The Science of Culture and the Phenomenology of Styles by Renato Barilli (review)
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Reviewed by
Renato Barilli. The Science of Culture and the Phenomenology of Styles. Trans. Corrado Federici. McGill-Queen’s University Press. 184. $24.95

In The Science of Culture and the Phenomenology of Styles, Renato Barilli takes on the task of closely examining the phenomenon of the emergence and transformations of different styles in the visual arts. By laying out the homological relationship between artistic revolutions and the revolutions material technology goes through, he identifies two main periods that have dominated the art scene since the mid-15th century: the modern and the contemporary. This periodization permits him to classify seemingly dispersed and singular aesthetic styles. This idea of constructing parallels between art and science is not new. However, there are two things to keep in mind in approaching Barilli’s book. First, unlike many other treatments of this subject, Barilli’s is accompanied by an erudite and detailed reading of the history of art. Second, readers should note that this English translation is appearing more than thirty years after the original publication date.

In his analysis, Barilli adopts the theoretical framework of cultural materialism (developed by Leslie A. White, Marvin Harris, Lucien Goldman, and Marshall McLuhan). Chapter 1 outlines the basics of this framework. By unpacking the concept of culture, Barilli explains its material and ideal levels, respectively, in chapters 1 and 2. The material level is the sphere of technological practices, while the ideal concerns imaginative or symbolic practices, such as visual arts and philosophy. He gives us an insight into the general dynamic within the levels and their interactions by introducing two kinds of relationships: (1) the vertical relationship between the two levels, in particular between the artistic activities along with their historical and critical study and the material level, and (2) the horizontal relationships within the ideal level, where the connections between the visual arts and other disciplines are drawn.

In the third chapter Barilli explains a third kind of relationship: internal relationships within the domain of the visual arts. He introduces the concepts of generation and of quantitative and qualitative variation in order to explain those variations in fine arts that do not have direct counterparts either in other higher-level disciplines or in material technology. While qualitative variation signifies paradigm shifts, quantitative variation refers to the nuanced differences between works that carry the same sensibility.

Barilli applies this neatly articulated theoretical framework to differentiate two turning points in Western art, in chapters 4 and 5. The vertical relationship is used to set the main dates of the two revolutionary periods: the modern age and the contemporary age. Through identifying the structures inherent to the technological and artistic revolutions, Barilli [End Page 469] shows that they function identically. Two technological revolutions – the invention of the printing machine and the development of electromagnetism – mark the beginnings of the modern and contemporary periods of Western art respectively in Barilli’s chronology. Chapter 4 traces the beginning of the modern period to Gutenberg’s invention and its homo-logical counterpart in Leon Battista Alberti’s introduction of the Renaissance perspective. Chapter 5 identifies the moment of electromagnetism’s effective employment in technology and Paul Cézanne’s rejection of Renaissance perspective as the birth of the contemporary age. The variations art produces within these periods are considered to be only quantitative and explained by either the horizontal or internal relationships, using Giorgio Vasari’s conception of three maniere and Heinrich Wölfflin’s categories of art.

In the last chapter, Barilli engages with the debate on particularism and generalism and explains why he sides with generalism in his analysis. However, he does not offer a full-fledged philosophical argument to justify his generalistic methodology, claiming instead to be following the well-trodden path of Wölfflin, Edmund Husserl, and Ferdinand de Saussure. These meta-theoretic reflections are followed by a postscript where he provides an extremely brief overview of what has happened in the art scene in the thirty years between the first publication and translation. The claim is simple: cultural materialism is still relevant for understanding our current condition.

With this English translation Barilli’s translated works constitute a trilogy. Without doubt...