CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

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DUFRENE, Thierry
My brain – that artist

Session 15 Creative Misunderstanding


Harold Bloom theorised the notion of ‘misreading’ in the field of literary studies. He considered that misreading was the only rewarding mode of reading the literary text. Bloom’s idea is that the reader brings part of what he believes the author has expressed in the text. Rather than merely belonging to theories on the death of the author, his approach proposes a new distribution of roles.

Today, it is at the crossroad between art and science that we find the greatest proliferation of ‘creative misreadings’. The inversion of roles is obvious: the scientist likes the images produced by high technology (fMRI) because he finds them beautiful; whereas the art historian likes them because he believes them to be truthful. It is tempting for the scientist to interpret the physical or mental world in aesthetic terms, such as harmony, symmetry, economy, simplicity. The art historian, on the other hand, no longer relies on the ‘phenomenology of perception’ (Gestalt, Merleau-Ponty). He aims to find in the accurate study of the laws governing vision and the material structure of the brain an explanation of what he sees in artworks.

“My brain, what an artist!”, seems to say both the scientist and the art historian, albeit for different reasons. The neuroscientist is full of admiration for the manner through which the brain produces beautiful images (starting with beautiful images of itself when functioning, through scientific imagery); in parallel the art historian reflects admiringly on the mode through which the functioning of the brain can explain beautiful images (that seemingly being their sole purpose).

This paper will look at a number of artworks analysed in texts by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Semir Zeki (for the scientists), Jean Clair and John Onians (for the art historians), in order to underline how the intersection between two disciplines undergoing significant change – neurosciences and art history – generates fruitful results often stemming from an initial misunderstanding which eventually becomes productive.

However, we shall also consider the extent to which a misunderstanding remains a misunderstanding, and isn’t fruitful when a discipline looks for its causal principles and its methods in another. This too often occurs in art history nowadays, as it faces unprecedented scalar shifts and a reconfiguration of its concepts, its terminology, and its methodology through the development of world art studies. Indeed, some scientists, scholars in aesthetics, anthropologists, as well as art historians, are tempted to use neurosciences in order to explain the omnipresence of art at all times and in all parts of the world. They refer to a ‘common biology’, which would have its origins in the brain. The difference between different art forms would ensue less from political, economic and technical evolutions, and from individual or collective decisions, than from the mysterious doings of an ‘unconscious’, which, depending on the modes of living in different eco-systems (Green Art Studies), would modify the brain of the artists and their publics.  The return of the biological determinant thus troubles art history, after having touched upon anthropology.

There we reach the limits of the ‘creative misunderstanding’.


DUFRENE, Thierry

Alumnus of the Ecole Normale Superieure (1977-1980), Professor of History of Contemporary Art at the University Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense, Thierry Dufrêne published, among others, Giacometti. The Dimensions of Reality, Geneva, Skira, (1993), The Big Gallery of sculptures, Paris, Center Pompidou Pompidou/Louvre/Orsay (2005), Giacometti / Genet. Masks and modern portrait, Paris, Vilo (2006), David Nash, Paris, Gallery Lelong (2012), Dali. Double image, double life, Paris, Hazan (2012) and La poupée sublimée. Quand Niki de Saint-Phalle et les artistes contemporains font des poupées, Paris, Skira (2014).

One of the curators of the exhibition Salvador Dali (Pompidou Center, 2012-2013, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2013-2014) and of the coming exhibition Persona. Etrangement humain (Musée du Quai Branly, January-October 2016), he prepares a book on the history of contemporary sculpture (Fernand Hazan).  

From 2007 to 2013, he has been Deputy Head of the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (Paris). He is a member of the Comité français d’Histoire de l’art and of AICA International (International Association of Art Critics). Head editor of the journal 20/21. Cahiers du Centre Pierre Francastel (2008-), he belongs to the editorial committee of the journal Diogenes (UNESCO). He has been invited to teach and give lectures in several countries.

Since 2004 the Academic Secretary of CIHA, he organized 2 CIHA’ colloquia : “Art history and anthropology " in June, 2007 at the Musée du Quai Branly (Paris) and « Civilization(s) : Mediterranean Sea and beyond » in June, 2014, at the MUCEM (Marseilles).