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Slade Professors

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The Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Cambridge was founded in 1869 as the result of a bequest from the art collector Felix Slade (1788-1868). At the same time, similar chairs were founded in the Universities of Oxford and London. Originally Slade Professors were elected, and sometimes re-elected, for three-year terms. In 1961 the practice changed and since then visiting Slade Professors have been elected on an annual basis. Holders of the Chair usually deliver eight public lectures and four classes for students in the department during the Lent Term of their year in office. The Slade Professorship of Fine Art has been held by many of the most distinguished historians of art and architecture from around the world.

Art, History and Neuroscience: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproducibility

Professor David Freedberg

The 2016-17 Slade Lectures will be given in Michaelmas Term by Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Warburg Institute at the University of London and Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art and Director of The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, New York. He is best known for his work on psychological responses to art, and particularly for his studies on iconoclasm and censorship (see, inter alia, Iconoclasts and their Motives, 1984, and The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, 1989). His more traditional art historical writing originally centered on Dutch and Flemish art. Within these fields he specialized in the history of Dutch printmaking (see Dutch Landscape Prints of the Seventeenth Century (1980)), and in the paintings and drawings of Bruegel and Rubens (see, for example, The Prints of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1989) and Rubens: The Life of Christ after the Passion (1984)). He then turned his attention to seventeenth century Roman art and to the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, before moving on to his recent work in the history of science and on the importance of the new cognitive neurosciences for the study of art and its history. Freedberg has also been involved in several exhibitions of contemporary art (eg. Joseph Kosuth: The Play of the Unmentionable (1992)). Following a series of important discoveries in Windsor Castle, the Institut de France and the archives of the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome, he has for long been concerned with the intersection of art and science in the age of Galileo. While much of his work in this area has been published in articles and catalogues, his chief publication in this area is The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, his Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History (2002).

Although Professor Freedberg continues to teach in the fields of Dutch, Flemish, French, and Italian seventeenth century art, as well as in historiographical and theoretical areas, his primary research now concentrates on the relations between art, history, and cognitive neuroscience. Taking up the psychological dimensions of the work outlined in The Power of Images, he has for some time been engaged in research and experiments on the relations between vision, embodiment, movement and emotion.

Professor Freedberg is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society, as well as of the Accademia Nazionale di Agricultura and the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere e Arti.

About the series:

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.)

Art, History and Neuroscience: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproducibility

1)  11 October: The Painter without Hands:  Phantom Limbs and the History of Art

2)  18 October: Compassion and Canonicity: Humanism and the Fear of Science

3)  25 October: The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproducibility: Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg

4)  1 November: Real and Banal Empathy: Movement and Feeling

5)  8 November: The Bear and the Marionettes: Automaticity and Innocence

6)   15 November: Lip-Synch Lessons: Sight, Sound and Touch

*Note no lecture on Tuesday 22 November. Two lectures with a comfort break in between will instead be given on the last date of the series from 4pm- 6pm.

7) 29 November: Inhibition and Judgement: The Paradox of Disinterest

8) 29 November: Natural Piety:  Sensation and Reflection                              


For more details please see the 'News' and 'Events' sections.

List of Slade Professors in the Department from 1869.