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Assessing Response

Freedberg, David A.

Vol. 1 contains papers from a symposium, published in Communication & cognition, vol. 17, no. 1 (1984).

My historian colleagues usually maintain that assessing response is not a task that is amenable to historical analysis; the task, they say, is essentially a sociological one, and requires the kind of broadly based sociological survey that can only be provided by present - as opposed to historical - data. Further, they maintain that the analysis of audience response is no less tactless - from a historical and a psychological point of view - than that of artistic intention. And often, when they hear of the proposal to investigate responses to all kinds of images, they claim that the procedure would only be interesting or only possible in terms of high art or apparently canonical images. That view may be too obviously spurious to require refutation, but I hope to deal with it at the end. But first let me try to defuse the initial charges.

Perhaps it would be best to begin with a delimitation of what I mean by response. I do not refer to the matter of purely psychological or perceptual response; that is a matter for fields other than my own, and for psychology in particular. But there seems to me a large area which falls quite clearly within the province of the historian, and which historians have tended to overlook although they have always made gestures in that direction. I do not think that the main motive for overlooking it has been ideological; it is rather because we have liked to think of the matter as beyond our reach. While it may be more or less easy to see how writers on art - in other words intellectuals, theorists or critics - respond to images, we find it difficult to assess the response of people who did not actually write about htem. But just because people do not write about art or images does not mean that their response is forever inaccessible or incapable of being plotted. I suppose that the implica- tions of this claim are quite large; and it is true that I am implying that the historian should be able to extend his view to the response of all classes, including the illiterate. The absence of direct or first hand written evidence does not ma- ke the task impossible; only more challenging.


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Art in culture
Communication & Cognition

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Art History and Archaeology
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August 24, 2022