The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproducibility
This course will assess the potential of the cognitive neurosciences to illuminate critical problems in the humanities, and in the study of the history of art and images. Until very recently, such an integrative approach was viewed with deep skepticism. Even now, the epistemological divide remains an obstacle, on the grounds that the reductionism of the sciences militates against the contextual sensitivity regarded as central to the humanities.
In this course we will examine the ways in which cognitive neuroscience expands our understanding not only of the history of art, but also of the use of images in a world of digital technology. Central to the course will be an examination of how images arouse the emotional and embodied responses they do, and the degree to which the former relate to the latter. We will consider emotional and physical empathy with images, as well as the question of the degree to which detachment from empathic responses and their cognates stand at odds with esthetic and political judgement. Such questions have long stood at the core of the study of images, from Walter Benjamin on to Susan Sontag and many others now.
Issues of the aura of images and the degree to which habituation diminishes or enhances the impact of images remain essential to the understanding of how they work. So too does the relationship between automatic and self-aware responses, and how this affects personal and public discernment of the messages they convey. All these questions are illuminated by current research in the cognitive neurosciences. They also offer tools for the understanding of current issues such as “fake news”, the political uses of extreme forms of imagery as propaganda, and the degree to which they depend – or not – on the neural substrates of motor and emotional involvement of viewers.
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University