The New York Review of Books

Volume 49, Number 14 ů September 26, 2002


The Last Humanist

By Clifford Geertz

A Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art
by E.H. Gombrich 
Phaidon, 324 pp, $59.95


When Ernst Gombrich, the most celebrated art historian of our time, died last year at the age of ninety-two it seemed as though not just an individual career but a whole movement of thought and sensibility had come to an end. He was the last of the great Central European humanists who sought to realize the dream, first set forth by Jakob Burckhardt in the 1860s, of a Kulturwis-senschaft: a comprehensive, "scientific" study of Western high culture that was at the same time a defense of that culture against the terrible simplifiers of modern barbar- ism. Ernst Robert Curtius, Erich Auerbach, and Leo Spitzer in literature, Ernst Cassirer, Karl Pop- per, and Paul Oskar Kristeller in philosophy, and Erwin Panofsky, along with Gombrich, in art history, most of them refugees from Germany and Austria to Britain and the United States in the late Thirties and early Forties, produced a series of formidable works, synoptic, self-confident, and astonishingly learned, that sought to reclaim the heritage of European scholarship after the fascist catastrophe and reestablish it in the, as they saw it, thin and directionless postwar world. The words with which Curtius, who stayed behind in Bonn quietly writing his way through the horror, prefaced his grand, unbending study of Latin literature in the Middle Agesˇbegun in 1928, finished in 1948ˇcould have served as motto for them all: "This book does not content itself with scientific purposes; it attests to a concern for maintaining Western civilization."[1]

Gombrich's recruitment into this extraordinary enterprise in cultural reclamation was effected through the agency of an odd, unclassifiable library-cum-research center moved bodily from Hamburg to London in the early Thirties: the Warburg Institute. Originally founded by the now nearly mythical figure Aby Warburg of the banking Warburgs, a follower of Burckhardt's, a compulsive bibliophile, and a proponent of what he called alternatively "historical psychology," "the psychology of style," "the science of culture," and "the afterlife of antiquity," the institute formed a home for a wide variety of German-speaking humanists trying to continue or restart their interrupted careers in an Anglo-American environmentˇphilologists, archaeologists, iconologists, epigraphers, stylisticians, ethnologists, psychoanalysts, mythographers, archivists, historians of science, painting, religion, and philosophy, exegetes, and rhetoricians. Gombrich, who left Vienna at twenty-six, a half-step ahead of the Anschluss, joined the institute as the editor of Warburg's papers in 1936 and remained with it, eventually as its director, for the rest of his life. "I found myself in an entirely new milieu," he said in an informal talk fifty years later, reflecting on his sudden passage from a staid, discipline-bound university system to the swirl of recondite studies ("the patronage of the Medici, the survival of Neo-Platonism, Vasari, astrology") that was the Warburg. "Nobody quite knew what we were doing and why we were doing it.... It is not an art-historical institute and it never was."[2]

Since the Warburg was not an art-historical institute, Gombrich, who had been quite traditionally trained, mostly in the typology of ornament, had perforce to become something other than, or anyway something besides, an art historian. Generally uninterested, by his own account, in connoisseurship, in iconography, in criticism, or in aesthetics, and deeply hostile to both the sociology of art (then, mostly Marxisant) and to any form of Hegelian murmuring about "world view," "the spirit of the age," or "the unfolding of the Absolute," he turned insteadˇsingle-handedly and with a fierce sense of breaking with "the charmed circle of...people who say, 'You know this picture will come up at Christie's in three weeks' time. ...How much do you think it will fetch?'"ˇtoward the development of what he called "an explanatory science of artistic representation":

...I staked my claim to be interested not only in the history of art as it is [usually] taught, but in something different. That difference is an interest in explanations. Explanations are scientific matters: how do you explain an event? I thought that certain aspects of the development of representation ...which I had discussed in The Story of Art in the traditional terms of "seeing and knowing," deserved to be investigated in terms of contemporary psychology.... I studied the subject for the sake of explanation....
This...meant that I never became a proper art historian.... My main interest has always been in more general types of explanation, which meant a certain kinship with science. Science tries to explain. In history we record, but in science we try to explain single events by referring them to a general regularity.[3]

The launching of this program took place, suddenly, boldly, and all at once, in 1956, when Gombrich gave the prestigious Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery in Washington. Under the general title "The Visible World and the Language of Art," he set out what has come generally to be known as a "constructivist," as opposed to a mimetic, approach to the plastic arts.[4] "No artist," he declared roundly, "can 'paint what he sees.'" What he (she) can do, and does, is exploit the means available in this place, or that time, for image-making, the production of sensory illusion. "The world can never quite look like a picture, but a picture can look like the world."

This reverse mimesis ("There was no fog in London," Oscar Wilde remarked, "before Whis-tler painted it") is, however, a much more complex and various achievement than it might at first appear. "The story of art," in Gombrich's account, is not a procession of periods and masterpieces, a progress of the spirit. It is a long and unplanned series of technical inventions and psychological discoveries, inventions like perspective or impasto or foreshortening, discoveries like gestalt perception, size constancy, and color spreadingˇconcrete, un- obvious, and extremely hard come by. From prehistoric hunters scratching the outlines of bison on the walls of their caves or children drawing cats as superimposed circles with arc tail and triangle ears to Constable rendering clouds, rainbows, and the shadowed meadows of Wivenhoe Park as "experiments in natural philosophy" or van Gogh using the collision of violet walls, red floors, and green doors to depict The Night Caf╚ as "a place where one could go mad" ("color alone," he wrote to Theo, "must carry it off"), the development of illusionist paintingˇthe only sort for which Gombrich shows much enthusiasmˇis a matter of first constructing images and then, only then, fitting them to expressive aims. It involves contriving a language and then ing...something by means of it. "Making," he says in what has become a famous slogan, "precedes matching."

With this basic notion in hand most everything else falls into place. The succession of styles, standards, and canons of taste in the visual arts emerges from a process of trial and error, of experiment with schema and correction rather like that his friend and mentor, the philosopher Karl Popper, describes for the natural sciences, a sort of pictorial problem-solving.[5] Art builds on art; the innocent eye is aimed and educated; the power of appearances is gradually discovered; the language of representationˇ"cryptograms on canvas" (the phrase, surprisingly, is Winston Churchill's)ˇis revised and extended. The Greek muralists' rendering of round figures turning freely in the picture plane (a "conquest of space" Gombrich compares to the invention of flying), Rembrandt's soft-focus projections of the human gaze, DŞrer's experiments with negative shapes and Escher's with impossible ones, the Impressionists' exploration of synesthetic color effects and the Cubists' with spatial disruptionsˇall these are episodes in a cumulative yet undirected expansion of our capacity for graphical representation. It is, again, rather like science, or like the progress of civilization overall: an opportunistic, precarious, easily interrupted, easily diverted process of lurching toward a more various sense of the world and the possibilities it holds for us.


There is, however, a flaw, unnerving and hard to account for, in this uplifting story of makings, matchings, and the onward evolution of artistic skill: the tide of taste often runs in the other direction. It runs toward crudeness, toward clumsiness, toward the insipid, the sugary, the brutal, the decadent, the seductive, the naive, the regressive, the unfinished, the simple, the violent, the exotic, the vulgar, and the inept, toward, in a wordˇfor Gombrich a charged, voluminous word containing multitudesˇ"the Primitive." "The Primitive" is everything that goes "counter to [the] dominant trend [of artistic effort]." It is a "revulsion from that very perfection that art [is] said to aim at." The archaic, the tribal, the popular, the commercial; Fra Angelico, Doric capitals, Art Officiel, Guernica, kitsch, schmaltz, Japonisme, Dada, Grandville, graffiti, the comic strip, and airport art; Yoruba masks, Cycladian idols, and Greek terra cottas ˇall are said to be marked, in one way or another, by the primitive. So too Attic oratory, the Arch of Constantine, and the paintings of children, madmen, andˇas with Klee, Dubuffet, Gauguin, Thurberˇthe faux naive. We can, says Cicero, perhaps the first to note the fashion for artlessness and to raise a question about it, appreciate the rough style of Thucydides without wishing to write as he did: "Are men so perverse as to live on acorns after grain has been discovered?"

Apparently they are. Gombrich's concern with the fact that, given a choice, people, artists and viewers alike, even those dubious collectors and connoisseurs, often, all too often, choose the less developed, refined, orderly, or perfected over the more, show not just an interest in "the primitive" but a positive, active preference for it, suffuses virtually all his workˇ haunts it as an unfocused, diffusive worry, a darkening cloud that won't go away. In 1953, "the game of Cubism" is described in a lecture to the British Psycho-Analytical Society as "the great smashing...the art of representing Humpty Dumpty after the fall [in which the artist] pours into...regressive forms all the aggression and savagery that was pent up in him." In 1970, the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein is said, in a BBC talk on "The Primitive and its Value in Art," to have "found himself trapped in a field of force in which he could see no move but that of turning to the [gross and simplified] imagery beloved of the unsophisticated masses."

In 1979, in his Cooper Union Lectures, "The Ideas of Progress and Their Impact on Art," Courbet, Delacroix, G╚r┘me, and Manetˇ"early modernism," broadly construedˇare seen as Hegelian sleepwalkers caught up in "a mindless cult of change." Throughout, he keeps promising and repromising a sustained and systematic, presumptively definitive, work on the subject to be called The Preference for the Primitive. Apparently at last completed just before his death (given its conglomerate, discontinuous form ˇit is an enormous bear of a book, put together like an album or a handbook, and ranging far beyond "art" as such to philosophy, rhetoric, and the history of ideasˇit is hard to know if he really was finished with it), it is now published posthumously, closing out his career with something between relief and resignation:

What readers have before them now is therefore a recapitulation of earlier work, and the attempt to justify my starting-point with Cicero in a series of further chapters. It will be seen that the theme occupied me for more than forty years, a period during which other writers also took on the problem of primitivism. I can only hope that despite this competition I still have something to say.

The problem, perhaps, is that he has too much. The first thing he has to do, before getting entangled in so vastly defined a subject, is to sort out the forms that "primitivism"ˇeverything that the "old masters" Raphael and Michelangelo, DŞrer and Rembrandt, VelĚzquez, Constable, Picasso before Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, were not ˇcan take. It is a category that has had as exemplars both the slick and saccharine, semipornographic works of Bouguereau and Bonnencontre, the "Turkish delight" travesties of Raphael and Botticelli, and the severe, masculinist simplicities of David or Cato, Mondrian or the Delphi Appolines, to say nothing of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Madonna of Lourdes, Saul Steinberg, and an Olmec head. Such a list obviously raises serious questions of differences and similarities, of just what it is that connects such original artists and works. "Primitive," as he himself asks in his troubled and equivocal closing chapter, "Primitiveˇin what Sense?"

Again, the sense he gives is psychological. "Primitivism" is an attitude, a turn of mind, an inclination, a preference; an interior thing. It is not, or anyway not primarily, a matter of intention, artistic or otherwise. Neither Thucydides nor Fra Angelico, and certainly not the Olmec stone carver or whoever made the Delphi statues, saw himself as "primitive." It is others, later or elsewhere, who have regarded them as such and, for reasons in need of exposure and explanation, praised or disparaged them for being so. Nor is it simply a matter of (the lack of) artistic skill, sophistication, polish. Neither David nor Picasso after Les Demoiselles, and certainly not Steinberg ("no artist alive...knows more about... representation"), or Manet, can be said to be inept, unknowing, or maladroit. They are reacting against what they take to be the received, the vacant, the timid, the solemn, or the meretricious ˇthe worn vanities of style. It is, as we say, a matter of taste. Choosing acorns when grain is available.

"Taste" may or may not be disputable, but, like Cicero, Gombrich is no relativist and thinks that it is, and that much of what passes for "art" these days (Duchamp's urinal, "an exhibition of canned excrement displayed as 'merde d'artiste,'" the bizarre productions of mental patients) is mere hoax or provocation. Anyone who prefers Disney's elephant to Rembrandt's,or the windows at Bourges to those at Chartres, a similar difference, actually, is simply mistaken. But unlike the making-and-matching evolution of artistic technique and expressive power, whether in the caveman's glyphs or Caravaggio's lighting, taste is essentially and inescapably a subjective phenomenon; personal, emotional, judgmental, as changeable as a mood or a political opinion. It inheres in the mind, not in the ob-ject. It is (part of) "the beholder's share":

In the terminology of modern market research, what I call the "preference for the primitive" would probably be described as a matter of consumer choice. It is the consumer of art, the art lover, who prefers one kind of style or of art over others. On a journey to Italy he will seek out the so-called "primitives," and turn away from the products of later periods.

What then accounts for the directions this "preference for the primitive" takes? Why, in particular, again and again, the vogue for the hieratic, the exotic, the ingenuous, the wild, or the demotic? Why, having seen what Raphael, "The Prince of the Painters," could do with modeling, grouping, and graded color, did Victorian taste turn back toward the flattened and fleshless Fra Angelico? How could Brancusi's minimalist, blocked-in Kiss have emerged from the tangled, theatrical one of (his teacher) Rodin? Why Manet after Ingres? Picasso after Manet? Pollock after Picasso? Is Lichtenstein's exaltation of kitsch and the comic strip the end of the line, or is there more to come?


It is these last, "contemporary," "abstract," "modern," or now (though he doesn't use the term) "postmodern" cases that most concern Gombrich, deepen his worries about the effects that "primitivism" is having on "civilization." The long and lumbering history he traces from the craft mimeticism of Plato, Aristotle, and the ancients, through medieval rigidities, mannerist distortions, Napoleonic poses, and romantic sentimentalities (a page on the Gothic Revival, two on Vico, a half on the French Revolution), is all so much prelude to what really seems to threaten both the future of Kultur and the progress of Wissenschaft: "[The] movement of taste that came to its climax during my lifetime...[the reaction] of twentieth-century primitivism [against] those disciplines of self-control civilization demands." Until the last century, his century, the "lure of regression," the deliberate abandonment of skill and technique, was held reasonably well in check, and even put, on occasion, in satire or caricature, to limited and productive uses. Since then, however, it has come near, like a massive return of the repressed, to taking over the arts, whole and entire:

"Get rid of your skill, of all you have learnt."...Hogarth's and Baudelaire's message certainly appealed to the twentieth century, and to no one more than to Pablo Picasso, whose art may a paradigm.... Visiting an exhibition of children's drawings he said to his companions...: "When I was a child I drew like Raphael. I have been trying to draw like these children ever since."...I hope I am not over-interpreting if I suggest that Picasso tried to revert to primitive elementals [he is speaking of the gored horse in Guernica, "something a newspaper cartoonist might also have done"] precisely because he found his skill obtrusive.

Picasso is, indeed, the testing case: he bears all the earmarks, all the scorings. He is a great painter (the only modern, except, and with similar reservations, possibly van Gogh, whom Gombrich seems ready to admit into that narrowed category). "In the turbulent years before the First World War, [he] suddenly threw overboard all the skill and refinement which had informed his masterpieces of the 'blue' period" and turned to the nervous disorderings of avant-garde experiment, taking the whole age with him. And, most consequentially of all, he introduced the literally "primitive"ˇtribal masks and tribal idolsˇinto Western high art. It was not, as William Rubin argued in the catalog to the famous 1984 "'Primitivism' in Twentieth Century Art" exhibition he curated as his curtain call at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, "'conceptualization' [that] Picasso was after when he transformed the face of the prostitute [in the Demoiselles] into the semblance of a tribal mask." What Rubin takes to be but a "shift," if admittedly a "fundamental" one, was, for Gombrich, "not so much the result of an evolution as a radical revolt, [it was] a deep-going revolution destined to change the mental set with which art was intended to be perceived." A long history of change in degree became, at length, a change in kind: "The idea of the 'primitive' in art or in civilization has become increasingly problematic to [the twentieth] century since we have lost the faith in the superiority of our own culture."

Here, finally, we have the crux. "The preference for primitivism" is not a matter of a return to earlier, simpler "forms of mentality." Following the example of the American anthropologist Franz Boas's 1907 classic, Primitive Art, and just about every serious writer on tribal art since, Gombrich has no use for any attempt to arrange differently based cultural expressions in an ascending scale, or for any notion that tribal peoples think, see, or feel in ways radically other than the ways in which we do. "The primitive" is neither a rudimentary stage in universal history nor a juvenile one in individual development. There is no analogy to be drawn between the childish, the mad, the tribal, and "what we call 'modern' art." They are altogether different sorts of "mental sets," and however much the last may draw on the others for means or inspiration, its ways of being "primitive" are not theirs. "Makers of primitive images should not be characterized as primitive species of the human race.... [But] I cannot see any harm in calling [an] image 'primitive' as long as we do not call the artist so."

Within the frame of Western Civilization, which, as for his fellow Warburgians, is the real object of his solicitude, love, and worry, "primitivism" is a sort of autoimmune response against that civilization's own achievements. Hence, all the talk, vaguely disparaging, in A Preference for the Primitive, about "the lure of regression," "the revolt against the disciplines of self-control that civilization demands," "the obtrusiveness of his own skills," "loss of faith in the superiority of our own culture," "the deliberate abandonment of technique," "the throwing overboard of refinement," and "the revulsion from the perfection art is supposed to aim at." Everywhere in our history, and increasingly to the point of crisis in modern times, there is a kind of natural backward-falling, a yielding to the simple and the schematic in the face of technical advance and elaboration, of sophistication, poise, and formal elegance.

There is, he says, in image-making as in physical space, a "law of gravity" that pulls against the active motion of things. In modern art, as in ancient or medieval, "the action of gravitational pull," the reduction of the complex to the simple, "can never be left out of account":

Given the fact that there are very few psychological laws of any validity, I think we must regard [the "law of gravitation" in image-making"] with some interest. It justifies, does it not, speaking of certain structural features in images which we are entitled to describe as "primitive"?

That all this effort, forty years of reflection on the topic, a determined, impeccably erudite search for the roots of our disorder, should come, in the end, to such a flaccid and unhelpful conclusion, a mock "law" drawn out of a homemade "psychology" (opium puts you to sleep because it has dormitive powers, entrepreneurial drive arises from the aggressive instinct), is, of course, more than a little sad. One feels quite let down by such an impoverished scientism built over a judgmental base. But it is instructive as well. At a time when the grand opposition of civilization and barbarism is becoming again a common coin of both cultural and political discussion, and all sorts of public figures are trying to tell us where the boundary between them lies and what it consists in, it will be well to keep in mind the dubiousness of the whole Ariel and Caliban procedure. We need to find in "primitivism," whatever it may or may not be, something other than the image of our fears.


[1] Quoted from Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953). For the others, see, inter alia: Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Doubleday, 1953); Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (Princeton University Press, 1948); Ernst Cassirer, Essay on Man: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Culture (Yale University Press, 1944); Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Routledge, 1945); Paul O. Kristeller, Renaissance Concepts of Man (Harper and Row, 1972); Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts (Doubleday, 1955). For Burckhardt, see The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Phaidon, 1995; orig. Leipzig, 1877˝1878).

[2] "An Autobiographical Sketch," in E.H. Gombrich, The Essential Gombrich, edited by Richard Woodfield (Phaidon, 1996), pp. 21˝36. On Warburg and Warburgism more generally, see Felix Gilbert, "From Art History to the History of Civilization: Aby Warburg," in History: Choice and Commitment (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 423˝439, originally a review of Gombrich's own Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (Warburg Institute, 1970). Warburg died in 1929.

[3] Gombrich, "An Autobiographical Sketch," pp. 33˝34, italics in original. "I don't...look down on [such] people," he continues: "Some of my best friends are connoisseurs." The Story of Art (Phaidon, 1950), a commissioned book written (or, rather, dictated) under the press of need over the course of some weeks immediately after the war, turned out to be Gombrich's most popular work, going through more than forty editions and twenty translations, though he himself seems to have been a bit embarrassed by it ("Within the Warburg Institute nobody was interested in that book, and I don't think anyone ever read it.") and only occasionally refers to it, and then obliquely, in his later writings. It should be said that in his books and articles on paintings and exhibitions in these pages and elsewhere, he showed himself a master of the very fields of art history he said were outside his main interests.

[4] The lectures, revised and expanded, were published as Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton University Press, 1960).

[5] For Popper, whose approach is usually referred to as "critical realism" or "evolutionary epistemology," see Con-jectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Basic Books, 1962).


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