Caroline van Eck: “Living Statues: Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency, Living Presence Response and the Sublime”

Detail from Borghese Hermaphrodite, Roman copy of a bronze original of the mid-second century BCE by Polycles (click on image to enlarge)

The new issue of the journal, Art History, includes an article by Caroline van Eck (Leiden University) which caught my eye, and which I thought might interest some of the blog’s readers. To access the essay online, please click here. Here is how it begins:

In July 2007 the artist Rindy Sam left the lipstick traces of her kisses on the entirely white surface of a Cy Twombly painting. In her statement to the press, she declared that she had become so ‘overcome with passion for this work of art’ that she ‘had to kiss it’. Kissing the white surface offered by a work of non-figurative contemporary art because the viewer is beset by emotions that are usually felt only for living beings is only one of the more recent instances of a kind of response to art that is as old as art itself, and truly global in its occurrence. Speaking to statues or paintings, kissing or beating them, claiming that works of art in their turn look at the viewer, talk or listen to them, move, sweat or bleed; or feeling love, desire, or hatred for images: all these reactions to works of art are part of a large complex of viewers’ responses in which art works are treated not as the inanimate objects they really are, but as living beings, whose presence is felt to be genuinely akin to that of a living being. These reactions have been widely studied over the past century. Much scholarship has concentrated on the role of religious feeling, from Charly Clerc’s study of religious response to Greek art to Hans Belting’s reconstruction of the perceived living presence of God in religious art before the Reformation. The evidence that images can affect their viewers in the same way as persons has also been the basis for attacks on long-established conventions of art history. David Freedberg’s wide-ranging discussion of the power of images, for instance, served to deconstruct what he saw as the foundation of Western art history and aesthetics, a formal and aesthetic appreciation of works of art that, severed of their religious and persuasive functions, were reduced to displays in a museum vitrine.

Georges Didi-Huberman has undermined established borders between living bodies, medical images and art, W. J. T. Mitchell has offered a semiotic and metaphysical analysis of pictures considered as living beings, and Marina Warner has recently illustrated in Phantasmagoria the many ways in which people have tried to capture the soul in so vivid a way that the borders between dead matter and living beings dissolve into phantasms and simulacra.

These books have in common the tendency to give an account of response to the living presence of the work – that is, to introduce an inclusive term for this kind of response – by concentrating mainly on the work of art and the qualities that elicit such a response. When they consider what goes on for the viewer, they tend to define or label such reactions in present-day terms. Many accounts circle around varieties of paraphilia such as fetishism in the psycho-analytic sense: the viewer who loves a statue – Théophile Gautier, perhaps, who famously declared that he preferred statues to women, and marble to living bodies – or kisses a painting takes a work of art as the object for feelings that should be reserved for living beings.

In this article I would like to suggest a different account of such responses, arguing first that Alfred Gell’s book on the anthropology of art, Art and Agency of 1998, offers a new departure in understanding such responses by concentrating not on the art works that elicit such responses, but on the agency they exert. I argue that even when such responses are considered in terms of Gell’s view of agency, they still only make sense if living presence response is understood as an experience, the experience of a work of art becoming alive. And finally, to understand such experiences historically, that is, to connect Gell’s ahistorical, systematic, anthropological account of the agency of art with an art-historical approach, I suggest that the sublime offers a way of both articulating the experience of living presence and of understanding the history of such responses. To illustrate all this I will use a series of living presence responses to classical sculpture, taken mainly from the eighteenth century, from the decades when the traditional praise of lifelikeness based on classical rhetoric was replaced by a rejection of such responses in favour of aesthetic attitudes that favour disinterested enjoyment of the formal qualities of art.


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