August 17–21, 2009
Fondation Hartung-Bergman, Antibes, France
“Description,” of course, is both simple and complex for art historians. This workshop drew spirit from the late Michael Baxandall, whose work posed questions of how and why we describe artworks the way we do. Is description simply thought after seeing a picture?
Conceived as a critical homage to Michael Baxandall, who accorded close philosophical and critical attention to the terms of descriptive writing, this workshop considered the ways art historians commonly refer to what they observe with regard to subject matter, execution, and fabrication, as well as the ways such observations connect with what they know and with what they want to argue.
Participants focused primarily on the naturalized banality of daily practice, although the history of description and various theories about the relationship between the visual and verbal will undoubtedly need to be addressed as well. Diverse systems of description, even the most rudimentary, as in sale catalogues, or conventional, as in exhibition catalogues, and the different levels of description will be considered, with a focus on objects - architecture, sculpture, photography, decorative arts - whose visual and material characteristics make specific demands on descriptive procedures.
Along with its illusory claim to neutrality, description has been condemned as a vector of distraction, enforcing the foregone conventions of academic discourse and thus leading away from the object. The premise is that description is fundamentally ideological and determinant for the direction that interpretation is allowed to take. If this is the case, what is a pertinent measure of descriptive practice? With regard to what axis should description be articulated: that of the spectator’s relation to the object (objective-subjective), that of the author’s performance (textual-visual, convention-invention), or that of critical appropriation (denotation-interpretation)?