The Art of Describing, by Svetlana Alpers, Introduction, p. xxiv
How then are we to look at Dutch art? My answer has been to view it circumstantially. This has become a familiar strategy in the study of art and literature. By appealing to circumstances, I mean not only to see art as a social manifestation but also to gain access to images through a consideration of their place, role, and presence in the broader culture.
The Dutch present their pictures as describing the world seen rather than as imitations of significant human actions. Already established pictorial and craft traditions, broadly reinforced by the new experimental science and technology, confirmed pictures as the way to new and certain knowledge of the world. A number of characteristics of the images seem to depend on this: the frequent absence of a positioned viewer, as if the world came first (where we are situated as viewers is a question that one is hard put to answer in looking at a panoramic landscape by Ruisdael); a play with great contrasts in scale (when man is not providing the measure a huge bull or cow can be amusingly played off against a tiny distant church tower); the absence of a prior frame (the world depicted in Dutch pictures often seems cut off by the edges of the work or, conversely, seems to extend beyond its bounds as if the frame were an afterthought and not a prior defining device); a formidable sense of the picture as a surface (like a mirror or a map, but not a window) on which words along with objects can be replicated or inscribed; an insistence on the craft of representation (extravagantly displayed by a Kalf who repeatedly recrafts in paint the porcelain, silver, or glass of the craftsman along side the lemons of Nature herself). It is, finally, hard to trace stylistic development, as we are trained to call it, in the work of Dutch artists. Even the most naive viewer can see much continuity in northern art from Van Eyck to Vermeer, and I shall often look back from the seventeenth century to similar phenomena in earlier northern works. But no history on the developmental model of Vasari has ever been written, nor do I think it could be. This is because the art did not constitute itself as a progressive tradition. It did not make a history in the sense that art did in Italy. For art to have a history in this Italian sense is the exception, not the rule. Most artistic traditions mark what persists and is sustaining, not what is changing, in culture. What I propose to study then is not the history of Dutch art, but the Dutch visual culture—to use a term that I owe to Michael Baxandall.
In Holland the visual culture was central to the life of the society. One might say that the eye was a central means of self-representation and visual experience a central mode of self-consciousness. If the theater was the arena in which the England of Elizabeth most fully represented itself to itself, images played that role for the Dutch. The difference between the forms this took reveals much about the difference between these two societies. In Holland, if we look beyond what is normally considered to be art, we find that images proliferate everywhere. They are printed in books, woven into the cloth of tapestries or table linens, painted onto tiles, and of course framed on walls. And everything is pictured-from insects and flowers to Brazilian natives in full life-size to the domestic arrangements of the Amsterdammers. The maps printed in Holland describe the world and Europe to itself.
One cannot but read Professor Alpers's book with a sense of great excitement. To race through it on a first reading is an exhilarating experience. But the sight of undergraduates new to the subject of Dutch art history eagerly taking turns to read library copies, hoping that this book will be a reliable guide to a bewildering seventeenth-century world can only provoke a sense of unease in the specialist. This is not an introductory book. Neither is it simply a monument of coolly and objectively reasoned scholarship, though the erudition displayed is considerable. Rather it is a polemical declaration effectively forming part of a continuing debate which divides the international ghetto of Dutch art-historical studies. Like Baudelaire's ideal critic, Professor Alpers is partial and impassioned. She uses every imaginable rhetorical device to justify her interpretation of Dutch art as an art of visual description, as opposed to narration and the representation of conceptions.
. . . Most Italian-or more accurately, academic-art appeals to texts, or gives rise to texts, or both. It is characterized by a constant interplay of texts: biblical and classical on the one hand and Renaissance theory and biography on the other. In the constant translation from word to image and back again the art historian, as a manipulator of words, finds little difficulty in interjecting himself. As Professor Alpers points out, much Dutch art is independent of and at a distance from language. There are few theoretical writings and those there are appear to deal with issues largely peripheral to what concerned most Dutch painters. Few Dutch artists defined their work theoretically-at least before the 1670s. They practised a craft, mastery of which required a minimum of textual interference. Professor Alpers's major contention is that the predominant character of this craft was that it was an art of description for a culture in which information could be perceived, assimilated, used and enjoyed in purely visual term; that is, without the interposition of language. Her almost insuperable difficulty, of course, is that without the interposition of language there can be, and indeed there virtually are, no texts which can be used directly to support the theory. Inevitably she must rely heavily on inference and analogy.
Alpers, . . . , has brought off a tour de force. She has insisted on the overwhelming importance of native values and assumptions in what has always been considered the most eclectic of European cultures. For the Holland of Huizinga, the mediator between north and south, she has substituted her own Holland, the eternal northern alternative. The new vision is undoubtedly provocative; but its qualities of coherence and elegance are bought at too high a price. Alpers' Holland is a Holland without philosophy, without a classical tradition, without humanism; a Holland without that ability to synthesize foreign and native traditions which seemed to Huizinga essential to the Dutch character. She has called into being a Dutch Golden Age without Joseph Justus Scaliger or Spinoza, without Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft or Joost van den Vondel, without Hals or, indeed, Rembrandt himself. This bold enterprise of reinterpretation deserves great respect. It should help to restrain the excesses of those who find elaborate emblems in every sketch of a twig. It should encourage art historians to master current work in literary theory and apply it to their own problems of interpretation. And it should stimulate many more scholars in other disciplines to turn their attention to the rich texts and paintings that it treats. This is an arbitrary, capricious, and narrow-minded essay, but it is nevertheless also an original and provocative contribution to the literature of cultural history.
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