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The school of the eye

©Laurence Bertrand Dorléac / Sciences Po

©Laurence Bertrand Dorléac / Sciences Po

Interview on the school of the eye with Laurence BERTRAND DORLEAC, Professor at Sciences Po, Center of History.

What is new at Sciences Po concerning the teaching of images ?

Many things, starting with the creation of the first permanent position for a Professor in Art History, in 2009. Sciences Po became more diversified and the new reform which will be implemented gives a more significant place to “political humanities”. In this respect, art history is part of what any student has to know to approach the today’s world, which is widely made up with images and calls for sensitivity, which remains a speciality of humans, doesn’t it?

Today’s world is filled with images of all kinds, yes, but is it so new ?

No, there has been a gradual move towards a world in which images are predominant, with a longer-lasting impact, if not greater. Scientific studies evidence that we are hit and moved faster by images than by texts. If you hang on a wall an image and a text alongside, as interesting as the latter may be, the image wins. This is quite an old story. In 1919 already, the Dutch historian Huizinga wrote that “if a man of culture of 1840 had been asked to characterize French civilization in the fifteenth century in a few words, his answer would probably have been largely inspired by impressions from Barante’s Histoire des Ducs de Bourgogne and Hugo Notre-Dame de Paris. (…) The experiment repeated today would yield a very different result. People would now refer (…) above all to the works of art. (…)”. Our perception of remote times, our historical organ, become increasingly visual. But our sensitivity to present as well. I want to speak about this new situation in my courses with new means.

What are these new means ?

The school of the eye involves to lend attention to images, to decipher them. This learning implies a proximity to artworks. This is why I teach my Master-level common core curriculum in the Orsay Museum, in which the artworks I study are displayed in the upper floors, above the auditorium in which I speak, which does not prevent me from screening many other images of course. I choose rather complex artworks, which have a polysemous dimension. My second principle is to avoid confining my course to an internalist art history, as it remains practiced in too many places. I put art in relation with all the available tools in human and social sciences. It is not (only) about delectation, but also understanding the process which leads the artwork from its imagination by an artist to its reception, on the short and the long run. This requires the use of a range of tools: political, social, anthropological, economic, technical, legal, psychological, literary, philosophical, poetical, etc. Before undergoing such an analysis, the image remain lacking a satisfying interpretation.

Are there image media to favor in particular ?

No, each medium has its own features. Caricature was completely ignored, and all of a sudden, it surged on the international stage. For the first time, with drawings published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which were then picked up by Charlie Hebdo which also produced new ones. Then, the January 2015 attack against Charlie Hebdo revived the issue around the right to an image, to any image. In this specific situation, it is possible to show that no medium should be overlooked, but also that an education of the eye is necessary to distinguish an artwork, which by definition is symbolic, from reality. To draw is not to kill. Art generates a catharsis, and it is used since Greek tragedy to express things so we don’t have to do them, if I may. But we first must understand how this works. Both for the present and for the past. The two cast light on one another.

It is unusual to think in both ways, we are used to say that the past casts light on the present but not the contrary

To understand the significance of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad and the contrast in their reception allows us to better understand the iconoclastic period in ancient times. Through recent events, we know again what means the “quarrel of images”, with the refusal by some believers of caricatures of the prophet they acknowledge. But this quarrel was preceded by other refusals, by Christian believers in particular, of representation of Christ they deemed unacceptable. And we must also recall the very old mythical episode of the worship of the golden calf. In the Bible, we can read: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” To tell this story provides new tools to be used by contemporaries.

Do you have the feeling that your students take a better look at images at the end of your course ?

I would certainly not start swaggering, but I try to involve them in the process of knowledge of visual works from examples they contribute to choosing. For instance, among the exercises I demand and which have to be prepared out of the course (in 2nd year), about representations of warfare, every week, one or more student(s) present the image which struck them most. The students have to search, to look for images in books, but also in the streets, in the press or on social networks. In the jungle of images, I ask them to check that one image at least is waiting for us, catches our attention, moves us or questions us. Then, I convene visual producers, artists, especially those who go on the front lines, who are able to explain the making process of an image, which is conscious but also, at least partly, unconscious.

Indeed, we must always keep in mind that we are not purely rational beings, and that even absolutist scientists do not get away with some form of ideology, with their unconscious, this machine which works not only at night… Artists, for their part, incorporate more willingly the abundant reality of this continent. They work with it, and this is perhaps why their images are so striking.