Master Class with the 2013-2014 CRASSH/ EMSI/ Harman Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

In partnership with the University of Cambridge Center for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH) and the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute (EMSI), the Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study is providing support for Kimberly Skelton, Ph.D., the inaugural 2013-2014 CRASSH/EMSI/Harman Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in Early Modern Visual and Material Culture.  Dr. Skelton received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2007.

On Thursday, February 27th at the Harman Academy, Dr. Skelton led students and faculty in a Master Class entitled “Sight In Context: Early Modern Modes of Perception.”  This was the first Master Class of its kind, as Skelton is the inaugural scholar to receive this fellowship. The evening began with some remarks from Dr. Amy Braden, the Associate Director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. Dr. Braden reflected on the groundbreaking nature of this fellowship because of its break from a traditional model of housing a post-doc in one location. As the CRASSH/EMSI/Sidney Harman Academy inaugural fellow, Dr. Skelton acts as an ambassador, as her fellowship unites two universities and two academic institutes, crossing national borders and continents . Dr. Braden remarked on the hope that this postdoctoral fellowship will be a new way to encourage global exchange between scholars.

Skelton’s talk focused on the shift in modes of perception in the seventeenth-century and how architecture and art transformed to accommodate a changing conception of sensory perception. Prior to the seventeenth-century, viewers comprehended the world solely with the naked eye, and architects and artists assumed the viewer was a motionless individual. However, in the seventeenth-century, the conception of the senses and a sensory hierarchy shifted to a belief that tactile and visual observations could converge and work together rather than in competition with each other. Imagination became a primary faculty for understanding architectural design. Artists and architects began to design with the concept in mind of sight being an isolated yet paradoxically intertwined sense with mind and body.

During the Q&A, Dr. Skelton explained that this phenomenon can be observed not only in the architecture itself but also in architectural books and images of the time. Architectural books began to feature multiple images of one structure instead of single images of many structures. This is reflective of a shift in sensory perception because it allowed room for imagination to put the pieces together and give the images and building a context, something previously unseen in these types of books.

Visual culture was enlarged across numerous fields and this trend laid the ground-work for our contemporary ability to absorb content from multiple perspectives and quickly switch between images. In the seventeenth-century, architecture and art began to demand that the viewer actively participate and create information in the viewing process. Rather than looking at something from a distance and a single viewpoint, art and architecture transformed to require viewers to walk around it and perceive from multiple perspectives – the viewer became a necessary part of the scene, rather than the image or object being able to exist alone. New processes of sight invited engagement and understanding through the other senses, which led to touch becoming prioritized through its absence in the process. Telescopes and microscopes introduced physical distance as a paradox of getting closer to an object on a visual level. Therefore, touch became a new way to get up close to objects.

Through her presentation and discussion with student and faculty guests, Dr. Skelton presented the focus of her research during her tenure as the inaugural Harman Academy/CRASSH/EMSI post-doctoral fellow. The Master Class was a wonderful opportunity for students to not only gain a new perspective on early modern vision, but to glimpse the opportunities for interdisciplinary study on a post-graduate level.