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  • Introduction
  • Sue Blundell (bio), Douglas Cairns (bio), Elizabeth Craik, and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (bio)

This volume explores the ways in which vision and viewing were depicted and conceptualized by writers and artists in the ancient Greek world. Since the 1960s, a substantial amount of scholarship has appeared on diverse aspects of the subject of vision, some of it purely theoretical, and some seeking to apply the theory in specific contexts such as art history or film studies. Central to much of this work is the idea that the way in which we view the world is relative both to the cognitive processes of the individual viewer, and to the culture in which the viewer exists. This notion has given rise to the widely employed concept of visuality, the idea that cultural patterns and social discourses constitute a kind of screen through which people necessarily look at the outside world (e.g., Elsner 2007, xvi–xvii, following Bryson 1988, 91–2).

Scientific studies of visual perception carried out since the early 1960s have provided a firm foundation for this approach. The idea that information received via the senses furnishes us with ambiguous or incomplete evidence for external reality is widely accepted among cognitive scientists. Richard Gregory, for example, developed the theory that sense perceptions are similar to the predictive hypotheses of science—mental constructs devised to explain the available sensory evidence, which are then psychologically projected into external space and accepted as reality. For Gregory, visual perception is not a straightforward outcome of patterns of light that enter the eye, but rather a product of information based on our accumulated experiences, knowledge, and expectations about the world (Gregory 1977, 10–4). “[T]he senses do not give us a picture of the world directly; rather they provide evidence for the checking of hypotheses about what lies before us. Indeed we may say that the perception of an object is a hypothesis, suggested and tested by the sensory data” (Gregory 1977, 13–4).

The conclusions of cognitive scientists were at the same time being matched by the speculations of art historians. In the early 1970s, Michael Baxandall developed the notion of “the period eye,” arguing that the skills that people employ in processing visual information are to a large extent culturally determined. Within any culture, Baxandall argues, shared experiences and ways of thinking, and the supplementary knowledge brought to any act of viewing, will help to determine which visual characteristics will most appeal to the beholders of an image: [End Page 3]

We enjoy our own exercise of skill, and we particularly enjoy the playful exercise of skills which we use in normal life very earnestly. If a painting gives us opportunity for exercising a valued skill and rewards our virtuosity with a sense of worthwhile insights about that painting’s organization, we tend to enjoy it: it is to our taste.

(Baxandall 1988, 34)

To one degree or another artists will respond to these socially constructed tastes when creating art objects. “The beholder must use on the painting such visual skills as he has … and he is likely to use those skills his society esteems highly. The painter responds to this: his public’s visual capacity must be his medium” (Baxandall 1988, 40).

The cultural relativism underlying Baxandall’s analysis was echoed in many contemporary studies. At the root of this thinking lay the age-old question (notably explored by both Greek and Enlightenment philosophers) about the extent to which we are justified in relying on our senses for our knowledge of external reality. If we are indeed compelled to turn to sense-perception for at least a part of our knowledge of the world, then which of the senses is the most useful? Is the eye necessarily our most valuable organ? In the 1980s Martin Jay coined the term ocularcentrism to describe the primacy that had been accorded to vision in modernist culture (Jay 1988a and 1988b). This privileging of sight had generated as its late twentieth-century antithesis a suspicion of the visual, which was expressed particularly strongly by French writers and thinkers in the post-war period. Critics such as Sartre, Lacan, Althusser, and Derrida challenged from various...


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