Art Theory as Visual Epistemology I

Art Theory as Visual Epistemology I

Session chair:

Harald Klinke, Ph.D., Lecturer, Department of Art History, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany,


S7 Art Theory as Visual Epistemology I: Theory

The image and the mind

Introduction to the sessions “Art Theory as Visual Epistemology”

Harald Klinke, Ph. D.

Department of Art History, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany

Questions of the epistemic potential of art can be found throughout centuries up until today. Those are not questions of art alone, but of the representational value of images in general. For centuries artists and art theorists have pointed out the potential and limits of images to show more than visual reality. In particular, authors in the Age of Reason have studied intensively how visual perception works and how images are able to communicate ideas. Hand in hand with philosophy, such endeavours often strove to elevate the work of the artist to an intellectual task. At the same time, however, the power of images sparked fear and fuelled recurring iconophopic backlashes.

“What is an image?” (Boehm) is as much a philosophic question as “What is knowledge?” Objective representation has been discussed in various contexts, such as in 18th century scientific illustrations (Daston), and becomes essential with the rise of photography and today’s digital image (Mitchell). The history of art theory can contribute much to recent discussions in Visual Studies (Moxey) and Bildwissenschaften (Belting). Thus, the three sessions gather a wide range of approaches on historic discourses on images in order to demonstrate art historical methodology and they open the discipline for an interdisciplinary exchange on images.


Rethinking vision in eighteenth-century images of the blind

Georgina Cole, Ph. D.

National Art School Sydney, Australia

At once the age of reason and the age of feeling, the eighteenth century is characterised by its philosophical and scientific rethinking of the role and nature of sense perception. Through the interventions of Locke, Newton, Diderot and Condillac, sensation played a crucial role in the understanding of relationships between mind and body, internal and external experience, and self and other. While contemporary thinkers applied themselves to the epistemology of sensation and its role in the generation of knowledge, they were equally exercised by its lack; indeed eighteenth-century philosophers, doctors, and artists were deeply fascinated by the experience of blindness.

In the western tradition, blindness has functioned as a central metaphor in a variety of mythical and spiritual contexts. From Tiresias the blind seer of Thebes, through Oedipus, to Christ’s healing of the blind of Jericho, blindness has symbolised supernatural insight, divine punishment, and heavenly reward. In classical mythology and Christian doctrine, it signalled the interpenetration of the divine and earthly realms, and was interpreted as evidence of unseen spiritual power acting upon the mortal world. In the eighteenth century, however, as cultural historians such as William Paulson and Zina Weygand have argued, blindness is desacralised, stripped of its spiritual relationship to sin, conversion, and insight, and subjected to the methodologies of enlightenment science and philosophy. For the scientists, philosophers and artists of this period, blindness is a topic of philosophical investigation and medical experiment, a physical condition inextricably connected to sensation and knowledge.

Indeed, the experience of blindness was construed as an epistemological issue by Locke and his followers, and re-introduced into philosophical discourse by Molyneux’s question, answered by Locke in the 1694 edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Molyneux’s question concerned the ability of a blind man, having his sight restored, to distinguish between a sphere and a cube without touching them. Locke answered in the negative, citing it as evidence of the absence of innate ideas. Cataract operations performed in England and France, which successfully returned sight to the blind through modern medicine, offered an opportunity to test this theorem and ostensibly confirm it. Blindness, however, posed problems for epistemology and the primacy of sight – how did the blind come to know the world? What was their sense of self, or place in society? These questions not only perplexed philosophers and scientists, but also occupied artists, for whom sight was the preeminent sense.

This paper explores images of blindness in two eighteenth-century paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. It suggests that blindness, as a subject for painting, offered a way of rethinking the role of sight and touch in the hierarchy of senses and their relationship to knowledge, morality and selfhood. Addressing these images through contemporary ideas relating to sensation and sensibility, the paper examines the rise of touch as a key aspect of eighteenth-century sociability and epistemology. In addition, it considers the implications of blindness for the experience of art in the eighteenth century and the increasing role of touch and feeling in its production and reception.


Voir ou lire: maps as art – art as maps

Karolina Uggla, Ph. D. cand.

Stockholm University, Sweden

Maps constitute a category of images that, besides their functional purposes, have gained widespread interest as objects of study, as aesthetic objects and as sources of knowledge. Maps relate to the world outside the piece of paper (or equivalent) on which it is printed, drawn or painted. They form a specific visual category through established sets of rules linking image with conceptions of world and reality. For a map to fulfil its basic functions, to work, we need to be able to rely on its truth to the world it is set out to represent. Conceptions of cartographic truth have naturally varied in different historical contexts and critique of cartographic truth claims has risen in the wake of deconstruction.

When and in which contexts does the image of a map cease to work? One way of tracing these limits of the map’s truth aspects is in the context of the thematic exhibition Cartes et figures de la terre at Centre de Création Industrielle du Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1980. This exhibition constitutes a rich ground for analysing the interface between art and aesthetics and the scientific image at a period in time that had seen great technological as well as philosophical advance. Cartes et figures de la terre presented different aspects of cartography: historical maps and globes (such as the restored globes of Louis XIV), 20th Century art (for instance Öyvind Fahlström’s World Map, 1972), and state-of-the-art cartography. The focus of this paper will be the catalogue raisonné where concepts and ideas are presented in essays by invited scholars. I will deal with the following questions:

  1. Which approaches, attitudes and arguments are presented when discussing what maps, cartography and graphics are, and what they do?
  2. What role do the included 20th century artworks play in supporting the overall narrative of the exhibition? Are they included as examples of art contemporary to the exhibition or as historical objects or other categories?
  3. How are the many historical and contemporary cartographic objects presented? As aesthetic, functional or scientific objects?
  4. How is the use of computer technology within the field of cartography presented, reflecting the field of possibilities of map production at the time of the exhibition (1980)?


Without ‚Pictorial De-tour’: The Case of the Architectural Image

Lutz Robbers, Ph. D.

Bauhaus Universität Weimar, Germany

“The plan is to be read sensuously, it is no mathematical abstraction.” In an article that appeared in 1925 in the journal Qualität Hans Richter, the pioneer of abstract film, places this seemingly subsidiary caption under Mies van der Rohe’s famous plan for a Brick Country House (1923). Richter’s exhortation to grasp the image “sensually,” i.e. to not look at the architectural drawing in a conventional way as an exact projection from two-dimensional paper to three-dimensional space, raises the question of the status of the architectural image in Mies’ work. Could it be that the plan marks a shift in the correlation between image and space; a correlation which, despite being fundamental for processes of architectural design, is often overlooked?

This paper proposes to take Mies’s drawings and photomontages as a point of departure to discuss the idiosyncratic epistemic status of architectural images. Richter’s reminder is noteworthy precisely because it calls attention to the fact that the images architects make, use and put into circulation are far from being unambiguous. In contrast to visual representations for artistic, scientific, or engineering purposes that often follow clearly-defined protocols, architectural images have to respond to often contradictory demands. They represent what exists and conjure up worlds to come, conform to precise technical parameters and give leeway to the imagination. For architects, images can be at once the tools for developing ideas, a set of visual instructions, and the two-dimensional version of a material reality. Walter Benjamin even went as far as to argue that the principle characteristic of the architectural drawing is that “it does not take a pictorial detour.” [keinen Bildumweg zu kennen]. In other words, architectural images do not ‘re-produce’ architecture but must be considered as ‘productive,’ objective entities.

The purpose of this paper is to outline and clarify the nexus of images, architecture and the changing media technologies. In particular, I am interested in the moments of transition from one image regime to the next: Etienne-Louis Boullée still claimed “Ed io anche son pittore“ (I am also a painter) in order to justify his architectural work, modern architects became ‘also’ photographers and cinematographers to adapt to the new technological paradigm. The emergence of digital imaging technologies once again alters the epistemological status of architectural images. The Bildwissenschaften have hitherto largely failed to come to term with this ‘type’ of image.