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Representation and Misrepresentation Author(s): E. H. Gombrich Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Dec., 1984), pp.

195-201 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343391 . Accessed: 04/07/2013 15:07
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Representation and Misrepresentation

E. H. Gombrich

It is a thankless task to have to reply to Professor Murray Krieger's "Retrospective." Qui s'excuse,s'accuse, and since I cannot ask my readers to embark on their own retrospective of my writings and test them for consistency, I have little chance of restoring my reputation in their eyes. Hence I would have been happier to leave Professor Krieger to his agonising, if he did not present himself as the "spokesman"for a significant body of theorists who appear to have acclaimed my book on Art and Illusion without ever having read it. The followers of this school of criticism-of which Professor Krieger is a prominent member-had apparently convinced themselves that the book lent support to an aesthetics in which the notions of reality and of nature had no place. They thought that I had subverted the old idea of mimesis and that all that remained were different systems of conventional signs which were made to stand for an unknowable reality. True, Professor Krieger admits that I never endorsed such an interpretation of my views, and he even concedes that there are passages in Art and Illusionwhich contradict such an out-and-out relativism, but he wants to convince his readers that these contradictions lead precisely to the ambiguities he now proposes to analyse. If he were right that the book encourages such a misreading, all I could do would be to express my regrets for having failed to make myself sufficiently clear. Luckily I can draw comfort from the fact that unlike these literary critics, the leading archaeologist of this country, Professor Stuart Piggott, had no difficulty at all in discerning my meaning and profiting from my arguments. In his Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture
Critical Inquiry 11 (December 1984) ? 1984 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/84/1102-0008$01.00. All rights reserved.

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of 1978, entitled AntiquityDepicted:Aspectsof Archaeological Illustration,the author did me the honour of taking a statement from my book as his starting point. It is the passage at the end of part 1 in which I recapitulate the content of the first two chapters: What matters to us is that the correct portrait, like the useful map, is an end product on a long road through schema and correction. It is not a faithful record of a visual experience but the faithful construction of a relational model. Neither the subjectivity of vision nor the sway of conventions need lead us to deny that such a model can be constructed to any required degree of accuracy. What is decisive here is clearly the word "required." The form of a representation cannot be divorced from its purpose and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language gains currency.' There is a simple answer to the questions of why an archaeologist found no difficulty in accepting the notion of an "accurate" model or representation which so worries Professor Krieger: he is writing not about art but about illustration. He is concerned with documentation, not with aesthetics. Here, and here alone, lies the key to the misunderstanding between me and the theorists I am supposed to have misled. At the risk of seeming pedantic, I should like to "recap" the recapitulation and ask the reader whether he finds any of the steps in the argument difficult or unacceptable. It is an argument, remember, not about art but about images, and it claims that there is such a thing as a faithful portrait or a useful map, just as there are models of buildings, miniature railways, or facsimiles of the kind that interest archaeologists (for example, of coins or tools). To make this kind of representation in three or two dimensions is possible despite what I have called the "subjectivity of vision" and "the sway of conventions." The model-maker may be astigmatic or he may be used to isometric conventions in perspective, but once he understands what is required, he can approximate the model to the motif-how perfect such an approximation can be may vary from case to case, but this does

E. H. Gombrich was director of the Warburg Institute and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the University of London from 1959 to 1976. His many influential works include The Storyof Art, Art and Illusion, Meditationson a HobbyHorse, The Sense of Order,Ideals and Idols, The Image and the Eye, and, most recently, Tributes. His previous contributions to CriticalInquiry include "The Museum: Past, Present and Future" (Spring 1977) and "Standards of Truth: The Arrested Image and the Moving Eye" (Winter 1980).

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not mean that we lack criteria. Taking a leaf out of Karl Popper's methodology of science, we can always search out deviations from the motif and can proceed to a better approximation by eliminating the fault. Obviously, though, the form of representation cannot be divorced from the purpose it is intended to serve. Different societies assign different purposes to the image and therefore require different degrees of accuracy. The wax doll made in the service of sorcery differs from the anatomical model used for teaching. Now in what I must call the aesthetic misreading of my book, only the two points in the middle were picked up, my reference to the subjectivity of vision and to the sway of convention. And yet it is hard to see how these points can ever have been considered the whole message of the book, for what would have been the use of talking at such length about "schema" and "correction" and "making" and "matching" if there were no standards whatever by which to correct or match an image? It should be clear, however, that far from considering representation to be coextensive with art, or art coextensive with representation, my "study of the psychology of pictorial representation"-to quote the subtitle of the book-was intended to establish the study of the visual image as a scientific enterprise. In an age in which new forms of images are offered us almost daily by the wizards of science, it should no longer be possible to talk of subjectivity and convention without regard to the proven facts. Professor Krieger is distressed at my interest in illusion which, he thinks, borders on delusion, but how would he describe the effect of a holograph? Admittedly this device is at present lying largely outside the precincts of art-but the time is surely at hand when artists will appropriate it for their own purpose. It is the absence of the scientific temper I find so depressing in Professor Krieger's discussion. He shows no inclination anywhere to ask whether any of the hypotheses I have put forward over the years is true or false. I, by contrast, have tried to keep them under constant review, and here I am quite ready to plead guilty of having learned something about visual perception since I wrote Art and Illusion. I am proud to have profited from the researches of that foremost student of vision, the late James J. Gibson, who himself never ceased to correct and refine his views in the three great books he gave us: The Perception of the Visual World as Perceptual (1966); and his posthumous (1950); TheSensesConsidered Systems last word, The Ecological Approachto Visual Perception(1979). It is only too symptomatic of Professor Krieger's approach that he nowhere mentions Gibson, though he must have known from the book he discusses how much importance I attach to my debates with this great and humane scientist. No doubt these discussions have made me a little more circumspect in my estimate of the subjectivity of vision, but as the book also shows, I also occasionally felt able to stick to my guns, and I never felt compelled to abandon my central thesis.

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This thesis, which Professor Krieger also ignored, is summed up in the opening paragraph of the final chapter of Art and Illusion. It is a thesis which indeed rejects the idea of mimesis as based on the "transcription" of nature and concentrates instead on the creation of certain visual effects which were discovered by trial and error in certain societies under the pressure of novel demands made on the image. This new emphasis on what might be called the "trigger effects" of certain devices by which the image-maker can give the impression of depth, of sheen, or of facial expression has also enabled me to reformulate the problem of "conventions" in representation. Many of these conventions-say the highlight or the streaks behind a figure to suggest movement-are rooted in certain easily acquired tricks which secure a given response that may be inborn or is very easily learned. I was happy to find that this reformulation has narrowed the gap between my own views and those of Nelson Goodman, whose generous response to my paper on "Image and Code," which he allowed me to publish in a footnote to that essay, is equally passed over in silence by Professor Krieger though it would surely have been germane to his topic.2 I know that while accepting the role of human dispositions Professor Goodman would not want to go along with me in looking for their roots in our biological heritage. It is this aspect of my work which seems to have particularly shocked Professor Krieger, who sees his dignity as Homo sapiens undermined by my interest in animal behaviour. He cannot have remembered my remark in Art and Illusion that "I do not believe that the mystery of Raphael will one day be solved through the study of gulls.... We are not simple slot machines which begin to tick when coins are dropped into us, for, unlike the stickleback,we have what psychoanalysts call an 'ego' which tests reality and shapes the impulses from the id.... Our twin nature, poised between animality and rationality, finds expression in that twin world of symbolism with its willing suspension of disbelief."3 Here, as the reader perceives, my study impinges on aesthetics. Indeed aesthetics, too, is concerned with responses and evidently not only or mainly with the response to life-likeness. In Art and Illusion I took account of this fact by devoting a whole chapter to caricature and by discussing the images of artists as diverse as Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Gino Severini, and Pablo Picasso-but no matter, I must be branded as an enemy of twentieth-century art because I have been concerned with one particular learning process that affected the artists of the ancient and the modern world and also those of the Far East in so many ways. The fact that painters from Paolo Uccello to Leonardo da Vinci, from John Constable to Georges Seurat displayed an interest in science cannot have escaped the theorists of whom Professor Krieger speaks, but somehow they want to dismiss these episodes as irrelevant to their aesthetics. The merit I claim for my approach is really that I did not take these preoccupations for granted but turned them into a problem of research. I did

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so precisely because I could not be satisfied with the vague and facile talk about the history of styles reflecting the history of the way in which the world was "seen,"an unexamined assumption which somehow pervaded the art historial literature of my student days without ever being formulated with sufficient precision to permit testing or refutation. It was, of course, this vague talk I wanted to satirize through the choice of Alain's cartoon of the Egyptian drawing class which Professor Krieger so cruelly misunderstood. Unfamiliar as he must be with the literature of my subject, he took me to advocate precisely the position I wished to criticize. Needless to say, I, too, saw the development of naturalistic art from the vantage point of twentieth-century movements; I would not otherwise have confronted this aspect of Western art history as a problem much in need of fresh analysis. That such an analysis was and is taken as a covert method of advocacy is one of the crosses I have to bear. Since no disclaimer is likely to have the slightest effect, I should by now resign myself to the lazy conclusion that it is my aim to turn all sculptures into replicas of Madame Tussaud's wax figures and all paintings into trompe l'oeils, and to hold these up as examples of great art in order to "down" nonnaturalistic styles, as Professor Krieger seriously maintains. If I am not resigned, after all, it is for the simple reason that I regard such intellectual sloth as an alarming symptom of academic decline. In the preface to a previous volume of essays (Ideals and Idols), I wrote that I want the critic to ask "What has he found out?" rather than "Where does he stand?"Professor Krieger's piece is a choice specimen of that alternative I reject. How can this tendency to speak in terms of movements, theories, revolutions, or schools have taken so strong a hold on academic life? I fear I personally regard it as the manifestation of another biological herd instinct with its corollary of the pecking order. In a heritage-the which is society happily free from other social stratifications, the game which Stephen Potter dubbed "one-up-manship" has taken hold of large sections of the campus. Even academic teaching is frequently expected to serve as an initiation to this all-important game. There are few safer gambits in that game than the assertion that one does not believe what everybody else believes. Hence the prestige that attaches to startling, "revolutionary," or "ground-breaking" theories, quite regardless of the evidence that is offered in their support. Too many intellectual fashions in the humanities show the mark of this disease. In placing themselves in opposition to common sense, they generate a sense of superiority among their adherents and absolve them of any need to engage in rational argument; in other words, they become campus ideologies. If you belong, you are OK; if not, you must be denounced, as Professor Krieger has decided to denounce me as a flat-earther who must be taught that the globe of art is round and that any belief in objective criteria is vieuxjeu. Give the dog a bad name and hang it.

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I wish Professor Krieger's piece would not offer such a perfect illustration of these tactics. His footnote 18 would not deserve a rebuttal if it would not have to be nailed and presented as an exhibit, even at the risk of devoting too much attention to such unworthy insinuations. If I understand his sneers, he seems to allege that I have come to applaud the art of Constable because I am a kind of renegade-a refugee who has been knighted must have earned the accolade by becoming a turncoat and a conformist. Does he really not know that such dignities are awarded for services to the administration of museums or such places of learning as the Warburg Institute, quite regardless, of course, of the recipient's outlook or field of research? But worse is to come. I am to be tarred with the brush of Edward Said's "orientalism"because I referred in The Storyof Art to "the 'Egyptian' in us," a turn of phrase, by the way, which is intended to link up with the opening pages of the book where I write: "Insteadof beginning with the Ice Age, let us begin with ourselves."4 I stand in no need of instruction from Professor Krieger about the status of Egyptian art. Though I am not, of course, an Egyptologist, I have been asked by one to write the introduction to the English translation of Heinrich Schafer's standard work on the Principles of Egyptian Art (1974) and more recently to review for theJournal of EgyptianArchaeology William H. Peck's Drawingsfrom Ancient Egypt.5 In the latter I refer my readers to Gibson's approach, which in many ways renders earlier interpretations of Egyptian art obsolete: Gibson, I write, "does not fall into the trap of dismissing perspective as a mere convention. What he argues instead is that the arrested monocular vision of the world is an artificial abstraction which can never dojustice to the workings of our visual system ... geared ... to extracting what he calls the invariants of our environment ... independent of any particular viewing point."6 It so happens that I made a similar point in a series of broadcasts in February and March of 1979 on "The Primitive and Its Value in Art" (published in the Listener), which anticipates some of the conclusions of a book on which I am now engaged. Harking back to Art and Illusion, I said in the concluding talk that "the appearance of nature can only be 'trapped' by a roundabout strategy. But, paradoxically, knowing how complex this 'trap' is, makes me question the description of nonnaturalistic styles as 'primitive.'"7 There is no reason why Professor Krieger should have read these items, but there is no excuse for another omission: in the preface to the book he is ostensibly reviewing, I referred to items not included in the selection and wrote: "I venture to hope, however, that those who may want to discuss and criticize my views in any detail will also take cognizance of the writings and, of course, of my book The Sense of Order which concentrates on the perception of patterns rather than images."8 Now if there is a recent book which, in its choice of illustrations and its appreciation of the artistic achievements of our whole globe, is less

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marked by "ethnocentric parochialism" than my study of ornament, I am yet to hear of it. Here Professor Krieger would have found a good deal about a form of art which is not linked to appearances, but he decided to ignore it. Maybe this is just as well, however. He might have accused me of wanting to introduce the reactionary practice of tatooingat least among the knights of the realm.

1. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychologyof Pictorial Representation, A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1956 (New York, 1960), p. 90. 2. See my The Image and the Eye (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982), p. 824. 3. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, pp. 102-3. 4. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 13th ed. (Oxford, 1978), p. 20. 5. See my review of Drawingsfrom AncientEgypt by William H. Peck,Journal of Egyptian Archaeology69 (1983):192-93. 6. Ibid., p. 193. 7. Gombrich, "The Tree of Knowledge," Listener, 8 March 1979, p. 348. 8. Gombrich, The Image and the Eye, pp. 8-9.

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