Art and Architecture, History

Interview with Joseph Leo Koerner

Joesph Leo KoernerMark Thwaite has an excellent interview with our author, Joseph Leo Koerner, at the online book review site, ReadySteadyBook. One of the most visible scholars of German art, Koerner discusses his work, including two of his books The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art and The Reformation of the Image. From the interview:
MT: Your first book was The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art. What was it that was so uniquely important about that “moment”? What does the creation of self-portraits tell us about society and the individuals that make it up?
JK: Oddly, if you go back to the moment—the actual historical instant—when the first modern self-portraitist looked at himself and decided to depict what he saw, you find it was not a particularly “momentous” event, at least not for a history of the “self” or of modern subjectivity. Around 1490, the young Albrecht Dürer sketched his hands and fingers because they posed a special challenge to him as a budding draughtsman, and because they were simply there: available models he could pose as he wished. Dürer’s first true nature study is in fact a drawing he did of his left hand just lying there. It’s a little sketch on a spare bit of paper in a sheet now preserved in London, in the British Museum. But almost immediately, sometimes within a single drawing, you find Dürer discovering something bigger: his whole person out there in the world, which is an immensity that is both everything to him and strangely inaccessible even to his gaze: he cannot even see himself except by using a mirror.
The moment of self-portraiture, that instant in history when a painter resolved to make himself the sole subject of his art, happens accidentally. But when you analyze all the things that caused the event to occur and consider the history of art—even the history of Europe itself—that followed from that moment, it turns out to have been hugely important, or at the very least hugely representative. After all, don’t we nowadays think of art as a form of self-expression, and don’t we identify and value paintings in terms of the person who made them? The reflective turn to the self, which discovers at the origin the self (the painter making the painting we see), looks forward to most everything we think is “modern” about us: our individualism, our Cartesian self-reliance, the whole heroic and melancholy burden of our subjectivity. …
MT: Your book The Reformation of the Image counter-intuitively argues that idolatry was actually the core belief of the early iconoclasts? Can you briefly sketch your argument here for us, Joseph?
JK: According to the iconoclasts, idolaters believe that a statue or painting of, say, Christ, is Christ. They mistake the mere humanly-manufactured representation of the sacred person for that person himself. This is the iconoclasts’ firmly held conviction about idolatry, and why their fury against it knows no bounds, since what can be more godless than venerating mere things. But of course (think about it!) no one in the real world actually believes what the iconoclasts said idolaters believed. As Catholic and even Lutheran defenders of images said time and time again, ‘we are not so stupid as to worship the statue itself; we can perfectly well distinguish between it and the person indicated by it.’ The iconoclasts, however, did not, or could not, believe these more reasonable (and what we would call “native”) descriptions of what putative idolater’s believe. For the image-breakers, idolaters were either fools (holding naïve, ridiculous convictions) or knaves (forcing ridiculous convictions on others for financial profit, or dissembling their own heinous beliefs by pretending not to hold them).
But what if—as I believe is indeed the case—there in fact never was an idolater? What is idolatry, then? It is nothing but the iconoclasts’ own fiction, their own most firmly-based belief about what their enemy firmly believes. And it had terrible consequences over the centuries, not least of all targeting the wooden and stone images for physical destruction. No one understood images more literally than the image-breakers. It’s tempting to say that idolatry—the existence of naïve belief—itself is iconoclasm’s central creed.
Read the rest of the interview. [Thanks to Brian Sholis at In Search of the Miraculous for the link.]