Leonardo Thinks


Contemporary Opinion by David Carrier

David Carrier calls for the Leonardo Network to open a discussion on the future of art history in the context of new discoveries of psychology and the cognitive Sciences.
The Future of Art History in the Context of New Discoveries of Psychology and the Cognitive Sciences

“If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live an in age of enlightenment.” Kant (1784)

In March, 2009, I happened to attend the important conference E. H. Gombrich auf dem Weg zu einer BIldwissenschaft des 21.Jahrhunderts, Greifswald, Germany, held on the centenary of his birth. I welcomed the chance to examine the legacy of this seminal figure, whose writings I analyzed long ago in my doctoral thesis in philosophy, done at Columbia University. I was, I confess, a little surprised to hear that his reputation was in need of revival. Gombrich, it is true, relied upon the psychology of his day – many of his references to the scientific literature date to the 1950s. And by the 1980s, many younger art historians were no longer engaged by his ways of thinking. As feminists, they were offended by his focus on a male-oriented old master tradition; as modernists, by his obvious lack of sympathy with contemporary art; and multi-cultural thinkers, by his lack of interest in non-European traditions. And of course he had nothing to say about the emerging concerns of queer studies. At that point, a great many art historians, myself included, took an interest in Norman Bryson’s semiotic theorizing, an approach which has not withstood the test of time.

Gombrich, like all of us, was a person of his own time. But this shift in how art historical research was conducted meant that most scholars resisted any attempt to ground analysis in study of psychology. This then meant that the gap between the concerns of art history and experimental science became vast. In the past half century, psychology has changed dramatically. But art historians mostly have not followed these developments. Since cognitive psychology has revolutionized the ways that visual perception is understood, this gap seems unfortunate. To understand how we view and interpret pictures, one needs to appeal to psychology: what could be more obvious? The legitimate concerns of feminists, modernists and multi-cultural art historians might legitimately be formulated in these terms: that is our hope. There is a widespread, unspoken anxiety that a scientific concern with generality undermines the pressing need of art history, which we support to do justice to the varieties of art produced by women and men of all cultures. And, we think, a fear that study of psychology leads us back to a reductive, Euro-centric aesthetic. Gombrich, it is true, focused his attention on the naturalistic tradition which developed in Europe. In his survey history, The Story of Art, art from outside Europe has a very marginal position. But it is also the case, as he liked to note, that his late study of decoration, The Sense of Order, focused attention on art from many cultures from outside Europe. It is revealing, we think, that that book attracts less commentary than his accounts of representation.

And so, I propose, it is time to return to revisit Gombrich’s ways of thinking, not in a purely historical analysis, but rather to understand how we can reformulate his concerns, in line with present day psychology of perception. It is time to again open up discussion. John Onians’s Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki (2008) offers an historical account. The renowned Columbia University scholar David Freedberg has work in progress. And there are many other scholars at work on this subject. What can art history learn from empirical studies of visual experience? And what can analysis of visual art contribute to scientific studies of perception. Gombrich was the last of the art historians to take contemporary scientific issues pertaining to art seriously. It is time, we urge, to revive his concerns. The humanities have much to gain, and (so we optimistically believe) nothing to lose from serious reflection on this topic. Kant, whose “What is Enlightenment?” provides my epigraph was optimistic about the power of free discussion to reveal the truth. So, too, are we. It is time for art history to overcome its alienation from scientific psychology.

This, then, is a call for submissions exploring this theme. We are interested not in purely historical perspectives, but in research looking to the future. What are the most promising new approaches? How can they aid our understanding of visual art? We are interested both in general programmatic statements and in innovative accounts of individual works of art. Knowing the importance of this topic, and the fact that all interesting claims are sure to be highly controversial, we welcome friendly, engaged debate.

If you are interested in publishing an piece on this subject contact Leonardo Executive Editor at rmalina@alum.mit.edu

My earlier, now dated accounts of Gombrich are:

“Perspective as a Convention: On the Views of Nelson Goodman and Ernst Gombrich,” in Leonardo13 (l980): 283-287.

“Gombrich on Art Historical Explanations,” in Leonardo XVI, no. 2 (l983) : 91-96.

“Gombrich and Danto on Defining Art,” in J. of Aesthetics and Art Criticism54, no. 3 (Summer 1996): 279-281.

See also my interview, ‘The Big Picture. David Carrier Talks with Sir Ernst Gombrich,” in Artforum, (February 1996) : 66-69, 106, 109.
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: David Carrier, Case Western Reserve University
Forthcoming in: Leonardo, Vol. 44, No. 5 (2011)
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online: ISSN 1530-9282.
Leonardo is a registered trademark of the ISAST.