§92 The Exorcism of Art History

Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) is the departure point in Georges Didi-Huberman’s Confronting Images (2005/1990). Panofsky established Iconology, which moved beyond iconography – the descriptive identification and classification of allegories, symbols and themes in an image. Iconology offers an interpretation of meaning by considering how culturally-historical “themes and concepts [are] manifested in images, stories, and allegories’ (Didi-Huberman, 2005: xv).

Didi-Huberman characterized the Panofskyan art historian as both ‘aware’ and ‘wary’. Panofsky’s erudition, ‘made us aware that the great scholarly traditions – notably medieval scholasticism and Renaissance neo-Platonism – were structurally decisive for all ideas of the meaning of images over the longue duree of the Christian and humanist West.’ (ibid: xvi). His wariness concerns protecting this awareness from harm: Panofsky ‘is alert to a danger that he absolutely must ward off in order to…make possible the serene exercise of his erudition.’ (ibid: xvi).

Panofsky viewed art history as needing protection ‘from all hubris, from all immoderation in the exercise of reason’ (ibid). The danger concerns the image which the professional art historian studies as simultaneously ‘attractive’ and ‘altering’ – and which ‘becomes a drug, even a poison for those who…adhere to it to the point of losing themselves in it.’ (ibid). Panofsky’s problem is this paradox: ‘If the image is what makes us imagine, and if the (sensible) imagination is an obstacle to (intelligible) knowledge, how then can one know an image?’ (ibid, xvii, original emphasis).

Iconology’s establishment as ‘objective science’ required that Panofsky becomes art history’s exorcist. The discipline could be understood as possessed by the ‘phantom’ and ‘unredeemed soul’ of Aby Warburg, whose attempt ‘to understand images, not just interpret them’ (ibid, xx, original emphasis) ‘tempted the devil’ and made Warburg fall into madness (ibid, xxi). The ‘magic spells’ Panofsky used were ‘the grand “magic words” of Vasarian academicism’ (ibid, xix), ‘recast’ in a neo-Kantian rationalist humanist conception of art history. These were rinascita, imitazione, and idea (ibid, p. 72). The fourth is ‘disegno’ which legitimated art ‘as unified object, noble practice, and intellectual knowledge’ (ibid, contents).

But ‘Design’ has come full circle – it is now a term enchanting our late capitalist cultures (c.f. §89 ‘Design as art’; §91 ‘Vasari’s definition of ‘Disegno’’). We all love being a bit artsy… Let the exorcism commence!

/Fred Weibull


Didi-Huberman, Georges. (2005/1990) Confronting Images – Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art. Pennsylvania State University Press.