June 22, 2012
David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (1989)

David Freedberg was one of the first art historians to direct attention specifically to the beholder’s response to images, rather than only to the images themselves. In the Power of Images, Freedberg amasses and analyzes a vast collection of historical responses to pictures, including responses to canonical works of fine art as well as to everyday ephemera like coins, shrines, and prints. Though he selects the majority of his examples from his area of specialization (sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe), he draws more broadly from materials from antiquity through the present day and incorporates nonwestern examples as well. Freedberg has an ambitious project up his sleeve: he means for his work to lay the groundwork for a more general theory of response, applicable across historical and social contexts.

Images and Reality

The central thesis of The Power of Images is, unsurprisingly, that images have power. Images effect an immense affective, somatic, psychological, or emotional response on the part of their beholders. Such affects as adoration, arousal, contempt, and fear are particularly recurrent. Despite the boasts of some Enlightenment and Protestant thinkers, Freedberg argues, representation and reality tend to collide for most beholders. The responses to images viewers experience are the same responses they might have had, had they been actually standing before the venerable Virgin Mary or a nude Venus. The image’s power is derived from the beholder’s fear and hope that the image is the object it depicts—that the figure depicted inheres, rather than just appears, in the image. Freedberg speculates that traces of a primitive animism remain in the human psyche, causing even moderns to perceive images, especially images of bodies, as lifelike. This process can be conscious, subconscious, or unconscious.

Freedberg hence offers a twist on Saussurean semiotics. The image, he argues, is not a sign—it does not signify a displaced signified. Rather, the power of the image resides in a fusion between sign and signified, and the sign becomes the living embodiment of what it signifies. “The time has come,” insists Freedberg, “to see the picture and the sculpture as more continuous with whatever we call reality than we have been accustomed to, and to reintegrate figuration and imitation into reality… that is to say, the time has come to acknowledge the possibility that our responses to images may be of the same order as our responses to reality” (437-438). In this way, representations are more properly re-presentations. They are their own reality, not only a form of language referring to a displaced reality. The relationship that results between viewer and image is somatic and psychological, not semiotic.

Art History as Repression

Freedberg’s work has a sharp polemical edge. He faults art historians and critics for not only failing to recognize the power of images, but actually for repressing—in a more or less psychoanalytic sense—the power of images. Art history and criticism, in a word, is part of the psychic machinery of repression.“Much of our sophisticated talk about art is simply an evasion,” he balks. “We take refuge in such talk when, say, we discourse about formal qualities, or when we rigorously historicize the work, because we are afraid to come to terms with our responses” (429). Formalism and historicism are two of the most common techniques of evasion.   

The art historical discourse on Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino presents a compelling example of how repression works. Art historians, Freedberg points out, mostly avoid acknowledging the overt sexuality displayed by Venus (though I suspect that feminist art historians, many of whom built their careers in the eighties on the sexual politics of fine art, might object). “The obfuscations are extraordinary,” he says. “We go into a picture gallery, and we have been so schooled in a particular form of aesthetic criticism that we suppress acknowledgment of the basic elements of cognition and appetite, or admit them only with difficulty” (17).

Formalist art historians preoccupy themselves with such technical flotsam as lines, curves, and colors. Titian contrasts the straight lines of the architecture, they pedantically explain, with the curves of the female form. The screen behind Venus bisects the painting, effecting a large-scale division that is mitigated by unifying elements such as the use of color and the floral patterns of the couch and background tapestries. They point out the elegant drapery. Isn’t that fine! Titian was a master of classical conventions.  

A different kind of art historian takes refuge in historicism. After hitting the archives, historicists describe how the painting was commissioned by the Duke of Urbino, possibly to celebrate his 1534 marriage. They speculate that the painting would originally have decorated a cassone, a chest traditionally given in Italy as a wedding present. The little dog, they announce, clutching their symbol dictionaries, represents fidelity.

Freedberg is exasperated with all of this chatter. To look at the Venus and limit discussion to brushstrokes and patrons misses the obvious—its frank sexuality. This image is pornographic. It arouses. That is a fundamental transcultural response that becomes repressed when it enters the formalist and historicist repressive machines. To really examine response, scholars must “mine what lies below the overlays of schooling, of class consciousness and conditioning, right down to the reflections and symptoms of cognition” (23).


My first reaction to Freedberg’s work is that it seems to be too universalizing. Freedberg wants his observations about response to images to be applicable across time and place, transhistorically and cross-culturally. Venus of Urbino is irreducibly pornographic, he argues—to every viewer. “I sought to assess that which seemed, in some profound sense, to precede context” he says (xx). He wants to find that what images do before our values, codes, and cultural conditioning come in. But is this really possible?

Looking is conditioned differently in different contexts. In his 2005 book The Sacred Gaze, religionist David Morgan argues that “vision happens in and as culture, as the tools, artifacts, assumptions, learned behaviors, and unconscious promptings that are exerted in images… seeing is an operation that relies on an apparatus of assumptions and inclinations, habits and routines, historical associations and cultural practices” (3). When a tourist enters Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to glimpse the Venus of Urbino, she enters into a specific context of looking. She waits in line for hours, pays her money, and finally views it arrayed in a canon of other paintings of its time, along with gaggles of other gallery-goers who assume site-specific postures and behaviors. The museum environment conditions her to see things in certain ways, and sexual response is simply not appropriate in that context. Is this a repression or denial of sexuality, or simply a shift in emphasis dependent on context?

Freedberg also tends to be selective about evidence. He emphasizes responses charged by profound affects like adoration, arousal, contempt, and fear, but doesn’t consider responses like indifference, disgust, disbelief, or laughter. He doesn’t think images can simply be there to please the eye—“We cannot, even for a moment, entertain any notion of an impulse ‘simply to decorate’ is of course, one of the main claims and prejudices of this book.” He also doesn’t consider how a critical response is actually a response.

The achievement of The Power of Images is not undermined by my quibbles. Freedberg succeeded in pushing a generation of art historians to think more carefully about response, and his work has enjoyed a rich afterlife in cultural history, religious history, anthropology, and visual studies. After Freedberg, we can no longer study images themselves without studying the viewers before them.

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