Chaos Theory

Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History
Karen Lang
Cornell University Press, 2006.
Elizabeth Sears
Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History by Karen Lang, Cornell University Press, 2006

Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History
by Karen Lang, Cornell University Press, 2006

Karen Lang’s new book, Chaos and Cosmos: On the Image in Aesthetics and Art History (Cornell University Press, 2006), is a timely intervention. Lang brings order, by way of an original synthesis, to ideas scattered in the discursive spaces of art history. Responding to a good quarter century’s worth of historiographico-critical writing, she has produced a searching and insightful book, one that is historically grounded if not a history per se. Lang reveals herself to be a superlative expositor as she invites readers to re-encounter select writings by Erwin Panofsky, Immanuel Kant, Aby Warburg, Ernst Cassirer, Alois Riegl, and Walter Benjamin. The texts she treats include some of the most challenging, most resonant, most regularly revisited works in today’s critical canon. Lang’s book is artfully plotted, with surprising turns.

In this context it is perhaps useful to reflect on the fact that the “new art history” of recent decades has developed in tandem with a “new historiography.” Take the year 1982: the Art Journal devotes a special issue to the “Crisis in the Discipline”; Block magazine andthe Middlesex Polytechnic mount a conference on “The New Art History?”; and Michael Podro publishes The Critical Historians of Art, in it defining a line of art historical study grounded in German philosophical aesthetics that extends from Hegel and Rumohr to Riegl, Woelfflin, Warburg, and Panofsky.1 Within the sphere of critical theory, a looking back has thus accompanied a looking forward, and early German and Austrian works have provided a touchstone. T. J. Clark, in his seminal statement on the social history of art, “The Conditions of Artistic Creation,” published in the Times Literary Supplement in May 1974, referred back to the work of Warburg, Woelfflin, Panofsky, Saxl, and Schlosser as he pondered how questions about the nature of artistic production had been lost.2 More recently Frederic Schwartz, in his Blind Spots: Critical Theory and the History of Art in Twentieth-Century Germany (2005), turned to a cluster of theorists–Benjamin, Bloch, Kracauer, and Adorno–to show that certain ideas imported into today’s art history via theory were in fact born in early twentieth-century discourses on the visual, including art history. He concludes: “we need not always, today, start from scratch,” if sometimes we may want to.3

Lang’s protagonists belong to this developing canon of thinkers writing in German–art history’s “mother tongue.” She directs her attention to the philosophical underpinnings of their analyses, evaluating past explorations of the possibilities for a rigorous, systematic investigation of the aesthetic object. The book’s dominant metaphor is the movement from “chaos to cosmos,” from aggregates to systems–a recurrent image among her authors. In 1945 Panofsky wrote, with reference to humanistic and scientific endeavor: “There are, after all, problems so general that they affect all human efforts to transform chaos into cosmos, however much these efforts may differ in subject matter” (p. 16).4

Chaos and Cosmos might be described as a study of vantage points, of near views and far views, of forms of distancing adopted by “scientific” art historians who, in the pursuit of general principles, have sought means for positioning aesthetic objects within a unified field of inquiry.5 “To see, to represent, to know” (p. 1)–this is the “arc” of theory Lang follows throughout her study. “Seeing,” she says, “enlists the empirical viewpoint; representing draws on an objective point of view; while pure knowing operates from a transcendental vantage point” (p. 1). A recurrent theme is the way that aesthetic objects defy and resist the “pressures of the transcendental vantage point” (p. 4).

The book is artful in its ordering, itself a “cosmos” in the double etymological sense of “world” and “ornament.” By examining her art historical texts on a philosophical register and translating related concepts into common terms, Lang reveals a network of intellectual affinities. By bringing shared motifs to the fore and introducing thematic echoes, she embellishes her study. Thus, for example, she opens with a re-telling of Plato’s tale of Thales, the first philosopher, who, studying the stars, gazed upward and fell into a well (p. 2). Kant is then introduced as fixing his gaze upon “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me” (p. 44). Warburg is quoted as writing: “Contemplation of the sky is the grace and curse of humanity” (p. 88), and described as asking Hopi children to illustrate the German fairy tale of “Johnny-Head-in-the-Air”–the story of a boy who looked skyward and fell into a pond (p. 103). All the anecdotes come, wittily, to serve as potential indicators of the “metaphorical perils of the skyward gaze, and with it the dangers of the point of view necessary for knowledge” (p. 105).

Unexpected interpretive maneuvers help Lang to meld her essays into a whole. In the second chapter, “The Dialectics of Decay: Rereading the Kantian Subject,” she undertakes to examine the place of the rogue element “nature” in Kant’s model, striving thereby to question received wisdom about the idealized Kantian subject. Her strategy, her means of “putting pressure” on the model, is to ask why Kant did not treat ruins in his third Critique. In the late eighteenth century, when ancient ruins were visited and represented and sham ruins constructed, Kant, she posits, might be expected to have made philosophical use of such monuments rather than the few works he did treat: “To this end,” she says, “the ruin appears a much more likely candidate as an occasion for the sublime than do the pyramids or St. Peter’s in Rome” (p. 71). This statement is puzzling, as the pyramids (violated by man and time) must be considered ruins, even if not discussed as ruins by Kant. Lang’s approach might seem, to some, even arbitrary. Still her greater purpose is clear, namely, to argue for the dialectical relation of reason and nature in Kant’s subjectivity. Her excursus on emotional responses to ruins, understood as operating proleptically within the cosmos of the book, comes to resonate with the discussion of Riegl’s concept of “age value” and Benjamin’s notion of “aura” as found in the fourth chapter, “The Experience of Time and the Time of History.” The reader triangulates on a phenomenon with the potential to disrupt the “systematic” study of aesthetic objects: the subjective experience of time and of nature’s transformative powers.

One of Lang’s most successful strategies is to pair authors–whether Riegl and Benjamin, or Warburg and Cassirer–so as to make texts speak to one another. In her insightful third chapter, “Goethe, Warburg, Cassirer: Symbolic Form as Orientation,” Lang explores with enthusiasm Warburg’s notion of the “oscillating nature of the symbol,” and she both represents and engages in the forms of recent Warburgian scholarship. Since the ’70s-’80s, when the effort to retrieve and reconstitute Warburg’s fragmentary project began in earnest (with intent to separate his work from that of his followers), scholars have found it necessary to interweave biography and intellectual history. Visits to the increasingly well-ordered Warburg Institute Archive in London–home to unpublished correspondence, notes, drafts, and photographs–have become de rigueur. Lang’s primary and secondary research throws light on a text that has, as she says, “achieved almost talismanic status in the scholarly writing on Warburg” (p. 93), namely Warburg’s 1923 lecture “Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America.” Warburg delivered this lecture, never intended for publication, at the clinic in Kreuzlingen where he was being treated for mental illness, and in it he referred back to materials collected during the trip he made to the American Southwest in 1895/96. The fate of this lecture, the first and long the only work of Warburg available in English, is itself extraordinary. Edgar Wind, as co-editor of the new Journal of the Warburg Institute with Rudolf Wittkower, had somewhat abridged a translation of the lecture when the Institute published it in 1939. Ulrich Raulff later edited the full German version (1988) and Michael Steinberg re-translated the text (1995), each providing extensive commentary on what had become a key text in the discourses of Cultural Studies.6 Lang enters into the fray, re-telling the relevant history, re-contextualizing Warburg’s pilgrimage to the United States with reference to contemporary anthropological and ethnological study, enlarging upon Wind’s contemporary account of Warburg’s theory of the symbol, and, most significantly, drawing out in detail the interactions between Warburg and Cassirer in the 1920s. Concluding that Cassirer “provided the inner philosophical coherence absent in Warburg’s own work” (p. 132), she summarizes the implications of the two scholars’ work for art historical study:

Warburg’s theory of the symbol at once permits and denies the distance between past and present moments required for recollection, historical narrative, and a philosophy of history. Cassirer’s theory of symbolic forms, on the other hand, and especially his conception of Geist, demonstrate how distance, reflection, and recollection are constitutive to the process of symbolic formation. Focusing on the manner in which Cassirer marshals his philosophy of symbolic forms in a direction from mythos to logos, previous scholars have often missed the way his theory of the symbol accounts for the movement between proximity and distance, for the simultaneous dance of experience and form. Investing Geist with the ability to reflect on itself and its forms, Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms is tuned to an ethical imperative (p. 134).

Chaos and Cosmos is a work of sustained intellectual labor. Lang has read widely and appreciatively in recent historiographico-critical literature in English and German. Her extensive footnotes may be considered a gift to future scholars, a means to assemble informed reading lists on a wide spectrum of issues. If, for purposes of definition, one were to characterize her choices, one would say that secondary bibliography is more richly and systematically provided than primary, that early art history, apart from the writings under consideration, is not thickly represented (e.g. Riegl’s study of late Roman art is discussed apart from Franz Wickhoff’s discussion of Roman art). For obvious reasons, Lang is drawn especially to her authors’ more abstract statements–with the result that, here and there, she foregoes opportunities to extract “theory” from their more concretely historical efforts. A few examples will suffice.

In the chapter on Kant, when Lang discovers in eighteenth-century paintings of ruins “interpretations of the concepts of beauty and nature that form a visual analogue to the philosophical debates of the period,” she adopts an approach close to that developed by Wind in his Warburgian study, “Hume and the Heroic Portrait” (1932). Here his method was to demonstrate, with eighteenth-century examples, how we may “look for philosophical implications in a picture and artistic implications in a philosophical proposition.”7 And when Lang discusses Riegl’s work in relation to nineteenth-century notions of universal history, she does so without reference to his essay “Art History and Universal History”(1898)8 or his Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, where he proceeds several times through “knowable historical time” (1897/98).9 In the chapter, “Points of View in Panofsky’s Early Theoretical Essays,” she provides exemplary analysis of Panofsky’s explorations of the “conditions of a systematic art history” and persuasively concludes that his early essays “engage seeing, representing, and knowing by demonstrating how a theory of style might compose perception, representation in the form of a work of art, and historical knowledge in the guise of a history of style” (p. 21). Discussing Panofsky’s search for a priori categories and intrinsic laws, she refers to Perspective as Symbolic Form (1927) but chooses not to engage with his iconographical work. In preserving today’s critical divide between the “theoretical” German Panofsky (1915-32) and the “iconographical” American Panofsky (post-1933), she follows trends in the field. And yet Panofsky can be seen to have concerned himself explicitly with “points of view” as he expanded his program to embrace issues of content as well as style. Even before 1933, he was using Warburgian mythographic material to develop what would eventually become his “principle” or “law of disjunction”:

[M]edieval Western art was unable, or, what comes to the same thing, was unwilling, to retain a classical prototype without destroying either its original form, or…its original meaning. One of the essential characteristics of the western European mind seems to be the way in which it destroys things and then reintegrates them on a new basis–breaking with tradition only to return to it from an entirely new point of view–and thus produces “revivals” in the true sense of the word.10

Panofsky’s observations with regard to the Renaissance sense of historical distance, in fact, anticipate those of Thomas Greene and Peter Burke, which Lang introduces in her chapter on “The Experience of Time and the Time of History” (p. 160). This is not to dispute her choices but to add reinforcing observations from works not incorporated into her study.

Eric Fischl, The Sheer Weight of History, 1982.

Eric Fischl, The Sheer Weight of History, 1982. Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist; Photo: Zindman/Fremont.

One of the most difficult tasks in historiographical writing is to maintain a persuasive dialogue between past and present, between older projects and current issues. Lang does so throughout her study and, in a conclusion and an afterword, casts her eye forward, advancing a theoretical position informed by the work of the authors she has treated. In an effort to go beyond the idealized Kantian subject and the scientific way of knowing it implies, she proceeds from the work of “the connoisseur” as embodied in the (somewhat caricatured?) figure of Bernard Berenson: “I want to argue for objectivity as a more complex affair than a Berenson-inspired form of connoisseurship would care to admit” (p. 182). The stakes here might seem somewhat remote, in that few in today’s academy practice or would defend Berensonian art history. But this does not lessen the interest in Lang’s observations on assumptions embedded in notions of “objectivity” or her attempt to define a “dialectical sense of objectivity.” As she says: “Rather than hold subjectivity and objectivity, facts and conjecture, and near and distant viewpoints in binary opposition, I will argue for their necessary interrelation” (p. 182). She punctuates her concluding discussion with an evocative visual sequence: Berenson gazing on the marble flesh of Paolina Borghese in a photograph on the cover of Connoisseur (1986), “Historia” as depicted in a German edition of Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1760), Eric Fischl’s painting The Sheer Weight of History (1982)–these tell a tale of a failing faith in the possibility of containing the past through objective recording. A discussion of Bill Viola’s video projection, Stations (1994), then fulfills Lang’s promise of showing that “aesthetic objects are theoretical on their own terms” (p. 5): “Stations speaks of a nature that exists not as a world of objects tamed for a transcendental viewer so much as a realm that includes and exceeds a subject who is asked to ponder identity and difference, temporality and supra-temporality, life and death, as part of his or her own existence” (p. 212).

Chaos and Cosmosis an ambitious and important work. Lang offers fresh, well-informed, and impressively sustained readings of texts that have rightly garnered interest among recent theorists and historiographers. Any art historian reading, or teaching, Panofsky’s early theoretical writings, Warburg’s lecture on the serpent ritual, Riegl’s “The Modern Cult of Monuments,” or any others of the texts she treats, would be advised to turn to her expositions before proceeding further. In her opening words, Lang speaks of her own growing awareness of “the power of images and the intellectual labor required to understand the image in any adequate sense” (p. xi). Her admirable, and challenging, book will bring readers to experience the fascinating complexities of art historical analysis and will aid in the collective task of creating ever more sophisticated platforms for the interpretation of the visual.

Elizabeth Sears is a Professor of the History of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.



  1. Podro’s seminal study (Yale University Press, 1982) is a precursor to Lang’s, and his justification for the undertaking throws light on her own: “The present book examines a central tradition within the literature of the visual arts. The foundation of that tradition lay in German philosophical aesthetics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and it stretches from roughly 1827 to 1927… This literature has a strong internal coherence. Its writers not only re-examined the same issues, but challenged, expanded and elaborated on one another’s work. And the tradition can be marked off from other contemporaneous art historical writing by its objective: it aimed to explore particular works in the light of our conception of art–of those principles which governed art as a whole” (p. xv).
  2. Clark’s text is itself now deemed classic and anthologized: Art History and its Methods, ed. Eric Fernie (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), pp. 248-53.
  3. Blind Spots (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. x-xiii.
  4. Cited after Dr. Panofsky and Mr. Tarkington: An Exchange of Letters 1938-1946 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 114.
  5. See most recently Lang’s essay, “The Far in the Near,” Art Bulletin, vol. 89, no. 1 (2007), pp. 26-34.
  6. Schlangenritual: Ein Reisebericht (Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 1988); Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995).
  7. Edgar Wind, “Humanitaetsidee und heroisiertes Portraet in der englischen Kultur des 18. Jahrhunderts,” in Vortraege der Bibliothek Warburg 1930-1931 (1932), pp. 156-229; trans. in Hume and the Heroic Portrait, ed. Jaynie Anderson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), pp. 1-52, at 3.
  8. Alois Riegl, “Kunstgeschichte und Universalgeschichte,” Festgabe zu Ehren Max Buedigers (Innsbruck, 1898); rpt. Belvedere, vol. 7 (1925), pp. 1-6.
  9. Alois Riegl, Historische Grammatik der bildenden Kuenste, posthumously published by Karl M. Swoboda and Otto Paecht (Graz: Boehlau: 1966); translated by Jacqueline E. Jung (New York: Zone Books, 2004), p. 55.
  10. Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, “Classical Mythology in Mediaeval Art,” Metropolitan Museum Studies vol. 4, no. 2 (1933), pp. 228-80, at 228 f. These ideas were developed in subsequent studies: Erwin Panofsky, “Renaissance and Renascences,” Kenyon Review, vol. 6 (1944), pp. 201-36, and Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksells, 1960).
Further Reading