Views and Reviews

The Beholder’s Gaze: What do our eyes see when we look at pictures? (5th November 2013)

Sunday, 10 November, 2013 by Camilla Pietrabissa


Does pictorial composition lead the beholder’s gaze when looking at pictures? Is abstract art a universal language? Is artistic perception culturally-based? Issues of art reception are central to the research of Professor Raphael Rosenberg, invited to speak at the third Frank Davis lecture on Art and Vision. Within the Institut für Kunstgeschichte of the University of Vienna, Professor Rosenberg leads the Laboratory for Cognitive Research in Art History, where quantitative methods are applied to the study of ‘the beholding of aesthetic objects.’

By employing eye-tracker instruments, Professor Rosenberg conducts cognitive surveys on the way in which eye pupils move on paintings’ surface. Thus, the main object of his research is composition, or the reception of the arrangement and organization of the pictorial surface, which had also been the subject of the first lecture in the Frank Davis series in October. Works in progress at the Laboratory include “The cultural eye”, a paper comparing how Japanese and Austrian individuals look at paintings (the former focus on nudes, the latter on landscape!) and “Is abstract art a universal language?”, an article tracing the difference in the way experts and non-experts look at abstract paintings, namely Karl Otto Götz’s Bild vom 5.2.1953.

In his presentation Professor Rosenberg claimed that the results of such experiments could support art historians by adding scientific elements to the troubled history of art criticism, concerned with the account of the beholder’s gaze in the exercise of ekphrasis and in the account of aesthetic experiences (from Procopius of Caesarea to Diderot). Although the eye-tracking system will soon be used on museum visitors, at the moment paintings are shown on the computer screen, altering greatly the results of the paintings’ appreciation. In the case of abstract painting or architecture for instance, the “materiality” of the work is a most prominent feature of the aesthetic experience.

Cognitive studies have been interested in art theory for some time now, as the Courtauld’s Frank Davis series demonstrates in gathering several scholars from different areas. Germany and the United States have founded (and funded) a good number of similar projects, stemming out of the possibilities first envisaged by Semir Zeki and John Onians. In 1994, the latter was the editor of a series of essays offered to E. H. Gombrich for his 85th birthday and dealing precisely with the problem of reception in a wide range of contexts. Included in the volume, an essay by Michael Baxandall was mentioned by Professor Rosenberg as a pioneering application of some studies in cognitive psychology and vision carried out since the 1970s.

But in that essay, Michael Baxandall had revealed his scepticism for such methodologies: “Records of scanpaths [what is now called eye-tracking] can often seem disappointingly uninformative. Features fixated are mainly those one might expect” (p. 409). Baxandall also distinguished between levels of analysis, and wrote that cognitive science deals with low level of the visual process, that is, the first phases of observation: “Higher levels of the attentive visual process introduce different kinds of problems, particularly when the attention is to complex paintings, and for various reasons I do not feel the cognitive sciences invoked here offer art criticism as much broadening suggestion for dealing with those higher levels: for that one must go elsewhere” (p. 413).

Similarly, my main concern regards the focus on physiological rather than cultural aspects of reception. In fact, art has methodologies that are proper to its historiography, and deals with complexity. Conversely, by isolating the issue of the eye movement on a flat (virtual) surface, and focusing on one element in artistic reception, this type of research (as yet) cannot seem to take into account the complexity of artworks and the cultural discourse surrounding their ideation, creation, and display.

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