Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ekphrasis and Discovery

Leonard Barkan on ekphrasis in his Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture . Here's a little taste of his discussion, how ekphrasis follows discovery:

In the face of these new interrelations, Sangallo and the other onlookers respond in two ways: they draw and they talk. They create more works of art, and they conduct an impromptu seminar on the history of art. The words are a sign that art has a history that deserves to stand alongside the history of power or of nature, while the establishment of a past history of art directs the course of art's future history. The images are a sign that art can be made not only out of dogma, out of natural observation, or out of historical events, but also out of art itself. The words and images together produce aesthetics—which is to say a philosophy and a phenomenology proper to art itself. The unearthed object becomes the place of exchange not only between words and pictures but also between antiquity and modern times and between one artist and another.

A piece of marble is being rediscovered, but at the same time a fabric of texts about art is being restitched. Writings from later antiquity—Ovidian poetry, Roman novels, Greek romances, lyrics, and rhetorical exercises—turn out to be filled with passages, typically what are called ekphrases, in which narrative is framed not as reality but as the contents of an artist's picture. These passages stand in ambiguous relation to the actual objects emerging from the ground. Ekphrases are categorically different from the works of art they supposedly describe; indeed, the poetic description of an imaginary sculpted Laoco├Ân would doubtless not resemble the statue in Rome any more than Virgil's narrative does. Yet this fabric of texts tantalizes readers with the possibility that, together with the rediscovered works themselves, it will reconstruct a complete visual antiquity. In addition, the ekphrastic literature brings with it a set of ways to look at the visual arts and a set of relations between aesthetic representation and language.

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