Noa Yaari, I Lose Control, 2018. Ink on paper. 21 x 27 cm. Toronto
In April’s post, I asked if – within the industry of creating and communicating historical knowledge – there is any epistemological significance to visual evidence that was photographed by the historian who writes about it. I claimed that participating in the production of the visual evidence is an “opportunity to compare the production of the artwork to the production of its reproduction;” and that, based on this comparison, historians may become more aware of the dependence of the visual evidence on the context in which it is produced, seen and recorded, and consequently to its limitation in representing broader cultural and social phenomena.
So, if producing visual evidence in illustrated historiography is no different than artistic activity, as both processes are deeply influenced by the ever-changing conditions around them, what makes the visual evidence “evidence”? What is in an object or image that makes it a source of historical knowledge, within and outside of the publication of the historical research? If we imagine an artwork and illustrated-history book as two artworks or two pieces of evidence, that exist at the same time, and in either case the illustrated book reproduces the artwork as an indication of a broader phenomenon, then the book has to “freeze” the artwork and itself at a certain point in time. It must do so to claim that what it creates and communicates is “knowledge.” What power does the book have over the artwork if they are two simulations artworks or pieces of evidence? And whatever the answer may be, does the artwork have the same or similar power over the book?
The Lamborghini above is driving left to the white line. Also the Alfa Romeo. What does it mean? Does is have to mean anything?
The visual material in illustrated historiography usually results from a chain of practices, most noticeable are the artistic creation, the photographing of the artwork, and the printing of that photograph in the book. This chain of practices is the industry of creating and communicating historical knowledge. Within that industry, is there any epistemological significance to visual evidence that was photographed by the historian who writes about it?
When we see the historian receiving the credit for the photo, we assume that they went to the place in which the artwork was, to photograph it; observed the artwork directly; operated a camera to photograph the artwork; gave the recording data to the publisher to print it in the book; informed the publisher that they are the creators and owners of the recording material; and, finally, observed the reproduction of the artwork in their book. Each of these practices is an opportunity to compare the production of the artwork to the production of its reproduction. For example, the attempt to produce a high-quality photograph of the artwork requires the photographer to explore the lighting conditions of the artwork. This exploration can evoke empathy with the creator and contemporary observers of the artwork, since they, like the photographer, needed light to see it, let alone its details.
When historians are involved in the production of the visual evidence, they become more aware of the epistemological challenge of using visual evidence to make claims about a broader cultural and social phenomenon. The unmediated experience with the artwork, that can only happen when the historian and the artwork are in the same space, demonstrates to the historian that the context in which the artwork has been created, displayed and seen, in fact construct the artwork. There is nothing essential in the artwork that cannot be influenced by the conditions around it. This is exactly why we can explore the past through analyzing artworks, and this is also why we have to remember that artworks are limited sources, as they change with time.
This insight positions visual evidence in an epistemological context that includes, among other factors, the ever-changing technologies of recording and disseminating visual data. Historians who photograph their visual evidence ought to be more aware of this epistemological relativity; the practical participation in producing visual evidence shows that the status of the evidence as such depends on many and varied factors that are not inherent to the artwork. Whether historians use this notion as part of their own work is another question. We do know that it can advance our understanding of the complexity of studying the past, and the visual material it is constantly leaving behind.
At the RSA 2018, I commented on three papers that art historians Dr. Jorge Sebastián Lozano, Dr. Víctor Mínguez Cornelles and Dr. Inmaculada Rodríguez Moya presented in the session: “Between Word and Image: Verbal-Visual Representations of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Spanish Royal Women,” which I organized, and Dr. Julie Campbell chaired.
This is what I said:
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been watching videos on Youtube about twin-flames; these are souls that were once one, that have separated, and are on a journey to reunite. It can take forever, but it eventually happens, if they are patient, allowing God’s plan to work out. When they unite, the videos say, they make the world a better place; but, there are some issues and suggestions that we should all be aware of, when it comes to twin-flames, and that the videos address as well. For example, what to do when your twin-flame is married to someone else (oops), what to do when your twin-flame ignores you, and how to deal with the great emotional intensity when the unbreakable reunion finally occurs.
Word and image relation is not so different from twin-flame connection; it, too, manifests varied measures of similarity, distance, attraction, and the potential to create something whole with an everlasting quality. The three papers that we have just heard tell us a story about the use of word-and-image relation to establish status and legacy for three 16th and 17th century Spanish royal women. These papers show that throughout history, people understood how the human mind reacts to combinations of words and images. We irresistibly – probably unconsciously – accept verbal-visual constellations as accurate representations of whatever they stand for. And while we are wired to do so, what determines the form of these hybrid representations is the rise of specific needs and availability of verbal and visual resources.
According to Jorge’s paper, when the beauty of Empress Isabella became a necessity, it wasn’t essential to have her around, nor any of the first-hand testimonies of her appearance. Ironically, as Jorge points out, the instillation of the Empress’s beauty in the collective memory was due to the narratives on St. Francis of Borgia, who allegedly converted, traumatized, after seeing his patron’s corpse. Painting beautiful portraits of the Empress, on the one hand, and conveying how devastating it was to see her losing that beauty, on the other, created an immortal image of a mortal woman.
As Victor’s paper shows, Queen Isabella of Valois became a symbol of a new peaceful and powerful era in Spanish history; her signification as such was possible through her marriage to Philip II, but more importantly, through crossing different semiotic systems in relation to her. The juxtaposition of the motto “IAM FELICTER OMNIA” (“Everything now felicitously”), an image of a sun (with everything that it symbolizes) and an image of a moon (with its own symbolism) creates a representation of a new situation in global politics. A comparison between the 1559 and the 1560 emblems reveals the crucial role of the spatial-relation between words and images in generating a specific meaning; in the later emblem, we see the motto free from its ribbon and closer to the two celestial bodies, which are much more similar now, signifying that politics have become more felicitous not only on the global level, but also between the “sun” and the “moon.” As Victor suggests, the later emblem radiates to the world that Spain is in the hands of a strong ruling couple.
Finally, Inma’s paper demonstrates the complex connection between one’s life and death and their verbal-visual representations. For example, before Isabella Clara Eugenia died in 1633, she requested to be buried in a specific chapel, in a particular church with a monument and double-tomb for herself and her cousin; however, her request was never entirely fulfilled, as her gravestone is, in fact, relatively modest and simple. As Inma points out, by using verbal and visual rhetorical devices, Puget dele Serre made his illustrated eulogy of Isabella her mausoleum and portrait. In this case, we could argue, one doesn’t sit in but with the place to contemplate the deceased’s spiritual and political virtues. More generally, perhaps in addition to the various kinds of rhetoric that are used in illustrated books, the fact that the books require direct touch and activity from the readers fosters the memory of their content. At any rate, the three papers that we have heard today indicate that 16th and 17th century Spanish culture had found a way to ensure that their royal women’s legacy will burn forever. The fact that we are discussing them today suggests that so far so good.
The following article was published in Innovatus, York University’s monthly pedagogical newsletter, on January 19, 2018. It describes an art exercise I gave in my tutorials.
In the last tutorial of the fall term, students in the History course Making Money drew their early memories on money. This exercise, given by artist and Teaching Assistant Noa Yaari, builds on two writing assignments Course Director Professor David Koffman gave that term. The first is to write about an early childhood memory on money, and the second is to analyze an image in which money plays a central role.
“Drawing a memory requires the students to coordinate the image in their mind, their body, art supplies and the work that they gradually create” says Yaari. “It’s challenging and important, since while we are developing our analytical verbal skills, we tend to forget the role our body and senses have in creating and communicating knowledge. We also neglect them as a teaching and learning tool.”
According to Yaari, the distinction between “body” and “mind” limits our perception of ourselves as learning and teaching beings. “I find teaching to be a great opportunity to explore learning processes,” says Yaari. “For example, returning to a memory that we already wrote a paper on to physically draw it is to literally feel the varied ways in which we can approach the same topic. Welcoming this diversity enriches our understanding of each of the approaches, enabling us to combine them and offer new ones.”
“Since money is anyway a sensitive issue, approaching it from different angles helps understand the complexity of learning about it. I hope that this exercise will have a long-term impact on the students,” adds Yaari.
Student Lucas Amello worked on his memory on selling lemonade in front of his family’s house, to purchase a desired bicycle. He shares his experience: “I think there is a monumental difference between the articulation and depiction of a memory. I find that I attain a greater level of clarity after partaking in an artistic exercise such as this. I was surprised at how clearly I could summarize my 1200-word paper. In the short span of 15 minutes, I was able to effectively depict the full extent of my childhood experience, showcasing in a series of pictures the extensive impact it had on the way I view currency, and the manner in which I conduct my finances.”
Professor David Koffman reflects on the classroom activity. “I was very pleased by Noa’s initiative to have students use art to thicken their experiences of the material we analyzed in class,” says Koffman. “As a General Education course, Making Money is designed not just to promote thinking about money from a variety of new perspectives, but to encourage careful questioning about how different fields of scholarship know what they know. This in-tutorial art exercise took the course aim in an entirely new direction: by returning to the same memory, students got the chance to consider how they can come to know differently what they already know.”
A PhD candidate in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Yaari, who is finishing her dissertation in History, writes on how historians use visual evidence in their publications: “I have no doubt that my research, teaching and art have merged in this exercise. I feel privileged to have these students, course director and the Department of History, who kindly purchased the art supplies, to experience new pedagogical adventures.”
In the discourse about the rise of pre-modern individualism or the discovery of the individual in pre-modern Europe (ca. 1000-1600), historians are inclined to argue that there was a period of time in which the interest in one’s own self had become a dominant character of the age. They support their understanding of this change of interest, focus and expression by pointing to sources such as literature, theological and ethical texts, legal documents, and the fine arts. Within these sources, they draw our attention to changes in verbal and visual vocabulary and rhetoric, as if they reflect contemporaries’ state of mind; as if language – of any kind – mirrors the psyche that produces it.
The problem of historicizing how people approached their own self through analyzing such sources can be clarified by thinking of those people’s connection with their body. It wouldn’t make sense to claim that pre-modern people didn’t feel their body; that they weren’t aware of the fact that their souls are interconnected with a dynamic physical entity. But when historians locate the “discovery” of the self on the axis of time, they do so while ignoring that the “self” is a bodily phenomenon. They think about their subjects of inquiry as if they had never had a headache, never enjoyed a kiss, never been stung by a bee; as if the discovery of the “self,” and subsequently the constitution of the self itself, start with its theorization. It makes the pre-modern self, about which the historians write a narrative, as much the historians’ as it is their subjects’. It makes the history of the pre-modern discovery of the self a discovery of discovery; a story that couldn’t have been established without rejecting the self as a bodily existence.
Writes: “[…] for science, poetry, and love are alike in being “flights” above and away from the slave-world of literal reference and humdrum prosaic details, attempts to widen the petty narrowness of the personal self’s outlook, liftings toward Arūpa, toward that world of infinite harmony, sympathy and order, of unchanging truths and eternal things.
And while all words are pitiful enough in their mere “letter that killeth,” it is certain that scientific terms like ‘force, average, sex, allergic, biological’ are not less pitiful, and in their own way no more certain in reference than ‘sweet, gorgeous, rapture, enchantment, heart and soul, star dust.”
What does the principle, which Whorf points out, mean when it comes to images? Are scientific, fictional and erotic images similarly pitiful and uncertain in their reference as the words “force,” “sex” and “gorgeous”? Do they need a context to fill them with meaning, since without a context they practically refer to nothing, and equally, to anything? It depends on how we define “context,” but to do so we need a context.
In her Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition, Mieke Bal refers to Roland Barthes’s remark that “the very end of myth is to immobilize the world,” and to Philip Rahv’s observation that the persistence of romanticism and conservatism, manifested in myth – and its criticism – result from the fear of history, change, choice and freedom. To Bal, visual representation of stories is informed by those sentiments as well. In the case of painting, the appeal to longevity and universality found in myth is strengthened by the visual confinement in a spatial frame, making the story’s element of time irrelevant (p. 97).
A visual representation of a specific moment of a verbal narrative embodies a significant meaning (or, as Bal terms it an “occasion of meaning”). The moment represented encodes the rest of the story, which is decoded by the observer, who unfolds it into an event or chain of events that take place in time. Movements, sounds, smells and everything that can be perceived by the senses and stored in memory are ready to get into action, filling the observer’s imagination with a life-like experience. What makes a specific moment of the verbal story apt to visually represent it all? Is it the “climax” of the story, the turning point in which, for example, a cause and effect relation is illuminated in the most effective, aesthetic way? A point that tells us that everything we can imagine about human life has already been proven to be true and, at the same time, totally false? Could it be the most evocative element among the other elements in the story that – like the other elements – without context, lacks absolute merit?
Verbal syntax triggers spatial schemes or geometrical forms and patterned relations in our mind; abstract, static and dynamic representations, based on sensorial experience and the use of both verbal and visual representations. This is what happens along the whole story: intertwined verbal and visual syntaxes develop into a single changing composition, in which the point that is apt to visually represent the whole narrative is where the geometry is mostly arousing, compelling us to go back and forth in spacetime. What makes this point a powerful mechanism that can set us on a cognitive journey? It might be a survival reaction; a bodily recognition that our life needs something to continue. Perhaps we live in a mythological world where once in a while we become aware of these points in which a single glance is enough to signal the whole story, allowing us to ponder and embrace a lesson.