Opening Art History to Science and the Humanities: How and Why

By Julia Secklehner (PhD candidate, The Courtauld)

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion

On 1st June 2016, Professor Whitney Davis asked ‘What would a post-culturalist art-history look like?’. ‘Post-culturalist’ in this context is concerned with an inclusive art history and study of world art that can be simultaneously multi-, inter- and transcultural. It can focus on the decentring of one narrative over the other in what Davis has compared to post-colonial trains of thought. It is thus possible to understand culture as ‘shared sense-making’ in relation to ideas developed by Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Using this as a starting point, Davis interrogated existing approaches to non-cultural art history in an attempt to bridge the nineteenth century divide between Naturwissenschaften (the sciences) and Geisteswissenschaften (the humanities). As such, he aimed to show that our understanding of art history can be broadened with the inclusion of Naturwissenschaften into art historical theory.

The example used in the talk to visualise these abstract theories was the so-called ‘Mondrian stimulus’, a neurological experiment Edwin H Land developed in 1971 as part of his ‘retinex theory’, which questioned why we can see colors consistently even if light levels change. In the experiment, test subjects were shown a display resembling paintings by Mondrian, checking which brain cell complexes were activated by looking at certain patterns. The cell complex V4 (an area tuned for colour in the visual cortex) ‘lit up’ with all the test subjects. As Davis highlights, regardless of whether the subject was an ‘avant-gardist’ or a ‘philistine’, V4 would have been stimulated. This is because the experiment was not about cultural understanding, but the physical activation of particular cells by looking at colour patterns.

Mondrian Apparatus

Mondrian Apparatus

What does it mean, then, that cultural differences (the avant-garde philistine dichotomy) are not registered neurologically? As Davis suggested, this result had a series of implications. From a scientific point of view, the question ‘but is it art?’ turns out to be less significant when it comes to looking at art objects – creating an opposition between what can physically be seen of a work and what can be seen in it (interpretation). Meaning thus can be differentiated from our physical experience of seeing colours and structures: while the former is culturally conditioned, the latter is physiological. As such, a consideration of scientific methods for a new art historical understanding shows the simultaneous value of different interpretations. This helps to forge an art history that is no longer limited by the constraints of ‘seeing culturally’, which means that our understanding of an object is restricted to the ways we learn about it in our cultural environment.

Undoubtedly, there is still some resistance to the closing of the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften divide, given how entrenched this split has become over the past few centuries. Yet, the important point to highlight here is that any inclusion of ‘neuroarthistory’ does not replace conventional forms, but adds to them and provides a broader perspective that is no longer solely reliant on cultural understandings of art, which are always conditioned by social aspects as well.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue Painting, 1921

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue Painting, 1921

In a way, Davis’s approaches seem, crude to ‘avant-gardists’. This is not surprising. By approaching artworks from an opened-up perspective that embraces naturalistic and universalising sciences, the hegemonic status of art that is often ascribed to it by avant-gardists is diminished. With this new approach, art objects have to withstand scrutiny not only from cultural interpretations, but also scientific ones, which liberate them from the ‘sacred’ space of art and white cube institutions and place them into an all-encompassing worldview, where art is just one of many things that provokes physical reactions. There is a clear politics behind this, namely that of embracing multiplicity and of decentring hegemonies (be they humanistic or scientific). Davis suggested ‘post-culturalist’ positioning, which opens up art history to a non-cultural discourse. This becomes much more than ‘a new way of looking at objects’: it encourages a multi-dimensional way of seeing the world and supports diversity – which is just what we need at times that toy with a return to nationalism and conservativism, like today.