesthetic preference into a solipsistic personal affair—what you or I like and value, for ourselves—rather than a matter of social negotiation, that is, what we’re prepared to try to persuade others to agree with us as being worthy of attention in aesthetic terms, and how we go about doing so while recognizing the other’s autonomy as aesthetic subject in situations of social diversity, disparity, and inequity.) In other words, I’d defend a view of art as a particular operation at the interface between perception and sociability, and their interpenetration before any artwork entered into the equation. And I’d distinguish all this from my own long-time major interest as an “art historian,” which is less in “art qua art” in the sense I’ve sketched and more in artifacts known to us as “pictures,” which need not be construed as art (though some of the same problems of perception and sociability arise in the recognition of pictorial effects and meanings as in the acceptance of artistic success and value). Really, I’m a “picture historian,” and in that respect I’m perhaps more concerned with people’s—and one’s own— “visual” sensitivities than with one’s “aesthetic” preferences and prejudices, if I might make that distinction. Indeed, a lot of “aesthetics” in art history collapses “aesthetics” into “sensory” (its original etymological meaning)—i.e., its visual, haptic, and other corporeal phenomenologies—and pushes the other dimensions of “aesthetics” generally addressed in Western philosophy—universalization, autonomy, critique, etc.—onto a historicist “sociology of art.” Because of all of this, many art historians content themselves to mean “painting” or “sculpture” or the like when they say “art.”

I have pursued many art-historical projects with a Panofskyan mindset—namely, selecting “art-historical” materials and topics not because I have any personal aesthetic interest in or attraction to the materials, though I sometimes do, but because a particular analytic and forensic problem can be investigated by way of those materials (and not others). I’ve written the equivalent of probably four full-length books on ancient Egyptian art, and though I can recognize its virtuosities I’m not aesthetically engaged with it: I wouldn’t want to collect it, for example. Of course, I recognize that one’s aesthetic engagement can really drive an analytics of a particular artistic practice (such as in my book on the sculpture of David Rabinowitch, Pacing the World), and I don’t gainsay the overwhelming value of that kind of project. It’s just not the only one for me; I don’t think it’s essential to an art historian’s work; and anyway, questions of general aesthetics go way beyond the purview of the objects ordinarily investigated by art historians, notably into the domain of the aesthetics of human persons (in friendship, eroticism, and so on), which is an “aesthetics” possibly better conceptualized under the rubric of “sexuality.”

Because I’m not a particularistic historicist, at least exclusively, I’m not against “appreciationism” as a way in and through art history—that is, I’m not against it as the supposed methodological obstacle to historical objectivity which Panofsky warned about. But I would admit that the intersection of aesthetics and art history, at a theoretical level, is not well developed, possibly partly because of philosophy’s—and art history’s—uncertainty as to whether aesthetics is historical or transhistorical. Many of its transhistorical propositions, such as Hegel’s and Danto’s, would seem, from an art historian’s point of view, to spin out from particular historical practices of art—rather predictably. But philosophers of art seem to find that claim uninteresting. They’re translocating their problems to the problem of logic—of clarity, rationality, cognitive and moral universals—as such, social reality be damned. Historical consciousness would undermine them in just the same way—if inversely—as philosophical consciousness would undermine historicists. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

AM: Finally, I was wondering whether you could tell us something about your ongoing work, more specifically about your new books Visions of Art History and Pictures and Populations, in which one might potentially grasp further commitments to transhistorical /clouds/.

WD: Visions of Art History is a collection of my historiographical and critical essays covering major art historians, art writers, and movements of thought about art history from Hegel to the present day, including treatments of Walter Pater, Emanuel Löwy, Heinrich Wölfflin, Sigmund Freud, Franz Boas, Ernst Cassirer, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich, Arthur Danto, Nelson Goodman, Michael Baxandall, John Onians, and David Summers, and considerations of formalism, visual culture studies, world art studies, and neuroaesthetics. Its main theme is the theory or theories of vision—of natural human visual perception—maintained by art historians and others in their approaches to “visual art,” such as Wölfflin’s concept of a “history of seeing,” Boas’s idea of “reading-in” or projection, Gombrich’s theory of “schema and correction,” Baxandall’s “social history of pictorial style” and “patterns of intention,” and Summers’s “abstraction to the notional,” some of which I’ve mentioned here. It’s not an introductory textbook; the treatments are in-depth and assume quite a bit of knowledge on the reader’s part about the history of art history and about background philosophy. Of course, I’m defending some of my own views as I’ve developed them in A General Theory of Visual Culture and elsewhere—especially my way of thinking about “visuality” as the “forms of likeness” recognized in a historical “form of life” (roughly, a “visual culture”) and therefore my emphasis not so much on the “form” of the artwork or picture but on its “analogies” to other things and states of affairs in the makers’ and beholders’ world. That approach is broadly “Wittgensteinian.” But the book is primarily a consideration of the thought of other writers who’ve shaped aspects of my own writing over the years.

Pictures and Populations is a substantive paleoanthropology of the role of picture making in the global dispersal of psychologically modern humans, who were fully evolved cognitively in central East Africa by about 200,000 years ago, in their several waves of migration “out of Africa” from about 90,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago (they reached China by 40,000 years ago, for example). So far as we can tell from a necessarily fragmentary archaeological record, pictures weren’t made by archaic humans, such as Neanderthals, nor by psychologically modern humans in their original heartland of adaptation in central east Africa. But they were made by the migrating modern humans, encountering new flora, fauna, ecologies, climates, and, of course, already-migrated groups of earlier humans, including Neanderthals. I argue that pictures were not just a record of these encounters, a kind of encyclopedia of salient objects in and aspects of their new worlds, but also a way of world making—of putting those worlds into some kind of order, of analyzing and classifying them, and, above all, in serving, literally speaking, as a vehicle of migration and dispersal itself. Obviously, the project is connected implicitly to present-day studies of migration and diaspora. But essentially it is a deep-time history of pictorial representation as a technology of one form of life of psychologically modern humans. It’s ambitious, for sure; the prehistoric record, though global, is also spotty, documentations are incomplete, new evidence is constantly turning up, dating is uncertain, and so on. And the actual routes of human movement are not well understood. Pictures and other artifacts are, in fact, the deposited record of such movements, and sometimes their only evidence. But I am mapping present-day archaeogenetic data—especially the evidence of the dispersion of the various major human haplogroups—into the material artifactual data, and vice versa. Right now, I’m working on the first big piece of the puzzle, namely, the “first step” out of central East Africa that was taken by modern-human haplogroup L (specifically L3) and branched, in the Levant and along the Indian Ocean coast, into haplogroups M and N. The “first step” was up the Nile Valley corridor and/or along the Red Sea coast, translocating to the Eurasian continent across the Bab el-Mandab strait at the mouth of the Red Sea and/or across the Sinai bridge in northeast Egypt. There is an important archaeological record of modern human activity along this route, and I am specifically looking at the pictures—that is, at the record of “rock art” in the present-day eastern deserts of Sudanese Nubia and Upper Egypt. I’ve been working on these particular materials since I was an undergraduate—just as I’ve been working on human population genetics, which was one of my primary area of studies as a college student. So, the project brings me all the way back around to some of my earliest interests as an archaeological art historian. A project of this kind is inherently interdisciplinary and collaborative and at the moment I’m spending most of my time trying to find the large-scale funds that will be required to realize it on a global scale. Wish me luck.

AM: Thank you very much and good luck with your project!

Short bios

Whitney Davis is George C. and Helen N. Pardee Distinguished Professor of History & Theory of Ancient & Modern Art at the University of California at Berkeley (USA) and Honorary Visiting Professor of the Humanities at the University of York (UK). He is the author of ten books and over a hundred articles on aspects of prehistoric, ancient, and modern arts, on the conceptual foundations of art history and its relations with other disciplines, and on the history and theory of sexuality.

Ancuta Mortu is Research Fellow at Masaryk University where she contributes to the MASH Junior project titled “’Remote Access: Understanding Art from the Distant Past”, led by Jakub Stejskal.

  1. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution , The Rede Lecture, 1959, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1961; For a recent theoretical discussion of the “two cultures meme” and its ties to art history and aesthetics,  see Dominic McIver Lopes, “A Layered, Bounded, Integrated Approach to Research on the Arts Across the Disciplines”, Leonardo, vol. 53, no. 5, 2020, p. 537-541; Matthew Rampley, The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017, p. 1-10.
  2. Erwin Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (1938), in Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, New York, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955, p. 1-25.
  3. On the intellectual affinities between Panofsky and Cassirer, see Whitney Davis, A General Theory of Visual Culture, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011, p. 253-254.
  4. Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, Indianapolis, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968; George Kubler, The Shape of Time. Remarks on the History of Things, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1962; David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, London, Phaidon, 2003.
  5. Davis points here, for instance, to the emergent eco-art history, namely to Sugata Ray, Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2019. For the natural determinations of cultural processes, see also Whitney Davis, “Neurovisuality”, NonSite, Issue 2, 2011,; Whitney Davis, Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017, p. 101-103.
  6. See Whitney Davis, “‘Reading-In’: Franz Boas’s Theory of the Beholder’s Share”, Representations, vol. 144, no. 1, 2018, p. 1-33.
  7. Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting, trans. by Janet Lloyd, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 104.
  8. John Burdon Haldane, The Causes of Evolution, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 86; Whitney Davis, “The Absolute in the Mirror: Symbolic Art and Cosmological Perspectivism”, in Paul A. Kottman, Michael Squire (eds.), The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History, Leiden, Wilhelm Fink, 2018, p. 69-99.
  9. Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 104.
  10. Erwin Panofsky, “On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art” (1925), transl. by Katharina Lorenz and Jas’ Elsner, Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, 2008, p. 43-71; Whitney Davis, A General Theory of Visual Culture, p. 196-197.
  11. Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/.
  12. Christopher S. Wood, A History of Art History, Princeton, Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2019. For a critical assessment of a conception of art in terms of essence, see Whitney Davis, “Beginning the History of Art”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 51, no. 3, 1993, p. 331.
  13. Davis, A General Theory of Visual Culture, p. 231.
  14. Whitney Davis, “World Without Art: A Commentary on World Art Studies”, Art History, vol. 33, no. 4, 2010, p. 710-716; Whitney Davis, “Radical WAS: The Sense of History in World Art Studies”, World Art, vol. 3, no. 2, 2013, p. 201-210; Whitney Davis, “Visuality and Vision: Questions for a Post-Culturalist Art History”, Aesthetics in Central Europe: Berlin Symposium on Post-Culturalist Art History, Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics, vol. LIV/X, no. 2, 2017, p. 238–57. Whitney Davis, “Binding and Unbinding the Mondrian Stimulus”, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 58, no. 4, 2018, p. 449-467.
  15. Summers, Real Spaces, p. 343ff.
  16. Summers, Real Spaces, p. 555.
  17. Davis, A General Theory, p. 8ff.
  18. Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/, p. 105.
  19. Summers, Real Spaces, fig. 36, p. 111.
  20. Panofsky, “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline”, p. 19-20; Erwin Panofsky, The Iconography of Correggio’s Camera di San Paolo, London, The Warburg Institute, University of London, 1961. There is a venerable tradition decrying the orientation toward aesthetic questions in art history, most notably illustrated in Moritz Thausing, “The Status of the History of Art as an Academic Discipline” (1873), transl. by Karl Johns, Journal of Art Historiography, no. 1, 2009, p. 1-22. While in more recent art historiography and theory, such questions are most of the time assimilated to Western aesthetic ideologies; Summers, Real Spaces, p. 59-60; Davis, A General Theory, p. 4-5, 51-52, 231-232, 242, 340; Jakub Stejskal, “A Post-Culturalist Aesthetics? A Commentary on Davis’s ‘Visuality and Vision”, Aesthetics in Central Europe: Berlin Symposium on Post-Culturalist Art History, Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics, vol. LIV/X, no. 2, 2017, p. 267-276.
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