The Forces of Art in the Early Modern Period
Prof. Dr. Frank Fehrenbach: The Forces of Art in the Early Modern Period
Aesthetic modelings of the forces of nature designate a common denominator of temporally, geographically, and typologically highly diverse forms of visual art, ranging from Neolithic parietal paintings to American Land Art, from Praxiteles' Venus to Duchamps' Large Glass, from Apelles to Beuys, and from Prometheus to Pierre Huyghe.
My planned monograph will attempt to examine systematically the significance of different theories of forces in the visual arts between the late Middle Ages and the late Baroque, i.e. between about 1300 and beyond the "new science" of the 17th century until about 1750. Instead of the sympathetic and magical forces, which have already been studied relatively thoroughly, the main focus will be on physical and physiological interdependencies.
One of the starting hypotheses is that the physical concept of 'impetus' allows us to cast a light on aesthetic experiences that can be described as cause-effect correlations without needing to resort to numinous actors (God, angels, demons, souls). Did this entail an exoneration regarding the aesthetic effects of artworks from the suspicion of idolatry?
The chronological coincidence between late scholastic impetus physics, the reformulation of physical and physiological optics and the emergence of the modern image in the second half of the 13th century serves as a point of departure for this study. In contrast to the Aristotelian theory of "non-natural movement", impetus physics, which was dominant until the time of Galileo Galilei, claims that the motor leaves an "impression" in the projectile, which gives it a dynamic surplus.
The socio-economic and theological motives of the new physics have been explored to some extent. However, their parallels in the Franciscan theory of perception, which seized on Arabic predecessors and the new conception of the image as a stage for narrative and as a motor for emotional reactions (as a visualization and as a trigger for the effects of force, as a reservoir for a dynamic 'surplus value'), have not been explored yet. Optical transmissions are described by late medieval physics and physiology as dynamic changes of the medium and radiation of images of the surfaces of objects. Species or simulacra irradiate the medium rendered transparent by light and cause effects in the eye as well as the 'inner' senses; these transmutations are conceived as intensities.
Giotto, one of the pioneers of the new image and its effect aimed at physiological impression and psychological affect, features prominently in the most influential of all art histories, Giorgio Vasari's Vite dating from the mid-16th century. According to Vasari, the development of painting since Giotto is based on a continuous increase in forza. Culminating with Michelangelo, this development reaches a maximum increase. The semantics of forza are only rudimentarily researched. If one asks a contemporary artist-scientist such as Leonardo da Vinci, the answer would be that the force causes a dynamic transfer in the resistant object (i.e. the impetus). At the same time, it appears to endow inert objects with life via movement. A similar argument had already been put forward by Nicolaus Cusanus.
Does speaking about force also establish a criterion of comparison between artistic and natural products in the sense of Titian's ambivalent, comparative motto ('Natura potentior ars') or in the sense of Antonfrancesco Doni's resignation of art towards nature that has an infinita potenza at its disposal for the production of every blade of grass? My monograph aims to shed light on the complex semantic framework of forces. On the one hand, the rhetorical tradition must be taken into account, in which the concept of 'pathos' as a mode of overpowering was a model for the conception of physical impetus. On the other hand, the dominance of Aristotelian entelechy needs to be considered, in which the specific effects of forces are defined as actualizations of intrinsic 'capabilities' in the object (vires, facultates). The art-historical proliferation of 'force' since Giotto, as claimed by Vasari, operates within this semantic field.