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  • Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History
  • Wilfred Niels Arnold
Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History edited by Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A., 2003. 280 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 0-8166-4115-3; ISBN: 0-8166-4116-1.

Traditional writings about the visual arts—the objects and their creators—include elements of joy, admiration, explanation, analysis and criticism, as well as the facts and numbers of history. Various art historians use different blends, and their products meet different audiences. However, in more recent times, artists with household names have attracted such a mass of unorganized commentary that this habit has spawned a new genre, namely an analysis of the commentators. It is an art history once or twice removed, in which the writers (not their subjects) are embraced without much regard for accuracy or contribution.

Such an example is to be found in the essay by Michael Ann Holly, one of nine contributors to Compelling Visuality, wherein the competitive interpretations by Martin Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro of the van Gogh painting, A Pair of Shoes, are revisited for the umpteenth time. The objects on the canvas were Vincent's own footwear, according to Schapiro (he took the time to read The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh) and not a peasant woman's shoes, as imagined by Heidegger, who went on in sublime ignorance to wax poetic about the woman's "slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind." Holly has the temerity to call the Heidegger bit "one of the most famous passages in contemporary critical theory." This nonsense is only rivaled by Jacques Derrida, who dreamed up a correspondence between Heidegger and Schapiro in 1977. And appeal to authority takes over where organized skepticism screams for attention. I am afraid that my eye for the rest of the book was jaundiced by this early chance encounter, occasioned by spotting the van Gogh reproduction.

The editors emphasize that they wish to raise questions beyond the traditional approaches of art history. They suggest that because the contributors come from different disciplines and from various countries with different intellectual traditions, a new "art history after aesthetics" is achieved. The first four chapter titles indicate the flavor: "Ecstatic Aesthetics: Metaphoring Bernini," "Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism," "Aesthetics before Art: Leonardo through the Looking Glass," "Touching the Face: The Ethics of Visuality between Levinas and a Rembrandt Self-Portrait."

This volume is modestly produced in 9 × 6 inch format, lightly illustrated with black and white reproductions, and relatively expensive. Notes and references are given at the end of each chapter. There is no index and no list of illustrations. Claire Farago is a professor of fine arts at the University of Colorado. She has published on Leonardo da Vinci. Co-editor Professor Robert Zwijnenberg is at the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands, where he is concerned about art history in relation to the development of science and technology. [End Page 71]

Wilfred Niels Arnold
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