Art History as Ekphrasis

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How do we begin to write about art? How can we translate the visual into the verbal? What are we trying to achieve in doing so? How do we remain objective and respectful to the historical truth, whilst inevitably bringing in our own subjective opinion towards an artist or a work of art? Are we even sure the historical “truth” is really true?

Jás Elsner’s article ‘Art History as Ekphrasis’ is brilliant as a starting point for thinking about how to answer these questions. Elsner asserts that art writing – and therefore art history – is a form of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is ‘a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art’, considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another by defining and describing its essence and form. It is a translation; one form into another. In art history, the visual is reshaped; it has to be moulded to the conditions and restrictions of language, and in that process something is unavoidably misplaced. That something is, obviously, visual art’s visual element. Even translating one language into another is difficult; subtleties are lost or changed, words are swapped, rhythm is reorganised. How do we begin translating the visual into the verbal whilst remaining true to its original form?

One way of clarifying how we approach art writing is by understanding the distinction between art history and art criticism; namely that art history should be concerned with exterior factors such as dates, official records, etc, whilst art criticism should be the informed interpretation of a work of art that an individual comes to. In this understanding, art history equates to objective fact, whilst art criticism relates to subjective response. But what I also believe is that they cannot be separated; art criticism is a thread that runs through the history of art, a thread which we cannot take out.

Throughout art history, historical and empirical evidence is completely laced with subjective criticisms, interpretations, perceptions and opinions about art. This has countless ramifications; the writers of art history wield great influence over the study of art, the reception of art, the success of artists. The literary tradition of art writing embodies concepts and images which impose, authorise and restrain different ways of seeing; it has great historical weight. It is unfortunate that over the years, this tradition has been kinder and more open to white men; art history would be very different had women and people of colour been granted equal access to the arts (as both artists and writers). Their voices and creativity, had they been permitted to express and cultivate them, would have changed the history of art as we know it

Édouard Manet – Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

Elsner admits that ekphrasis is never neutral. How one person would verbalise a work of art is going to be very different from the next person (hence the long-established pitfalls of largely just reading the words of white male writers; we only get a glimpse of the story). What I would say about Manet’s painting (above) will likely be different to what you would say. In attempting to describe how we experience it and how it makes us feel, both of us will be translating a painting into language, on our own terms, and so we’ll never be able to fully describe it as it really is. So, art history, in it’s entirety – full of criticism and personal commentary – is not factual “history” as such, but more like fiction with footnotes. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is a positive thing that writing about art and practicing this form of ekphrasis is creative, and not neutral. How could it be neutral? It is a good thing that my description of Manet will be different to yours. Contemporary art writing, at its best, should be inclusive, open, with many voices expressing many interpretations. This allows the history of art to grow.

Really there is no “single truth” about anything to do with art history. It is conditional, hingeing on the element of art criticism that runs though it. Arguably this is what makes it such a rich, provocative, interesting and dynamic subject; particularly now, in a world becoming more aware and critical of gendered, sexual and racial inequalities. We can learn a lot about ourselves and each other by reading about, looking at and responding to art, and importantly, with this engagement comes new modes of interpretation and new forms of ekphrasis – but, you know this already. May the many voices be heard.

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