Introduction to a comparative study between the styles of Roman painting and contemporary visual arts
from 1950 to 2013
The present article is an extract and introduction to the book Art Criticism. II Stile
Art Criticism 2.0 is a working hypothesis for the languages of art. It analyses the symbolic forms of civilisation by comparing the works produced by peoples in different ages with the aim of formulating a critical judgement.
By multiplying images against an intimately anti-historical background, the digital age is well suited to a reflection on the relationship between different forms of content. Like this, by means of a topology that is capable of binding (logos), different works can be brought together in a critical discourse, in order ultimately to express conceptuality and not just dispersion.
The method of study that Aby Warburg developed in the early years of the last century involved the construction of tables containing images, which were related to each other through research. Warburg himself referred to this as "nameless science". In actual fact, by defining a knowledge of totality, Warburg's Atlas is highly philosophical and poetic, since it is speculative, and his studies go well beyond the limits of science, which separates in order to analyse.
Today, as never before in the history of man, the potential for "surfing" through images does indeed make it possible to create atlases (Atlantes), which is to say mental maps of knowledge and vision. Images tell us of life experience and, acting as phenomenological indices, they reflect the different ways in which humanity has approached numbers and geometry, and thus also space and time.
As works of man, images precede and define language, pointing to life in all its most diverse manifestations.
As a philosophy of life, phenomenology is of fundamental importance for understanding works of art. The truth that emerges through art is the truth of being. Being and thinking are as one. Works of art are the product of our thoughts, and the signs of works are our truth. This fact concerns the individual physiognomy of every work as a product of our thoughts, but this does not fully explain the totality of the essence of the work for it only defines it on the basis of a correlation between subject and object, excluding the existence of the work beyond any perceptive intention. The phenomenological perspective thus gives a necessary but only partial understanding.
Émile Benveniste explained how there is a hiatus between sign and discourse, between the semiotic and the semantic dimension, and that it represents the challenge and potential for knowledge. (1) This is a gap to be filled, through signs, with something that never appears per se, but that is contained within a creed, the canon of a vision, divination, erudition and interpretation. In relation to something else, the sign becomes a signature and language to those who are able to recognise it. (2)
Through hermeneutics we set out our point of view. Art criticism has been fundamentally Kantian, for it has accepted the existence of an individual capable of formulating a judgement on precise a priori forms. Immanuel Kant puts forward plane geometry as an a priori form of intuition, which is to say that man intuitively perceives plane figures. And yet, if we think of the various geometries that have been theorised, the Kantian point of view loses its uniqueness, even while not entering into contradiction. If we replace plane geometry with non-Euclidean geometries, different points of view are possible. (3)
It is important to reflect on the shift in production that can be established by a different canon of vision. Hans Belting recently drew attention to the cultural complexity of the exegesis of perspective, once again posing the question of complexity from the point of view of East and West, based on the optical studies developed in Arab lands and later Latinised under the term Perspectiva. (4)
With the abandonment of the certainty of a sole truth, our age has opened up to the possibility of approaching works of art in their complexity. And we cannot reach this complexity critically and poetically. Just recently, speculative materialism examined the need to get out of the trap of correlationism to question the nature of what Quentin Meillassoux calls "arche-fossile", which is to say "a material indicating traces of 'ancestral phenomena' anterior even to the emergence of life". (5) Similarly, Art criticism 2.0 aims to extend our understanding of the work with respect to a more complex taxonomy, which considers the use of cognitive paradigms that are not directly perceptible by a priori forms of intuition. It is possible, for example, to use non-Euclidean geometries as a theoretical instrument that can consider the work of art as part of a more complex world of forms. Here the work of art is defined on the one hand as some sort of organism with a life of its own, which – to use a Spenglerian term – we can call physiognomic and, on the other, as an organism that forms part of a development independent from the subject, which we refer to as systematic.
We perceive particular physiognomics through the use of Kantian reasoning and we can indicate general systematics by suspending these categories and turning to a morphological type of reflection.
Quentin Meillassoux points out how correlationism uses the so-called "argument from the circle", so that "every objection against correlationism is an objection produced by your thinking, and so dependent upon it. (6) He counters this with the argument that "the correlationist must admit that we can positively think of a possibility which is essentially independent of the correlation, since this is precisely the possibility of the non-being of the correlation". (7) The working theory on this principle of thinkability appears below, in the possibility of assessing works of art from a different point of view. Starting out from artefacts, Art Criticism 2.0 intends to reread the history of art by means of a topology that, through critical and poetic discourse, can lead to new hypotheses about art, which might be referred to as "non-Euclidean". Works of art are particular physiognomic elements that are typical of their age, and are thus unrepeatable, and yet they refer back to a common systematics which, in its independence from the subject, can clarify aspects linked to the "ancestral" eternity of the world of forms. This systematics is the outcome of the theoretical acceptance of non-Euclidean geometries.
If worked out consistently, this working hypothesis should shed light on why distant works are able to communicate with us today. Marx himself, in his Grundrisse (1.4.1), contradicts all his own theoretical constructions when, to his surprise, he admits to the eternal "truth" of some works of art. Here, consistent reference is made to the definition of a topology – a construction capable of evolving in an orderly fashion (ratio). The topology is the connection, the compactness and the continuity that can be established between two conceptual domains, in such a way as to define an interaction between two wholes that have already been identified, and that we here refer to as X and Y. A cognitive process capable of creating an abstraction in the language of X, in such a way as to define a cognitive domain, is used to establish a conceptual domain of X. This X domain is compared with a Y domain in order to verify any possible isomorphism.
In his Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter talks of isomorphism, "when two complex structures can be mapped onto each other, in such a way that to each part of one structure there is a corresponding part in the other structure, where 'corresponding' means that the two parts play similar roles in their respective structures." (8) As "transformation that preserves information", (9) isomorphism defines what two entities (works, ages, events) have in common in their respective physiognomies.
Every age defines its own particular physiognomy through a structure that develops systematically and the comparative study of which – as the content of a similarity that goes beyond the restricted sectors of science – also embraces both philosophy and art. As an understanding of the totality rather than of the part, these forms of knowledge can clarify aspects of the part itself. Art Criticism 2.0 considers works of art in the light of a possible relationship, which may not be entirely demonstrable, but which nevertheless cannot be denied either. It offers a non-Euclidean interpretation of art, in other words a criticism that considers the theoretical possibility of other possible geometries. In non-Euclidean geometries, two parallel lines to infinity can and indeed must meet. Similarly, works meet outside of time, within the space of critical reflection. This convergence makes it possible to clarify aspects that go beyond the artist's intentionality, as the initial instance of comprehension, and investigate the works of art within a possible "absolute" dimension.
Art Criticism 2.0 compares works, seeing them from a perspective that is different from that of Kantian-style knowledge-certainty, adopting Warburg's methodology which includes the non-linear tragicality of the symptom that endlessly returns. (10)
It is not a matter of departing from thought, for reality itself appears as something thought in Giovanni Gentile's theoretical work. It is rather a matter of understanding to what degree the thought falsifies itself. For us, for example, the world is based on theoretical perspectives, which to immediate perception do not appear in terms of succinct judgement that can refer to the a priori forms of intuition, such as Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Art Criticism 2.0 does not intend to separate the world from its authoritative witness, the human being, but rather to work towards the world, verifying theoretical posits produced primarily by thought. These may include non-Euclidean geometries which, due to their complexity, elude the direct experience of thought, but which can be reached through the use of theoretical analysis. The theory of relativity itself is built upon the complexity of these geometries. For example, it maintains that the past is no less real than the future or the present.
If everything is intimately interconnected – and it is – then what is it that links Bach and Polyclitus, for example, or Bach and Gödel? Through what working hypotheses can we experience works? Oswald Spengler and Douglas Hofstadter have raised new questions and opened up new possible directions, uniting what appeared to be divided. Their research shows how it is possible to establish new parameters of critical judgement, bringing a new dimension to the issue of the "mystery" of works of art.
Brief Introduction to II Stile
In his monumental work The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler outlines a history of civilisations, adopting a vision that shifts the focus from man to history, bringing about an authentic revolution in favour of the latter. Spengler's subject is history as the systematic development of an organism, to which man can oppose no decision-making faculty. In their recurrent schemes, each population has its own unique and unrepeatable physiognomy, just as a plant is in some way different from the others, even though it shares their same destiny. Taking Goethe's morphology of plants as a point of reference for his work, (11) Spengler formulates a series of synchronic tables of spiritual, political and artistic periods, comparing Egyptian, Indian and Chinese civilisations, as well as those of the ancient and of the modern Western world. The conceptuality of Spengler's tables is based on an intuition first revealed by Goethe in his conversations with Winckelmann. This concerns the morphology of "living nature", according to which each birth, viewed as an imperceptible origin, is followed by slow development, splendid perfection, and then decadence. (12) As Spengler sees it, civilisations, like all organic beings, are subject to this destiny. Illustrated in The Decline of the West, this working hypothesis makes it possible to refer to past civilisations in order to make a prognosis about the future of our contemporary world.
In Spengler's tables, the premise on which the forecast for the future is based is the recognition of a predetermination, according to which "every civilisation has a duration which is always the same, and which always unfolds with the insistence of a symbol". (13)
The starting point for the reflection that inspired this study is the synchronism, as put forward by Spengler, between the period that should unfold between AD 2000 and 2200, and the Roman period from 100 BC to AD 100. I analysed Roman civilisation during the Late Republic period and drew a parallel with the contemporary age, from 1950 to the present day. I comparatively examined the approach of the Roman man and the contemporary man to space, as a physical and political entity, and his relationship with desire, time, music, literature and technology, defining two or more conceptual domains in order to verify any possible isomorphism.
Spengler's theory is daunting for an artist who believes in his ability to create works, because it induces a great fear: what would remain for the artist if his ability to create were removed?
The artist is an inventor (past part. of invenire), in the sense that he "finds". And so, like a sleuth, work started on following the traces left by works of art, to understand where we are going. The outcome is that we have entered a period that, for contemporary society, represents a new Renaissance. In Roman society, this "Renaissance" finds a direct parallel in the Second Style of painting (about 100-20 BC).
The intention is not to establish a logic in history, but rather to assess how much more ground we have before us – in other words, the works of human beings.
Giambattista Vico has pointed out how when man first stood erect, he became aware of the sky. The sky became manifest to him and this was the beginning of all astronomy, of all cosmogonic order and of man's own perception of himself as a historical being. (14) Man's desire to express himself has led to the development, over time, of the language that we call art. Art strives to be an act of freedom and a manifestation of our own creative ability. Could art exist without creation?
With the unprejudicedness of an artist, these were the premises for an outline comparison between the visual art of our age, since 1950, and Roman painting from about 120 to 80 BC.
The following tables are a selection of a group of 29 comparative charts. Each chart was created associating a Roman domus with a work of art. The illustrations for the archaeological part emerged from a meeting with Mr Domenico Esposito, who, with his long experience, helped make this study possible.
Left: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1951. Oil on canvas, 236,9 x 120,7 cm
Right: Pompei, Casa di Sallustio, atrium. II century BC
Left: Jannis Kounellis, Senza Titolo, 1967. Parrot, iron Right: Pompei, Casa del Naviglio, painted frieze of I Style. Mid II century BC
Left: Giulio Paolini, Quadri di una esposizione, 2013.
Installation view at the Italian Pavillion. 55th Biennale di Venezia “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico”
Right: Pompei, Villa dei Misteri, atrium, North wall.
Decorative scheme of II style.
Right: Laure Prouvost, Farfromwords: car mirrors eat raspberries when swimming through the sun, to swallow sweet smells, 2013 mixed media. Detail of installation at fondazione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia. Left: Pompei, Casa del Braccial d’Oro, triclinium, North wall.
35 – 45 d.C.
Left: Tauba Auerbach, Untitled (Fold), 2012. Acrylic on canvas / Wooden stretcher 152.4 x 114.3 cm Right: Pompei, Casa del Sacello iliaco, East wall. 40-25 a.C.
Paolo Chiasera (1978 Bologna) is an artist, writer and curator. In 2013, he founded 'Secondo Stile: nomadic canvas-based artist-run exhibition-space'. Chiasera is the author of Painting 1: analysis and convergences (2011, Oslo University),The horizon after commodity, notes on perversion (2011, Oslo University), Secondo Stile (2015, upcoming publication). Among the major exhibitions: MACRO (Rome, 2008) MARTa Herford (Herford, 2009) SMAK (Gent,2010), Bergen Kunsthall (Bergen, 2011), MAN (Nuoro, 2014), De Vleeshal (Middelburg, 2014).
( 1 )
Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale II, Gallimard (1974). 64
( 2 )
“The signature lies in the essence and it is like a lute that remains silent, mute and misunderstood, but if someone plays it, then it can be heard".Giorgio Agamben, Signatura Rerum – Sul metodo, Bollati Boringhieri (2008). 44
( 3 )
Oswald Spengler, Il tramonto dell’ Occidente, Longanesi editore (2008). 261-273
( 4 )
Hans Belting, I Canoni dello Sguardo – Storia della Cultura Visiva tra Oriente ed Occidente, Bollati Boringhieri (2010)
( 5 )
Quentin Meillassoux, Time without Becoming (Middlesex University: London, 8 mai 2008) (2008). 3
George Didi Hubermann clarified the methodological premises of Aby Warburg’s nameless science in L’Immagine Insepolta –Aby Warburg, la memoria dei fantasmi e la storia dell’arte, Bollati Boringhieri (2006). See especially the third part, The Image-Symptom, 416-455
( 11 )
Goethe identifies two laws: the law of inner nature, on the basis of which plants are constituted, and the law of external (environmental) circumstances, by which plants are modified. J.W. Göethe, La morfologia delle piante, Ugo Guanda editore (2008), 100
( 12 )
( 13 )
pengler, Il tramonto dell’ Occidente, 179
( 14 )
Giambattisa Vico, La scienza nuova, Bompiani (2012)