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Art, History and Neuroscience: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproducibility:Lip-Synch Lessons: Sight, Sound and Touch

Slade Lectures in Fine Art 2016 - Professor David Freedburg
When Nov 15, 2016
from 05:00 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Lecture Room 3, Mill Lane, Cambridge
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The Power of Images:  Studies in the History and Theory of Response (1989), was about embodied, emotional and visceral responses to images across large spans of time and space. Its approach was both historical and anthropological.  It was not, for the most part, about the relations between how images look and how people respond to them.  But the publication of The Power of Images coincided with the explosive rise of the cognitive neuroscience of embodiment and emotion, imitation and simulation, attention and empathy.  From the outset I believed that the history of art, the history of images and the newly-emergent field of visual studies should go hand in hand with the study of the brain – but I was too optimistic.  The old epistemological prejudices died hard, the old cross-disciplinary resistances remained.

This series will build on my work on embodied responses both to images regarded as art and to those that are not.  It will cast new light on the old problems of imitation and intention.  It will emphasize the motor dimensions of vision, and the implications of movement and perceived movement for emotional responses to images. In its attentiveness to multimodality, it will examine the neural substrates of the relationship between vision and the other senses.  It will consider the role of automaticity in culture and the relationship between top-down and bottom-up responses.  In dealing with the mechanisms of cultural transmission, and with what Aby Warburg called the Pathosformel, the apparently formulaic expression of emotion through gesture across history, it will show why a properly construed understanding of empathy is essential to the ways in which we think about images and art in the age of digital reproduction.

Many of the lectures – all richly illustrated – will combine the historical, political and biological implications of Warburg’s approach to the understanding of images, particularly in times of cultural crisis.  His own final lecture was entitled “From the Arsenal to the Laboratory”.   The challenge to build new bridges across the disciplinary and epistemological divide between the humanities and the sciences remains. In seeking to illuminate our understanding of human behaviour in the presence of images, I hope to set out new possibilities for a more constructive relationship between reductionism on the one hand and contextualism on the other. 

The history of art and images recovers its place in an age of fleeting attention and absorption.  In the final two lectures I will move towards a novel (and largely neural) assessment of the relationship between judgement, inhibition and detachment.  I will conclude with a prospect of the ways in which our understanding of cultural forms might still offer the space for reflection at a time when the pace of absorption and consumption seems to threaten the very possibilities of reflection and contemplation.

The lectures will take place weekly at 5:00 pm on Tuesdays in Mill Lane, Lecture Room 3, Cambridge, starting 11 October and ending on 29 November, 2016. (Note that there will be no lecture held on Tuesday 22 November and that a double lecture from 4pm-6pm, with a short break included, will be given on the final date of the series, Tuesday 29 November.