Friday, May 27, 2011

2011.05.57

Jacob Wamberg, Landscape as World Picture: Tracing Cultural Evolution in Images (2 vols.). Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2009. Pp. xx, 579; x, 520. ISBN 9788779342873. $160.00.

Reviewed by Lisa Hughes, University of Calgary (lahughes@ucalgary.ca)

Version at BMCR home site

Is cultural evolution a key to understanding the development of specific pictorial themes in western art history? Jacob Wamberg attempts to answer this question through thematic and chronological analyses of images of landscape from the Palaeolithic to the modern period. Wamberg's method is in part indebted to Hegelian notions of aesthetics, inspired by 18th century German writers (e.g., Winckelmann, Kant, and Schiller). From this perspective, art in general is envisaged as an embodiment of divine beauty and the freedom of the human spirit. Painting, in this view sets the stage for these embodiments to manifest themselves to the human eye.1 Wamberg also endeavors to ground his method within cultural evolutionary theory – a theoretical framework that could be considered part of the New Art History movement.2

Using landscape, more specifically the perception of depth of field within a landscape, this weighty and ambitious two-volume work sets out to demonstrate how western cultures have construed that subject over time and space.3 The first volume (chapters 1-7), beginning with the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux and ending with 19th century European art, examines how western societies have visually perceived the world around them in three-dimensional form. In essence, Wamberg, following the lines of Hegel, claims that humans have developed a conscious detachment from the earth and long for a past devoid of labors. It is in this volume that those interested in ancient art will encounter some familiar themes: the Golden Age (chapter 4), the locus amoenus (chapter 5) and sacro-idyllic landscapes (chapter 6). In the second volume (chapters 8-12), the reader is taken to the modern age when, as Wamberg would argue, landscape is further distanced from the urban setting that dominates that age.

Wamberg maintains the need for an evolutionary model to formulate the basis for his landscape theories. To add yet another layer to the already controversial Hegelian relationship between aesthetics and philosophy, Wamberg more specifically turns to models offered by cultural evolution, namely memetic and phylogenetic comparative models. Richard Dawkins popularized memetic theory in the mid 1970s to test the relationship between biological evolution and culture.4 Dawkins' understanding of memes (ideas, behaviors or styles) centered on genetic replication as a means for an organism to evolve. In other words, when meme patterning exists, one must trace it back to a single source. Wamberg's use of memetic analysis, requiring the determination of a single source for depth perception in landscape, could be construed as problematic: can one trace an idea to a single source?5 In addition, by using the "western" arts (which, in itself is an artificial construct) Wamberg creates an isolationist view of the west devoid of any interaction with entities outside of Europe. The effect of trade, for example, in creating dialogue and disseminating new ideas from other sources is largely ignored.6

Another facet of cultural evolution that Wamberg applies is phylogenetic systematics. Wamberg states "that evolution is not merely a case of irreversibility but of directional irreversibility, and that this determined direction may be demonstrated though the pursuit of one or more parameters that are increased over the course of history"(71). A useful test of the validity of his statement would have been the construction of a phylogeny that reflected the various taxa associated with landscape paintings throughout the ages. The incorporation of Greek and Roman wall paintings as valid data in such a system is potentially problematic, as Wamberg readily attests: "the lack of evidence – written and pictorial alike – means that what can be said about the genesis of landscape painting is going to be rather hypothetical" (480). Can such data be incorporated into a phylogeny? Traditional anthropological views, such as those espoused by Tëmkin and Eldredge, have proposed that because of the complexities associated with cultural systems, phylogenies of cultural features are flawed and require further assessment.7 Mace, however, would argue that uncertainties are part and parcel of evolutionary trees and that phylogenies can help answer important questions (e.g., about the form or existence of ancestral states, or rates of evolution or patterns of co-evolution).8

Wamberg's argumentation concerning key methodological points related to the cultural evolutionary model may fall short for some readers. Students exposed to Wamberg's method for the first time may come away with a very biased view of this particular framework. To strengthen his own presentation, the author would have done well to anticipate and counter objections pertaining to the relationship between cultural evolution and material remains.

One value of this work is the fact that Wamberg has gathered an impressive and comprehensive repertoire of well-illustrated examples of landscapes in a single work – a feat unmatched in art historical scholarship to date. In addition, the work raises some very important questions about how we may apply evolutionary theory to material culture. A study that incorporates non-western traditions would be invaluable as a means to test Wamberg's hypotheses. Criticisms aside, this work will provide much food for thought for scholars interested in bridging the gaps between the arts and the sciences.



Notes:


1.   S. Houlgate (2009), "Hegel's Aesthetics" Retrieved November 24, 2010 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-cultural/.
2.   I would take issue with Wamberg's assertion that evolution is a "dirty word" in New Art History circles. The New Art History Movement, heavily indebted to theoretical models from other disciplines such as anthropology and literary theory, simply seeks to put art within its social, historical and cultural contexts. See J. Harris, The New Art History: A Critical Introduction. London, 2001.
3.   Wamberg admits that the personal journey to write a book of such ambitious scope has been arduous. This work stems from his habilitation dissertation completed at the University of Aarhus in 2005. Wamberg is not bashful about informing his readers about the skepticism he met from his examination committee (xvi-xvii).
4.   R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Oxford, 1976.
5.   Unfortunately, Wamberg does not even address the literature that offers alternative viewpoints concerning the memetic model. See, for example, P. Richerson and R. Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, Chicago, 2005; T. Lewens (2007), "Cultural Evolution" Retrieved November 24, 2010 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-cultural/.
6.   Furthermore, how do these theories apply within the contexts of non-western art? Wamberg acknowledges his Eurocentric bias, but does touch on the non-western arts briefly (135-7).
7.   I. Tëmkin and N. Eldredge, "Phylogenetics and Material Cultural Evolution" Current Anthropology 48 (2007): 146-53.
8.   R. Mace and C. J. Holden, " A phylogenetic approach to cultural evolution." Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20.3 (2005): 116-21; R. Mace, C.J. Holden, and S. Shennan, The Evolution of Cultural Diversity: A Phylogenetic Approach. London, 2005.

2 comments:

  1. Author's comment (I)

    Thanks to Lisa Hughes for an, in the main lines, sympathetic review of my book Landscape as World Picture. I hope, however, she will forgive me for responding to some of her statements, which I believe are in need of certain adjustments. First of all, I am a bit surprised that she doesn’t even briefly summarize the main thesis of the book, but only hints at it indirectly through a not very precise evocation of one of my theoretical supports, Hegel. Instead of foregrounding what is useful for the book in Hegel – namely his idea of the coming to itself of spirit, self-consciousness, through history, and the way this process is reflected in the evolution of art, from material to more aethereal media – Hughes rather pointlessly refers to a Hegelian role for art as a static ”embodiment of divine beauty and the freedom of the human spirit” (she also mentions Hegel as protagonist of a view of humans as longing toward a past devoid of labor, but I don’t know her source for this). But the main thesis of my book is that Hegel’s ideas can be elaborated by following the internal evolution of two-dimensional art. Thus, throughout the history of images, one observes with increasing clarity a point of view, an imaginary ‘I’, against which a depth of field, a re-presented landscape, simultaneously expands.

    To the best of my knowledge, this thesis is presented here for the first time, framed within a comprehensive row of contexts, including cosmology, sociology and psychoanalysis, none of which are mentioned in the review. Instead, Hughes claims that a useful test for the thesis ”would have been the construction of a phylogeny that reflected the various taxa associated with landscape paintings throughout the ages.” But, as far as I’m aware, this is what the book is all about (the phylogeny condensed into a diagram on page 11). Unsure of its gain of knowledge, though, Hughes foregrounds the naked collection of visual material as the book’s pioneering value.

    Taking Hughes’ own fighing shy of evolutionist engagement into account, it is quite remarkable that in her view I am nevertheless mistaken to consider evolution a ”dirty” word in the dominant art historical trend of the last thirty years: New Art History. According to her, cultural evolutionary theory is a perfectly legitimate part of its methodological repertoire. But as I discuss at length in my methodological chapter (72-86), New Art History, along with many other recent movements in the human sciences, is rounded by a poststructualist discourse, which is skeptical towards larger, especially developmental (diachronic), patterns in history, favoring instead irreducible differences as markers of the ”social, historical and cultural contexts”, to which Hughes correctly points as part of New Art History’s interests. Could she mention just one example of a representative of New Art History who uses evolutionistic theory as an instrument of cultural analysis?

    Otherwise, Hughes resorts into a somewhat unmotivated focus on the role of Dawkins’ memetic theory in my evolutionistic model of culture. Memetic theory is just one part of a larger complex of ideas I put into use to explain how certain stable large scale patterns seem to be maintained in culture, including Bourdieu’s field and habitus, Foucault’s episteme, Kuhn’s paradigm, Spengler’s prime symbol, Panofsky’s mental habit, Cassirer’s symbolic form and Prigogine’s dissipative structure. Hughes reproaches me for believing that cultural ideas, in the shape of memes, have single sources, but nowhere do I say so. Even if there were single sources involved, these would only count on the micro-level, participating together with countless other micro-sources in generating the emergent phenomenon of the paradigm (or in the vocabulary of memetic theory: memeplex).

    (to be continued)

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  2. Author's comment (II):

    From a reviewer with a classical background I had hoped for just a little more response and reflection deriving specifically from her knowledge of ancient and Late Antique cultures, a subject covering perhaps half of the pages of volume one. But as to classical contexts Hughes restricts herself to taking the fragmented reconstruction of the genesis of landscape imagery in Greek-Roman antiquity as a key to problematizing the whole project of establishing a phylogenetic evolution of landscape images from pre-historic to modern times. To this I will respond, however, that the missing links of ancient painting between the fifth and the second centuries BCE don’t affect the overall evolutionary pattern: that Greek-Roman cultures in sum progressed from an Egyptian-like perspective (in the sixth century black figure vases) to a fully fledged quasi-illusionistic perspective (in the Roman sacral-idyllic panoramas). To her claim that I would “have done well to anticipate and counter objections pertaining to the relationship between cultural evolution and material remains”, I can only say, again, that I do anticipate such objections with structuralist arguments over several pages (74-78).

    Hughes does point to the perhaps weakest point of the book, when she remarks that its restriction to ‘Western’ cultures is an artificial construct. I should respond however, that this is not a result of cultural chauvinism but merely of failing in-depth knowledge of ‘non-Western’ cultures. The small comparative outlook to such cultures I do include in the book certainly deserves an expansion.

    Finally, I would like to state that if my responses appear critical, this should in no way be taken as an indication that I don’t appreciate the time Hughes has spent on this book and her moderately positive assessment of it. I just would like potential readers to have a fair impression of the work’s contents. And I do care to test if my ideas function or not.

    Jacob Wamberg
    Aarhus University (DK)

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