The Edge of Delusion

The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response

by David Freedberg
University of Chicago Press, 534 pp., $39.95

This learned and heavy volume should be placed on the shelves of every art historical library. It makes accessible, for the first time within the covers of one book, a large range of miscellaneous lore about the role of images in cult, folklore, and culture. As a classical scholar and as a trained historian the author has devoted many years to the study of the religious controversies concerning images, particularly in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. He is an authority on pagan and Christian attitudes to the representation of sacred personages, the miracles attributed to them, and the legends, pilgrimages, and ex votos to which they gave rise.

He deals with the links between religious art and devout meditation, the role of effigies in legal practice and mob violence, and the hostile reaction to images resulting in censorship and vandalism. His text and his notes thus provide an invaluable guide to material frequently neglected by historians of art. This is indeed the purpose of the book, but the subtitle, Studies in the History and Theory of Response, also reveals more ambitious aims. He wishes to establish what is specific in the psychological effect of images, and here his range turns out to be more restricted. The response of laughter or of disgust is barely mentioned; nor is the effect of contagion, mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci, as when the sight of a yawning figure in a picture makes us yawn.

Maybe it was Freedberg’s second aim that here supervened. In his own words the book has “a polemical edge.” He is convinced that “much of our sophisticated talk about art is simply an evasion”—an evasion of our more instinctual reaction. “The kind of evidence,” he writes, that he found “to be most germane was exactly that which art historians usually avoid in their concern with more intellectualized forms of response.” It is this strong anti-elitist bias that inspires the author to seek for the raw and unrefined attitude to images among the “common people.” Once in a while the egalitarian reformer here gets the better of the disinterested scholar and proposes a variety of generalizations that can hardly stand up to criticism.

Freedberg announces at the outset that his process of investigation will be “inductive” and the impressive array of data he has assembled is in tune with this approach. Alas, however, the outcome also confirms the Popperian case against induction: any number of sightings of white swans cannot justify the inference that all swans are white, while a single black swan can refute it.

It so happens that the reviewer’s aviary contains at least one such black swan, which weakens the author’s case against art historians. Anyone who can consult my book The Story of Art will find that the first chapter deals with what is there described as “the power of image making.” It is true that this power is exemplified in a discussion of primitive art, but far from confirming Freedberg’s charge that the relevance…

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