Ann-Sophie Lehmann | Beautiful Madeness. A Brief Critique of Processual Aesthetics. Part 1

 

Fig.1: Utagawa Kunisada, Women enacting the process of cutting and printing woodblocks for popular prints, triptych of three colour woodblock prints, 1857, British Museum, London

The Interdependenzen series published by Magdalena Bushart, Henrike Haug, Stefanie Stallschus, and Andreas Huth since 2015 on the basis of international conferences held at the Technical University, Berlin, has greatly helped to position artistic materials and techniques in German speaking art history and beyond as a subject in its own right. The series’ title interdependencies references the intimate and indispensable relation between artists, materials, and techniques. The six volumes that have appeared so far and their contributions have unearthed the practical and theoretical knowledge that artists uniquely possess about this relation and made it accessible to art history.1 Each volume has addressed a different theme (technical innovation & artistic knowledge; formlessness & formability; traces of work; outdated techniques; collaboration; surfaces) but they all share the starting point that each art work is the result of a form of making, and that this madeness, or “Gemachtsein”, can be perceived and have an effect on the observer. As Bushart and Haug write in the introduction to one of the volumes: “The traces of production are disillusioning, because they remind us of the pictures’ madeness, and they are fascinating, because they challenge the viewer to partake in the work of making and to comprehend it [my translation]”.2

This Janus-faced quality of madeness lies at the core of the work of art and it uniquely connects the maker and the observer, the one who makes and the one who first sees and from seeing reconstructs how something has been made. Maybe because it is so blatantly obvious, art making has been neglected as an object of study and studies that exist (and these are quite a few), have been supressed in the field of art history so that they have come to form an undercurrent to dominant discourses. Likewise, art theoretical terms that capture madeness, like facture, handling, or technē received less attention than terms that refer to artistic genius.

As a tribute to Magdalena Bushart’s relentless commitment to the study of techne or art making – not only as an object of research but also as a collaborative academic practice with others whom she has enabled and supported – my contribution to the Festschrift Blog explores the incentives for art historians to be interested in making. It wonders if next to the epistemic motivation for wanting to know about the ‘how’ of art, this interest is also driven by the fascination, pleasure, or beauty that the ‘how’ elicits.

1. Madeness as Clue

In 1931, Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), whose written oeuvre ranges from crime fiction to religious theory, published her seventh crime novel featuring the brilliant, nervy, and utterly sympathetic amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. In The 5 Red Herrings (a ‘red herring’ denotes a false clue; the metaphor derives from using the scent of smoked herring for dog training) Lord Peter Wimsey is faced with the sudden death of a painter in a picturesque Scottish seaside village and artists’ colony. On the crime scene – a scenic spot next to a deep ravine, into which the victim apparently fell when stepping back to inspect his work on the easel – Wimsey carefully explores the oil sketch that features a wide and cloud scattered sky, hazy hills, colourful trees and a tumbling stream. He also scrutinizes the painting utensils, a wet palette and a painting knife, and then turns to the artist’s leather satchel, in which he finds a number of paint tubes (Fig. 2):

Fig. 2: Old Windsor Paint Tubes

“Wimsey laid them out side by side on the granite like a row of little corpses. There was a half-pound tube of vermillion spectrum, new, clean and almost unused, a studio size tube of ultramarine number two, half full, another of chrome yellow nearly full, and another of the same practically empty, then came a half-pound tube of viridian half-full, a studio-sized cobalt threequarters empty, and then an extremely dirty tube with its label gone which seemed to have survived wear and tear without losing much of its contents. Whimsey removed the cap and diagnosed it as crimson lake. Finally, there was an almost empty studio-sized tube of rose madder and a half pound lemon yellow, often used and very dirty. Whimsey considered this collection for a moment and then confidently dived into the satchel again…”.3

But the one tube of paint that Whimsey is certain to find in the painter’s bag is not there and can neither be found elsewhere on the crime scene. From its absence, he deduces that what looks like an accident must have been murder and that the painting therefore, has not been painted by the dead artist at all, but by his murderer. An entertaining and well-crafted plot unfolds, full of fascinating descriptions of making, in which the five potential culprits, each a painter and each with a different motive, remain equally suspicious until the very end. Wimsey’s combined connoisseurship of painting and murdering finally leads to identifying the hand that did both.

In his classic 1980 article “Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes. Clues and Scientific Method” Carlo Ginzburg observed that art historians, psychologists, and detectives developed similar methods around 1900.4 Dorothy L. Sayer’s novel is an excellent example of the shared affinity with clue finding to which the acknowledgement of process is key. The murder reveals itself through the analysis of how the painting has been made and which tools and materials were used in the process. And like the painting, also the making of the crime is retraced, aided by fact finding as well as psychological insights into human behaviour. These reconstructions of processes – including a session in which all suspects repaint the original oil sketch on Whimsey’s request – literally drive the plot and make the reader, in particular a reader with art historical affinities, enjoy the story that unfolds as a work of art in itself. Sayer’s plot thus highlights a common property of art works, namely that processes of production inscribe themselves into the resulting works and co-produce a ‘processual aesthetics’. That painting and murdering are so intimately related as actions of one and the same hand, reminds the reader of the ethical disinterest of aesthetic effects.

2. Art History as the History of Making

The terms art work and artefact both express the fundamental relevance of making for art by including the process that gave rise to the outcome: the working/making of materials into an object. The term Artifex – used in Germany as Kunstwerker until the 17th century and today still present in the profession of art-producers – makes the action of art-making equally palpable.5 In 1998, Alfred Gell, put this causal relation between art worker and art work that also Sayers and Ginzburg had noticed, in a nutshell by stating that every artwork is an index of its making.6  In a 1999 essay on the theory and practice of ‘factura’ Joseph Leo Koerner draws on a different set of thinkers and artists (Russian Formalism, Jan van Eyck, Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, and Adolph Menzel) – to come to similar conclusions and carve out the specificity of art’s madeness compared to other things made and writes: “the work of art, in a contrast that is anything but simple or stable, displays its madeness as that which it most effectively is.”7 It’s a definition that captures the inherent tension of the work of art to show and hide making at the same time.8 Art is largely about calling attention to its having been made, no matter if the indexes of this process are blatantly visible or apparently absent. Because this puts making rather at the core of art, Koerner wondered: “is what we are calling facture not just a fancy word for the history of art?”9

Koerner briefly and experimentally follows this idea and sketches as an outcome an inclusive history of art, in which art is an integral part of “other production and consumption practices of the wider culture” and making would also become part of the study the use and perception of art, because an amateur watercolorist would perceive a Turner through her knowledge of making herself. A quarter century later, art history has moved towards such inclusion and the study of making has become an explicit element of the wider field of art history, including conservation and connoisseurship. The realization that making is important, has also lead to the recovery of making as part of art history’s historiography: Pliny the Elder’s books on art, Alberti’s Della Pittura, Dürer’s books on perspective, Vasari’s introduction to the vite and Van Mander’s Grondt, the 17th century Chinese Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (translated into English by the female Chinese-American painter-writer Mai-mai Sze in 1956) and hundreds other authored and anonymous published and unpublished handbooks and recipes around the world (many of them still in need of discovery, transcription, or translation) – in other words the sources that together form what is generally considered ‘art theory’, are re-evaluated for their primary concern: the making of art. The result shows, that art theory is not opposed to practice at all, but rather practice written down and therefore a ‘practice theory’.10

It is curious that it should have taken art historians so long to see that. But it has. The obstinacy and effectiveness of this collective blind spot can be illustrated with a brief look at the historiography of Vasari’s long introduction to the second, 1568 edition of the Lives. As is well known, Vasari’s introduction consists of 35 chapters that explain how to make art (including architecture and the ‘applied arts’) and he had written this substantial addition not only for his art-making readers but also in order to educate his art-loving readers (patrons, collectors, buyers) about making, underlining that knowledge about making was crucial for the appreciation of art.

In 1907, the introduction was translated into English for the first time by Louisa S. Maclehose as the stand-alone volume Vasari on Technique. In his introduction, Baldwin Brown aligns the publication with other editions of art technical treatises, for instance by Mary Philadelphia Merrifield11 and Ernst Berger. He also stresses the usefulness of such historical knowledge about making for contemporary artists, thus connecting source editions to the recent efforts made by Gottfried Semper and the Art & Crafts movement to enhance artists’ and makers’ material literacy. But the separate publication of Vasari’s introduction from his vite also widened, historiographically speaking, the existing gulf between theory and practice in the field of art history. And curiously enough, Brown reinserted the divide, that is actually absent in the historical source, through what seems a deliberate misreading of Vasari’s own words:

“In the text of the Lives he [Vasari] refers more than once to this preliminary matter under the terms ‘parte teorica’ and ‘capitoli delle teoriche,’ but as a fact it only consists to a small extent in ‘theory,’ that is in the aesthetic discussions on the general character of the arts and the principles that underlie them. The chief interest of the chapters is technical.”12

For Brown then, what Vasari himself described as his art theory, could not be theory, because in his time theory equaled aesthetics which in turn equaled discussions of the ‘general character of art and its underlying principles’. Brown’s implication is that Vasari must have made a mistake when he referred to his chapters on technique as ‘theory’ and thus aligned knowledge about making with the appreciation for the beauty of the thing made. To Brown such an alliance of beauty and the nitty-gritty bits of technique was simply impossible.

Rather than acknowledging the neighborly existence not only Brown but the entire field of art history had built its foundations solidly and stubbornly on the opposition between theory and practice, between aesthetics and techniques, between those who make and those who reflect. Still today, it’s the differences rather than the commonalities between a ‘normal’ and a ‘technical’ art history that are being emphasized and allied with the humanities on the hand and the sciences on the other, so that the stubborn dichotomy continues to cast its shadow – even onto an art history that studies the history of art making.13

Would you, for instance, as an art historian invested in such studies, list the aesthetic appreciation of madeness as a driving force for your fascination with making? Most scholars would probably rather explain their interest as epistemic, like Pamela H. Smith & collaborators’ Making & Knowing Project does in its title.14 Processes of making are studied in order to learn about artistic means and relations of production, to critically assess a work’s context and impact, to understand artists’ intentions, to learn about materials involved and how they change and age in order to better conserve an art work, or to account for authenticity and thus determine the value of a work of art – but not because making is beautiful. Or are they?

It has been stated here at the outset that the aesthetic dimension of art’s madeness is undeniable, be it only because madeness, to come back to Koerner’s definition once more, is “what the work of art displays as that which it most effectively is”. It is therefore highly likely that research concerned with the history and theory of art making is not only driven by an epistemic interest but also by the explicit or implicit acknowledgement of and pleasure experienced through art’s madeness. This likelihood can be fleshed out with the following hypotheses: first, that the perception of the madeness of art works affords an aesthetic pleasure. Second, that this pleasure rewards and informs the epistemic desire to grasp how an art work has come into being, which produces a reciprocal relation between pleasure and knowledge. Thirdly, that this relation perpetuates and increases that interest, because the more one knows about a process, the more rewarding the experience of the beauty-knowledge bind becomes. Finally, that all the above inspire the mediation of madeness in textual or visual descriptions, both fictional (such as Dorothy L. Sayers novel) and non-fictional (such as documentaries showing artists at work), which in turn, are an important source for the study of making.

Part 2 will address the ubiquitous presence of madeness in the visual arts and beyond (from Japanese woodblock prints and action painting to latte art and spiderwebs) and discuss a number of art theoretical texts by a.o. Gottfried Semper, Vernon Lee, Pawel Filonow, Juni’ichiro Tanizaki, and Tim Ingold, that develop madeness into an explicit aesthetic category.

 

 

Credits

Abb. 1: Utagawa Kunisada, Women enacting the process of cutting and printing woodblocks for popular prints, triptych of three colour woodblock prints, 1857, British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/A_1907-0531-0-204, Abb. 2: Old Windsor Paint Tubes, https://twitter.com/Whirlybird2/status/1217118961218859008

 

Empfohlene Zitation / Suggested citation: Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Beautiful Madeness. A Brief Critique of Processual Aesthetics. Part 1, in: Dialoge. Magdalena Bushart zum 65. Geburtstag, hrsg. Henrike Haug, Andreas Huth, Veronica Biermann, Oktober 2023, https://dialogemb.hypotheses.org/2733 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].

 



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Andreas Huth (2023, 31. August). Ann-Sophie Lehmann | Beautiful Madeness. A Brief Critique of Processual Aesthetics. Part 1. Dialoge. Magdalena Bushart zum 65. Geburtstag. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/nlul

  1. https://www.vandenhoeck-ruprecht-verlag.com/themen-entdecken/kunst-und-architektur/kunstgeschichte-kunstwissenschaft/40025/interdependenzen-die-kuenste-und-ihre-techniken (accessed August 28th, 2023). []
  2. Magdalena Bushart and Henrike Haug, Spurensuche/Spurenlese. Zur Sichtbarkeit von Arbeit im Werk, in: Spur der Arbeit. Oberfläche und Werkprozess, (= Interdependenzen. Die Künste und ihre Techniken 3), ed. Magdalena Bushart and Henrike Haug, Wien 2018, p. 7. []
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings, London 1932. []
  4. Carlo Ginzburg, Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes. Clues and Scientific Method, in: History Workshop 9 (1980), pp. 5–36. []
  5. „KUNSTWERKER, m.“, in: Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm, for the digital version see Trier Center for Digital Humanities, Version 01/21, <https://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemid=K16825> (accessed November 5th, 2022). []
  6. See also Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Taking Fingerprints. The Indexical Affordances of Artworks’ Material Surfaces, in: Bushart and Haug 2018 (note 2), pp. 199–218. []
  7. Joseph Leo Koerner, Factura, in: RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 36 (1999): pp. 5–19, here pp. 14–15. []
  8. See also Hiding Making, Showing Creation, ed. Rachel Esner, Sandra Kisters, and Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Amsterdam 2013. []
  9. Koerner 1999 (note 7), p. 15. []
  10. Cf. Pamela H. Smith, From Lived Experience to the Written Word: Reconstructing Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern World, Chicago 2022. []
  11. On Merrifield, see Alexandra Loske, Squaring the Colour Circle: the Lives and Work of Women in Colour History, https://www.sussex.ac.uk/clhlwr/research/womenincolourhistory/merrifield (accessed August 4th, 2023). []
  12. Giorgio Vasari, Vasari on Technique. Being the Introduction to the Three Arts of Design, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, Prefixed to the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, translated by Louise S. Maclehouse, introduction by Baldwin Brown, London 1907, p. 1. []
  13. See V. Voices from the Field: Technical Art History Today, in: Materia: Journal of Technical Art History 3 (2022), http://localhost:8080/essay_voices-from-the-field/. []
  14. See https://www.makingandknowing.org (accessed August 28th, 2023). []
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