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Pragmatist Historians of Art


During the 20th century, several major but importantly distinct art historians incorporated Pragmatist philosophy into their scholarship: Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), Edgar Wind (1900-1971), and Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996). The Pragmatist bases of their interpretations are documented and described—especially in relation to the pragmatic maxim—and their arguments are analyzed and evaluated against the modes of art historical research in which they each worked: formalism, iconology, social history, and semiotics. Chapter one focuses on how Berenson appropriated and transformed ideas found in the Pragmatist psychology of William James (1842-1910) to create and justify his influential yet much maligned formalist art history. I focus on Berenson’s interpretation of Giotto’s naturalism—a key example for his theory of “tactile values”—and I contrast Berenson’s interpretation to that of his formalist peer, Alois Riegl (1858-1905), in order further to differentiate Berenson’s Pragmatist commitments. Chapter two focuses on Edgar Wind’s often-overlooked approach to iconology, framing Wind’s project in relation to his confessed indebtedness to the philosophy of science of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Wind’s Habilitation itself is a Pragmatist contribution to the philosophy of science, and to help clarify how that early work informed his later art history I contrast Wind’s interpretation of Titian’s Venus Blinding Cupid to that of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), thereby using Panofsky’s classic iconological platform as a baseline against which to throw Wind’s Pragmatist commitments into relief. Chapter three focuses on what I call Meyer Schapiro’s postwar psycho-social arguments. Here I analyze Schapiro’s claims about Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, and how these claims differ from more orthodox Marxist and psychoanalytic interpretations, especially those of Arnold Hauser (1892-1978). Even though Schapiro was deeply informed by the writings of both Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), he was also indebted to the Pragmatist aesthetics and psychology of John Dewey (1859-1952) and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), whose Pragmatist arguments help unpack the distinctive quality of Schapiro’s claims. Chapter four again focuses on Schapiro—this time on his later semiotic writing and how those arguments are both indebted to the tripartite semiotics of Peirce and different from the structuralist claims of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). In this chapter I draw on some of Schapiro’s unpublished lectures on semiotics and show that his claims in his book Words and Pictures are made largely in a Pragmatist mode. I conclude by noting some analytic parallels between the neo-Pragmatist thinking of Richard Rorty (1931-2007) and one of the most ambitious contributions to art historical scholarship in recent years: David Summers’s Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism. Summers himself (born 1941) has described Real Spaces in openly Rortyean terms, and in my epilogue I analyze both the potential and the challenges that such an adaptation of Pragmatism poses for art history today.

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