Wednesday, September 20, 2006


I’ve recently finished reading Svetlana Alpers’s The Art of Describing. Latour piqued my interest. He describes her contribution as providing the evolution of an entire “visual culture”:

“Alpers makes understandable what Foucault (1966) only suggested: how the same eyes suddenly began to look at ‘representations.’ The ‘panopticon’ she describes is a fait social total that redefines all aspects of the culture. More importantly, Alpers does not explain a new vision by bringing in ‘social interests’ or the ‘economic infrastructure.’ The new precise scenography that results in a worldview defines at once what is science, what is art, and what it is to have a world economy… Alpers’ description of Dutch visual culture reach the same result as Edgeron’s study of technical drawings: a new meeting place is designed for fact and fiction, words and images… The main quality of the new space is not to be ‘objective,’ as a naïve definition of realism often claims, but rather to have optical consistency.” (pg. 30-31)

I have to agree with Latour’s description of the work. Indeed, he describes its significance for more thoroughly—and succinctly—than I can. Latour does, however, miss one small consideration. By removing “social interests” from consideration, he dismisses the ways in which the artists themselves function as evolutionary agents. The pictorial innovations noted by Alpers (maps, texts, etc.) were introduced for a particular reason and to meet a set of goals. It’s far too easy to fall back and say that these things emerged due to some sort of totalizing discourse or due to the influence of kapital. The unique motivators require some attention (despite Latour’s admonition to focus only on innovations that drive change throughout entire systems.

  • “The problem faced by a modern viewer is how to make this art strange, how to see what is special about an art with which we feel so at home, whose pleasures seem so obvious.” Pg. Xxii
  • “The problem is compounded by the fact that, unlike Italian art, northern art does not offer us an easy verbal access. It did not occasion its own mode of critical discourse.” Pg. Xxii
  • Northern art characterized by: absences of a positioned viewer, constraints in scale, absence of frame, sense of surface, craft of representation
  • Contantijn Huygens was a man of his era. Could he have owned the TM?
  • Peiresc was a friend of Rubens, who criticized Drebbel: “Drebbel’s technical and manipulative view of the world is in sharp contrast to the textual and historical concerns of Rubens.” Pg. 5
  • Northern art did not participate in the Renaissance. Instead, traditional craft was maintained and evolved and eventually became the subject of new natural knowledge. There was not an external force or movement.
  • Novelty was an important force in early science. Leeuwenhoeck turned his microscope on his sputum, feces, and semen, in addition to flowers. The TM may have introduced novelty to machinery. See Basalla’s argument re. Rube Goldberg.
  • Bacon: study of craft is part of the study of nature. See also Merton on science.
  • John Moxon, from Mechanical Exercises: “Handycraft signifies Cunning or sleight or Craft of the Hand which cannot be taught by words, but is only gained by Practice or Exercise.” Pg. 105
  • In sixteenth and seventeenth century, “experiment” was not a test of hypothesis. It was closer to “experience.”
  • “There is no body of texts like that coming out of the Royal Society in England that praises craftsmanship and that encourages people to engage in it. (It is, of course, a theme of this chapter that the English had such texts, but they did not have the craftsmen.) It was the buyer, the possessor, and the goods possessed, not craft or production, that were important in the Netherlands.” Pg. 114
  • Maps were important: “Maps give us the measure of a place and the relationship between places, quantifiable data, while landscape pictures are evocative, and aim rather to give us some quality of a place or of the viewer’s sense of it. One is closer to science, the other is art.” Pg. 124 The distinction between geographers, cartographers, and art historians is, however, breaking down.
  • Geographical illustration exploded in sixteenth century: military operations, demand for news, trade, water control, etc.
  • Maps sometimes had horizons i.e., a sort of mid-ground between a picture and a topography. Similar to display drawings.
  • Maps were strategically valuable. An account from Issac Massa experienced difficulties getting a map of Russia. A contact complained: “My life would be in danger it it were known that I had made a drawing of the town of Moscow and had given it to a foreigner. I would be killed as a traitor.” Pg. 133
  • Projected views are artificial; there is no positioned viewer.
  • Netherlands was mapped extensively, largely because there was “no issue over seigneurial possession.”
  • The Dutch layered information into their maps through icons and description. How much info can be layered into the TM? Can Leupold transmit more information than Zeising?
  • The survivability and reception of images is crucial (to Latour’s point). Prince Maurits created a unique pictorial collection on Brazil, but there was little reception of the work.


Alpers. The Art of Describing.

Latour. Drawing Things Together.


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