Georges Didi-Huberman is critical of the conventional approaches towards the study of art history. Didi-Huberman takes the view that art history is grounded in the primacy of knowledge, particularly in the vein of Kant, or what he calls a ‘spontaneous philosophy’. While art historians claim to be looking at images across the sweep of time, what they actually do might be described as a sort of forensics process, one in which they analyze, decode and deconstruct works of art in attempt to better understand the artist and purpose or expression. This paper will examine Didi-Huberman’s key claims in his book Confronting Images and apply his methodology to a still life painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán.
In Confronting Images, Didi-Huberman considers disadvantages he sees in the academic approach of art history, and offers an alternative method for engaging art. His approach concentrates on that which is ‘visual’ long before coming to conclusive knowledge. Drawing support from the field of psycho analytics (Lacan, Freud, and Kant and Panofsky), Didi-Huberman argues that viewers connect with art through what he might describe as an instance of receptivity, as opposed to a linear, step-by-step analytical process. He underscores the perceptive mode of engaging the imagery of a painting or other work of art, which he argues comes before any rational ‘knowing’, thinking, or discerning. In other words, Didi-Huberman believes one’s mind ‘sees’ well before realizing and processing the object being looked at, let alone before understanding it. Well before the observer can gain any useful insights by scrutinizing and decoding what she sees, she is absorbed by the work of art in an irrational and unpredictable way. What Didi-Huberman is saying is the so-called traditional methodology and scholarship of art history actually distracts from the initial incidence of seeing or beholding the ‘visual’. He might say the formulaic approach misses the whole by focusing so much on the parts.
One way to illustrate this conceptual approach is to walk stepwise through Didi-Huberman’s thought process, in the context of a specific work of art. This paper will examine a work by the artist Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627). How might the viewer incorporate Didi-Huberman’s thinking on the ‘visual’ versus the ‘visible’ in regards to engaging images? First, we must recognize that how a person experiences an image is dependent on past experience. That is to say, varying situations and contexts greatly affect the way in which images appear to someone. Consequently, no one person or art historian can claim absolute sovereignty or certainty in deciding what an image actually means, or was intended to mean. His approach for the understanding of images stresses the experience of the art itself to guide one’s appreciation, which is scarcely resolved with the recognition of the importance of social and historical contexts.
Didi-Huberman notes that the long tradition of...