Giulio Carlo Argan – II

Photo by Carmela Gross


Art history as labor history

The classic: knowledge of the present

The opposition, proposed in the first volume of History of Italian Art[I] between the concept of “classic” and the various “classicisms” fully illustrates the updating inflection that the perspective specific to “modern art” gives to Giulio Argan's interpretations, which synthesize issues from the past to those of the current debate, in accordance with Diderot's aforementioned maxim .[ii]

In this way, the investigation of artistic forms from the past also involves the investigation of constitutive elements of “modern art” and correlatively affirms its content as a historical construction. That is to say, the reinterpretation of the past is dialectically totalized in the priority task of investigating the present.

Thus, Giulio Argan defines the mimesis or mimesis due to the dialectic of consciousness with reality; and correlatively understands “classical art” as its historically circumscribed achievement. In this sense, classical figurative art, according to Giulio Argan, “conceived as the purest and most perfect of natural phenomena, reveals in the clarity of its forms the ideal form of nature in its universal essence, which is beyond any accidental contingency”.[iii]

In these terms, the duality between spirit and matter – proposed in the 3rd century by Plotinus (ca. 204/5-270) and, as we know, also by Christianity – does not apply, but rather the general perspective current in the tradition of Greek thought, which took the physical (nature) as the supreme instance in which the Logos. Put this way, “classical art” comprises, says Giulio Argan, a form of truth “that is not beyond, but within things and is not reached by going beyond experience, but by deepening and clarifying it”.[iv]

Such a form of truth – which sleeps at the bottom of things and which mimesis awakens as an immanent prospective mode of sensorial and reflective enlightenment – ​​consists only of historical material whose validity derives from the context. Thus, the mimesis Classicalism resided in an unstable balance or combination of opposites: self-awareness and idealization. In this cognitive key, which mixed knowledge and idealization, the citizen of polis understood as opposites to praxis (or the action that was free and conscious and contained an end in itself) and the poiesis (production which, in terms of the time, was neither free nor conscious in itself, since, being the work of the artisan or the slave, it depended on an external end).[v]

Therefore, the enigma of “classical art” or its composite of consciousness and idealization consisted, for Giulio Argan, of a historically unique and non-repeatable specificity, that is, irrecoverable by “classicisms”. In short, such a state of balance was due to the presupposition of reflective and essential continuity between physical e Logos, according to peculiar and transitory qualities highlighted by Argan; a presupposition, therefore, not resurrectable – which, consequently, highlighted in advance the emptiness, for Giulio Argan, of all classicism or revival of the classical model.

In other words, the premise of a principle common to Logos and physical, according to which consciousness shared the same background as nature – the premise of which mimesis was the most visible fruit or even the alleged circumstantial evidence - it was in fact characteristic not of a timeless and eternal “being” or principle, but of a unique stage of the historical process. Thus, Argan concluded: “the universality of classical art is not a supra-historical quality, but is identified with its historicity. We will say, therefore, that perhaps in no other period did art so fully express historical reality, as a whole, as in the so-called classic period of Greek art”.[vi]

Therefore, the metaphysics of the classical ideal or its timeless value, which has nurtured so many fetishized aesthetic experiences throughout the history of Western art, must give way to the consciousness of the classic as a historical matter, which requires a critical review of later classicisms. In this way, Argan's critical operation, based on historical judgment, unveils “classicism”, as a form beforehand, as a false awareness of the modes of work and production.

In conclusion, a critical materialist determination of the precise ideological function of classicisms, or of the so-called “neoclassical” styles – moreover, as recurrent in the Western artistic tradition as the apologia for the State form and related systems of the Roman Empire – becomes possible. It is in the tradition of political and legal forms in the West. But the condition for such determination is criticism that dissolves the timeless value of the classic. Since then, the possibility of understanding different types of art is based on preliminary knowledge of the historical process.

That is to say, the reciprocal or dialectical determination between both modes of knowledge is thus made explicit. In this sense, Argan comes to define “classicism” in opposition to “classic”, as the “concept (…) [that] applies to periods in which classical art is taken as a model and imitated”.[vii]

Therefore, the distinctive sign, the dividing line set to mark the opposition between the classic and classicism, refers to the latter's refusal to reflect on the present. In contrast, the classic, in this perspective, already anticipates some of the qualities of modern realism - realism that, it should be noted, Argan chose as the foundation and guiding thread of “modern art” -, while, in turn, according to the same logic, classicism is a refusal of the present and history; classicism, which “not only implies distrust in the ability of art to express the present historical reality, but also, by reducing art to the imitation of historical models, nullifies the value of creativity that is characteristic of classical art”. [viii]

To conclude this stage, it is important to note, in the opposition between classicism and classicism – which aims to establish a typology of contraries –, the fundamental distinction between art as an inquiry into the present and an affirmation of oneself, and on the contrary, art that – by refusing to deal with the present – ​​she denies herself.

Such a distinctive cut will be proposed again in the examination of other artistic structures relevant to different historical situations. Therefore, this distinction consists, for Giulio Argan, in a value judgment and proof of truth, in short, in a decisive aspect and parameter of the method with which he works.

Double determination

Turning to another example, which now proposes the confrontation between the Christian Aulic art of Ravenna, whose structure is tributary to the Byzantine one, and the Romanesque art – the latter curiously and suggestively outlined as proto-realist and proto-modern –, we will once again observe the establishment of the dialectic of opposites and the game of contrasts as a central operation of Giulio Argan's method.

From the confrontation of such determinations placed in a regime of reciprocity, a dialectic is engendered through which the reader, in addition to clarifying himself about the period in question, can also extract valid elements of comparison for the historical judgment concerning his own current situation – from some mode, displaced and placed in a new perspective in light of the past, as in the case of the connection examined below between the Romanesque craftsman and the modern producer.

Thus, regarding, for example, the comparison between the imperial Christian art of Ravenna, similar to Byzantine art, and Romanesque art, Giulio Argan highlights in the former the conception of space based on its fundamentally chromatic definition as a luminous entity. Thus, its chromatic-luminous saturation overlaps with the architectural spatiality.[ix] In correspondence, “the soul shines the brighter the more stripped the corporeal envelope is; matter is finite, but infinite, the divine light that fills it. The mosaic not only covers the walls [of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, ca. 450], but replaces them: chamfers the edges, deforms the contours of the arches, cancels the intersection of the planes, imposes everywhere the law of continuity of light transmission”.[X]

Thus, artistic practice and its technique, located at a historical distance, will be the object of a double determination. The first circumscribes practice and technique according to the terms of the moment of elaboration, that is, according to the intention of the original exercise. In these terms, according to the guideline of Plotinian Neoplatonism that dictates the absolute supremacy of spirit over matter, as indicated by Giulio Argan, “the mosaic technique is properly the process of restitution of matter, from its condition of opacity to the spiritual condition, of transparency, of the light of space.”[xi]

However, another determination is also possible, for the modern point of view in which art constitutes a way of work. Here, Giulio Argan's prospection, by aiming at the materiality of the mosaic's production process, will highlight and release, or synthesize, as we will see, the work contained within it: “The mosaic is made of small pieces of glassy mass; these tablets,[xii] however, they do not all have the same size, the same shape, the same transparency, the same reflective quality and, in addition, they are fixed to the plaster mortar at different levels and with different inclinations, depending on the inspiration and experience of the operator. The uneven surface thus obtained reflects light, but refracts it into infinite rays, so that it appears full of sparkling points, animated by an intense, almost molecular vibration.”

“The competence of the mosaicist, who naturally interprets a given drawing, consists precisely in giving the color maximum depth of field and maximum surface vibration, as well as absolute tonal accuracy. He obtains these values ​​with the lively texture of the tablets and the careful control of the color luminosity. Since, naturally, the matter does not allow it to mix colors, it uses the resource of brightening colder areas (for example, blues and greens), inserting some warm notes into the whole (yellows, reds) or even, conversely, lowering a very strong hue with a softer one”. [xiii]

In this way, through the tension between two determinations, historical contexts are illuminated dialectically, observing one pole from the other, as will be discussed below. Furthermore, the work contained in the ancient procedure, once captured and stored under the aforementioned spiritual significance, awakens in the modern historical horizon, in which art is conceived as work. Thus, in the condition of work – however, mediated and potentially emancipated by materialist interpretation – the art under examination comes to dialogue directly with modes and materials of modern language that eventually present some contiguity, to be specified and compared, with the ancient work process.

In the case of the mosaic, for example, in different critical senses and giving rise to different judgments and conclusions, one can evoke, sometimes the punctual impressionist brushstrokes, sometimes those of post-impressionist pointillist painting or even the modulated and serial ones of Cézanne, etc. What role does the play of colors play in each case? The dialectical analysis will be responsible for deciding how and where to direct the comparison each time, between the modern procedure and the ancient one now reinterpreted from a materialist perspective...

Enlightenment force

The contrast between Romanesque and Byzantine technology, mentioned above, offers another example. Thus, technology in the Byzantine aulic context, “is thought of as the way of interpreting, refining and sublimating matter, reducing it to the spiritual value of the symbol-form”.[xiv] In this “transubstantiation of matter” “(…) one renounces inventing new types and new forms, preferring to completely assume the experience of the past and proceed towards an ever greater perfection, an ever more subtle, even sophisticated , stylistic quintessence.”[xv]

In contrast, in Romanesque technology the relationship between religion and technology appears combined with the rebirth of cities, which have their strength and security based on the production of wealth and no longer on military strength or capacity for prey. Thus, “the craftsman who takes a piece of gold or even non-precious material, and spends time in his life, with inherited or acquired experience, modeling or carving them, harmoniously associating them with other materials, God's creative work continues, in a certain way; and since God himself created this matter as perfectible through human work and, therefore, that matter has a spiritual principle within it, such work must not annul, hide or debase it, but interpret it, develop all its possibilities and the strengths it brings within”.[xvi]

Regarding the dialectical dimension of such a method, it can be said, as the Brazilian literary critic and historian Antonio Candido (1918) did in another context, to speak of a homologous methodology (that is, that resorts to the constitution of opposing typologies) employed by historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902-82) in Brazil roots (1936): “The vision of a certain aspect of historical reality is obtained, in the strong sense of the term, due to the simultaneous focus of the two; one raises the other, both interpenetrate and the result has a great clarifying force.”[xvii]

In effect, the “dialectical game” between both concepts,[xviii] that of Byzantine technique and that of Romanesque technique, in addition to precisely establishing the relationship between religion and technique in the specificity of each context, it correlatively presents a synthesis between productive economic practices. In this way, it highlights the supply of existing materials, as well as the level of human ingenuity achieved in the transformation of such materials. The result highlights the structuring of a new mode of production and the formation of the modern notion of progress.

To distinguish how, in the course of Giulio Argan's observations, the vivid description of social, historical and cognitive structures is also at the same time analysis and interpretation of the historical process – not as a naturalistic enumeration of series of aspects or description of positive data, but rather as a dialectical explanation of the movement to reorder social structures – it is best to follow the development of ideas step by step: “The Romanesque technological revolution is not born from the discovery of new materials, new instruments, new operational processes; these transform, certainly, but within the scope and as a consequence of a deeper transformation of culture and social life. As for materials, renewal consists, above all, in the use of materials that are not necessarily precious: if the value is given by procedure or work, it is so much greater and so much more meritorious the more it starts from below, from matter that does not have a value itself. In architecture, the bare wall prevails over the marble inlay; in sculpture, stone replaces precious, rare marbles; In painting, the fresco competes with the mosaic. It is also an economic necessity: the artisan is autonomous, he operates with his own strength, the raw materials for his work are not given to him by the court treasuries, as in the case of the Byzantine artisan. On the other hand, the consequence is a quantitative increase in production, the costs of which are limited: art no longer remains within the limits of a court, but spreads and, therefore, begins to exert its influence on much larger social circles. The Byzantine craftsman put at the service of the system, of the political-religious hierarchy, a refined technique, guided by ancient canons, in a certain sense perfect: the degree of ideal perfection could be shifted, and even raised, but the structure of procedures remained the same. same, just varying the degree of refinement. The Romanesque artisan is responsible for his own production, he must overcome emulation, competition, invent new types to attract interest: his technique is not perfect, but progressive. From then on, the concept of progress and renewal is linked to that of technique: if Byzantine technique is better the more strictly faithful to the canon and close to an ideal archetype, Romanesque technique is better the more new it is, invented. The idea of ​​invention is linked to the idea of ​​progress, we progress by inventing. It presupposes the experience of the tradition that we want to overcome, it follows a historical development, that is, the technique becomes history in a society that reaffirms the value of history and its finality. This emphasis on historical experience, which is the experience of development, rather than being based on theoretical, absolute and immutable principles, is another fundamental aspect of Romanesque technology.”[xx]

Art history as labor history

This analysis of artistic and architectural forms characterizes them as cognitive syntheses specific to the historical moment. How to systematize them in Giulio Argan's terms as art history?

Perhaps the best thing to do is to use another couple of polar contrasts and an illustrative parallel. If, in opposition to the feudal castle, the cathedral constituted – as a constructive typology invented by medieval man – the “great common wealth”, that is, the “civic monument” in which “the community manifests all its capabilities” and preserves “the which produces the most precious craftsmanship in the city and what merchants bring from distant countries", one can, in parallel, also conceive of the history of art - in the image of a cathedral, for Giulio Argan - as "great common wealth" and “civic monument”.

The history of art, as a modernly invented form of totalization, can also be put in terms analogous to those that Giulio Argan uses for the typology of the cathedral, when he designates the latter as “the living image of the system (…) a complex functional organism: ( whose) (…) space is no longer a space of contemplation, but of life”.[xx]

In such terms, the history of art – as a living image of the system and complex functional organism that constitutes a space of life, as well as critical and reflective systematization – when contrasted with the system of alienation and capitalist appropriation of work, raises a new horizon as a critical and revolutionary history of work with a view to emancipation.

In conclusion, to the extent that, from this perspective, the history of art critically and reflexively elaborates the history of work – fully and socially affirmed –, practiced in this way, it stands as a monument to the collective refounding of humanity.

* Luiz Renato Martins is professor-advisor of PPG in Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/ HMBS). []

Final extract from the original version (in Portuguese) of the chapter. 12, “Argan Seminar: art, value and work”, from the book La Conspiration de l'Art Moderne et Other Essais, edition and introduction by François Albera, translation by Baptiste Grasset, Paris, editions Amsterdam (2024, prim. semester, proc. FAPESP 18/26469-9).

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[I] See gc argan, History of Italian Art, trans. Vilma de Katinsky, technical review by Julio Roberto Katinsky, Rita de Cássia Gonçalves and Roseli Martins, São Paulo, Cosac & Naify, 2003, 3 volumes; Storia dell'Arte Italiana [1968], Firenze, Sansoni per la Scuola/ Sansoni, 1996, 3 volumi.

[ii] “It has to be of its time [it's not the last time]". See Denis DIDEROT apoud GC ARGAN, “Manet e la pittura Italiana”, in idem, From Hogarth to Picasso/ L'Arte Moderna in Europa, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1983, p. 346. See also part 1 of this text in

[iii] “… it conceives as the pure and perfect più of natural phenomena, rivela in its chiarezza of its form in the ideal form of nature, in its universal essence that is al di là di ogni accidentale contingenza”. See gc argan, History of Italian Art, vol. I, op. cit., p. 48; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 29.

[iv] [(…) Whey it's not beyond, ma in it sews and it doesn't go away again, but it approfondendola and chiarendola] (The italics within the quoted text are from Argan himself). See GC ARGAN, idem, ib; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., ib.

[v] Ver note 3.

[vi] [... The universality of classical art is not a soprastorica quality, but it is identified with its history. We will say that in another period, for example, the art is a così completely expressive part of historical reality, in its completeness, as in this period Environment Greek art] (The italics within the quoted text are from Argan himself) Cf. GC ARGAN, History of Italian Art, vol. 1, op. cit. P. 48; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 30.

[vii] [... concept (…) which applies to the period in which classical art is subject to model and imitation]. See GC ARGAN, Idem..., S. Paulo, op. cit., p. 65; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 30.

[viii]  [Not releasing, infatti, il classicismo, assuming the model of the art of the past, implies the sfiducia in the capacity of the art to express the present realtà storica, but, ridducing the art of all the imitation of modelli storici, nullifying the value of creativity 'a che è proprio dell' classical art]. See gc argan, Same…, ib.; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., pp. 30-1.

[ix] See gc argan, Same…, p. 253; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 210.

[X] [The soul both più splende and più è dimesso l'involucro corporeo; the matter is finite, but infinite the divine light che la riempie. The mosaic did not let go of the wall (of Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, ca. 450]), but the structure: smussa gli spigoli, deforms the contour of the arch, annuls the intersection of the piani, imposes the legge of the continuity of the transmission of the light]. See gc argan, Same…, pp. 253-4; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 210.

[xi] [Lthe musical technique is properly the process of creating the material that is conditioned by opacity to that spiritual, of transparency, of the light of space]. See gc argan, Same…, p. 255;  Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 211.

[xii] Argan italics.

[xiii] [The mosaic is made up of piccoli pezzi of vitreous paste; question tessere, Però, no hanno tutte la stessa grandezza, la stessa forma, la stessa trasparenza, la stessa qualità riflettente e, noltre, vengono fissate nella malta dell'intonaco a diversi livelli e con diverse inclinazioni, secondo l'estro e l'esperienza dell' operator. The unequal surface is così si ottiene rittette bensì la luce, ma rifrangendola in infiniti raggi, cosiché appears piena di punti scintillante, animata da una intense vibrazione, almost molecolare. / [The bravery of the mosaicist, which naturally interprets a given design, consists of giving color to the greatest depth of the background and the greatest vibration of the surface, not an assolute tonal giustezza. However, this value is with the animate fabric of the tessere and with the careful control of the luminosity of the color: and then, naturally, the material does not allow me to fade in color, it proceeds by lighting up a troppo fredda texture (for example, I saw it or azzurri) inserting in the contest a cune note calde (gialli, rosse) oppure, conversely, spegnendo una inta troppo calda with the insertion of note fredde]. See gc argan, Same…, p. 254; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 211.

[xiv] [(...) It is indeed think about it like this interpret, refine, sublimate the material, ridicule the spiritual values ​​of the symbolic form.]. See gc argan, Same…, p. 275; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 223.

[xv] [(...) Si rinuncia a invente nuovi tipi e forma nuove, preferring to assume in whole The experience of the passage and proceeds in the sense of always maggior perfection, always più sottile, perfect sophistry, stylistic quintessence]. See gc argan, Same…, pp. 276; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., pp. 224.

[xvi] [The artist holds a golden weight or an abundance of non-precious material, and spends some time in his life, unexperiencing and acquiring it, modeling it or intagliarlo, and associating it harmonically with other material, continues in a certain way the creative operation di Dio; and since that matter has in itself a spiritual principle, the human opera must not cancel or conceal or avvilire the matter, but interpret it, sviluppare all its possibilities, le forze che door in sé]. See GC ARGAN, Idem, op. cit., p. 284; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 238.

[xvii] Cf. Antonio Candido, “The meaning of Brazil roots”, preface, in Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Brazil roots, Rio de Janeiro, José Olympio, 1969, p. XIV.

[xviii] See Idem, ib.

[xx] [The Roman technological revolution is not born from the scope of new material, from new structures, from new operational processes: it ultimately transforms itself, certainly, into its scope and achieves a profound transformation of culture and social life. As for all the material, the innovation consists essentially in the impiety of the material and is not necessarily precious: if the value is given in the procedure, or in the work, that is both maggiore, and più meritorious, as well as if it is part of the bottom, the material is not there a value in itself. Nell'architettura, the wall prevails under marble incrostration; in the sculpture, the pietra sostituisce i marmi preziosi, rare; nella pittura, l'affresco gareggia col mosaico. It is also an economic necessity: the artigiano is autonomous, he operates with his own strength, the prime material of his work does not last until the date of the court's tesori, like all the Byzantine artigians. But the achievement is a quantitative increase in production, which is cost-limited: the non-riman art is not limited to one cut, but it is different and, differently, it exerts its influence on its social circle much larger, the Bizantine art. put it into the service of the system, of its politico-religious generation, a raffinate technique, guided by the antichi canoni, in certain sense perfect: in the form of ideal perfection that could be put in place, placed at the top, in the structure of the procedure rimane to the stessa, so sviluppo non è che un raffinamento semper maggiore. The romanic artigiano is responsible for its own production, it must win the emulation, the competition, invent new tipi for richiamare the interest: his technique is not a technique wave, one technique progressive. At this point, then, the concept of progress and innovation follows that of technique: the Byzantine technique is both migliore and più strettamente fedele to the canon and leads to an ideal archetype, the roman technique is both migliore and più new, invented . The idea of ​​invention is a question of progress, if you progress by inventing. The invention presupposes the experience of the tradition that if you overcome it, follows a sviluppo storico: così la tecnica si fa storia in a society that riaffers the value of the story and its finalism. This sfondarsi sulla sperienza storica, which is a sperienza di uno sviluppo, invece che su principi theoretic, assoluti, and immutability, is another fundamental aspect of romanic technology]. See GC Argan, History of Italian Art, vol. 1, op. cit., pp. 284-85; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 239.

[xx] See GC Argan, Idem, pp. 285-86; Storia dell'Arte Italiana, op. cit., p. 240.

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