Art: ‘as aesthetics’ & ‘as social-history’
There are essentially two approaches to the study of art history: (1) aesthetics per se and (2) social-historical manifestations of the art producing society (e.g. cultural values, craft, technology, etc.)
For example, one may study Greek tragic literature in terms of aesthetic characteristics, such as those discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics: poetic language, plot, character development, etc. Similarly, there are comparative aesthetic studies such as Greek tragedy verses Elizabethan.
A second approach to the study of art is the consideration of social characteristics implied by the work. For example, much of what we know about ancient Greek culture comes from Greek literature; the concepts they embraced about religion, government, human nature, war, barbarians, slavery, freedom, etc.
Good examples of this second approach can be found in Camilla Paglia’s study of Western art from the Greeks to the twentieth century in her book Sexual Personae. For example, she characterizes Renaissance art as "a rebirth of pagan image and form, an explosion of sexual personae"; citing such noteworthy examples as: 'David' (Donatello & Michealangelo); Cellini's 'Perseus...Medua'; Botticelli's 'Primavera'; etc. (p. 140 ff.)
Paglia then goes on to differentiate this Renaissance “pagan image” art from the European art in previous centuries. She writes: "The Renaissance liberated the western eye, repressed by the Christian Middle Ages. In that eye, sex and aggression are amorally fused.” (p.140)
Note, in this specific example (careful not to generalize about Paglia), purely aesthetic concepts such as ‘beauty’ are not at issue. She is not arguing (here) that Renaissance art is aesthetically more perfect, more beautiful, than Medieval. Rather, the respective art forms are differentiated in terms of the implied differences in sexual (and other) cultural values manifested in the forms.
Of course any given study of art can and often will combine the two approaches. To study the evolution of the Oedipus plot in terms of protagonist change, as Elder Olson of the Chicago Critics, necessarily entails a study of Greek values.
Similarly, Ross King, in his fascinating books Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling and Brunelleschi’s Dome describes the technology and economics of Renaissance art implied in the aesthetics of those great works.
Accordingly, when southern-Italian Americans proceed to study THEIR history and culture, they must differentiate the art of their Patria Meridionale from Italian Art as Tuscan Renaissance art, early modern Venetian, etc., for the art south of Rome entails different aesthetic and social values, and different economics and technology (see Related Articles box for two articles expanding on this subject).
This differentiation is most especially true for Sicilian Americans; for Sicily, at the center of the Mediterranean Sea is the vortex of Mediterranean cultures: Phoenician, Greeks, Carthaginians, Roman, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French and Spaniards. Thus, when Sicilian Americans hear the Chairs of Wisdom literati talking about “Italian Art”, they should immediately respond:
“What do you mean by Italian? Are you talking specifically about northern Italian art such as Renaissance fresco, sculpture or painting? If so, then let’s be perfectly clear – you are not talking about my Italian art history and cultural heritage.”
This differentiation between northern Italian and Sicilian art can be seen at least as early as the twelfth century mosaic work in Rome and Cefalu. As Joachim Poeschke writes in his scholarly brilliant and aesthetically breathtaking book Italian Mosaics 300-1300:
“The [12th century] Cefalu works have no connection to the Roman tradition. The Pictorial program, down to its smallest details, is wholly Byzantine in flavor, the decorative scheme traditionally applied to Byzantine cruciform churches with cupolas having been adapted to the spaces of a longitudinal structure.” (emp.+ p. 232)
None of this is to say or imply denigration of northern Italian art. Clearly, the Renaissance is a brilliant and magical moment in the history of world art. There is no value judgment about “whose or which art is better”.
Rather, only to give emphasize that the art of different regions and periods of Italian history is different and the short shrift given to the history and culture south of Rome by American university Italian Studies programs is an unacceptable bias in a country with near seventeen million Patria Meridionale descendents and a fractional number of Polentoni.
“Italian Mosaics 300 -1300” by Joachim Poeschke
Writing in 1935, Edgar Waterman Anthony lamented: “No general history of mosaics has been written since M. Gersapch's little book: La Mosaique, appeared in 1882 and that was never translated into English”. Anthony sought to rectify the situation with his very comprehensive and scholarly book A History of Mosaics.
So far as I can determine (library, Google, Amazon searches), it was another seventy-five year wait before another “general history of mosaic” would be written. But...Oh My! The wait was worth it! Joachim Poeschke 's "Italian Mosaics 300-1300” is truly a brilliant work; a unique combination of scholarship melded with twenty-first century photography and printing. It is filled with historic facts and unbelievable 11 x 13 color plates based on original commissioned photographs.
In 1935 Anthony noted the difficulty studying mosaics:
“They ought, of course, to be seen in place, in their architectural setting where the subdued light brings out the glowing, vibrating color. They cannot be well studied in museums, and, fortunately, very few of them have found there way there. But although photographs may be inadequate, they are usually better than the falsely colored reproductions which are sometimes published. It is to be regretted that more illustrations could not be included.” (emp.+ p.7)
However, by 2010 photography and reproductive technologies have progressed such that one can no longer consider them “inadequate”. Indeed, there are certain advantages to using photography over actually visiting the mosaic sites.
Clearly, in terms of a purely aesthetic experience (an emotional response to beauty), there is no substitute in words or pictures for being in the actual presence of a work of art. For example, what pictures or combination of pictures, such as the one below, could conjure the emotion felt while walking through the nave of the Cefalu Cathedral? Obviously, the answer to this rhetorical question: there is no pictorial substitute for the actual experience.
However, as discussed above, aesthetic experiences are not the only way to enjoy and/or appreciate a work of art. One, for example, may be interested in studying very specific details of craftpersonship. Also, art works are historic remnants of past societies, and thus they are the medium by which an historian studies and comes to know that society. In these contexts, modern photography and reproductions are superior to the actual visits. Consider for example Poeschke’s comment about contemporary visits to mosaic sites:
“A modern traveler can insert a coin and get three minutes of intense light shining on the medieval church mosaic, after which the lighting switches off, and the mosaics retreat into twilight...” (p.9)
How much understanding of the mosaic craft and/or the history of Norman Sicily can be gleened by standing on the floor look up at the Aspe with three-minute bursts of lights flashing? Clearly, when it comes to questions of craft and social history, contemporary photography and computer software programs are mediums that cannot be ignored.
Consider for example the image below and how the power of telephoto digital photography and computer enhancement software can bring out details that the viewer at the site could never see.
Here we see the outlines of each ceramic tile that make up the image of the face in the Aspe. This type of detail in turn gives us an understanding and appreciation of the mosaic craft; each of the countless thousands of individual tiles had to be place by the craftperson to create the image. Viewing the Apse from the floor of the cathedral for a few minutes at a time could never convey this appreciation of the craft.
Joachim Poeschke’s amazing book has many such pictures of Sicily’s three great mosaic sites (Cefalu, Cappella Palatina, Monreale). Sicilian Americans tired of the endless ‘terrible’ Mafia and ‘wonderful’ Renaissance art talk spewing from the Italian American literati and mass media commentators are not dependent upon these bias sources of Sicilian history and culture. Technology in the form of photography, computer software, Internet blogs, etc. is liberating them from university and media biases. Though books and the Internet, we can learn the reality of our magnificent history and culture.