Richard Neer: “Jean-Pierre Vernant and the History of the Image”

Richard Neer (Art History, University of Chicago) has recently published an essay — entitled “Jean-Pierre Vernant and the History of the Image” — which we wanted to draw to your attention. Neer’s essay is about a debate within classical art history, having to do with whether it is appropriate to use aesthetic categories — like the concept of the “image” — when thinking and writing about Greek art prior to the classical period. We thought readers of this blog would be particularly interested in Neer’s use of Wittgenstein to argue against historicist claims that the ancient Greeks lacked the concepts for (and thus any “experience of”) “images” or even “figural representation.” Though the essay is about a conceptual/methodological debate specific to the discipline of classical art history, it seems to us that its discussion of Wittgenstein and historicism (especially historicism with respect to aesthetic categories) will be of great interest to scholars who work in other fields and historical periods. To access the article online, please click here.

If you find this essay of interest, you might like to know that it is adapted from a forthcoming book of Prof. Neer’s, entitled The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture (University of Chicago Press, October 2010).

Here is the article’s abstract:

Does the history of ancient art have an object? This paper revisits Jean-Pierre Vernant’s influential account of “the birth of images” in Greece, which denied the existence of images prior to the classical period. Contra Vernant, it argues that the historical ontology of “figural representations”—unlike other historicisms—necessarily presupposes experiences, concepts, and behaviors that are in principle sharable between ancients and moderns. It follows that Vernant’s account, in its extreme form, lacks coherence. This point has significant implications for recent discussions of the “ancient viewing experience” and for efforts to purge classical archaeology of any reliance upon aesthetic categories.

And here is an excerpt of Neer’s discussion of Wittgenstein:

But what will count as experiencing something as a depiction (or an image, a figural representation, what have you)? There is a famous response to this question in the second part of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. He is talking about a famous drawing that can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit (see below). He asks how we can tell which of the two a person has seen, which “experience” the person has had (duck or rabbit?). “What is the criterion of the visual experience?—The criterion? What do you suppose? The representation of ‘what is seen'” (1958.198).

Wittgenstein’s point is that there is no better, more direct description of the experience, no better evidence for “what we do,” than such a public representation. It is tempting to imagine that science could come to the rescue. A neuroscientist might want to prove that a subject has had a certain experience by hooking him or her up to electrodes; if certain synapses fire and are measured, then might not that data suffice to prove that the subject has had the experience? Alas, such a causal, physiological explanation would be of no help, for our descriptions do not invoke physiology. In describing my experience of a picture, for instance, I do not say, “Now the rods and cones in my eye are registering light and sending electrical impulses into my visual cortex, causing certain synapses to fire!” That is not the experience I have, electrodes notwithstanding.

Other hidden, inner processes meet a similar objection. The suggestion that early Greek statues were really signs, not images, implies a process of interpretation: you see the sign and then interpret it, process it cognitively, to produce a reading (Nagy 1990a.202-22). How might this operation work? Wittgenstein characterizes semiotic theories of this sort as proposing an inner “materialization” of the image that is then subject to interpretation. But the only evidence to suggest that such an inner interpretation had played a role in the act of seeing would be, again, the “outer” expression or “representation of ‘what is seen.'” Whether one engages in a mysterious inner process of interpretation or just sees an image without reading it makes no difference as far as the expressions go. So the inner process does no work, it is null. The behavior, again, is the criterion of the experience. If the Greeks treated certain entities as images, used them as images, then regardless of what they called those entities, this behavior will satisfy the criteria for their having had the relevant visual experience.

And what of concepts, as in “the concept of the image”? This question is forensic. Just as “the representation of ‘what is seen'” is the criterion of the experience, so the experience should be the criterion of the concept (of a figural representation). It gains us nothing to say that the Greeks treated certain objects as figural representations, experienced those objects as figural representations, talked about them as figural representations, yet did not possess the concept of a figural representation. For in that case, the concept of a figural representation would be, literally, useless; there would be no use, no behavior, to which possession or lack thereof might correspond. Like the “inner materialization,” it would be null.

But verbal expressions might not be the only evidence one might use to demonstrate experience. Other forms of behavior might do the trick. One might, for instance, adduce the intentional manufacture of entities that we are inclined to call figural representations. Examples would include kouroi, korai, grave stelai, and so on. Statues, no less than statements, are “representation[s] of ‘what is seen,'” not in the Romantic sense that they reveal their makers’ subjective perception of the model, but in the grammatical sense that they reveal the maker’s perception of the statue. After all, it is not a coincidence that a kouros looks just like a figural representation. That is a criterion of its being a figural representation. We know it is a figural representation because it looks like one, which is to say, it counts for us as a Greek “representation of ‘what is seen.'”

But did it count that way for them, for the Greeks? Here, again, the example of Lascaux is invaluable: we readily recognize the marks on the cave walls as figural representations in the absence of any corroborating evidence whatsoever. The paintings themselves are the best, the only, evidence for what the cave dwellers saw. Just so, kouroi, korai, etc. are evidence for what the Greeks saw. The visual facts are primary evidence.

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