Whitney Davis

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Whitney Davis


Whitney Davis is George C. and Helen Pardee Professor of History & Theory of Ancient & Modern Art at the University of California at Berkeley. Previously he taught at Northwestern University, where he was John Evans Professor of Art History and Director of the Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities. He received his PhD in Fine Arts from Harvard University, where he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows. Davis’s research interests include prehistoric and archaic arts; worldwide rock art; the Classical tradition and neoclassicism in Western art since the later Middle Ages, and especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain; the development of professional art history in interaction with archaeology, philosophical aesthetics, comparative anthropology, and other disciplines; art theory in visual-cultural studies, especially problems of pictorial representation; aspects of modern art history, especially its expression (or not) of nonnormative sexualities; the history and theory of sexuality; queer theory; world art studies; and environmental, evolutionary, and cognitive approaches to the global history of visual culture.


Lecture 1. Fundamental issues in the ‘archaeology of art’

Archaeologically known arts have been approached by the methods of both archaeology and art history, which have distinctive interests. In some areas, such as classical archaeology, the interests of art history tend to be dominant; in other areas, such as the study of prehistoric art, the methods of archaeology tend to be dominant. The lecture deals with the ways in which archaeologists and art historians think about ‘art’, about the relationship between ‘the object’ or ‘artifact’ and its aesthetic dimensions, and about the relationship between the artwork and other artifacts and the sites to which it is connected. A brief historiography of the study of the ‘archaeology of art’ will also be presented.


Dan Sperber, ‘Culture and Matter’, in Representations in Archaeology

W. Davis, ‘Finding Symbols in History’, in Replications: Archaeology, Art History, Psychoanalysis (1996), 35–45

George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (selection).

Lecture 2. Archaeology, art history, and phenomenology

The central concern of phenomenology is the relationship between the human subject, as the agent of apprehension and intentionality, and the objects to which it directs itself in the world. Phenomenological considerations are sometimes difficult to integrate into archaeological and historical disciplines because the subject’s experience of consciousness and sensation does not directly fossilize. But archaeologists and art historians have ways of reconstructing the phenomenological horizons of artifact and image makers in the past. The lecture will specifically considers theories of the human ‘standpoint’, as they can be employed by archaeologists and art historians. Examples will be drawn from studies of ancient Egyptian and classical Greek art and architecture.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Experience and Objective Thought: The Problem of the Body’ and ‘The Synthesis of One’s Own Body’, in The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London, 1962) 67–72; 148–53;

W. Davis, ‘What Phidias Saw’, in Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (2017), 229–63.


Superimpositions and palimpsests

In the absence of direct means of dating prehistoric and ancient rock art, one of the most important internal means of ‘relative dating’ involves the analysis of superimpositions, with the common assumption that marks ‘above’ others are ‘later’. This is true in a material sense but might not be valid in a symbolic sense; a ‘later’ mark could be symbolically ‘early’. When superimpositions were intentionally produced to have complex internal temporalities, they can be defined as ‘palimpsests’. The workshop will look at the pros and cons of ‘superimposition stratigraphy’ as an approach to the chronology, intentionality, meaning, and history of rock art, using examples from paleolithic Europe and neolithic northeastern Africa.

Alexander Marshack, ‘The meander as a system: the analysis and recognition of iconographic units in upper palaeolithic compositions’, in Form in Indigenous Art, ed. Peter Ucko (1977), 286–317

André Leroi-Gourhan, ‘Gargas’, in Treasures of Prehistoric Art (1967), 307–8

James D. Keyser, ‘Relative dating methods’, in Handbook of Rock Art Research, ed. David S. Whitley (2001), 116–38.