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Technique in the Arts. Concepts, Practices, Expertise (1500-1950)

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ARTECHNE (Technique in the Arts. Concepts, Practices, Expertise (1500-1950))

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-02-29

How is technique in art taught? How is it learned? The transmission of ‘technique’ in art has been a conspicuous ‘black box’ resisting analysis. The tools of the humanities used to study the transmission of ideas and concepts are insufficient when it comes to understanding the transmission of something as non-propositional and non-verbal as ‘technique’. This project proposes to undertake the experimental re-enactment of historical recipes to open the black box of the transmission of technique in the visual and decorative arts.

Considering ‘technique’ as a textual, material and social practice, this project aims to write a long-term history of the theory and practice of the study of ‘technique’ in the visual and decorative arts between 1500 and 1950. The three central research questions are:

1. What is technique in the visual and decorative arts?
2. How is technique studied and transmitted?
3. Who is considered expert in technique?
On the basis of the development of a database of recipes and techniques we are able to create a historical semantic map of ‘technique’. The meaning of the notion of technique is complex and complicated by demarcations of the fields of ‘art’ and ‘science’ and with the relationships between the sciences and the humanities. One of the results of the scrutiny of diverse texts from Winckelmann, Kant and Goethe, among others, is that it brings to light that the notion of ‘Technik’ arose in connection to a process of distinction between processes of making and the works of art themselves in the eighteenth century. They relate to dichotomies between hand and mind which haunt technical art history to this day.

We have also studied the emerging cultures of expertise in the period between 1750 and 1950 and the collaborations and conflicts between conservators, chemists and art historians, to understand who was considered an expert in the arts, and for which reasons. It sheds new light onto the disciplinary formation of art history and the professionalization of conservation. One result, in particular, is that we have shown that the interest in historical materials and techniques re-emerged in the nineteenth century in response to the alienation of artists from their materials, artists’ lack of material knowledge and the lack of stability and durability of industrially produced artists’ materials. It has also become clear that already in this period chemists performing pigment analysis had ethical concerns of conservation.

Finally, to assess the role of manuals in the acquisition of practical skills in the early modern period, we have combined traditional historical methods with historical reenactment. We have shown that the textual transmission of craft knowledge depended upon, rather than threatened, established routes to craft learning, such as apprenticeships. We have also begun work showing how these manuals are the product of making and re-organization of knowledge gathered from artists and artisans over a period of several centuries.
The disciplinary conflict between science and the humanities in the study of materials and techniques relies on hierarchies of the material and the intellectual, and the hand and the mind, which are still at work today in shaping processes of collaboration between conservators, conservation scientists and art historians. By writing the history of synergies and tensions between science and the humanities, and conflict and cooperation between conservators, art historians and scientists, we expect that this project will contribute to the newly emerging field of technical art history which promises to resolve tensions and allow for fruitful cooperation between the sciences and humanities in the study of art making.

By application of performative methodologies of re-enactment and reconstruction we have come closer to understanding what technique (or skill) is and how it is learned and taught. Moreover, by encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue on the innovative use of performative methods among curators, artists and researchers in the humanities and social sciences, such as archeology, musicology, anthropology, conservation, art history and history of science, we expect to have a long-lasting impact on the renewal of methods in the humanities.
Gerard Dou, 'Man Writing by an Easel'. c. 1631-32. 31.5 x 25 cm, oil on panel - private collection