Keith Moxey divulges a new criticism for art interpreters

Studying for a quiz for Art History 102? Note cards, be gone.

Or, maybe not. Keith Moxey, professor of art history at Columbia University and Barnard College, says the key to understanding art is accepting that we cannot understand everything. His lecture last Thursday, “Bruegel’s Crows: Some Reflections on Contemporary Art History,” presented several theories he has developed since January. Moxey said that although it does help to know specific information, we should not bog ourselves down in iconography. We should not rely on words to help us interpret paintings because some visual qualities escape words. Still, knowing the limitations of words will lead us to better interpretations.

Moxey began by challenging the format of most art history courses that encourage memorization of relevant dates and icons. As viewers, he explained, we are not in control – images are. We do not live in Greece as the temples are being built but this has not prevented art from being significant in our lives, he said. Art, then, is autonomous, and it can stand apart from the time in which it was created while still evoking emotional responses.

Moxey then contrasted art’s autonomy to the relationship between words and time, in which our understanding of one relates to the other. In 2009, we may have difficulty knowing what speech from 1009 means, but Moxey argued that we do not have this difficulty with art. The importance of a given piece of art is how it affects us, rather than our verbal interpretations and memorization of dates. According to Moxey, the dilemma occurs when we try to “capture that which escapes words in words.”

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose work is characterized by its “demand and resistance of interpretation,” was the focus of Moxey’s discussion of visual interpretation. The lecturer presented four paintings without reference to the time period in which they were created (Netherlandish Renaissance) in an attempt to show how autonomous images are. At the same time, he knew that most people in the room had studied Bruegel. Moxey’s use of familiar works seems to contradict his argument about autonomy, but his goal was likely for his audience to see Bruegel in a different perspective than before.

Moxey used the first painting, The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, to advance an approach to reading Bruegel’s work as “splotchy.” Here, human figures are not unified. Instead Bruegel uses colors and shapes as “autonomously as poets use words.” There are various scenes taking place simultaneously: window washing, dancing, going to church. Piety and hedonism coexist. Moxey argued that the disunity of the painting has to be ignored for us to understand the iconography – yet he also acknowledged the disunity as essential to considering The Battle as religious commentary.

Christ Carrying the Cross is another seemingly disorganized painting with crowded humans stretched along a near-barren landscape. Christ carries his cross in the center of the painting. He is hardly visible among the masses of people engaged in other activities. The only indication that Christ is there is the Virgin in the foreground, collapsing into St. John’s arms. Christ, Moxey explained, is an example of interpretation that escapes words: the foreground reveals what has been hidden. The details we do not understand – or do not see – are prime examples of the limits words have in expressing our interpretations and responses to art.

In closing, Moxey discussed the last two works, The Triumph of Death and The Return of The Hunters, to explain both our need to use a “mobile eye” in paintings without a focal point and the artist’s incorporation of crows, respectively. According to him, we shouldn’t be intimidated by paintings that do not use hierarchical scales. Instead, as in works like Triumph, we should allow our eyes to roam around paintings that seem to have no specific intention for the viewer’s primary focus. The Return of The Hunters also follows in the same fashion: It has become the reference point for Bruegel’s crows as another echo of the haphazardness of the paintings. The crows are always in the background, but what purpose do they serve? Which direction do they lead us, and does it matter?

Although Moxey was knowledgeable about Bruegel, he did not tell his audience which readings (if any) were the right ones. It is up to us to decide for ourselves. We should behave like Bruegel’s black crows, “flying everywhere and nowhere,” and realize that sometimes there is no definitive answer. “Images want to be asked what they want,” Moxey concluded. “Sometimes, that is nothing.”