Top: Bernini, Bacchanal: A Faun Teased by Children
Bottom: Poussin, Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan
Though not about Baroque art per se, Conrad Roth of Varieties of Unreligious Experience has up a thoughtful, closely-argued post addressing just these questions. Roth arrives at a couple of (for me) surprising conclusions, the money quotes of which are below.
Roth notes that, traditionally, painting has been held in higher regard than sculpture because art criticism tends to work from reproductions--engravings or drawings--and paintings naturally will suffer less from 2-dimensional renderings than sculptures will. But consider this:
For [Johann Gottfried] Herder, . . . mere visual sensation is inadequate to an understanding of space, and therefore of Being: 'sight is but an abbreviated form of touch. The rounded form becomes a mere figure, the statue a flat engraving. Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth'. Sculpture is greater than painting because it is not confined, as painting is, to the image, to the eye—in Platonic terms, its subject is truth, not dreams or impressions. It cannot be reduced to a series of views, 'dismembered into a pitiful polygon'. Where the painter merely depicts, the sculptor, like God fashioning Adam, creates. The spiritual power of sculpture, as Herder explains towards the end of his treatise, is witnessed by primitive idol-worship; the ancients were aware, he thinks, that the statue must always be an image of the soul, of the world of Forms, bodied forth.
But then Roth expresses his own preference in sculpture for "the unfinished, fragmentary and deliquescent," because
in being (or appearing) incomplete, these sculptures call into question the primacy of the eye. If visual beauty arises from perfect form, these works decline such standards; rather they invite the mind to complete them—what Gombrich called the 'beholder's share'. The intellect, not the eye, is entertained. And this intellectual sculpture, this 'virtual' sculpture, cannot be considered in terms of views or images, not even three-dimensional ones. It cannot even be visualised—to do so is to compromise, to break the spell, just for a moment. It is, in fact, very much like another sort of intellectual construction: the castle of words, which must, again, remain ever incomplete.
Is it any surprise, then, that I, who prize the intellectual above the visual, the unseen above the seen—I, who greedily want my share of the work—should prefer the history of art to art itself?
I personally don't know how to articulate where I stand on these matters, but I'll give it a preliminary try.
I do know that I find it harder intellectual work to look at sculptures than at paintings, just as Leonardo himself argues in his Treatise on Painting (Aside: imagine the strange pleasure of being able to say one thinks like that genius, at least in that regard). Whereas painting creates a virtual space into which the viewer enters, sculpture enters into the viewer's space, becoming quite literally a physical presence that the viewer has no choice but to negotiate at the most basic of levels. The Abstract Expressionist painter Ab Reinhart's quip, "Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting,” indirectly makes that very point.
As for "art or art history," I suppose this blog's existence is a partial answer to that question: If I truly privileged art over art history, I'd either be silent or take some art classes and try to produce some Art myself. But as I read Roth's post some rather unpleasant memories from my grad school days came to mind, memories of times when among my peers it seemed as though theory-for-theory's-sake seemed to matter more than its efficacy when employed in reading actual texts--or, for that matter, that theory lead us back to rather than away from the text. I feel certain, based on my reading of his blog, that Roth's goal is to lead back to the work, equipped with his insight into it. I claim no insights or special knowledge; all I claim, really, is the desire to become better at articulating what I see when I look at these works. Knowing some unsuspecting soul might stumble upon these posts, I try to make his/her accidental visit here as worth his/her time as I am able--not as regards me, though, but as regards the work I'm commenting on. Isn't that all "art history" should do, really?