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ARTH 641 Issues in Visual and Material Culture: Living Art - The Power and Presence of Images from Late Antiquity to Early Modernity and Beyond

  • Mondays, 2:45-5:45 pm 
  • Course delivery TBA
  • Dr. Steven Stowell

Images are not merely lifeless objects that appeal to viewers' sense of sight; the history of art offers countless examples of how spectators have attributed living agency to images: the portrait of a disgraced ruler must be destroyed just like the ruler him- or herself must be eliminated; likewise, a powerful icon can be offended if those near to it do not pay it appropriate respect; finally, certain images can respond to devotions and prayers. What theories have art historians and others (anthropologists, philosophers, etc.) proposed to understand how an image can take on the qualities of a living being? How has the tendency to "animate" inanimate images unfolded, and changed throughout history? We will explore the kinds of contexts that bring about belief in the "presence" of images: for example, the desire to memorialize and picture absent people and beings. We will also ask whether certain visual qualities can be associated with the presence of images, such as the gaze of the eyes, the antiquity of the image, or the devotional objects it receives. Focusing on images and objects created and seen in Western Europe from late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern period (and beyond), this course will explore how images have been attributed with living "presence" by viewers. We will likewise explore different theoretical discussions by art historians and anthropologists (focusing particularly on the writings of anthropologist Alfred Gell) who consider this phenomenon in a global, trans-historical context.

An important corollary to the phenomenon of "presence" is iconoclasm, the destruction of images. We will thus also explore pertinent moments in the history of art when images were believed so powerful they needed to be destroyed. What motivates one group to suppress the images of another group? While examining the past, we hope to learn lessons about the conditions that bring about these kinds of conflicts.

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