Visual Intelligences Research Project

Symposia : The Documentation of Fine Art Processes and Practices : Nigel Whiteley

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Visual Intelligence and the Art Historian
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PROF NIGEL WHITELEY, LICA: Art, Lancaster University

Visual Intelligence and the Art Historian

In this paper I will examine some of the relationships between Visual Intelligence and art history as a discipline.   Art historians occasionally make use of what I will refer to here as a discourse of Visual Intelligence.   In Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence (1994), for example, Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall analyse Tiepolo’s creative decision-making processes and his visual thinking and call for, in general, “…fuller recognition of the peculiarities of the painter’s representational medium.”   Michael Podro in Depiction (1998) points out the close relationship between the “what” and “how” of depiction: what is being depicted, and how it is being depicted, especially in terms of the characteristics of the materials and medium.   It is, in effect, they believe, the artist’s Visual Intelligence that creates a satisfying synthesis.

Yet there is no reason why an art historian should address Visual Intelligence.   It is perfectly in order to examine aspects of, for example, patronage, the reception of images, and meanings without dealings with the way in which the artist has formulated the particular work.   At an extreme of this is a suspicion, even denial, of differences between artworks that may be deemed “qualitative”.   Francis Frascina, for instance, finds it necessary unambiguously to state that he distances himself “…from those who argue for a distinction between [the 19th century artists] Ingres and Bouguereau on grounds of ‘quality’, between Ingres as an inheritor of the elevated ideals of ‘high art’ and Bouguereau, a pompier artist.... We have to be wary of such distinctions, which may be ideological impositions of retrospective evaluations.”   The understandable, but misguided, fear is that a concern with any discourse of “intelligence” heralds an inevitable return to Formalism and either Clive Bell’s prioritising of “significant form” or Clement Greenberg’s dismissal of everything but the “pure”, formal centre of each discipline.   The fear for Frascini et al. is that “Visual Intelligence” is a latterday version of connoisseurship.

This paper deals with these objections, but emphasises the value of Visual Intelligence to art historians.   The value was best identified, indirectly, by Martin Kemp who, when reviewing David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge book, made the point that
…works of art are physical products made by executants who face real challenges, and do not come ready-made from the heads of their makers.   Whether [Hockney] is right or wrong, in part or whole, it also reminds me that art historians have no monopoly of interpretation, and that many of our concerns may be driven more by the internal dynamics of our industry that by acts of hard looking and intellectual adventure.
I argue that an involvement with Visual Intelligence enables the art historian better to understand the process of making art, and be more visually sensitive to the particularities of artworks.

Nigel Whiteley is Professor of Visual Arts in the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University and has been a visiting professor at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, and the Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing.   He has lectured in several countries including the USA, South Korea and Croatia, and addressed a number of international conferences.   His solo books include Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Design For Society and Pop Design - Modernism to Mod.   He contributed to many journals and books,  guest editing a number of Design Issues on design criticism and has written a regular column for Art Review.