Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Method For Using Military Images - Part 5: Cuneo and "Artful Armies, Beautiful Battles"

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 prĂ©cis the pertinent parts of her introduction, below, before giving some concluding thoughts.  

The Problem

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.

The Solution

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 Debate

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.

Pole One

"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."
Pole Two

"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's Conclusion

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.

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