Jacob Wamberg

Professor

Jacob Wamberg
See relations at Aarhus University

Throughout my research I have been driven by a curiosity to find large-scale patterns in art history and its embeddings in other contextual terrains, including visual cultures, sociology, psychoanalysis, biosemiotics, and philosophies of nature and technology. Since my interests were first divided between Renaissance art and contemporary art, I became frustrated with the increasing specialization of “serious” art history and the corresponding dying-out of convincing art historiography beyond the scale of a few decades. This compartmentalization of art historical, and indeed most humanist, temporalities has ironically been sustained by poststructuralism with its skepticism towards “grand narratives”.

The urge towards more comprehensive scales of art historiography was facilitated by my two volume Habilitation thesis Landscape as World Picture: Tracing Cultural Evolution in Images (2009, Danish edition 2005). In it I give Hegel’s and Riegl’s models of art history (the triadic evolutions from, respectively, architecture, to sculpture, to painting; and from haptic near sight, to haptic-optic normal sight, to optic distant sight) a renewed and extended basis by exploring a hitherto unnoticed developmental pattern in two-dimensional images, unfolding from Paleolithic to post-medieval times. Integrating sociological models from Habermas and Talcott Parsons, my contention is that as humans withdraw to cities and distance themselves to that corresponding otherness, which is nature, they visually represent the surroundings with an increasing depth of field and a similarly sharpened point of view – a displacement from material immersion to immaterial observation that testimonies to a steadily more autonomized consciousness. Including ideas from Jungian history of religion (Erich Neumann, Mircea Eliade) and the history of cosmology (Alexandre Koyré), I claim that this pictorial evolution is also closely interwoven with the evolution of the Western world picture, the premodern rocky grounds and symbolically coloured skies reflecting a dualist world picture, and the homogenizing post-medieval perspective operating in structural equivalence with Copernican infinity. Moreover, I see the evolution of landscape images through a lens pertaining to work ideology and philosophy of technology (Max Weber, Alexandre Kojève). Work traces in landscapes – fields, fences, hedges, roads, mines – are thus excluded in a longe durée of work-shyness among the elites, the Golden Age field, that dominates Western culture from Mesopotamian times until the Renaissance.

My interests in technology’s relationship to nature and how this relationship is manifested in art are furthermore explored in the anthologies Art & Alchemy (2006), Totalitarian Art and Modernity (2010, edited with Mikkel Bolt-Rasmussen) and Art, Technology and Nature: Renaissance to Postmodernity (2015, edited with Camilla Skovbjerg Paldam). In the introduction to the latter I plead for an origin of art as a magical supplement to technology. Both participate in a life world that shields our neonatal, unfinished species from raw nature – in the Palaeolithic age through what could be conceived of as an exteriorized womb (the netherworld), in antiquity through an exteriorized brain (the heavens).

My present research concerns posthuman aspects of modern art since 1900. For apparently the progressionist pattern that was unfolded through the last 60,000 years is deconstructed, broken apart and re-assembled in all thinkable permutations during the last century. Rehabilitating, if also turning on its head, Hans Sedlmayr’s Verlust der Mitte (1948), my working hypothesis is that this deconstructive project can be termed “posthuman”, insofar as it transgresses the autonomy of the human body or mind – those defining ingredients of the humanist subject that were constructed and performed in antiquity (body), the Renaissance (body/mind) and the Enlightenment (mind), and which are still celebrated, though in materialist versions, in large parts of popular visual culture (mainstream film, commercials, wellness culture etc.). Catalyzed by the pervasive technological infiltration of nature since the 19th century (what is sometimes called the Anthropocene), modern art instead rehabilitates and remediates those “primitive” historical strands, in which humans, in their own understanding, were more thoroughly affected by non-human agents, from animals and plants to inorganic forces, including artefacts. These contemporaneous remediations of suppressed historical layers I seek to understand through the notion of entropy, the chaotically or strictly ordered patterns, which challenge organic autonomy in its negentropic genesis. Entropy I also link to Wilhelm Worringer’s idea of the abstract inorganic that precedes naturalist empathy (cp. Abstraktion und Einfühlung, 1908). Preliminary results of this research are presented in The Posthuman Condition: Ethics, Aesthetics and Politics of Biotechnological Challenges (2012, co-edited with Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen), and its macro-historical aspects together with a sub-project on Duchamp’s readymades are presently developed in the collective research project, “Posthuman Aesthetics”, of which I am chair (2014-17, financed by the Danish Research Council, see <posthuman.au.dk>).

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