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Classicism as Power Author(s): Henri Zerner Source: Art Journal, Vol. 47, No.

1, The Problem of Classicism: Ideology and Power (Spring, 1988), pp. 35-36 Published by: College Art Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 19/05/2011 17:12
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Classicism as


By Henri Zerner There are many uses of the words "classical" and "classicism." Each of us may approve or disapprove of one or the other. What interests me here is as much their diversity-one might even say their incompatibility-as what they have in common. Art historians understandablywish to be precise in their vocabulary. The term "classical" primarily refers to GrecoRoman antiquity, and it is extended to periods that draw their inspiration from this ancient classical world, especially the Italian Renaissance or the seventeenth century in France. There has been an effort to refine the use of the term by narrowingits application. It used to be that all the art of antiquity from Myron to the late Roman Empire was considered classical. As late as the middle of the last century, Delacroix thought that the art of classical antiquity was a unity: The antique is always even, serene, complete in its details and of an ensemble which is virtually beyond reproach. One would think that its works were done by a single artist: the nuances of style differ in the various periods, but do not take away from a single antique work that peculiar value which all of them owe to that unity of doctrine, to that tradition of strength with reserve and simplicity which the moderns never attained in the arts of design nor perhaps in any of the other arts.1 Today we view the art of Greece and Rome as totally disparate. Historians tend to restrict the classical to the late fifth and early fourth century in Greece and to Roman art of the Augustan period. In Italy, it is only the High Renaissance that now qualifies, whereas many works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are rejected as preclassical, Mannerist, or "classicizing" rather than properly classical. S. J. Freedberg has gone as far as anyone else towards giving substance and precision to the concept of classicism in the case of the Italian Renaissance.2 In the interest of precision, he has narrowed the application to the point where there is little material that will fully qualify. Even among the works of Raphael-surely the prototypical classical artist-there are exclusions, like the Borghese Entombment, which appears protoMannerist, or even the Transfiguration, which is felt to go beyond the boundaries of the classical. Despite these efforts, sometimes excessive perhaps, at being precise, the word "classical" tends to escape our control. This is true even within a rather narrow definition, that is, one anchored in the Greek model. We think of Lescot's facade of the Louvre as a model of French classicism. And indeed, its vocabulary is borrowed from the tradition of Greco-Roman classicism as seen through the Italian Renaissance. Nevertheless, the use made of the classical repertory of forms at the Louvre is highly idiosyncratic. In particular, the density of ornament is so great that it no longer serves, as it does in Italian classicism, as a way of accenting the architectonic organization; the whole facade is, so to say, woven out of the ornamental motifs. In Italy, where the Farnese Palace would be the norm, the Louvre would seem abnormal and therefore not classical. But in France, it was so extensively used as a model that it became the most exemplary and consequently "classic" building of the century. We might say that in relation to precedents the Louvre is unclassical, but that later history has made it classical. The moment one attempts to generalize the notion of classicism outside a specific historical situation, it becomes even more unmanageable. Attempts at defining such a transhistorical classicism are generally unsuccessful and sometimes bizarre, not to say perverse. I once read a list of the features of classicism that included "archaism." Now many of us would think of archaism as antithetical to classicism by definition, the archaic being precisely that which precedes a mature or classical phase. The question here is not one of right or wrong-whether archaism is indeed a feature of classicism-but what it is that makes such an unexpected statement possible. I shall return to this question below. the meantime, however, let us turn to the language used to describe music, because it helps us to understand the situation. Historians of music use the term "classical" in a reasonably precise manner to refer to the art of the late eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth even if they do not necessarily agree on the exact boundaries of the classical style. But most people mean something entirely different by classical music: they mean serious, highclass music if they like it or boring, pretentious music if they prefer rock. Whether it be Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, or Stockhausen, classical music is what belongs to a specific tradition of music as "high art." Although we do not use the same language in the visual arts, when we step outside the Greco-Roman lineage we tend to extend the term "classical" to the art that is at the top of a hierarchy, any hierarchy. And conversely, to call the art of ancient Greece and its aftermaths "classical" is to say that this is the best, the highest art of all-something that was in fact taken for granted over a long period of time. E.H. Gombrich has criticized Wolfflin on the grounds that although he claimed to establish the Baroque on an equal footing with the classical art of the Renaissance, he really kept the classical as a norm.3 Indeed W1olfflin described the classical in positive terms, whereas for the Baroque he used terms-like instability and absence of frame-that denote a want, and thereby may have betrayed a preference for the classical. This is all very well, but I am struck by the success of W1olfflin's attempt and its impact on later literature. Today Bernini or Caravaggio are considered the equal of any artist. More than that, if we read S.J. Freedberg's account of Caravaggio's work, for instance, it is by no means presented as an anticlassical art. He is explicit about the Supper at Emmaus when he writes: "in the relation of each part to its including form there is a sense of lucid sequen-


Spring 1988


tiality, and in the whole image a clarity, cal" goes a long way back and is as coherence, and stability of relationship strong as the original one of the classthat makes an order of an explicitly room-the classics being the great classical kind."4 examples proposed to students. As a The art of Caravaggio had been suprahistoricalconcept, then, there is no despised as crude unartistic realism. In reason to believe that classicism has any the process of being made the equal of meaning beyond this: the art of authoriclassicism, his baroque style has in fact ty, authoritative art. The power that become a type of classicism. In the end, gives a chosen kind of art this authority Wolfflin's effort to revalue this kind of can be at its inception, as in the art of art was so totally successful that it Julius II or Louis XIV, but it can also defeated his own main purpose, which come later, and appropriate a body of was to establish the Baroque and the art that already exists. Impressionist Classical as polar opposites. painting, for instance, whatever its origiThe classical is the ultimate attain- nal status may have been, has become a ment, the norm wherever a hierarchy is kind of Park Avenue classicism. And established or imposed. We may well where Brancusi is revered by the domiscavenge through comic strips and nant culture, Cycladic sculpture apdecide which are the "great" ones. And pears as classical. The content, the when we say that Krazy Kat is a "clas- forms involved, seems indefinitely exsic," we may say it tongue-in-cheek and tendable. So that if a hieratic and think we are being ironic, but in fact we archaic type of art is dominant, there is might as well be in earnest. Indeed, no reason why it should not be considKrazy Kat is a classic. Of course, there ered classical in the wider sense of the is a difference between having estab- word. The fact remains that the art of lished classics and a concept of classihas been cism. But once the classics are estab- Greece in the fifth century B.C. lished, the step to classicism is not a very able, in its various aftermaths, to hold large one. It should not be too difficult to authority over long stretches of our culidentify a classical phase of the comic ture. If the classical is simply the art strip, and at that point classicism is in that has authority and power, it is strikplace. We are, for instance, ready ing to what extent a particular type of enough to talk about Mayan art or As- art has been able to assume this role syrian reliefs as classical-which would (Fig. 1). In modern times, in America have greatly puzzled a nineteenth-cen- especially, banks and government buildtury critic. And with these examples in ings have displayed the columns, capimind, we begin to see how archaism can tals, and pediments of the Greco-Roman be thought of as a possible feature of tradition with extraordinary assertiveness. classicism. Why it is so remains an interesting Of course, one reason may be comes to feel that can question. anything One be called classical. The concept of simply the lasting power of authority, the classical implies the establishment and the association of this art with a of a norm, of a hierarchy; and what this glorious moment of Greek history. But takes is power. The connotation of class this is not enough as an explanation in the social sense in the word "classi- because there have been times when the


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authority of Greek classicism disappeared. We need to understand how it could reassert itself. I believe it has to do with the development of a particular kind of naturalism in fifth-century Greece and that this kind of naturalism is able to make one believe that the authority of this art is grounded in nature. Then it should no longer surprise us that such an art would be resurrected under different circumstances. What should be better for a power in place than to make us believe that it is not simply there by an act of force, but that its authority is inscribed in nature herself? This rhetoric of nature is obviously present in the sculpture and painting of the Greco-Roman tradition, and it was always understood in its architecture as well. It is worth pointing out that in our century the one kind of architecture that was, at least temporarily, able to displace the Greco-Roman model-the modernist architecture sometimes called the International Style-makes a comparable claim to being grounded in nature, not as the representation of nature but as the direct result of the nature of the materials and the function of the building. Similarly, insofar as the painting of Mondrian made claims to a new kind of classicism, it was on the ground that it represented the underlying principles of nature, if not its appearance. I would say this: as a descriptive term for specific historical phenomena, classicism has become narrower and narrower, while as a theoretical tool it has indefinitely expanded. It would be my contention that, as a universal category rather than a specific historical occurrence, classicism means nothing more than an assertion of authority, of power under whatever form. But the urge to naturalize power has favored certain forms of art, principally the kind of naturalism first developed in ancient Greece, and has time and again restored it to a position of authority.
1 The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, trans. Walter Pach, New York, 1961, p. 619. 2 S. J. Freedberg, High Renaissance Painting in Rome and Florence, Cambridge, Mass., 1961, passim.

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3 E. H. Gombrich, "Norm and Form:The Stylistic Categories of Art History and Their Origins in Renaissance Ideals," in Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, London, 1966, pp. 93-94. 4 S. J. Freedberg, Circa 1600, Cambridge, Mass., 1983, p. 63.

Fig. 1 Advertisement, Hart Schaffner & 36 Art Journal

Henri Zerner is Curator of Prints at the Fogg Art Museum.