Towards an Affective History of Art: Vision, Sensation, Emotion

Emma Barker, Open University,

Carla Benzan, Open University,

Art-historical considerations of instinctive, non-rational forms of human experience tend in two directions. On the one hand, there are contributions that examine the representation of emotion in works of art, as exemplified by the essay collection, Representing Emotions (ed. Penelope Gouk and Helen Hills, 2005). Following a broadly historicist agenda, such contributions are predicated on the assumption that emotions can only be accessed in mediated form, through representational codes.  On the other hand, since the publication of David Freedberg’s The Power of Images (1989), scholars have become increasingly concerned with the intense, even visceral, experiences that works of art can elicit from the beholder. Closely associated with the so-called ‘affective turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, this type of approach asserts the primacy of the material and experiential over cultural frameworks. Attempts to bridge the gap between representation and experience by scholars working in the sub-discipline known as the history of the emotions have as yet made only limited use of visual sources (see, for example, the special issue of Cultural History, 7:2, 2018).

This session seeks to build on these various developments in order to realise the as yet unfulfilled promise of an affective history of art. It aims to bridge the gap identified above by investigating the interaction between works of art and beholders with reference not only to visual strategies and sensory experiences but also to discursive articulations and cultural formations. We especially welcome contributions that analyse such interactions with close reference to historically-specific vocabularies of affective experience in the broad period from around 1400 to 1900, such as the humours, passions, sentiments or emotions. Contributions may seek to examine claims for the compelling power of canonical works or, alternatively, to account for the emotional impact of works that no longer move the beholder as they once did. The central aim is to illuminate the changing role that art and visual culture have played in the understanding of affective experience over time.

Information about the speakers and papers on this panel will be posted shortly.



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