ARC Fellows: The Role of Visual Experience in Pictorial Representation

The Role of Visual Experience in Pictorial Representation

Submitted by our 2017 ARC Fellow Team:

Caitlin Dolan (Philosophy) and Whitney Davis (History of Art)

Why do pictures made in different places and at different times look different? This question might sound so naïve as to not be worth addressing – after all, why wouldn’t our styles and techniques for depicting change over time, and vary across cultures? But this semester, Professor Whitney Davis and I have allowed ourselves to wonder about the answer to this question. Trying to address it leads quickly to fundamental questions of about the history of art and the human mind: what is it to depict the world, and what sort of cognitive or perceptual capacity does this practice manifest?

Philosophers, historians, scientists, and artists alike have weighed in on the debates surrounding these issues, each contributing a distinctive set of considerations for reflecting on them. But in much of the discussion, positions divide into two broad camps. On one side, there are those who think that what we see is determined by the perceptual mechanisms with which we are biologically endowed. Given that, they claim, picture-making is an attempt to uncover the nature of this distinctly visual aspect of the world we experience, and people have succeeded at this to different extents, and in different ways, over the course of human history. In the other camp are those who think that what we see is determined by culturally contingent forms of visual activity, or ways of looking, and so we should think of the “visual world” as something humans themselves have intentionally created. This view involves a different account of what pictures are: as tools used in to construct the visual. As Marx Wartofsky puts it: “human vision is a cultural and historical artifact of the creative activity of making pictures.”

Professor Davis and I have been interested in identifying a middle ground between these two rather extreme positions. We’ve come at this in two ways: on the one hand, by analyzing the arguments given by proponents of these views, to find which of their premises are questionable, and on the other, by looking at particular developments in the history of picture-making, to determine what kinds of conceptual resources are needed to describe them. Looking at the details of Brunelleschi’s historic demonstration of linear perspective techniques in constructing an image of the Baptistry in Florence in the early fifteenth century, we have considered various ways of accounting for the conviction that these techniques constitute a significant advance in the project of representing the world pictorially. Traditional accounts would describe this advance as either a scientific discovery of the facts about how the Baptistry looked, or as an inventive feat of making the Baptistry look a certain way – though the building itself had already been built.

But there is, it seems, another theoretical possibility: that the advance in question was the invention of a new way of looking, which makes features visually manifest in ways they wouldn’t have been otherwise, but features which were, in a sense, there to see all along. When it comes to making this possibility vivid, and taking account of the variety of possible techniques of looking, it seems that artifacts of visual culture are our best guide. So it is at this point that philosophical theorizing about art and perception is significantly enriched by art historical research.

Caitlin Dolan is a seventh-year graduate student in the Philosophy Department, and is interested in issues at the intersection of perceptual phenomenology, epistemology, and aesthetics. Her dissertation aims to shed light on debates in these areas by reflecting on the role that pictures play in our everyday lives as well as our more theoretical endeavors.

Whitney Davis is the George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art, and has taught at UC Berkeley since 2001. Davis’s teaching and research interests include the Classical tradition and neoclassicism in Western art since the later Middle Ages, and especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain; the development of professional art history in interaction with archaeology, philosophical aesthetics, anthropology, and other disciplines; and art theory in visual-cultural studies, especially problems of pictorial representation in relation to computation and notation.

Note:Over the course of the spring semester, each 2017 ARC Fellows team will submit a short blog post about their project and findings. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! The Fellows Program advances interdisciplinary research in the arts at UC Berkeley by supporting self-nominated pairs of graduate students and faculty members as they pursue semester-long collaborative projects of their own design. To learn more about the program, click here.