Scholars to examine scientific take on artBy Josh Schonwald
“Measuring Art: A Scientific Revolution in Art History,” a two-day conference from Saturday, May 31 through Sunday, June 1, organized by David Galenson, Professor in Economics and the College, will bring leading scholars from the arts, humanities and sciences to the American University in Paris to evaluate two controversial findings that were made, not by art historians, but rather by scientists.
The first of the discoveries is that of University of Arizona physicist Charles Falco, who collaborated on the 2001 book, Secret Knowledge, with artist David Hockney. The authors argue that beginning in the early 15th century, many Western artists employed optical devices–mirrors, lenses or a combination of the two–to create projections, which they used to produce drawings and paintings.
The second discovery was made by Galenson, who addressed an age-old question about the life cycles of great artists–why had some artists been prodigies, producing their greatest work while they were young, while other artists had been old masters, producing their greatest work after years of painstaking study? In his book, Painting Outside the Lines, Galenson argues that artistic innovation has been approached in two different ways: conceptual innovators, such as Picasso, tend to make their contributions early in their careers, while experimental innovators, such as Cézanne, tend to make theirs at older ages.
Both of these investigations relied heavily on scientific methods. Galenson, an economic historian, based his life-cycle argument on econometric and statistical analysis, while Falco, an optical physicist, used geometrical calculations to demonstrate that specific kinds of lenses were used in the production of particular paintings.
“For the first time, we believe we are using scientific evidence to resolve major issues in art history,” said Galenson.
The chief goal of the conference is not, however, to demonstrate how scientific methods are applied to the study of art, but rather to explore a possible relationship between the two findings.
“Hockney and Falco solved the question of optical aids,” Galenson said, “but in doing so they raise a question: Why did some artists use optics while others didn’t?” Galenson believes this question is directly related to his finding on whether artists followed conceptual or experimental approaches to innovation.
During the first sessions of the conference, scholars will examine Falco and Galenson’s findings independently. In a session titled, “Insight from the Physical Science,” Falco will give a lecture, “The Science of Optics: The History of Art,” which will include at least three examples of paintings in which optical tools have been used. Also, Martin Kemp, an Oxford University art historian, will present his paper that applies the Hockney-Falco optical thesis to the life of Caravaggio. In the second panel, Galenson will present his paper, “The Life Cycles of Modern Artists: Theory, Measurement and Implications.” Artist Camille Saint-Jacques and economist Victor Ginsburgh of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles will comment.
The second day of the conference will explore the relationship between the Falco-Hockney finding and Galenson’s research.
In the first session, Rob Jensen, an art historian at the University of Kentucky, will present his paper, “Anticipating Artistic Behavior: New Research Tools for Art Historians,” which Pierre-Michel Menger, a sociologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and Linda Seidel, the Hanna Holborn Gray Professor and Chair of Art History, will jointly discuss. The concluding session, “Implications,” will include commentary from Ellen Winner, a Boston College psychologist, and John House, an English art historian at the Courtauld Institute.
Galenson said the diversity of participants in “Measuring Art” makes this art history conference one of significance. Conference attendees come from five disciplines within the physical sciences, social sciences and the humanities.
Seidel said the growing interest in her field from physical and social scientists is part of an overall trend in which more and more scholars are studying art, not merely for its aesthetic and material qualities, but as a record or product of its time. While Seidel is encouraged by this surge of interest in art history, she is unsure what scientists who crunch numbers or read X-rays can contribute to the understanding of visual culture, the broader field within which art is now studied. “I’d have to say that I am a skeptic,” Seidel said. “The roles that criticism and marketing play in shaping taste may be the more relevant issues to consider.”
Falco acknowledges the initial skepticism of art historians to contributions from newcomers. For one, art history is not accustomed to scientific proofs, he said, and mathematical calculations might as well be “Bulgarian” to most art historians. Moreover, Falco agreed that he, too, would be skeptical if someone with no background in his specialty, molecular beam epitaxy, called him and posed an idea on the subject.
“I’d bet 100 dollars that their idea is wrong. That’s a rational response.” Still, he is confident his presentation, which will explain the basis of geometric optics and then draw upon his optical analysis of three Renaissance painters, is persuasive. He even believes that in the future, art historians will covet colleagues with mathematical fluency and skills in geometric optics.
“I hope the conference will convince art historians that science can add valuable insights to their discipline,” said Falco, who added that speaking at this conference is part of his mission of “proselytizing” art historians. Whenever physics departments at colleges and universities invite Falco to give his lecture, “The Science of Optics; The History of Art,” he makes a condition of acceptance: “The Art History department must be a co-sponsor.”
The idea of using scientific techniques to study art is not new. In 1933, the English art critic Roger Fry told an audience at Cambridge University that art history had a “crying need for systematic study” and called on his colleagues to follow scientific methods whenever possible. Fry died the next year, and in the following seven decades, few have taken an interest in applying scientific methods to the great questions of art.
But over the past two years, Galenson said, Fry’s appeal has been realized. “Scientific methods have solved two of the biggest problems in art history. We have a new understanding of how painters work, and we have a new systematic understanding of painters’ life cycles.”