O’Donovan notes #6h: Appreciation and critique.

c.1600 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Just as there is no one ‘Science’ so there is no one approach to ‘Art history’.

But just as a biologist and a geologist may have common ground and areas in which their disciplines interact, so writings about pictures may have points of connection though differing pretty widely in their angle of approach.

One type of art history is popularist ‘Art appreciation‘. It aims to help people look more understandingly and approvingly on a given work, or style.

It tends towards a pleasant, informal almost gossipy style and as a rule will include quite a lot of biographical tid-bits. It certainly will refer to some historical matters, but the commentator is also likely, in this style, to float some of his or her personal guesses and ideas without providing evidence in proof. It’s more or less the ‘who’ of art history – about interesting characters producing individual works and personal ideas. That style is the norm for televised programs, guided tours, and many (not all) such matter you’ll find on Utube.

Art criticism can be no less appreciative, but aims at a more technical commentary. It’s about evaluating the merits and the deficiencies of a given work, genre or period. It too is a branch of art history and one which lays more emphasis on historical background and cultural environment including discussion of literary allusions and so forth. Its more about how people thought about their world; how a person thought about his work; how well or badly the image was realised. For convenience, then, we can describe this as the ‘how’ style.

Iconographic analysis includes art history but not so much of the ‘art appreciation’ sort. its primary aim is not to inculcate appreciation for art in a general audience, but to know how and why a given image or artefact has just the form it does, using the materials it does. I suppose you might call it art history of the ‘why’ type because it seeks objectively verifiable answers to questions of the ‘why’ kind – such as ‘Why are this figure’s hands clasped?’ Why is the figure’s clothing represented as it is?’ ‘What is the intended significance, if any, of that line around its neck?’ ‘Why are the hands so much smaller than the face?’ For such questions, answers are not plucked from the air; nor are guesses treated as items of faith. You have to know. That takes work. Sometimes less, sometimes more work – but anyone claiming all answers lie already within their own head (which is what the two-eyes-and-commonsense school of Voynich non-thought implies) hasn’t even thought through their own proposition.

To illustrate the difference between the analytical method and what has become the standard approach of Voynich traditionalists, I’ll offer an analogy rather than the ideas of any one Voynich writer, past or present.

So – suppose the object pictured here (left) had turned up in an old trunk, in an even older Italian building.

Suppose too that the finder discovered with it a seventeenth century letter reporting, (but not lending support to) a bit of gossip alleging this had been owned by one of England’s Tudor rulers, Elizabeth I.

In Voynichland, things would have then developed along these lines.

One theorist (probably English) finds this English-Tudor idea easy to believe – that is, plausible- then adopts it without further thought as their ‘theory’. On no better basis than that, they turn to trying to persuade others to believe the same. They assert as proof for the theory that Tudors wore flat caps and that what she’s wearing around her neck is a string of river pearls – adding lots of documentation about Tudors and how they wore pearls obtained from the Thames.

where fresh-water pearls were in fact obtained in Tudor times.

However another individual is then gripped, as if by divine inspiration, with utter conviction that the figure is Irish and says “Look, she’s wearing a torque; so she’s Irish”.

Another has an Italian theory and, after sneering at the other two, claims that to describe it as Italian is only logical, since it was found in Italy and that sixteenth-century Italians also wore flat caps.

All of them agree, however, in liking an ‘all-Christian-European’ theory so assert in unison that the figure is obviously Christian, because as they see it the figure’s hands are clasped in prayer and (as they all think) none but Christians clasped hands in prayer. The ‘Christian hands’ notion then becomes something everyone says and for that reason alone is elevated to the status of dogma.

But someone with a Turkish theory now comes along and says the Christian idea is wrong because the figure’s shoes have turned-up toes and everyone knows that Turkish slippers do this, adding that Turks might wear flat-topped caps if they felt like it, and it isn’t necessary to interpret clasped hands as praying.

Those having a ‘German-ic’ sort of theory say, instead, that big-bosomed women are typically Germanic and show examples from none but sixteenth-century German books to ‘prove’ big-bosomed women with hands clasped in prayer are ‘obviously’ German because you find them in so many German books.

Everyone, regardless of their regional theory, produces pictures in support, while ignoring all other times and regions – apparently holding some notion that whatever occurs in their preferred environment and time can have occurred in no other.

This last is, by the way, the most prevalent error made by present-day promoters of the German-ish theory.

In the feverish hunt, now, to have their own theory triumph over all others, the theorists move from forming theories to forming theories about theories, oblivious to the fact that they’ve stopped researching the artefact itself.

After some decades (about 9 decades in the case of the Voynich manuscript) a peculiar atmosphere arises in which, without conscious argument made, an idea circulates which suggests that the artefact will become whatever the victorious theory says it is, regardless of the range, nature or objective quality of evidence offered as support for that theory.

It’s a good start to have two eyes, a desire to learn and a rational mind. but a rational mind says that if the Voynich drawings were so easily read that it can be done by persons having nothing but two eyes and whatever they call ‘commonsense’, then the drawings would have been understood at least half a century ago.

You had Erwin Panofsky comment on the manuscript in 1932. A keeper of manuscripts in England commented on the manuscript before 1960. The manuscript was in the Beinecke Library’s collection at Yale before 1970.

What interfered, in every case, with the normal work of dating and placing images in a medieval manuscript was some Voynichero’s asserting their theory indisputable – Wilfrid’s Roger Bacon theory, O’Neill’s new world theory, the Friedmans’ all-European theory.. and so on.

In the wider world, this isn’t how it’s done.

There are objective criteria which apply and which mean that regardless of when or where it came to light again, the figure providing our analogy would be assigned its proper time and place of origin. As it was in 1927.

Notice the figure’s over-large head compared with its tiny hands?

That the artefact was discovered in its original home certainly helped curators, but such work is still regularly needed as artefacts turn up which have been displaced as a result of natural or of man-made disasters, or because traded or for some other reason.

Amateurs, and here I mean amateurs in Voynich studies, do not realise how narrowly an image can be placed and dated. The assumption is widespread that medieval images without accompanying text become meaningless and must be assigned their origins by means of historical fictions as ‘theories’. These ideas are simply wrong. There are people at work as I write whose chief activity is in dating and placing images formerly cut from some medieval manuscript. These, for example, come from fourteenth century north-eastern Italy.

Specialists draw on a wide range of scholarly studies, past and present, and across subjects as diverse as the history of technology, archaeology, art history, materials science, comparative cultural studies, comparative religious and secular literatures and more.

Meme-rs get away with saying so many brainless things that I’ve almost stopped wondering why so few of those who hear them seen to realise how brainless they are. “All you need are two eyes and commonsense” is among the most stupid, but they are all just wishful thinking. In that case, the memer’s subtext reads “I wish I needn’t learn anything to claim I’m an expert on the Voynich drawings”.

That those initials were made in fourteenth century Italy, or that the female figure was made in the 5th-4thC BC is not information produced by someone’s inventing a bit of historical-fiction and calling it a theory. It wasn’t any product of ‘commonsense’ but of prior study and real experience.

Of course it is understandable that people who haven’t had any relevant formal studies or experience will have nothing to turn to at first but whatever their memory might suggest as a ‘nearest fit’, but it is not so easy to understand how they could imagine their own ignorance sufficient to answer every question presented by the Voynich manuscript’s problematic drawings.

What Voynich studies really needs is a counterpart for Tim O’Neill, dedicated to exploding the sort of pseudo-historical ideas that spread by common consent and common gossip in defiance of both reason and evidence.

Note: in speaking of Voynich theories, I’m not speaking about cryptographic or linguistic theories.

Tim O’Neill writes a blog entitled ‘History for Atheists‘. He also has a podcast and a video channel.

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