The Art History of Michael Baxandall, Part 2: What is Inferential Criticism of Art?

This entry continues a series of posts on the art historian Michael Baxandall (1933-2008). The first post commented on his 1971 book, Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition, 1350-1450. I now take on the mighty Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures (1985), which is now inexplicably out of print. I continue to hope, as I’ve said before, that these commentaries will encourage students of film, art historians and anyone interested in the history of ideas to form a greater appreciation for Baxandallian thought and research.

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In Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Picturespublished 18 years after his first extended study, a pamphlet titled South German Sculpture, 1500-1800 (1967), Michael Baxandall asks perhaps the most daunting historical question in visual studies: “if we think or speak of a picture as, among other things, the product of situated volition or intention, what is it that we are doing?” (p.v). Perhaps the most sustained reflection on the problem of causality in art historical writing yet written, Patterns of Intention is a trenchant methodological treatise, even though the reader should bear in mind that he never considered himself a theorist or “methodologist” and endeavors here to address practical problems associated with the art historian’s fundamental preoccupation with why art looks the way it does at any given moment in history.

Patterns of Intention might be called Baxandall’s manifesto, for its nominal aim is to sketch the terms of what he calls “inferential criticism” of art. Inferential criticism focuses on artifacts that are of “visual interest”—a tack taken by art historians rather than general historians who study actions, not artifacts (or visual deposits of thought) (p.13). But the operative word here is inferential. Baxandall draws a crucial distinction between art writing that tries to recount the stroke-by-stroke stages by which a painter creates a picture and art writing that uncovers the salient circumstances that shape the concrete intentions that produce artworks. Art criticism cannot simply chronicle the creation of a work: “We cannot reconstruct the serial action, the thinking and manipulation of pigments that ended in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, with sufficient precision to explain it as an action” (p.13). He later adds: “[…] while we cannot narrate process, we can posit it” (p.63). The problems that arise for the inferential critic are precisely those that define the procedure of making inferences.

In the introduction, “Language and Explanation” (pp. 1-11), Baxandall argues that even the most clinical description of a picture harbors “cause words” (like “assured handling” (p.6)) that link descriptions with an interest in the explanation of what one sees. When one says of Baptism of Christ that it has a “firm design,” one is implicitly inferring a cause for the picture (i.e., this painting is the way that it is because it was designed firmly). The thesis that Baxandall develops here, that descriptions of pictures are once removed from the actual objects of description (“one does not describe pictures but our thoughts of having seen pictures”), develops an argument he presented in an earlier article, “The Language of Art History” (1979). Included in this linguistic “remove” or extrapolation are “why?” remarks, that is, descriptions that reveal an interest in the origins and development of the work.

Baxandall’s inferential criticism, then, is a species of art commentary that is aware of the forms of attention and interest that are “baked into” our language. Moreover, this critical impulse is driven by the notion that in the making of pictures, painters (Picasso in Chapter 2, Piero in Chapter 3, and, in the case of Chapter 1, bridge-builder Benjamin Baker) are problem-solvers. Let us consider what Baxandall means by this before enumerating the difficulties he sees in making this assumption.

By considering artists as problem-solvers, Baxandall follows in the footsteps of E.H. Gombrich and Heinrich Wölfflin. (Not all art historians have been in favor of this historiographic premise; Arnold Hauser critiques the problem-solution approach in The Philosophy of Art History (p.144).) Even though many artists, like Picasso, deny that they are above all posers and solvers of major compositional problems, Baxandall perceives many benefits in the problem-solution inference (even though, he readily admits, this often pits the “observer versus the actor”):

A “problem”—practical or geometrical or logical—is normally a state of affairs in which two things hold: something is to be done, and there is no purely habitual or simply reactive way of doing it. There are also connotations of difficulty. But there is a difference between the sense of problem in the actor and in the observer. The actor thinks of “problem” when he is addressing a difficult task and consciously knows he must work out a way to do it. The observer thinks of “problem” when he is watching someone’s purposeful behavior and wishes to understand: “problem-solving” is a construction he puts on other people’s purposeful activity. (p. 69; see also pp.14-15)

This passage offers the gist of Baxandall’s reasoning in this book. The critic or historian cannot actually know the content of the moment-by-moment thought process or the intricacies involved in the application of daubs of paint that result in a work. The critic must insert in her explanation of what she sees a mediating process stage: an activity of artistic problem-solving.

But of what does this process consist? And what are the implications for how we understand the picture-maker’s intentions? In Chapter 1, he sets forth a “low and simple theoretical stance”: the triangle of re-enactment (fig.1), which allows him to posit an intention in the work of art, or the artist as an intentional agent—one whose volitions are captured in our descriptions (p.34). To “re-enact” the causes of a work of art, one must first describe it–attach words to its features. One then “moves about” on the triangle, “a simplified reconstruction of the maker’s reflection and rationality applying an individual selection from collective resources to a task” (p.34).

Fig. 1. Baxandall's triangle of reenactment.
Fig. 1. Baxandall’s triangle of reenactment.

He first applies this approach to the building of the Queensfery Bridge (ca. 1890). In order to keep the various elements of the problem situation separate, he proposes the concepts of the “Charge” (“Bridge!”) and the resultant “Brief,” which in the case of Baker refers to the site- and circumstance-specific problems before the builder in the project. But, as Baxandall underscores, the approach developed in the study of the intentions behind this bridge may not apply to, say, a painting like Picasso’s Portrait of Kahnweiler (1910) (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Portrait of Kahnweiler (Picasso, 1910).
Fig. 2. Portrait of Kahnweiler (Picasso, 1910).

From the problem of concretely reconstructing the intention of Baker, Baxandall transitions to the problem of examining Picasso’s painting with the same tools. He records two difficulties in trying to apply the triangle of re-enactment to Picasso: 1) the fact that the process that went into the creation of the portrait is not as clearly defined in terms of its stages as that of the bridge, which had distinctive conception and execution stages; and 2) the fact that while it is clear in the case of Baker who set the Charge and Brief (the company for which he was working), it is less clear who issued Picasso’s Charge and Brief in the painting of the portrait (p.39).

Chapter 2 (pp.41-73) addresses these issues by attacking the difficult historiographic question of “intention.” Baxandall sees intention in very practical terms: “a general condition of rational human action which I posit in the course of arranging my circumstantial facts or moving about on the triangle of re-enactment” (p.41). Intentions do not belong to the artist alone; they are not biographical-conceptual entities pulled from the artist’s brain. They are social entities constructed—better yet, inferred—from the historian’s labor of moving about on the triangle, an amalgamation of factors that include the artist’s will and agency (in terms of problem-stating and solving), the resultant work and the circumstances that impinge on both.

But of what use is the idea of a Charge when trying to explain the paintings of Picasso, or, for that matter, the films of a Godard? Baxandall acknowledges the difficulty in allotting visual artists a common charge. While bridge-builder must always “Span!”, painters must always produce a picture of “intentional visual interest,” a vague proposition at best.

Appropriately, Baxandall concludes that the question of the visual artist’s general Charge is of little interest (p.44). He instead concentrates on what he takes to be Picasso’s Brief. When beginning to describe and infer causes for a Picasso painting, we must consider (at a minimum) three elements to the problem-complex (or Brief) he confronted: 1) the problem of representing of 3-D objects on a 2-D surface; 2) the problems of form and color; and 3) the problem of acknowledging in the character of his depiction the fact that the depiction is not the product of an instantaneous or momentary experience, but rather a record of sustained interaction over time with the objects/experiences painted.

Baxandall then asks, “who set Picasso’s Brief?” The answer is Picasso himself. What makes a Picasso different from a Benjamin Baker is that while both had a choice in their respective Briefs (both, for instance, by their own volitions, were “historical” artists, concerned with the styles of the past), Picasso more freely selected the problems he wished to address. But this freedom was not absolute, as Baxandall shows in Chapter 2, section 4; Picasso was, after all, a social being in cultural circumstances. This chapter is an important one, so let’s consider it in greater detail.

In Chapter 2, section 4, Baxandall shows that in some contexts it is beneficial to consider an artist’s culture through the terms of the art market. But the inferential critic cannot assume that the artist’s market is identical to the economist’s market. Like pre-capitalist societies, art markets operate as barter systems. Crucially, however, the barter the painter is involved with consists of mental goods like artistic forms. This process of barter is dubbed troc, and in Chapter 2, section 5, Baxandall switches to the nature of the institutions Picasso “traded” in: 1) mixed public exhibitions; 2) a system of dealers (Picasso, like a Chardin, made ready-made and commissioned works), and 3) French cultural journalism. While this outline of Picasso’s market might seem vague, Baxandall describes it in sufficient detail to show how Picasso interacted with it (p.53): by selecting well amongst the forms this healthy market provided as choices (naturally, Picasso added to this array of forms as well); and by his refusal to participate in the black Salons (a fact that I will mention only in passing, here). In the end, artists’ volitions begin to come into view when we consider how they interacted with this market: “if being a member of a discussable class was one way of keeping a head above the water of the black Salons, being a conspicuously individual talent was one way of doing so when swimming in the dealers’ sector” (p.56).

In order to render his observations about Picasso’s relation to his market more precise, he considers the “influence” of Cézanne on Picasso—or rather, Picasso’s reading and repurposing of various aspects of Cézanne’s play with forms. Using an Italian billiard table image in Chapter 2, section 6, “Excursus Against Influence,” he argues that claiming that Cézanne influenced Picasso inverts the relevant art historical relationship for the inferential critic. Picasso should instead be seen as having “acted on” Cézanne, picking up some of his devices and repositioning him as a central figure in art history. Picasso was not a passive receptacle of past traditions, but has “a specifically discriminating view of the past in an active and reciprocal relation with a developing set of dispositions and skills” (p.62). As I have written elsewhere, this is a much more fruitful description of Picasso’s (or any artist’s) relations to the visual tradition in which he finds himself than conventional models of influence.

Chapter 3 (pp. 74-104) takes up an issue broached in Chapter 2—namely, the degree to which a painter (in this case, Chardin in his A Lady Taking Tea (1735)) picks up on the thoughts or philosophical ideas (or “cognitive style”) of his or her time. Baxandall wants to avoid the hazy and easy relationship of “affinity.” Claiming that a painting has “affinities” with major philosophical or scientific thought of a period adds nothing to the process of explaining the fine-grained features of a picture. Baxandall’s litmus test is whether this or that thought “bear[s] on [the artist’s] sense of relation to the object of representation” (p.75). He clarifies: “the science or philosophy invoked must be made to entail fairly directly a particular thing about visual experience and so about possible pictorial character” (p.77). The “demands” he lays out for the consideration of social facts as causes of pictorial style are spelled out (p.77). A direct connection is found in Chardin’s case, if only because some of the main specialists on optics in this era were also painters (p.89) and had a direct connection to Chardin (p.92). Baxandall thus manages in this chapter to replace a vague “affinity” with the idea of “an eighteenth century web of preoccupation” that implicated the problem solving of a specific painter (p.103).

The book’s final chapter begins with two questions: 1) how far we can go in making inferences about the “intentional fabric” of artists who belong to other cultures or distant periods? And 2) what is the relationship between our explanations and truth? To examine these problems of explanation, Baxandall goes to a work remote to our culture—more remote than the works of Picasso and Chardin—Piero’s Baptism of Christ (1425-1450).

Baxandall argues that Piero’s Brief was substantially different from Picasso’s in the following manner (each of these elements relate to the different state of art making and the market in Piero’s time):

  • Piero painted pictures to order
  • the terms of the painting would have been recorded in a contract
  • Piero painted according to certain generic conditions (in the case of Baptism, it must be an altarpiece, it must depict this particular biblical episode, and it must be painted by Piero’s hand alone—all of which would have been stipulated in the contract)

Baxandall’s discussion of Piero’s Brief (not to mention Picasso’s) raises a concern that any skeptical reader of Patterns of Intention must contend with: to what extent can these aspects of Piero’s Brief be taken as explanatory, especially when attempting to infer causes for the specific work that went into Baptism? Are the terms Baxandall lists not too broad, and would they not also apply, in every respect, to Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (1472-1475) (fig.3)?

Fig. 3. Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio, 1472-1475).
Fig. 3. Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio, 1472-1475).

Granted, one variable in Piero’s Brief separates it from that of a Verrocchio: it is well known that Verrocchio did not work alone; this painting was a collaborative effort, produced by his workshop. The blond angel on the far left and the landscape are attributed to a young Leonardo Da Vinci; and some critics attribute the second angel to a young Botticelli.

Despite these historical details, I think my concern about the broadness of Baxandall’s list still stands: in order to explain two different Baptism depictions by two painters working under the same conditions (the same market, the same genre, a similar contract), do we not require more than the broad Brief inferred here?

Broad Briefs appear to have less explanatory force if one is studying not a Picasso versus a Piero but two contemporaries. Consider this example from the last century, the classical Hollywood era (ca. 1917-1960). Would it be sufficient to say that studio demands for intelligible continuity storytelling, adherence to the censorship regulations of the Production Code (1930-1968), the strength of the star system, the genre conventions of the Western, and the fact that producers wanted John Ford’s skills at the helm are sufficient to explain The Searchers (1956)? If we allow for a commutation of Anthony Mann for Ford, could the exact same thing not be said of The Man from Laramie (1955)?

The concern here is that Baxandall’s exercise in Patterns of Intention, particularly the idea that the inferential historian must posit a Brief to explain a work, might lose its force when explaining two works from the same era—two works that share the same general Brief. Perhaps Baxandall would reply that this is not a problem, because then the explanation of the differences between two contemporary works would lie with more precise contextual considerations (who, for instance, were the patrons, and did they have special demands?) and the specific problems artists set for themselves and the skills they used to solve them. This does show, however, that the broad Brief one posits cannot in itself be taken a comprehensive inventory of the terms of the problem situations artists find themselves in. If it did, then a Baptism by Piero and a Baptism by another contemporary artist would be if not identical, certainly comparable and overlapping in significant ways that render most of the elements of the Brief banal. We need to go beyond the Brief, or refine it, to explain the works of two contemporaries working within the same general conditions.

Setting this objection aside, Baxandall returns one of the pressing question of “culture”—what role can or should it play in the explanation of specific features of art works? Because Baxandall wishes to avoid the traps of what might be called “reflectionism” or mere “affinity,” he wants to posit for culture a specific role in historical explanation. He will not consider cultures as having a uniform impact on individuals that participate in them. What, for instance, does an occupation like medicine have to do with art? Almost nothing at all, for medical science works to give parts of a populace skills that have very little bearing on how works of art are made or visually perceived. He therefore wants to consider only those cultural factors that train a society in skills relevant to the experience of beholding a picture. In 15th century Italy, a distinctive kind of commercial mathematics was taught in schools (p.107), and Piero was a painter whose life’s work creatively explored the connections between art and mathematics.

Again, we are in a position here to raise an objection: does this not make Baxandall’s Piero example a little convenient, or perhaps ideal? Would he still cite mathematical skills as an explanation of pictures in this era if there were no direct connection between the artist in question and mathematics? After all, historians of visual art do not always have connections that are this clear to ground the inferential work they do. But perhaps this is precisely Baxandall’s point. Such skills should not be invoked unless the connections are relatively direct.

But are inferential critics or historians bound to considering only those cultural trends that impinge directly on visual experience? Baxandall tests his initial theory by taking into account those skills that are less “visual” and more “external” to art-making but that are nevertheless relevant to “reflection on pictures” (p.108). What this suggests is that the art historian must consider two sets of beholder skills (in inferring the causes of pictures): 1) visual skills and 2) external “intellectual” skills. In the case of Piero, 2) refers to the different way people in the 15th century explained pictures, i.e. in terms of “efficient and final causes.” The point here is that in considering the causes of Piero’s Baptism one needs to consider the fact that a client in this era would have been viewed as more of an active agent in the picture’s final look than the artist. And the intellectual commitments of those non-artistic agents involved in the production of the picture are therefore supremely relevant.

How far, Baxandall then asks, can we go in positing an active role for culture in historical explanations of the visual features of art works? As paradoxical as this question sounds, to what extent can cultural mechanisms not known about by the artist factor into his or her intentions? What is refreshing about his analysis of the limits of studying another culture (pp. 109-111) is that he denies that the observer (i.e., the inferential critic) or the participant (i.e., the artist) has a privileged perspective. In other words, Baxandall posits a responsibility, here. The inferential critic (who, once again, is interested in using precise descriptions of visual features of works to pose questions about causation) should reject two assumptions: 1) that the artist’s beliefs about what his art achieves is sufficient to explain a work (and that culture therefore plays no role, for as the Piero example shows, even mathematics affects the design of a work); and 2) the belief, presumably held by some inferential critics, that culture always plays an active role (and that an artist’s volitions are therefore irrelevant to historical explanation). Rather, Baxandall sees the knowledge of the observer and the participant as existing along a spectrum of advantages and disadvantages as far as knowledge is concerned (which has implications for how the observer-critic explains a given art-historical phenomenon). There are, to put it differently, things that both the observer and the participant can and cannot see given their respective vantage points on the making of a specific art work. It stands to reason then that evidence about “culture” and individual volition must be used in such a way to keep both in check; sometimes culture will play a relatively large role in historical explanation, and sometimes not. But the limits of culture cannot be decided a priori—i.e., independently of a specific description of a work’s visual features.

The validity of explanatory claims preoccupies Baxandall in Chapter 4, section 5. More precisely, he asks, how do we “assess the relation of inferred intention to the truth”? He reminds us that when studying the past a correspondence theory of truth will not do—we simply cannot go out and check our claims against reality, for that relality no longer exists. He also jettisons the notion that historical explanations should have a predictive capacity. Instead, he considers the tools of verification developed by the philosophy of historical explanation (p.119). Three criteria seem most pertinent to the work of inferential criticism: internal decorum, external decorum and parsimony (pp. 120-1).

The first criterion refers to the “unity we posit in the object of study.” Candidly, one might wonder why this is at all necessary. Certainly, when we are studying an individual work, say Albert Gleizes’s The Schoolboy (1924), it makes little sense to claim (as one is describing it) that the artist erred in his judgment to place the boy’s right thumb in the lower left corner of the composition, apart from the rest of the hand (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. The Schoolboy (Gleizes, 1924).
Fig. 4. The Schoolboy (Gleizes, 1924).

It behooves one much more (as an inferential critic) to posit a unity behind the work, that is, to operate on the assumption that this decision coheres with other decisions that make up the work—to find in these compositional solutions a unified set of concerns/intentions. Otherwise, the process of discovery would not find its stride.

But what about when one is analyzing the compositional strategies and patterns of intention over the course of a series of works? It might behoove one more, with Gleizes’s writings and other portraits in hand, to posit the presence of the thumb in the lower left as a less successful or less coherent solution, in which case I would be inferring from what I see in the objects of study a different set of circumstances. These circumstances (in this hypothetical example) lead one to believe that the best explanation of the works of this period of Gleizes’s career takes Schoolboy as a one in a string of attempted solutions to the “thumb-placement” problem. In this case, seeing the work as lacking complete coherence might facilitate a better explanation than positing a unity in a single work which may not have it.

Baxandall anticipates this objection by showing that “unity” or “internal coherence” need not apply to a single work alone (p.121). By claiming a misstep on Gleizes’s part as one stage in a process toward solving the “thumb-placement” problem, I have posited what Baxandall calls an “intentional unity” (p.121) even if I argue that one work of Gleizes’s cannot be said to be unified or successful in itself. The internal coherence rests in a consistent effort or attempt across a body of work.

Still, our objection remains an important one because it reminds us that Baxandall’s efforts in this book are largely devoted to the historical explanation of individual pictures, and not the historical explanation of a series of pictures posited as belonging to an individual’s long-term pattern of creative activity. But while we might have to modify his reasoning slightly to explain a series of pictures, his reasoning already provides clues as to the answers.

As it pertains to the third criteria—that the inferential criticism will be more valid if it remains parsimonious and entertains only that explanatory matter that “contributes to experience of the picture as an object of visual perception”—I think that Baxandall might (and should) run into some opposition. This notion of parsimony is restricted by Baxandall’s assumption that works of art are worthy of attention for the inferential critic only when they are perceptually—which is to say, visually—interesting. For all the ways this book is methodologically self-aware, this premise is never exposed to scrutiny.

It seems non-controversial to claim that works of art are of interest for a variety of non-visual reasons (or for reasons that prioritize other experiences of art): works of art are often taken as direct inscriptions of discourses like myth, political ideology, philosophy, religion, and so forth and so on. Different cultures and different communities within different cultures often take works of art as mythological, philosophical or political experiences. And this is important because these non-visual assumptions about the significance—the meaning—of art also impinge on the marketplace, on taste culture and, by extension, on the problems artists pose and the solutions they develop. Non-visual as much as visual interests shape artworks, particularly their narrative and thematic features.

Baxandall therefore fails to consider the implications of a basic fact of art history: divergent visual and non-visual interests in art often co-exist within a culture, and at times they even come into conflict with one another. And for many years there has been a tension within inferential criticism—within art history and those fields of intellectual pursuit and academic study that derive approaches from it—between those who would fold visual interest into non-visual interest in art (that is, into ideological or philosophical interests) and those like Baxandall who attempt to show that there are legitimately visual cultures to which art responds and which art promotes—cultures that would be lost if art history were interpreted as an ideological or philosophical history.

To rephrase and slightly shift the emphasis of this point: Baxandall’s failure to consider the possible varieties of visual and non-visual inferential criticism means that he selects one kind of valid parsimony in art criticism over others, when what is needed is a study of the patterns of artistic intention that a spectrum of (perhaps conflicting) valid critical models can, or ought to, register.