Sunday, August 31, 2008

Baxandall, Historian of the social nature of art

If there is an obscure book that influenced, no influences, me more than most, it was written by this man. The book is Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition.

He argues that rhetoric, and not humanism, was the original lens through which the early Italian renaissance saw themselves:

What they all had in common was the very singular and demanding medium of neo-classical Latin, neo-classical not just in its grammar but in its whole style and character. Because this was do difficult they gave much attention to it and, by their own account, skill at it was the special measure of their individual stature. Many of them, besides, made a career with this skill, as secretaries in the Curia at Rome or the Chancellery at Florence, as school-masters in mantua or Ferrara or Padua, or as appointed historians at the courts of Milan or Naples. Latin grammar and rhetoric was the humanists' art.

As importantly they understood this language as an intellectual, not vernacular language. Its difficulties were introduced because of it's varied resources, not because of its ability to replace the ordinary language of street and workshop. But under this is the relatively revolutionary thrust of neo-Ciceronian syntax: it was a replacement for church Latin, and hence medieval scholasticism, as dominant means of thought.

Their project was to recapture a lost flame, however imperfect they knew their efforts were. This is part of rebirth as a more general project, we talk about the rebirth of classical values, and their own project included a rebirth of the energy of another time that they saw as more like their own experience, more simpaticco to their own selves. More true a mirror in the distance.

So what does this have to do with art? And what does it have to do with us?

A great deal. First because their categories are very much like ours. Second because their relative position is like our own. They are coming out of a flat scholastic age, and into a polydimensional human age.


When talking about the paintings of early renaissance artists, that is from the birth of the renaissance ideal with Dante and Petrarch in the early 1300's through roughly 1450, the early orators, as Baxandall called them, spoke of Giotto, for example, they analyzed his paintings in the idea of decor and decus and therefore, to look for distinguishing features which asserted themselves. The distinguishing features which stood above their moment, and which asserted that moment.

The judgment is less important, said Baxandall, than what your system of thinking tells you what to look for, and what to talk about. He cites Lorenzo Valla's Elegantiae early in talking about what decus means, this is on page 10:

Decus is the honour, so to speak of which is gained from things well done: thus the deocra of war are the praise, honours, and dignities acquired by a soldier in battle...

Now, if this all sounds abstract. What are lulz? Lulz are the rewards of griefing in itself. We have decus right now, in that much of the honour of second life is from the doing well itself.

And then decor

Decor is a kind of beauty or pulchritudo derived from the suitability of things and person to both place and time, whether in action or speech... this refers not so much to virtue itself as to what common opinion considers to be virtuous, beautiful, and fitting.

Dedecus, is the opposite of decus.

Now, let me take an example of how language and decor are important to us. Suppose you see someone wearing system hair, system clothes and one of the two or three common skins that are lying around. You think "n00b" not just newbie, but someone who, as yet, has no understanding of how to put together an avatar, but has merely tripped over one or two things that are useful.

There, you are thinking like a renaissance orator in that you see the feature that stands out from the background, the background that asserts itself by the overwhelming collection of new things, and drawing a conclusion. That conclusion takes the form of a name. That name implies not just a simple description, but a state of mind, of being. You are seeing that he lacks an understanding of how to do things well in second life, and that this is ugly, not just visual, but spiritual.

So that's what they taught us, to look for the mastery of the common things, and to place a judgment in a single word which declares that the person has failed to earn the praise due to someone who belongs here. N00b.

So our n00b by failing to have decor acquires dedecus. And from that we can take from his bad facies the state of his vultus or will. To put it another way, the point of the system of thinking is to go from what we can see, to what we cannot see. The point being to have a unique or novel mastery of things, which is how someone earns decus by having not merely decor but the ability to transcend it.

Which is precisely what we look for in content: the ability to use the common tools to produce something which is uncommon.

But the larger project is also important. The writers and painters of that time were trying to recreate a world, in better form. So largely, are people in second life. If the platform doesn't support pseudo-realism, so much the worse for the users, who are often subjected to clumsy and loaded builds clearly thrust at the idea of being more like what people want the real world to be like than the real world is. If their grammar manuals were limited, so too is second life as a platform. They spent a lot of time bitching about their sources, and we spend a great deal of time bitching about Second Life. There is something remarkably resonant in reading them trash old medieval latin dictionaries, and then use them. It looks like us, complaining about lag, and logging in again.

It is from this that we get the concept of the period eye. Looking at things the way the people who made them looked at them. Consider a hundred years from now. Somewhere there is a museum. People are made to sit in front of screens, and given these clumsy input devices known as keyboards and mice. They will look at what we are doing through their eyes. Some docent will lecture about how people were willing to drop everything and play here. Baxandall's Painting and Experience in the 15th Century Italy, from 1972 has a chapter that details this concept.

The students will look incredulous.


The docent will then talk about how the times of this moment allowed us to judge things that to them, are invisible. The shape of a barrel told someone in 1400 a great deal. It tells us quite a bit less. The monitors and graphics equipment of this age tell people a great deal. They will tell the people of 2100 a good deal less.

Their social signs will not be ours, and the web of relationships implied, for example, by a yacht, or gun, or mansion, will not be ours. They might recognize the sign, but not grasp the signified. They might know it means something, but not what. What will they make of our obsession with tropical islands. In 2100, it's a pretty good bet that Ireland might be a tropical island.

Scholastic to Humanist

But there is another huge point of correspondence here. The renaissance was trying to leave behind a scholastic age in words, on that organized and flattened all projects to the religious one, a point that can be seen from a figure that Baxandall shows on page 32 of Painting and Experience with a flattened and clearly unrealistic map of what was to them "The Holy Land." That's us.

Let me take an example. What makes a good skin? Shadowing and detailing that makes the shape look more three dimensional than the machines we have render. What do you look like grey? Or half rezzed? And then fully rezzed? The creation of the illusion of 3D in a 2D world was the challenge of the painters of that day, and they studied perspective, light, shadow, anatomy, and the mechanism of lens, to obtain the tools to do it. And so the development of skins, from newbie to present, follows this course.

But this is only the visual aspect. Why do it at all? Why not have flatvatars that are all over websites these days. Why be round? Particularly because like us, they knew this is really impossible:

The painter exerts himself to make any figure he paints - actually just a little colour applied with skill to a panel - similar in its action to a figure which is the product of Nature and naturally has that action: so that it can deceive the eues of the beholder, eitehr partly or completely, making itself be taken for what it really is not.


In fact, since our vision is stereoscopic one is no normally long deceived by such a picture to the point of complete supposing it real. Leonardo da Vinci pointed this out:

It is not possible for a painting, even if it is done with the greatest perfection of outline, shadow, light and colour, to appear in the same relief as the natural model, unless that natural model were looked at from a great distance and with only one eye.

Baxandall's argument is that not only did the painter have to have skill to make the painting, but that the viewer had to have skill to interpret the painting. This skill set him as a member of the social relationships that came with it. The same is true of us: the ability to know what something means is essential for our social relationships.

Now, the social relationships of a scholastic world are different. That I know these books, and the books that they come from, and the books that cite them, is important in academia. It's part of the social relationships of scholasticism. Here, it doesn't mean very much at all. There aren't many builds with footnotes, and being able cite here is worth about as much as a 1L pair of prim blingers. Turn it off already many of you are thinking.

The scholastic social relationships are flattening. There objective is to flatten everything that has been written into one big text. This is like the scribal and scholastic logic of Byzantium. However we are Quattrocento in our visual world, and the visual world implies a different kind of social relationship, because its goal is not to flatten the world into a single page, but, on the contrary, to take our ability to work with flat things, like say, monitors or panels, and turn them into something which approximates nature.

And a big part of that nature is sex, of course, but I don't think I need to point this out quite yet. The more important thing is that there are three dimensional realities, in our case more than 3D realities, which we are trying to express. The difference is that a scholastic is trying to assert his or her relationship to a fixed text, even if that fixed text is a metaphysical reality. In fact, even more so because it is, like the dogma of religion, or the world of academia, a metaphysical text.

The byzantine mind wants to assert that the world is like our representation in that it has an intrinsic flatness, and the Quattrocento mind wants to assert that our representations can be more like the world.

This means that the byzantine mind is about flattening, and about the abstraction, where as the Quattrocento mind is about the thing gazed at. This means that the social purpose is also different. The Quattrocento mind, and the minds we are trying to create in second life, are the minds which see the person who is behind the creation, as opposed to the byzantine mind, which wants to see the creation that is behind the person.

So we have in sl, a renaissance mental society at work, trying to make things that show the reality of the people behind them. We judge things with ideas and systems that would have been familiar to early humanists, because, like them, we are struggling to give birth to a different place, where people, not abstractions are central. We have many of the same problems in creating a round representation with flat tools, which are the reverse of Web 1.0, which wanted to flatten messy round experience into web "pages."


  1. Nice thoughtful post, thank you!

    I remember reading a passage of some early XXth century author, and reading of someone sitting "in his shirtsleeves, drinking from a saucer" I was sure I was supposed to draw some social conclusion from that, but I hadn't the foggiest idea what it was...

  2. Reference to a person of poor manners, in England a reference to people from the north. The idea was to pour coffee or tea into a saucer to let it cool a bit. It was considered bad manners, and something only country would do.