Thursday, January 17, 2013
Throughout his book Eyewitnessing, Burke pushes the notion that images do not give straightforward answers to the questions modern historian have. Instead, the message that past artists wanted to deliver in their work rarely coincides with the information historians desire to know. If an historian is to successfully utilize art from the past, they must ‘read between the lines,’ which involves detailed knowledge and interpretive work. Pia Cuneo expands and crystalizes these ideas in the introduction of her Artful Armies, Beautiful Battles: Art and Warfare in Early Modern Europe, (a volume which she edited). Her thoughts are poignant and deserve consideration. Thus I shall précis the pertinent parts of her introduction, below, before giving some concluding thoughts.
A General Problem
The relationship between art and warfare is intricate and deep. Historians have “devoted significant attention to the methods, implements, techniques, and strategies of waging war. They have focused less, however, on the relationship between warfare and cultural production.” Unfortunately, this lack of attention “seriously inhibits” our knowledge of all the things listed. In other words, by ignoring images, or at least by using them poorly, historians are shooting themselves in the foot.
A Specific Problem
Some historians, like Alexander Hale, believe that images can illuminate our understanding early modern warfare, and have sought to remedy the situation. In Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance, Hale presented and utilized a plethora of military images, many which had never received attention before. Regrettably, Hale fell into a pit-fall all too common among historians: he read the images too straightforwardly; he failed to account for the variety of factors that must be considered when interpreting historical images.
Some scholars share Hale’s optimism and seek the same goals as he: using art in their work as historians. To avoid the pit-fall though, they approach the enterprise more critically: they narrow the scope of their analyses to one or a few pieces; they give attention to the artistic and ideological context of the images; they recognize factors like the training of the artist, the influence of his patron and audience, and his accessibility to accurate information regarding the campaigns and battles depicted. In brief, a critical pursuit of Hale’s endeavor grants that a complex relationship between history and art exists, and that the relationship must be worked out on a case-by-case basis.
The good news is, successfully using images can be done. The bad news, there is controversy on exactly how to work out the relationship, how to interpret the images.
The Hermeneutical Spectrum
The general problem from above was this: the relationship between art and history, between cultural production and historical reality, is a difficult one to pin down. Therefore, any specific relationships between art and history are also difficult to pin down, such as the relationship between military images and the actual, historical battles. Images are the sorts of things that must be interpreted – just like in a book or movie, we must ask ourselves “what was the creator trying to say?” A hermeneutic is set of assumptions and methods a historian uses to interpret a book, movie, image, or whatever else. For example, according to Cuneo, Hale’s hermeneutic of Renaissance military art was too simple and did not account for all the factors involving his images – thus his interpretations were either too simplistic (Example: Question- “What was Braveheart about?” Answer- “War, just about a war.”) or plain wrong (example: “Braveheart was about religious differences of two countries.”).
To interpret images, there are a variety of hermeneutics. They all roughly fall somewhere on a spectrum though, and the spectrum has two poles. It is hard to put the matter more clearly than Cuneo, so I shall quote her extensively.
"At one end of the hermeneutic spectrum, the role of the image is assumed to be primarily documentary. It is evidentiary, its represented forms directly mirroring the physical ones that once existed. The image also functions as a transparent window that affords the historian an undistorted view onto the past. All the historian has to do is simply to look at (and thus through) the image and s/he will understand, for example, what weapons and armor were used in war, how battles were fought, and under what conditions. A related assumption here is that the artist had complete access to the event (either through eyewitness observation or through reliable visual and/or textual records with which he was furnished) that he then faithfully reproduced; artistic and/or ideological interventions on the part of the artist and/or patron literally do not enter the picture."
"On the other end of the hermeneutic spectrum, the role of the image is assumed to be primarily aesthetic. It is artistic, its represented forms mirroring the artist’s conscious decisions about and physical manipulation of his medium. All the historian has to do is to look at (and thus across) its surfaces and s/he will understand, for example, what the artist intended, how he worked, and how the image manifests aesthetic qualities. A related assumption here is that the image has little or no connection with political and historical realities; it exists, untainted by the exigencies of daily life and experience, in an autonomous aesthetic realm. Rather than recording an actual, extrinsic event such as a military battle, the work of art records instead the artist’s internal struggle to give shape to aesthetic and formal expression.
Cuneo notes that few, if any, historians are 100% in either extreme; most fall somewhere in between. The rest of the Cuneo's book is a collection of essays where individual historians actually go about the task of explaining where they lie on the spectrum. After explaining their hermeneutic, they put it to work by analyzing individual images, and draw conclusions about the past within the hermeneutical limits they have set for themselves.
Artful Armies, Beautiful Battles and the Push of Pike
Though none of the essays in Cuneo’s book deal with the mechanics of battle, I think things are very optimistic for my project. Most professional military historians, much less an armchair-historian like myself, cannot devote the great amount of time and energy to art and its interpretation that art historians do. If folks like Burke and Cuneo are correct, and I think they are, military historians can safely draw few (if any) correct conclusions from military images without further help from other experts. Fortunately, there are art historians out there who are knowledgeable about such things. For people like me, it’s a matter of finding an image I am interested in, forming questions, and contacting the historian. I think at that point, the historian can tell me what to take into account, where I can find more information on the artist and his context, and maybe even give me much of the precise information I need to begin using the image for my project. A book like Cuneo’s, though it doesn’t contain analysis of the things I am interested in (like Push of Pike in military images), does show me the names and universities of scholars that I can begin contacting. Again, I find this to be a promising step.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
A Method For Using Military Images - Part 4: Burke and Some Conclusions for Reading Inbetween the Lines
In my last post, I looked at three types of images which Burke discusses for reading inbetween the lines. From his discussion, I pulled some helpful pointers for actually implementing his strategy with military images. I mentioned there that Burke claims that many folks are under the impression that artists were concerned to give accurate testimony. I for one have been under such an impression, viewing military images as mirrored likenesses of the past. I have done so willingly, because I want the most direct links to my historical subject. Artists, however, rarely carry such concerns. Thus my assumptions about military images, and therefore the conclusions I have drawn from them, are seriously compromised. Ultimately I want truth about military history (hence this blog!), therefore I am happy to be corrected by Burke and am thankful for his work and the work of others (which I will continue to discuss in this series on A Method for Using Military Images). Below are some of Burke's concluding thoughts, and them some of my own.
Burke concludes by iterating a few points that he has returned to throughout the book. For one, all images have a message, they all bear testimony. But almost no images were created to express messages that modern historians are interested in. Even so, if we are careful, we can “read between the lines” of those messages to find evidence of the past that the image was not expressly intended to give. Reading between the lines is dangerous; the trick is getting good evidence from an indifferent, or even hostile, source. Though he is careful to tell us he did not write a “how to” book for reading between the lines, he does sum up some general pointers in his closing thoughts.
- Images do not give access to the social aspects of the world in the past, but instead to contemporary views of the world.
- The testimony of images needs to be placed in the cultural, political, material (and so on) context of its time and place. Further, the artistic conventions of the period, as well as the interests of the artist, his audience, and his client, and the intended function of the image, all need to be taken into consideration. Stated another way, to correctly utilize an image, the military historian must be “visually literate.”
- A group of images from the time and place, taken together, offer better testimony than an image viewed in isolation.
- By noting small details that the maker did not know he was including, the viewer can read between the lines for information the image was not intended to give.
All in all, Burke’s book is thoughtful and an insightful tool for thinking about military images. Though he spends only part of his time discussing military images specifically, almost everything he has to say about other types of images has application to using military images. Burk is careful to state up front that his purpose was not write a “how to” book for using images for testimony of the past – and he certainly (frustratingly) does not. Nevertheless, Burke does provide many helpful tips, in the form of possible pitfalls/mistakes, cautions, the sorts of questions to ask about an image before analyzing it, and the type of knowledge necessary to begin answering those questions and pumping the image for information.
Overall, Burke is optimistic about the kind of information we can take from historical images, as well as how much information we can take. Yet we can really safely use an image if we have an appropriate degree of knowledge about the general genre, the piece specifically, and its creator. What a big if! In fact, this criteria is way too high for anyone to satisfy except the full-time military/art historian. We don’t have to give up hope though. There are plenty of art historians out there who do good work and are willing to help the rest of us along. I will have more to say in the conclusion of me A Method for Using Military Images series. Briefly stated though, it is our job, as military historians (even novice ones), to get a hold of art historians, clearly explain our project and what we want to use an image for, and ask specific questions about it that the art historian can answer and gauge better what exactly we are after. We need synergy of disciplines so that we can get synergy of artifacts!
A Method For Using Military Images - Part 3: Burke and Reading Inbetween the Lines of three types of Images
In my last post I gave an overview of the main theses from Burke's book Eyewitnessing. Put briefly, the big idea is this: art, including images, is meant to give certain information. Usually that information is not what historians want to know about. For a historian to get good answers to his questions from an image, they must 'read inbetween the lines' of the image.
In this post, I shall continue to present the core ways of implementing this strategy. Burke discusses three general types of images, and gives helpful insight in how to read inbetween their lines. I shall stick to the information that will have the most application for interpreting military images.
Images of Religion and Power
There are many types of images. One general type includes images concerned with the spiritual. Another general type are those images concerned with power, protest, and political institutions. These two types of images have their own very specific intentions, and thus pose a particular danger to the historian whom wishes to use them for testimony. Below is a summary of questions and techniques to keep help navigate these images.
Ask, “Is it religious at all?”
- That is, was it meant for devotion? Indoctrination?
- If so, is the style theatrical? Rhetorical?
Affirmative answers to these questions do not exclude an image from helping a military historian. But the higher the degree of say, indoctrination or rhetorical effect, the less realism is likely to be found and thus less likely to be of much help.
Similar to sacred images, ask “How does this image portray power?”
- Does is support or subvert a power structure?
- Does it eliminate and/or highlight certain aspects of its subject?
A Further Consideration
The following is something to take into consideration when looking at images dealing with power and the sacred. (Though it is also a good question to ask about any image). Is the image trying to make some abstract thing concrete? Take for example personification. In some Revolutionary French art, the concept of liberty is painted to be a flesh and blood woman. Obviously this is not an example of photo type realism, where the image mirrors reality. Therefore the types of evidence drawn from such an image, and the extent to which it is drawn, is limited
Burke devotes a chapter to the discussion of images and 'material culture.' This term refers to physical objects (like clothing, animals, buildings and people), scenes from (everyday) life (e.g. an evening on the porch, a working day at a chemistry lab, or a battle), and technology (e.g. how printing presses were operated and how crossbows were wound).
Burke examines several dangers the historian is confronted with when attempting to read between the lines for insight into material culture. The dangers include imaginary subjects, transplanted subjects, and exaggerated detail. Take for example early 17th century Dutch landscape paintings, including urban landscapes (i.e. city scenes). Artist felt no compunction with 'beautifying' the subjects of their art – in this case, streets and buildings were made to look cleaner, straighter, safer and generally more pleasing than they actually were. This is a case of leaving detail out. For the military historian, this is a sin of omission, and it is dangerous because it is so insidious: the historian can make grossly inaccurate conclusions based on the evidence from an image, and not even know how or why he is wrong.
Another problem with assessing images is a sin of commission. Artist would borrow a subject from a different place or time and put it into an otherwise direct representation of the scene. For instance, Dutch artists at this time would paint a building from another part of town into a space it was not in reality located – accurate representation of the subject’s looks, inaccurate representation of its place. What is more extreme, some artists painted subjects from the past into an otherwise contemporary scene. And even more extreme, some would create fantasy subjects, buildings, bridges, trees, etc. that never existed.
The dangers for the military historian are clear. Say we have an image German landsknechts clearly portrayed fighting in a Swiss 'steamroll' style push of pike (for more on this, go to my post here), circa 1530s Italy. Without heavy source critical assurance, it is a dangerous gambit to conclude that at such a place and time landsknechts actually fought that way. For certainly the artist may only have had access to Swiss combat, but wanted to paint German soldiers. Thus we may conclude that landsknecht pikemen fought in such a way, and we may have a very realistic image as support for our conclusion, and nevertheless be terribly wrong.
To avoid the above dangers, the military historian is wise to ask the following questions when approaching historical images.
- What is the artist’s intention? Is it to represent the visible world faithfully, to idealize it, or even allegorize it?
- Is the material represented fantasy, actual, or actual but transplanted from a foreign temporal or geographical context?
- Is the material distorted or caricatured? If so, can we tell what is left out and/or exaggerated?
Burke notes a few advantages of images portraying material culture. 1) They can communicate quickly and clearly the details of a complex process which texts take longer to describe, and even then, more vaguely. 2) Images portray material culture not mentioned in texts because it was taken for granted at that time. 3) Some of the artifacts portrayed survive to this day and can be examined. 4) Images often reveal how technology was used.
All this is very exciting for the military historian, so let me point out a few specific reasons why these advantages are noteworthy. I shall take them in reverse order. (4) is helpful if an image demonstrates correctly how a weapon was held, and especially how it was operated. Burke presents the winding of a crossbow in The Battle of San Romano as an example. How pikes and halberds were held, in combat and out, and how firearms were operated.
(3) is helpful because of synergy: images of artifacts, analyzed in conjunction with surviving artifacts, can help correct and balance conclusions drawn from just the image or just the artifact alone. For example, in several historical images of battles, some of the detritus pictured on the battlefield are broken (and sometimes apparently cut) tips of pikes. As per Burke’s thesis, source criticism of the images portraying broken and cut shafts will help determine how warranted we are to conclude that pikes were often broken and/or cut during battle. Better yet is to couple the testimony of images with hands-on experiments using physical replicas, sword and weapon experts, reenacted battles, and mechanical horse charges, etc. (This would be helpful for my own project to test a theory. There will be many broken pikes from streamroller combat. And the corollary: there will be few broken pikes from purely thrust and stab combat).
(2) can help to answer certain questions that many texts cannot, and raise further questions the historian would not have otherwise asked. Take for instance the question “how prevalent were shield or buckler armed swordsmen on the battlefield in early 17th century Low Country engagements?” State papers from the English, Dutch, and Spanish give numbers for enlistment for this troop type, but receipts and similar texts do not really tell us what purpose, if any, such soldiers served on the battlefield. Letters and memoires are only moderately helpful for the question. Fortunately, many contemporary images show sword and bucklermen in the front ranks of pike units, as well as the vanguard troops in many images of attackers of sieged walls and cities. Often these scenes are portrayed in the background or periphery of the image as whole. If source criticism gives generally favorable accounts for taking such scenes at face value, the military historian has a very rich source of evidence for answering their question.
Finally, (1) is useful especially for the push of pike question. In virtually all sources where the concept is mentioned, further discussion of the mechanics of a push of pike is noticeably absent. Even if more in-depth descriptions existed, an accurate picture or two, in corroboration with other sources of evidence, would be worth many, many words.
In short and in regard to material culture, the picture is a promising source of evidence. Burke concludes, “So far as the history of material culture is concerned, the testimony of images seems to be most reliable in the small details. It is particularly valuable as evidence of the arrangement of objects and of the social uses of objects, not so much the spear or fork or book in itself, but the way to hold it. In other words, images allow us to replace old artifacts in their original social context (102).” This is very promising indeed for uncovering answers to questions regarding Push of Pike! There is work to be done though, and it is up to historians to do it.
The narrative is a genre of art that seeks to tell a story. Unlike its literary counterpart, the artist of an imaged narrative must condense dynamic sequences of events into a few, or even one, static scene. Roughly put, an ‘imaged narrative’ is a whole story (or part of a story) made into a picture. Images in this genre are therefore difficult to create and to interpret. However, as in any genre, difficulties of interpretation are eased by familiarity with the artist and his context. Knowledge of the genre itself helps with answering genre specific questions. For example, should the piece should be read left to right, or vice versa? Are the figures and objects portrayed ‘stock images’? That is, are they formulaic props included to advance the narrative, or are they taken from the actual event?
The Battle Piece
A species of the narrative genre is the battle piece. Burke makes several notes regarding this type of image.
- It was often difficult for an artist to observe combat at close quarters.
- The desire to depict figures and battles heroically meant incorporating more stock figures.
- Many Renaissance artists depicted leaders as heroic.
- Some artists had first-hand experience of battle. Burke lists a few:
-The Flemish Jan Vermeyen (c. 1500-1559) accompanied Charles V on expedition.
-The Flemish Adam van der Meulen (1632-1690) accompanied Louis XIV.
- During the late 15th till about the middle 16th century, the aim of artists and historians “was to represent fighting as dramatically as possible rather than to look for what was specific to a particular battle (147).”
- Beginning in the 16th century, battle pieces were increasingly concerned to portray historical battles, as well as the strategy and tactics from the actual event.
"The gain in legibility attained by the new style of battle-piece should not be equated with a gain in realism. Indeed, it may have been achieved at the expense of realism, by a deliberate refusal to take account of the confusion or ‘sprawl’ of actual warfare. The change in the conventions of visual narrative allowed more information of one kind of information less visible than before, privileging what was supposed to have happened over what actually happened. Once again, historians have to be on their guard not to take idealizing images for the reality they claim to represent." (149)
The Series and Narrative Strips
A couple other species of the narrative are ‘series’ and ‘strips.’ Series are collections of images that were meant to be viewed together. Strips, on the other hand, were basically a series of miniatures in once place. Both species could be images of battles, so it bears keeping in mind that both were not meant to be complete records of an event, but a summary. Further, both species were often subject to a high degree of idealization and propaganda.
Burke is careful to make clear that he has not written a how-to book. Nevertheless, his thesis demands attention and action when reading in-between the lines of images. Fortunately, he provides some good good steps in that direction. I have collected and distilled what I believe will be most helpful to my own project. In my next post, I shall finish up with Burke by presenting some conclusions of his and from myself.
A Method For Using Military Images - Part 2: Burke, _Eyewitnessing_, and "Reading Inbetween the Lines"
[NOTE: The following post is part book review, and part slightly technical precis of Eyewitnessing by Peter Burke. If you are interested in more immediate application of Burke's, and others's, conclusions, you can skip to my Quick Guide to War Art (to be posted shortly).]
There exists a wealth of military images from the Renaissance. I want to use those images as sources of evidence to learn about certain aspects of the past (see my post What Was Push Of Pike: The Question Defined). I find myself in good company with Peter Burke in his book Eyewitnessing. Burke’s thesis is, in part, that images are useful to the historian because they give testimony about the past. But there’s a catch: it’s very easy to get bad evidence and to draw the wrong conclusions. Further, it’s very hard to get good evidence and draw correct conclusions.
Throughout his monograph, Burke argues that images can give good evidence to historians. In each chapter he does mostly by presenting one particular image, discussing its context, genre, and corresponding interpretive rules, and then pointing out some details that we can look to for evidence in a given historical field. The method I have described is a helpful feature of the book. One of Burke’s main goals in the book is to stress the danger posed by using images as sources of evidence. He laments that, historians too often “treat [images] as mere illustrations, reproducing them in their books without comment. In cases in which the images are discussed in the text, this evidence is often used to illustrate conclusions that the author has already reached by other means, rather than to give new answers or to ask new questions.” (p.10)
Put another way, too many historians assume that any and every image is a perfectly realistic portrayal of the past. The historian then uses it as a mirror image of past which needs no further comment or interpretation. When Burke shows how historical data can safely and correctly be coaxed out of an image, he also highlights the many ways bad data can also be squeezed out.
Generally speaking, Burke is optimistic about the ability of images to link us to the past. He argues that images, if utilized correctly, are important forms of historical evidence. Though he is optimistic about the usefulness of images, all is not sunshine. First, if images are witnesses to the past, they are mute ones – “it is difficult,” Burke writes, “to translate their testimony into words (14).” Second, He claims that many folks are under the impression that artists were concerned to give accurate testimony.
Third, Burke gives caution about ‘reading between the lines’ of an image. To read between the lines is to attempt to draw a messages from an image that the artist did not intend to communicate. He warns of the dangers of such a procedure: “To use the evidence of images safely, let alone effectively, it is necessary – as in the case of other kinds of source – to be aware of its weaknesses (14-15).” Developing a ‘source criticism’ of visual evidence is a key step in recognizing the weaknesses of images-as-evidence and avoiding them. A key step, in his opinion, seriously underdeveloped in the training of historians. He attempts inroads into a practical philosophy of image source criticism, and I shall detail some of the points most pertinent to my project.
The Good News, and the Bad
Burke’s thesis is centered around the question, “How can images be used as historical evidence?” In answer, he makes three points that are elaborated and iterated throughout the monograph: 1) “[A]rt can provide evidence for social reality which texts pass over.” 2) Yet, “representational art is often less realistic than it seems and distorts social reality rather than reflecting it.” Thus the historian uninformed by the artist’s intentions will be misled. 3) The distortion from (2) gives certain historians insight into certain phenomena, such as mentalities, ideologies and identities.
As far as my project is concerned, I am not very interested in (3). That is, I am almost totally disinterested in the history of mentality, ideology, or identity. Even if I really understood what these things are, and I don’t claim that I do, if they do not seriously further my project, they are merely curious side subjects. The less insight an image gives me into the realities of aspects of the Early Modern battlefield, the less interested I am in it. This is not to say that (1), social reality, or history of ideology, is unimportant – it is. Besides being interesting in its own right, such insight furthers the long term cause of the military historian. For instance, the facts of social reality, the very ones that are not immediately helpful to me, are immensely helpful to the art historian and anyone else who seeks to interpret an image by analyzing its details. And the art historian, as I shall discuss in a later section, has an integral part to play in my own project.
Reading Between the Lines
Art, specifically images, is designed to communicate. The problem is that images are rarely designed to communicate to people in the far future. Artists had their own concerns and agendas, and these concerns almost never line up with concerns of historians today. So what is the historian to do with images of and from the past?
One promising answer is to ‘read between the lines’ of an image. The idea here is simply this: using an image to draw historical conclusions that it was not intended to give. Put another way, reading between the lines means taking a message from an image other than the one it is trying to give. A fine but important distinction is to be made here: there is a difference between (i) testimony an image was not meant to provide, and (ii) testimony an image should not/cannot give. The first type of testimony, (i), is legitimate evidence for drawing historical conclusions. That is, the first type of testimony can actually inform us as to how things really were. The second type of testimony, (ii) is not legitimate. The evidence from this testimony bears false witness to the past, and conclusions drawn from it will correspondingly be false.
The obvious problem with reading between the lines is that we can draw false conclusions. Therefore the canny historian will take appropriate step in order to find valid, though secondary, messages in the image. Thus, reading between the lines of an image is not a perversion of the image’s message or the artist’s intent. Rather it is an extension of the intent – a pursuit of a message present in the image, though unintendedly so.
Safely reading between the lines is not an easy job. The historian is after evidence the image was not intended to give. Therefore the clever historian will take the appropriate measures to keep from getting a false message. Hence, at the basic level, she is asking two questions: 1) “what is the primary message of this image?” And 2) “what other messages can I safely draw from this image?” At the most general level, these measures include determining the author’s intent, the author’s audience, and the genre and interpretive rules of the image.
Iconography is the practice of answering question (1). That is, the job of the iconographer is to get at the real message of the image. (It is exactly because no image lacks artistic intention or audience that every image needs some degree of interpretation). I shall not discuss the methods of iconography until the end of this précis. But Burke claims early on that the standard methods need to be expanded upon – there exist other approaches to interpretation that need to be incorporated into iconography’s established methods. But all this is an interdisciplinary debate among art interpreters. The debate has important bearing upon my project, but is periphery – I have no dog in that fight. For the military historian, the important point is that images need interpreting, and that interpretation is serious, hard, sometimes tedious, and always very necessary work. Burke expands upon the nature of this work in regards to three key areas: Images of Religion and Power, Material Culture, and Narratives. In my next post, I shall examine each area for the Burke’s main conclusions, and point out the material from each that will be helpful for using military images in my own project.