Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 13, 2017
Vernon James Knight Jr. Iconographic Method in New World Prehistory New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 214 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $110.00 (9781107022638)

Ancient images produced in contexts from which no written records survive present a formidable challenge to iconographers. Vernon James Knight Jr. argues that studies of such imagery are particularly vulnerable to specious claims based on intuition and superficial analysis, a problem he addresses in Iconographic Method in New World Prehistory. In response to what he describes as a lack of methodological rigor in “a field of study that is still in search of academic respectability” (xiv), Knight proposes a method for iconographic analysis consisting of seven ordered and discrete phases that is a synthesis of what he deems to be the most effective terms and concepts found in the scattered body of literature on the topic. An anthropological archaeologist specializing in the study of the ancient Americas, the case studies that Knight uses to illustrate his method are drawn from the area of his expertise, although the method is applicable to images produced by any ancient societies that did not develop written language or whose systems of writing remain undeciphered.

Knight defines iconography as concerned exclusively with establishing “the relation between visual imagery and its meaningful referents” (3). When stated so plainly this aim seems a simple and straightforward one, but Knight’s book is a valuable demonstration of how much work, both theoretical and practical, should go into making even basic associations between ancient images and the things they represent. Presented as a formula for avoiding pitfalls common to the study of images independent from written language, Knight acknowledges that aspects of the method may require slight adjustment based on the material to which it is applied. The book highlights the benefits of taking an approach that is “basically scientific in outlook” (20) to what is an inherently interpretive endeavor.

The dense content, technical language, and manual-like format of this book are geared toward a narrow audience of dedicated iconographers. Knight wrote it with students in mind, and it is well designed to serve as a guide for those embarking upon a large-scale, long-term project such as a thesis or dissertation. Knight explains his approach in six chapters that introduce the concepts central to the method and the “consensus vocabulary” that he creates to describe them. The arrangement of the chapters reflects the order in which the phases should be undertaken, so that over the course of reading the book one is walked through the rationale and procedure of the method.

A major contribution of Iconographic Method in New World Prehistory is its extensive and well-reasoned engagement with both archaeological and art-historical theory. To Knight, the iconography of ancient images falls within the realm of cognitive archaeology, though much of his analytic framework is derived from art-historical scholarship. The initial chapter outlines some of the key theoretical perspectives that inform the method’s phases, including the iconology of Erwin Panofsky and the configurational analysis of George Kubler. In his call for the application of ethnographic analogy, however, Knight departs from the position taken by Kubler, who was skeptical of its value. Although most archaeologically and art-historically minded iconographers now accept both as valid practices, the juxtaposition of configurational analysis and ethnographic analogy within Knight’s concrete proposal for a single systemic process is one structural example of the many concessions that he makes between what have traditionally been considered distinct viewpoints.

Knight’s method is logistically feasible, but relatively few student projects are likely to be executed in the ideal conditions that he prescribes for optimal results. Knight warns that in gathering a body of material for study, a researcher’s first task, “it cannot be emphasized enough that anything short of assembling a database including, within reason, the entire available corpus of related works or images is an invitation to slipshod analysis and dubious results” (34; emphasis in original). Many students may not have enough funding for the extensive international travel that this often requires or the team of co-investigators that Knight suggests. Nevertheless, the guidelines put forth in Iconographic Method in New World Prehistory set an aspirational standard for those who are typically working on shorter timelines and with fewer resources than the projects that Knight judges worthy of emulation.

Knight treats stylistic analysis, which falls second in his sequence, as distinct from, yet integral to, the project of iconographic analysis. According to the method, stylistic analysis should come prior to an attempt to identify referents. Knight points out, however, that because some stylistic traits are content specific, stylistic analysis is paradoxically dependent on a basic understanding of subject matter. This side note reminds the reader that not all aspects of these analytical processes fit neatly within the method’s ordered phases. Knight characterizes visual style as “observers’ models of the appropriateness of form” (27). He differentiates this observer-focused model of style from what would be considered a procedural one centered on the choices made by artisans. A strength of the book’s discussion of style is the pragmatic instruction that it provides for distinguishing canonical features, which can be utilized to isolate new styles or to make stylistic attributions.

The third step of the method calls for researchers to immerse themselves in information regarding local natural history and relevant archaeological data in order to aid in the identification of “natural prototypes” that may have acted as referents for images. This contextualization serves as an antidote to what Knight calls “it seems to me” iconography, in which researchers name a prototype based solely on their immediate impression of an image, failing to recognize that all representations are governed by specific cultural conventions. Even when an attempt to learn as much as possible about these factors is made in earnest, the original context in which an image was produced can never be completely reconstructed. In turn, Knight suggests that this task be understood, using the terms of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, as falling on a spectrum of accuracy ranging from experience-near to experience-distant relative to past lived experiences (60). Knight’s adoption of this terminology is an important acknowledgement of the extent to which the interpretation of ancient images is always an approximation, despite the exacting nature of his method.

Knight describes his iteration of Kubler’s configurational analysis, step four of the method, as the “decomposing” of images into suprastylistic units. These units are to be traced within the corpus and analyzed in terms of distribution, allowing the researcher to delimit “classes of images believed to represent the same subject matter” (88), which Knight calls visual themes. A hierarchical diagram showing the twelve terms that Knight uses to describe the units and the analytical levels to which they belong is especially helpful for understanding this complex scheme (92). In chapter 4, Knight provides his own definitions for each of these terms, some of which, like motif, have long histories of ambiguous use. The definitions contribute substantially to Knight’s “consensus vocabulary,” which is compiled in a glossary at the end of the book. Knight concludes that some images will remain impervious beyond this point. In other cases, it may be possible to use ethnographic analogy, he argues, to elucidate what he calls a theme of reference, a native cultural model or “schematized form of shared knowledge within a given domain” that determines subject matter (175).

The application of ethnographic analogy is the fifth phase of the method. Knight distinguishes the form of historical homology that serves as the basis for this phase from other analogical modes of inquiry and encourages its cautious use, providing several ways that a researcher might assess the quality of a homology. The final of these measures, its ability to generate new connections, is the least dependable. In the last chapter Knight lists the propagation of a flawed interpretation through its use in the development of new ones as a common error, underscoring the fact that mistaken conclusions can occasionally appear generative to a limited degree. In chapter 5, the use of a Classic Period Maya example to demonstrate the role of cognates in the construction of historical homologies stands out as the only instance in which a different case study might better fit the book’s subject, the iconography of nonliterate contexts, as this is one of the few Pre-Columbian cultural traditions for which researchers do in fact have access to a rich body of contemporary indigenous writing.

The sixth phase, the formulation of an iconographic model, is the culmination of the first five. The iconographic model is intended to “bridge the space between visual themes and themes of reference” (150), offering iconographers an avenue for making connections between images and their referents. The seventh and final phase is the testing of the iconographic model, the exposure of inadequate models over time serving as the means of evaluation. Knight states that if an iconographic model is correct it should mature, helping to make sense of other related data. If it is weak, a model will have little impact and will fall out of use.

A careful reading of Iconographic Method in New World Prehistory, like carrying out all of its seven phases, requires time and significant attention. Readers who invest are rewarded with a potential solution to a problem of serious consequence in the field of ancient American studies. Knight has produced a work that is novel not by reinvention but by taking on the daunting task of bringing relevant literature from two disciplines into dialogue with each other in a clear and coherent way. Even if a researcher regards a specific aspect of its synthetic character or its “consensus vocabulary” too idiosyncratic or somehow problematic, every iconographic study could profit from the structure and order for which Knight advocates. Students in particular will benefit from the book’s thoroughness, with each chapter offering not only the explicit directives briefly reviewed here, but also a discussion of the problems one might encounter when putting the method to work.

Amanda V. Gannaway
Lecturer in the Discipline of Art History, Columbia University