After a very jam-packed and stimulating first day at the conference on Wednesday the 9th, I headed up to 38 West 86th Street at Columbus, to the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Material Culture. It had been several years since I had visited my graduate alma mater. While it was a bit jarring at first to walk in, and find myself initially confronted with a sea of unfamiliar faces, within a few seconds I began recognizing a few faces that immediately put me at ease. Those faces included my thesis advisor, a couple a former students from my class, another student from the class right after mine, and a dear mentor I worked with while on internship at Waddesdon Manor in England, who is now teaching at BGC. What a treat!
I was taking a break from the CAA conference, only to see yet another lecture. The sign of a true art nerd for sure! Only, this was a lecture by the renowned Columbia University art historian David Freedberg. Distinguished for his work in 17th century Dutch, Flemish, French, and Italian art, his recent work centers on the conjunction of the study of art and art history, and the history of science and the interplay of the field of the neurosciences. In particular, Professor Freedberg looks at the fields of emotions, vision, and movement as they relate to their interaction of art and the understanding of historical and theoretical ideas.
The title of his lecture, “The Materiality of the Brain and the Material of Culture,” intrigued me on multiple levels. Recently, real life and my own work are colliding in the real experience of neuroscience—a kind of life imitating art, if you will. I had never been much of a science buff in my younger years, so now I am making up for lost time. And finally, I praise BGC for treading such experimental ground—a little outside-the-box thinking!
To start off, Professor Freedberg reminds us that many of these “forward thinking” ideas that are surfacing, linking art history and neuroscience, are not necessarily new. The great predecessors like Warburg, Nussbaum, and Damasio paved the road for the contemporary collaborations taking place between art, art historical and neuroscience and psychology departments on many campuses. In particular, Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain looks at the hypothesis that emotions guide behavior and decision-making, in direct opposition to Descartes’ dualist separation of mind (rationality) and body (emotion).
Professor Freedberg posits that, as we look at a painting for example, the movement of the bodies in the scene relay the passions behind the figures and the painting. Professor Freedberg considers himself a neuromaterialist, and believes that elements of a work can elicit embodied stimulation in the viewer. For instance, a delectable Netherlandish still life brimming with luscious fruit and creamy cheeses might just make you hungry. Or, when looking at Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition of c. 1435 in the Prado, the dramatic lighting and textiles, the echoing of movements of Jesus and Mary, and the anguished faces make us, the viewers, co-sufferers by default, as we regard this pain of others, and feel.
He highlighted his talk by illustrating the different parts of the brain responsible for this activity, and how his collaboration with neuroscientists have uncovered this information through such tools as fMRI scans. This is art historical research on the cutting edge!