James Heffernan. Cultivating Picturacy: Visual Art and Verbal Interventions. Waco: Baylor UP, 2006. ISBN: 978-1932792416. Price: US$49.95[Notice]

  • Gillen D’Arcy Wood

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  • Gillen D’Arcy Wood
    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

James Heffernan’s Cultivating Picturacy is a treasure for scholars and students interested in the history, theory, and practice of text-image relations. The volume, beautifully produced and illustrated by Baylor University Press, contains a breadth of reference, richness of analysis, and limpid prose that are truly marvelous. It consists of fourteen essays (including the introduction), almost all published in the period 1988-2000, which, taken together, crown a distinguished career in what used to be rather quaintly called “sister arts” criticism, but which is now, in the age of metastasizing visual-verbal media, among the most urgent topics of cultural history and aesthetics. As his many books in the field have shown, Heffernan is a deeply learned, creative, and independent-minded guide to this history, and one whose position on the issue is clear and consistent: art images are “rhetorical” in the sense that they require interpretation and, therefore, discourse: “the rhetoric of painting depend[s] on the rhetoric of speech.” (82) This formulation—built around the visual literacy, or “picturacy” of the viewing subject—does not pre-emptively award the palm to language, relegating images to the degraded, subordinate status they have held in Western theory from Plato to Lessing and beyond. On the contrary, as Heffernan’s own elegant practice of “picturacy” shows, what is needed from the critic is an artful deconstruction of what the neo-classical theorists called “the hierarchy of arts” through analysis, on a case by case basis, of how visual and verbal media, whether formally integrated by the artist or juxtaposed by the critic, reveal and amplify meanings in the other. This process of generating meaning is discursive, yes, but neither word nor image has a controlling share. “There is no such thing as a coherent discourse about art,” Heffernan contends, but rather “a bewlidering variety of discursive practices that diverge and proliferate.” (115) That is, there is no discourse, of whatever art-historical or theoretical school, that can lay claim to mastery over the signifying properties of images. Heffernan’s essential point, then, is not for a specific critical mode, but to highlight the power of art images as inexorable generators of discourse, of whatever kind. In the first three chapters, Heffernan assembles a round-table of art theorists and critics, from Philostratus, Vasari and Diderot, to Panofsky, Schapiro and Steinberg, with each of whom he engages closely and critically. The term “picturacy,” we discover, is a product of Heffernan’s dissatisfaction with both E.H. Gombrich’s perceptualist account of Western art history—in which an ever-greater approximation of the real world is the collective object—and Norman Bryson’s materialist semiotics: “perceptualism will never given way entirely to the semiotic conception of art—because it is scarcely possible to banish the sense of perception altogether from the act of viewing pictures.” (3) Likewise subject to rich and persuasive critique are the modernist Grand Narratives of Greenberg, Steinberg, and Krauss, which celebrate the triumph of modernist abstraction, the Hegelian purity of the image divorced from reference and language. No such divorce has ever occurred, argues Heffernan, who shows convincingly that art criticism has not changed in its essentials from the Ancients to the present day. From Alberti to Diderot to Clement Greenberg, “the art of speaking for pictures is above all a rhetorical performance.” (44) Furthermore, in the modern era, neither the advent of mechanical reproduction nor abstract painting has fundamentally altered the viewer/critic’s relation to the art image as an object distinct from ordinary objects in its demand for words, to be addressed in language. In Pollock’s drip paintings, for example, the “figurative components . . . begin to emerge as soon as we carefully scrutinize its materiality . . …

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