Iconotropism: Turning toward Pictures

Iconotropism: Turning toward Pictures

Iconotropism: Turning toward Pictures

Iconotropism: Turning toward Pictures


This is the first collection of word and image studies set within the perspective of the cognitive study of interpretation. The editor's claim that pictures and texts arise from the biological as well as the social interaction of individual artists, viewers, and readers with their environments is exemplified by the selection of original essays ranging from studies of Raphael, Titian, and Carracci, to an emblematic portrait by Georgia O'Keeffe, and to drawings retrieved from German concentration camps. This collection begins the work - surely to be expanded by art historians and theorists of the image, as interest in cognition and interpretation itself spreads - of investigating what can be learned about the interpretation of pictures within their historical contexts when an innate iconotropism, or hunger for what can be known from pictures, is assumed. Illustrated Ellen Spolsky is Professor of English and Director of the Lechter Institute for Literary Research at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.


Ellen Spolsky

When murray ROSTON’S renaissance perspectives in Literature and the Visual Arts appeared in 1987, its claim that an individual artist is “organically part of his time, responding to contemporary stimuli” undoubtedly seemed apt, but metaphoric. Slightly more than a decade later, when a conference was organized in honor of Professor Roston at Bar-Ilan University, and now again as I introduce a collection of essays deriving from that gathering, the language of organism and stimulus seems not so much metaphorical as prescient. Recent convergences of the biological and cognitive sciences with cultural studies of art and literature more than justify the claim that the creation and evolution of culture is well- and usefully described as a life process driven by and enmeshed within real world constraints. the project of understanding the interrelations among works of art and literature will be significantly enlarged by studies that explore the ways in which the creative works themselves are produced from and function not only within the structures and schemes of history and politics, but also in relation to the peculiarities of the human bodies of artists, writers, spectators, and readers. Biology and history come together in the project of describing how humans have evolved by producing the cultural structures on which their physical survival depends.

This hypothesis strikes out in a direction orthogonal to (but not opposed to) recent trends in cultural studies. a host of important writers on inter-art relationships, (for example, Rosalind Krauss, Mieke Bal, W. J. T. Mitchell, Michael Baxandall, Norman Bryson, and Wendy Steiner to name just a few), have in the last twenty-five years contributed to our understanding of the relationships among works of art, written texts, and the cultural surroundings by describing the historical variants of social codes that structure cultural production. There is no reason to think that the study of the bodies and minds that produce and respond to art and literature would displace their insights into the cultural work of words and images.

On the contrary, although it is still too soon to predict a hierarchy of influence among the various aspects of minds and bodies that can be studied, it doesn’t seem farfetched to assume that the intensified attention to embodiment and biology suggested here will usefully broaden their foundational insights. Feminist art critics, for example, led the way by calling attention to the gender of the implied audiences for specific kinds of paintings, and the interactions between spectator and painting that those implications encouraged. More recent studies, however, have vastly expanded the possibilities for speculation and analysis. the relative precariousness of human bipedalism for example (as opposed to the security of standing on four legs and having a tail to aid in balancing), suggest that human beings are built to appreciate, probably even to take for granted the advantage of balance, and that it is therefore “imbalance [that] captures attention, be it fear of falling, the mental struggle to balance an equation, or the moral urge to right an injustice.” If this preference holds across the range of human cultural production, we might want to think of how it participates in the production of the appreciation of beauty and justice, as Elaine Scarry has suggested, and thence how the familiar pendulum swings between classical and nonclassical styles (for example) may be grounded at once in our common human inheritance but also produced by contingent and changing social needs. This volume, by presenting essays of the more traditional kind of inter-art studies, along with several based in the newer cognitive/biological models suggested by the title . . .

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