August 17–21, 2009

Fondation Hartung-Bergman, Antibes, France

“Description,” of course, is both simple and complex for art historians. This workshop drew spirit from the late Michael Baxandall, whose work posed questions of how and why we describe artworks the way we do. Is description simply thought after seeing a picture?

Conceived as a critical homage to Michael Baxandall, who accorded close philosophical and critical attention to the terms of descriptive writing, this workshop considered the ways art historians commonly refer to what they observe with regard to subject matter, execution, and fabrication, as well as the ways such observations connect with what they know and with what they want to argue.

Participants focused primarily on the naturalized banality of daily practice, although the history of description and various theories about the relationship between the visual and verbal will undoubtedly need to be addressed as well. Diverse systems of description, even the most rudimentary, as in sale catalogues, or conventional, as in exhibition catalogues, and the different levels of description will be considered, with a focus on objects - architecture, sculpture, photography, decorative arts - whose visual and material characteristics make specific demands on descriptive procedures.

Along with its illusory claim to neutrality, description has been condemned as a vector of distraction, enforcing the foregone conventions of academic discourse and thus leading away from the object. The premise is that description is fundamentally ideological and determinant for the direction that interpretation is allowed to take. If this is the case, what is a pertinent measure of descriptive practice? With regard to what axis should description be articulated: that of the spectator’s relation to the object (objective-subjective), that of the author’s performance (textual-visual, convention-invention), or that of critical appropriation (denotation-interpretation)?


In order of discussion

Discussion: Michael Baxandall
  • Michael Baxandall, “The Language of Art History,” New Literary History, Vol. 10, No. 3, Anniversary Issue: I (Spring, 1979), Johns Hopkins University press, pp.453-465.
  • Michael Baxandall, “The Language of Art Criticism,” The Language of Art history. eds. I. Gaskell and S. Kemal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 67-75Michael Baxandall, “Introduction: Language and Explanation,” in Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, pp.1-11
  • Michael Baxandall, “Truth and Other Cultures: Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ,” ch. IV from Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, pp.105-137.
  • (F) Daniel Arasse, “Préface” and “Décrire les apparences: le besoin de détails,” in Le détail: pour une histoire rapprochée de la peinture. Paris: Flammarion, 1996, pp.5-17, pp.138-149.
  • Svetlana Alpers, “Introduction,” from The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983, pp.xvii-xxvii.
  • Paul Barolksy, “Homer and the Poetic Origins of Art History,” Arion, Vol. 16, No.3, (Winter, 2009).
  • Michael Ann Holly, “Patterns in the Shadows: Attention in/to the writings of Michael Baxandall,” About Michael Baxandall, ed. Adrian Rifkin. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999, pp.5-15.
  • Carl Hausman, “Figurative Language in Art History”, in The Language of Art History.eds. I Gaskell and S. Kemal, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991, pp. 101-28 
  • (F) Michèle-Caroline Heck, “De la description des natures mortes à l’appréciation d’un genre dans la première moitié du XVIIe siècle,” en Recht, Roland, Le texte de l'oeuvre d'art - la description / études réunies par Roland Recht. Contrib. de Laurent Baridon. Strasbourg: Presses Univ. de Strasbourg, 1998, pp.57-70.
  • (F) Louis Marin, “La description de l’image : à propos d’un paysage de Poussin,” Communications, 15 (1970), pp. 186-208), reprinted in Sublime Poussin, Paris : Seuil, 1995, pp. 29-70.
  • Christian Michel, “De l’Ekphrasis à la description analytique: histoire et surface du tableau chez les théoriciens de la France de Louis XIV,” en Recht, Roland, Le texte de l'oeuvre d'art - la description / études réunies par Roland Recht. Contrib. de Laurent Baridon. Strasbourg: Presses Univ. de Strasbourg, 1998, pp.45-56.
  • Alex Potts, “Michael Baxandall and the Shadows in Plato’s Cave,” About Michael Baxandall,ed. Adrian Rifkin. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999, pp.69-83.
  • Adrian Rifkin, “Addressing Ekphrasis: A Prolegomenon to the Next” Classical Philology, 102 no.1 (2007), pp. 72–82.

Discussion: Bildwissenschaft
  • Hans Belting, “Realism and Pictorial Rhetoric,” ch. IV in The Image and its Public in the Middle Ages: Form and Function of Early Paintings of the Passion, trans. Mark Bartusis and Raymond Meyer. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1990, pp.65-90
  • Hans Belting, “Religion and Art: The Crisis of the Image at the Beginning of the Modern Age,” in Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp.458-490.
  • (F) Hans Belting, “Mémoire et portrait: face et interface du premier sujet “Moderne,” in Recht, Roland, Le texte de l'oeuvre d'art - la description / études réunies par Roland Recht. Contrib. de Laurent Baridon. Strasbourg: Presses Univ. de Strasbourg, 1998, pp.171-183.
  • Horst Bredekamp, “A Neglected Tradition? Art History as ‘Bildwissenschaft,’” Critical Inquiry,Vol. 29, No. 3 (Spring, 2003). University of Chicago Press, pp. 418-428
  • Horst Bredekamp, “Words, Images, Ellipses,” from Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside: A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), ed. Irving Lavin. Institute for Advanced Study: Princeton, 1995.  
  • Klaus Sachs-Hombach, “Arguments in favor of a general image science,” in Image, Ausgabe 1 vom 15. Januar 2005, pp.20-29.

Discussion: “Thick” Description and New Historicism
  • Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, Basic Books, 1973, Chapter 1, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” pp.3-30.
  • David Carrier, “Circa 1640,” in New Literary History Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp.649-670.
  • Paul Costey, "La thick description chez Clifford Geertz," in Tracés, No. 4, autumn 2003.
  • Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, “The Wound in the Wall,” ch. 2 of Practicing New Historicism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp.75-109.
  • Alfred Gell, "The Problem Defined: The Need for an Anthropology of Art," ch. 1 of Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp.1-11.
  • Laurent Stern, “Narrative versus Description in Historiography,” in New Literary History Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp.555-574.

Discussion: Technology, Medium, and the Challenge of Description

This session focuses on how new technologies and systems of classification affect and will affect our basic abilities to describe works of art. How do we categorize works, and why? What are the decisions and philosophies behind the categories of work we deal with? And what are the problems in keeping such models and codes of description in an era of the enormously expanded understanding of what art is?

Discussion: Photography, as object and medium of description
  • Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters, 2008. New Haven and London : Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 1-4 (“Introduction”), 5-35 (“Three beginnings”), 115-142 (“Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs”), 335-352 (“Conclusion : Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before”)
  • Roland Barthes, "Rhetoric of the Image," printed in Image, Music, Text, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, 32-51 and also in The Responsibility of Forms (1991).
  • André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” trans. Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly,Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), pp. 4-9.
  • François Brunet, “ ‘A better example is a photograph:’ On the Exemplary Value of Photographs in C.S. Peirce’s Reflection on Signs,” in The Meaning of Photography, eds. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson. Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; New Haven: Distributed by Yale University Press, 2008, pp.34-49.
  • Mary Ann Doane, “Indexicality and the Concept of Medium Specificity,” in The Meaning of Photography, eds. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson. Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; New Haven: Distributed by Yale University Press, 2008, pp.3-14.
  • Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, “Introduction: Photography’s Double Index (A Short History in Three Parts,” in The Meaning of Photography, eds. Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson. Williamstown, Mass.: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; New Haven: Distributed by Yale University Press, 2008, pp,vii-xxxi.
  • (F) Eric Michaud, "Photographie et description," en Recht, Roland
  • Le texte de l'oeuvre d'art - la description / études réunies par Roland Recht. Contrib. de Laurent Baridon .... - Strasbourg : Presses Univ. de Strasbourg, 1998. - 182 S. : zahlr. Ill.; (franz.)

Discussion: Describing Sculpture
  • Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, 1980. Ch.VI “The Period Eye,” pp.143-163.
  • Penelope Curtis, “Mies’ Choice: Georg Kolbe in the Barcelona Pavilion (1929),” Ch. 1 in Patio and Pavilion: The Place of Sculpture in Modern Architecture. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008, pp.11-27.
  • Lynne Cooke, “Thinking on Your Feet: Richard Serra’s Sculptures in Landscape,” in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years, eds, Kynaston McShine and Lynne Cooke. New York : Museum of Modern Art : Distributed through D.A.P., 2007, pp.77-104.
  • Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8 (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44.
  • James Hall, “Sculpture and Language,” ch. 5 in The World As Sculpture: The Changing Status of Sculpture from the Renaissance to the Present Day,London: Chatto & Windus, 1999, pp. 104-130.
  • Alex Potts, “Preface” and “Introduction: The Sculptural Imagination and the Viewing of Sculpture,” from The sculptural imagination : figurative, modernist, minimalist. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000, pp.1-23.
  • Jacqueline Lichtenstein, “The Artist-Painter and the Philosopher Sculptor,” Ch. 2 ofThe Blind Spot: An Essay on the Relations between Painting and Sculpture in the Modern Age, trans. Chris Miller. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008. pp. 55-98.
  • Arturo Martini, Scultura, Lingua Morta e Altri Scritti, edited by Elena Pontiggia. Milan: Abscondita, 2001. (Essay originally published in 1945).
  • (F) Paul-Louis Rinuy, "La sculpture moderne et la description : 'Pourquoi écrire sur mes sculptures ? Pourquoi ne pas tout simplement montrer les photos ?'"La description de l'œuvre d'art du modèle classique aux variations contemporaines: actes du colloque / organisé par Olivier Bonfait ; coordination éditoriale, Anne-Lise Desmas. Paris: Somogy, 2004.

Discussion: Contemporary art and the challenge to and of Description
  • Briony Fer, “Studio,” ch. 7 of The infinite line: re-making art after modernism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 116-143.
  • Briony Fer, “Spirograph: The Circular Ruins of Drawing,” in Gabriel Orozco, Rochelle Steiner and B.H.D. BuchlohLondon : Serpentine Gallery ; Köln : König ; New York, NY : D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2004, pp. 13-26 .
  • Rosalind Krauss, “In the Name of Picasso,” from The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985, pp. 23-40.
  • Rosalind Krauss, “Preface,” “1,” and “2,”in A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post Medium Condition. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999, pp.5-32.
  • Miwon Kwon,”Introduction and Ch. 1: Genealogy of Site Specificity,” One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2004, pp. 1-32.
  • Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity Author(s): Source: October, Vol. 80 (Spring, 1997), pp. 85-110
  • Pamela M. Lee, “Introduction: Gordon Matta-Clark and the Question of “Work,”” or “”Conclusion: To Be Contemporary,” Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT Press, 2000.
  • Mignon Nixon, “Introduction,” in Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art.Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT Press/October Books, 2005, pp.1-12.
  • (F) Raphael Rosenberg “ ‘Une ligne horizontale interrompue par une ligne diagonal’. De la géométrie dans la description des oeuvres d’art,” in La description de l'œuvre d'art du modèle classique aux variations contemporaines, actes du colloque, organizé par Olivier Bonfait. Paris: Somogy, 2004.

Discussion: Contemporary Art
  • Darby English, “Introduction: How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness” in How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: The MIT Press, 2007, pp.1-26.
  • Chrissie Iles, “Baroque, Modern, vertiginous, Existential: Paul McCarthy and the Politics of Space,” in Paul McCarthy: Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement—Three installations, Two Films. New York, New Haven: Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2008. pp.9-53
  • George Baker, “Film Beyond its Limits,” Grey Room, 25, Fall 2006, pp.92-105.
  • George Baker, “The Other Side of the Wall.” October 120 (Spring 2007), pp. 106-137.
  • Miwon Kwon, “Promiscuity of Space: Some Thoughts on Jessica Stockholder’s Scenographic Compositions,” Grey Room 18, Winter 2004, pp. 52-63. 

Participants included

Michael Holly, The Clark
Mark LedburyThe Clark
Philippe BordesInstitut National d’Histoire de l'Art, Paris, France
Martine DenoyelleMusée du Louvre
François HersFondation Hartung-Bergman, Antibes, France
Xavier DourouxLe Consortium (centre d’art contemporain), Dijon, France
Rachael Z. DeLuePrinceton University
Stephen MelvilleThe Ohio State University
Helen MolesworthFogg Art Museum
Alexander NagelInstitute of Fine Arts, New York University
Penelope CurtisThe Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, UK
André GunthertCentre d’Histoire et Théorie des Arts (CEHTA), Paris, France
Michèle-Caroline HeckUniversité Paul Valéry - Montpellier 3, Paris, France