Cognitive Iconology: How and When Psychology Explains Images
by Ian Verstegen
Editions Rodopi B. V., Amsterdam, NL, 2014
194 pp. Paper, €45,00
Reviewed by George K. Shortess
This book synthesizes and extends previous investigations that have looked at important psychological, that is cognitive, capacities which are involved in explaining visual art. As such it serves a valuable function for contemporary visual studies.
The author makes the case for what he calls cognitive oncology as a necessary component in the explanation of a work of art, while not denying the value of neural processes along with social and environmental factors. In doing so he follows the Gestalt psychologists, emphasizing the work of Rudolf Arnheim, as the most systematic Gestalt psychologist whose work focused on the psychology of the arts.
In the Introduction, the author lays out the overall basis of his approach and the organization of the book. In Chapter 1, he distinguishes between understanding and explanation and develops the idea of stratified explanations in which biology, psychology and social sciences come together, with psychology providing the "cognitive glue." Chapters 2 through 6 then develop these ideas in specific areas as follows. Chapter 2 - the various uses to which images are put; Chapter 3 - the modifications of perspective for a more satisfying image; Chapter 4 - the persistence of presence in painting; Chapter 5 - the unique problems of mural painting; Chapter 6 - group responses to images, including veneration and magic. This is followed by a short Conclusion titled "Cognitive Proclivities for the Study of Art".
However, from a personal perspective, there are a number of issues that I found annoying that could have been corrected by a better editing and proofing effort. Overall, I feel the writing is somewhat overblown at times. Points could be made and ideas described more directly and therefore in clearer terms. Other more specific annoyances include, but are not limited to, the following examples. Many of the figure captions and descriptions could be clearer and more complete. For example, in Figure 4 in Chapter 5, if the letter designations on the figure were used in the discussion of the illusion, the reader could see immediately its relevance. In Figures 10, 11 and 12 in Chapter 5, the line drawings of the elevations are clear, but the reproductions of the ceiling paintings are too indistinct to be useful. In Chapter 5, the author refers to the fresco, Visions of Thrones, as Figure. 9 when in fact Figure 9 is Dream of Innocent III.
Nevertheless, the book makes a significant contribution to the study of the visual arts and should be an important resource in visual studies.