MATERIAL INSPIRATIONS: THE INTERESTS OF THE ART OBJECT IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AND AFTER by Jonah Siegel, Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger
 


MATERIAL INSPIRATIONS: THE INTERESTS OF THE ART OBJECT IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AND AFTER
By Jonah Siegel
(Oxford, 2020) xxviii + 373 pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger on 2021-03-19.

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There is more than one way to read this fine book. The first (which I consider here for several paragraphs) is to take it in the order in which it is given, beginning with Siegel's lengthily discursive dissection of various theoretical approaches to materiality. His title for this substantial introduction promises to take us directly to the heart of the conceptual problem the book means to address, posed initially in deceptively simple terms: "Feeling for Things, or What Really Matters." But just about every word here -- feeling, thing(s), real(ly), matter(s) -- acquires a rich freight of possible meanings when glossed with conflicting theories from the philosophers and critics he discusses. These are organized (according to the equally discursive table of contents) in a forbiddingly Aristotelian schema of divisions and subdivisions, reminding this reader of the second volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters: unwieldy matter somewhat awkwardly compressed into the appearance of logical form.

What follows, however, constitutes an often fascinating and insightful tour with many more stops along the way than can be noted in a brief review. (Among others, Siegel discusses the art-critical work of Michael Baxandall and Michael Fried and the poems of William Carlos Williams). He works through the implications of materialisms from the "Demystificatory" (Pierre Bourdieu's critique of the social history of taste in Distinction, 1979) to the apparently opposing "Experiential" (driven by hopes for unmediated access to the material work of art). Under the Experiential heading he examines Bill Brown's distinction between material things and the instrumentally conceptualized aesthetic object (in Brown's "Thing Theory" manifesto, Critical Inquiry 2001, elaborated in A Sense of Things, 2003, and Other Things, 2015) along with W. J. T. Mitchell's counter-intuitive demands in What Do Pictures Want? (1996). Siegel tracks the desires driving both writers back through Heidegger to the prescient analyses offered by Hegel. But he describes his own, historically specific work-- in this and earlier books, particularly Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth-Century Culture of Art, (2000)-- as that of a "Realistic" materialism: one that grapples both with the affective force of desires aroused by the material presence of art and with the changing institutions-- museums, reproductive prints, and the emerging disciplines of art history and art criticism-- that make that experience what it is. Drawing on Bruno Latour's actor-network theory, Siegel argues that the material is always inseparable from the social. Yet while he resists reductive theorizing throughout his long introduction, he is suspicious of all desires--his own and others'-- to escape the binary opposition of thought to matter that defines a common version of the relations between subject and object. And indeed -- as if his conceptual introduction had, after all, failed to contain the proliferating complexity of the problem -- Siegel turns in the body of the book to much more particular discussions of nineteenth-century encounters with works of art.

A second way of reading this book would focus on the often quite brilliant use that Siegel makes of selected texts and images in the three parts following the introduction. These virtuoso readings serve as emblems introducing, punctuating, and summing up his complicated, many-stranded accounts of the interests shaping nineteenth-century encounters with works of art. Emblems, of course, are another Ruskinian method for mastering the extraordinary richness of one's material and the associative, digressive temptations it poses. Unlike Aristotelian classificatory schemes, such readings can be made to resonate in memory or rereading throughout the more leisurely and deeply informed explorations of institutions, artists, and critics. Consider, for example, Siegel's discussions of Raphael's Tranfiguration, Blake's 1826 annotated engraving of the Laocoon, Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Ruskin's reading (in Modern Painters V) of Turner's Angel Standing in the Sun, Pater's Mona Lisa prose-poem (in Studies in the History of the Renaissance, 1873), and his essay on Winckelmann (first published in 1868, later collected in the 1873 volume). In Siegel's hands, each of these helps him to treat without simplifying presumptions what he repeatedly terms nineteenth-century "negotiations" with materiality. "To imagine the nineteenth century not as participating in a process premised on a deluded autonomy" of Kantian ideal disinterestedness, Siegel insists, "but as in fact endlessly negotiating between lost limits and a freedom that never arrives, is to open up discussion to a probing, questioning, unsettled culture of art that includes the dynamic relationship between inspiration and the material promises and disappointments of life and death" (115).

Siegel pursues two large topics through this combination of emblematic readings and more extended discussions of shaping context. (To adapt Roland Barthes' language in Camera Lucida, 1980, we might think of these readings and discussions as the cooperating features of puncta, or wounding and affectively forceful exempla, and studia, leisurely ventures into the cultural and political surrounds drawn from a deep archive). Though Siegel's two larger topics sometimes consort together a little uneasily, as in his earlier Desire and Excess, both of them extend two strands of his ongoing examination of a nineteenth-century "culture of art." The first, under the cryptic title of Part I, "Interesting," is the nineteenth-century's attraction to the embodied life of the artist-genius, especially Raphael's. His erotic life inspired numerous nineteenth-century depictions of the artist with his mistress, including paintings by J. M. W. Turner and Jean-August-Dominique Ingres, and his early death informed critical writing about his last work, unfinished when he died, the Transfiguration:

Raphael, Transfiguration (1516-20). Tempera on wood. Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana.

As depicted and written about in the nineteenth century, "Raphael" focuses the multiple interests of "Interesting" on questions of originality and the desiring but mortal body, not just the artist's but the viewer's (looking back to the Desire of Siegel's first book's title). In nineteenth-century representations of Raphael, Siegel suggests, we witness "a complete rerouting of the very basest desires (for pleasure, for money, for fame)" -- both Raphael's and the viewer's -- "into and out of artifice," the work of art (42). In short, we are told, desire trumps distinterestedness. "[T]he disinterestedness that was mooted by Kant and that Bourdieu presented as such a central if vulnerable pillar of modern aesthetics," Siegel concludes, "had never been the prop to concepts of art it was sometimes taken to be, so much as a counterintuitive provocation" (114).

In going on to say that nineteenth-century arguments about the relation between history and modernity make the most of "relics from the past" (114), Siegel adumbrates Part II and his second big topic: the century's changing reception of antiquity's material "Remains," especially sculptural. As the century unfolded, many more of these (as both original fragments and casts) were made available in newly founded museums and illustrated in inexpensive reproductive prints, confronting Romantics and Victorians with the sometimes confusing Excess to which Siegel's earlier study drew attention. But his more recent excavations have uncovered much that is new and fascinating. In the differently inflected story he tells in this new book, Siegel finds that especially in the latter half of the century, a heightened historical awareness of loss leads to a more modern, historically self-conscious formalism, one that insists on greater attention to the material forms of the work itself.

Reading for this story is a third way of approaching this book. The excess Siegel describes is textual as well as material, the weight of an accumulating interpretive literature that afflicts the author of Material Inspirations no less than his nineteenth-century subjects. In the story he tells about nineteenth-century efforts to deal with this excess, new experiences of antiquity's remains struggle with an inheritance of prior ideas. "The pressure of an ever-more material and therefore more nuanced and textured experience of the thing itself" (192), Siegel writes, provokes repeated "negotiations" -- by artists, poets, and critics -- with a highly idealized pantheon of classical sculptures that were known mostly through descriptions and engravings, and that earlier writers used as stand-ins for various great ideas (beauty, wisdom, love, etc.). In these negotiations, and especially in the differently exemplary responses of Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Ruskin, George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke (as an unhappy young bride in the Vatican museum), Pater, and Vernon Lee, Siegel shows how a long succession of nineteenth-century writers used art to reflect on their relations to materiality, time, and history. Gradually, Siegel demonstrates, they moved from grieving the loss of an ancient culture (and its cold forms) to finding new possibilities in the formal study of the carefully historicized remains of classical art.

But in Siegel's account, this was not a straightforward development. Lacking access to the objects themselves, earlier writers tried to deflect the challenges to reason and religion posed by the remains of an alien pagan culture by shifting the emphasis from the actual work to a rationalized idea of what each work stood for. This canonical visual classicism, which turned material figures into timeless signs, was inherited by generations of schoolboys including, as Siegel shows, Wordsworth and Keats. They learned their classical mythology from numerous illustrated compendia like Tooke's Pantheon of the Heathen Gods and Illustrious Heroes (originally published in 1698 and reprinted twenty-three times by 1771). But that, Siegel insists, is only the beginning of the story. When in fact confronted with the Laocoon (or an engraving of it) or the Elgin Marbles (newly arrived in the British Museum) or the Portland Vase (which inspired "Ode on a Grecian Urn"), poets such as Keats found their inherited concepts--their ideas about ancient works of art--inadequate to the sensory and affective evidence of the material objects themselves. William Blake engraved the Laocoon twice. He did so first to illustrate John Flaxman's article on sculpture in Abraham Rees's 1816 Cyclopedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, a late example of the eighteenth-century compendium. Ten years later, however, he produced a startling new image-text that incorporates the Laocoon into his own passionate, visionary myth-making, lending its forms the vitality of his own imagination. Both engravings are shown below.

William Blake, "Sculpture" PLATE III (second sequence), from Rees's Cyclopædia (Plates, vol. 4).   Collection of Robert N. Essick.

William Blake, Laocoon. Printed c. 1826-27. The William Blake Archive.

Keats's Ode, however, responds quite differently to its object. While Blake depicts a work of sculpture long known by the name of its central figure, Keats places the silent, still figures on the urn forever out of reach, so distanced by time as to be unknowable to those who come later. Siegel suggests -- arrestingly though perhaps not quite convincingly -- that in the gnomic conclusion to Keats's poem ("Beauty is truth, truth beauty, --that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"), Keats embraces a modern aesthetic experience of time passing and past, in which irresolvable longing must be not only accepted but enjoyed. "Not reaching what one loves," Siegel concludes, "is precisely the pleasure that an engagement with antiquity may provide" (184).

The productive conflict between received ideas and immediate sensory experience becomes itself a matter for further reflection later in the century for Ruskin and Pater, both of whom, in Siegel's story, criticize the eighteenth-century's turn away from the thing itself and insist on a saving return to the formal qualities of antique remains. While Ruskin condemns the modern loss of a fuller relationship with divinity and nature that once propelled classical mythmaking, he is more dismayed by the eighteenth century's bloodless allegorizations of what they can no longer feel. As a corrective, he turns to the formal and material study of art itself. "Again and again" in The Queen of the Air (1870) and Aratra Pentelici, (1872), Siegel observes, "Ruskin evokes an earlier tradition of ethical analysis, only to shift its terms to form" (201). Pater, Siegel argues, allows more place to desire, particularly in his early (1868) essay on Johann Winkelmann, the great eighteenth-century advocate for Greek sculpture as ideal perfection to be met by an identificatory stoicism from the viewer. For Pater, Siegel writes, "the vision of antiquity Winckelmann has bequeathed to later eras becomes a manifestation of his own desire, a fantasy dependent on looking away from the darker sides of the classical tradition" that Pater is increasingly unwilling to ignore (192). By the time of Pater's late work on classicism, Siegel finds, he too has moved closer to a modern formalism.

In giving comprehensible shape and meaning to the unruly matter of Material Inspirations, the narrative Siegel unfolds in "Remains" exemplifies a third way of reading his book. Since no single way of reading will suffice, this book demands from its readers both time and attention, though it also offers rich rewards. The book's last part ("Things, Personally") offers more extended readings from Ruskin and Pater, punctuated with emblematic illustrations, in a continuation of Siegel's narrative account of the century's slow move toward a modern, historicized formalism. But I wish to conclude this review with perhaps the most daring of Siegel's cryptic emblems. In what amounts to his own meditation on time and history, he sets Ruskin's reading of Turner's apocalyptic Angel Standing in the Sun beside Walter Benjamin's reading of Paul Klee's enigmatic Angelus Novus. Both pictures are shown below.

J.M.W. Turner, Angel Standing in the Sun (ex. 1846). London, Tate Gallery.

Angelus Novus

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus (1920). Oil transfer and watercolor on paper. Jerusalem, The Israel Museum.

In the studia with which Siegel surrounds these arresting images, he treats at length both Ruskin's darkening vision of Turner and the nineteenth century, and Benjamin's theories of baroque art and classical tragedy. In turn, we are told, Ruskin and Benjamin each erects on the ground of a material work of art (in the process that Siegel repeatedly foregrounds) a figure for the movements of time and history. As Siegel brilliantly shows, this figuration also serves as a short-hand characterization of each critic's personal, cultural, and political interests. In comparing Ruskin on Turner with Benjamin on Klee, Siegel is at once strikingly unhistorical, passionately interested, and yet finally disinterested. We are left with two emblems for two ways of negotiating the claims of the material remains of the past upon the experience of the present. The full implications of Siegel's comparison, for the future of art and that of human culture, remain for his readers to work out.

Elizabeth Helsinger is John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emerita at the University of Chicago.


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