Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Andrei Pop reviews Beyond the Mirror

Susanne von Falkenhausen. Beyond the Mirror: Seeing in Art History and Visual Culture Studies (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2020). 251 pp.

Review by Andrei Pop

4 November 2020

“Am Anfang war das Aug”—in the beginning was the eye. This biblical motto, in fact a witty play on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (whose Faust tried to improve on Genesis), was Austrian art historian Otto Pächt’s rationale for looking at artworks carefully. Susanne von Falkenhausen, who was Pächt’s student in Vienna in the 1970s, confesses in her recent book that it took her many years to absorb Pächt’s ideas on vision and its place in research. That is the very topic of Beyond the Mirror, pursued, as the subtitle indicates, in art history and visual culture. The two disciplines, one established in the late nineteenth century German university, the other breaking away from social art history and cultural studies in the late twentieth, and remaining largely in a state of “indiscipline,” as W. J. T. Mitchell describes it. Some think this a good thing, because it permits theoretically eclectic study of everything from high art to philosophical doodles like the duck-rabbit and television or social media. Art historians of the 90s, on the other hand, and oddly some of the most politically and methodologically engaged, rejected visual culture acrimoniously as a dumbing down of their work, and were rejected in turn as guardians of privilege. The book’s grand idea is that both communities take vision for granted. Confronted with their definitions and actual acts of seeing, as set down in classic texts, both might benefit, and learn from each other.

Enter Falkenhausen, who if not prepared to mend every fence (or open the floodgates) between the two fields, reads widely and is widely read in both, and is sympathetic to their divergent interests, respectively, in the singularity of objects and the ubiquity of images. Falkenhausen undertakes her study of vision not in the a priori manner of a Rudolf Arnheim or a Ernst Gombrich, nor through a historicist unrolling of “modes of seeing” familiar since Heinrich Wölfflin, but by a leisurely review of select art historical and visual studies texts. No artworks are reproduced, or discussed, unless brought up by the authors in question. The style is learned, conversational, and charitable to both authors and readers; the effect that of attending a seminar or series of lectures, particularly in the first section, on art historians, which proceeds monographically. The second part of the book, on visual culture, weaves more laconically between programmatic statements around two central concepts, the “foundational” one of the gaze (p. 113) and the “operational” one of visuality (p. 139). These terms are less universally valid than their sweeping application leads practitioners to believe, but Falkenhausen commends visual culture for having taken these first steps.

The final section, on “the ethics of seeing,” is, in keeping with the book’s ruling modesty, brief, though it contains important critiques of art and cultural historians’ flat use of the Lacanian theory of the gaze, and of a narcissistic identity politics predicated too narrowly on confronting a hostile gaze or transfixing itself in a self-congratulatory one. Characteristically, even these sharp blows are often credited to others: Donna Haraway, strikingly the mentor of several of the visual culture scholars cited (who however simplify her thought, p. 172), is invoked for the aphorism that “self-identity is a bad visual system,” and for the plea to balance social constructivism and the unmasking of ideology with careful analysis of scientific and cultural artifacts (pp. 214–15), while Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak warns against the dangers of identity frozen “in aspic” (pp. 98, 160).

The ideas are important, then, and Falkenhausen is never less than an illuminating guide. This review is too brief for extensive quotation, but I’d like to single out the sympathetic essays on Michael Baxandall, Svetlana Alpers, and Pächt, and the critiques of Wolfgang Kemp, Norman Bryson, and Nicholas Mirzoeff as models of fairness and clarity. Along the way, Falkenhausen makes delightful observations: for instance, that the phrase “visual culture” (a phrase first introduced in writing by Alpers, who credited Baxandall with the usage, p. 53) stands sometimes for images, sometimes for their study. This ambiguity is connected with an aporia, the tendency to overrate the destructive or emancipatory potential of vision, without inquiring too much about its operation. Not that art history gets off scot-free: if the classic art historians remain models for careful looking, with the exception of Pächt they are seldom willing to discuss their own seeing and writing about artifacts.

Members of these disciplines, and many others, stand to gain by attention to how and why they look at things. The book works in its patient comparative way toward a heuristics rather than a theory of seeing, coupled to an “ethics of attention” (Margaret Olin, interpreting Alois Riegl, pp. 133–38). It would have been nice had a study by Olin, Riegl, or Pächt received the scrutiny accorded theorists of the gaze: the brief discussion of a Walker Evans photo by Olin makes the case for a dialogical understanding of vision, seeing and being seen, but hardly scratches the surface of the historical and philosophical difficulties of conversing across eons, continents, languages and cultures. These challenges are, however, honestly acknowledged. It is because the objects, and subjects, of art and visual culture are so strange and disorienting that they require patience and thoughtful attention, even and perhaps precisely when their moral or political status is especially problematic. After all, Pächt didn’t say that the eye was all there was in the end. But it will be a part of our final understanding of any visual artifact. A theory of vision, or the gaze, that doesn’t make room for the quiddity of an individual object of vision cannot satisfy the interpreter of culture, however politically radical.

The English edition of the book is freely available from the publisher’s webpage, a generous service to readers for which Falkenhausen and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin are to be thanked. Let us hope for more open-access books of this caliber.