Crary and the ‘New’ Sensation of 19th Century

Art’s historical position was driven by a re-assessment of how human vision functions, during the mid-late 19th Century where a rapture of how we understand visuality.
Crary discusses how art jumped from such renaissance paintings such as Pietro Perugino to Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock, this sudden change in how we understand art and this change can’t be explained in discussion of materials and experiments, we must look into the historical context such as the development in cognitive science and psychology.

“[W]hen, and because of what events, [was there] a rupture with Renaissance, or classical, models of vision and of the observer[?] How and where one situates such a break has an enormous bearing on the intelligibility of visuality within nineteenth- and twentieth-century modernity. Most existing answers to this question suffer from an exclusive preoccupation with problems of visual representation; the break with classical models of vision in the early nineteenth century was far more than simply a shift in the appearance of images and art works, or in systems of representational conventions. Instead, it was inseparable from a massive reorganization of knowledge and social practices that modified in myriad ways the productive, cognitive, and desiring capacities of the human subject”

(Crary, 1992, p.5).

Discussion of Jonathan Crary’s book Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture.

Crary discusses 19th Century painting, specifically looking at Georges Seurat, Cirque, 1890-91 and Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Plaster Cupid, 1894/5 however he does not look at Edouard Manet to which he puts to keeping the book at a reasonable size; however, he could have another motivation.

In Crary’s view the rupture happens exclusively in the latter half of the 19th Century (1850’s onwards) where vision is ‘subjectivized’

“The idea of subjective vision—the notion that our perceptual and sensory experience depends less on the nature of an external stimulus than on the composition and functioning of our sensory apparatus—was one of the conditions for the historical emergence of notions of autonomous vision, that is, for a severing (or liberation) of perceptual experience from a necessary relation to an exterior world. […] This was the decisive achievement of the science of psychophysics in the mid-nineteenth century, which, by apparently rendering sensation measurable, embedded human perception in the domain of the quantifiable and the abstract. […] These developments are part of a critical historical turning point in the second half of the nineteenth century at which any significant qualitative difference between life and technics begins to evaporate. The disintegration of an indisputable distinction between the interior and exterior becomes a condition for the emergence of spectacular modernizing culture and for a dramatic expansion of the possibilities of aesthetic experience” (Crary, 1999, pp.12–13).

From 1850’s onwards we begin to get scientific theories which depend less on the exterior view on the world and visual sense on it becomes different.

Attention concept radically rethought from 18th century to 19th century:

“Attention, as it was conceived of in the later nineteenth century, is radically alien to eighteenth century notion of mental activity as a stamp or a mold that will somehow fix or preserve the constancy of objects. In historical discussions of the problem of attention, one often encounters the claim that the modern psychological category of attention is continuous with notions of apperception that were important in different ways for Leibniz and Kant. But in fact what is crucial is the unmistakable historical discontinuity between the problem of attention in the second half of the nineteenth century and its place in European thought in previous centuries” (Crary, 1999, p.18–19).

Sensation reconceptualised

“The model of attentive human observer that dominated the empirical sciences from the late 1880s on was also inseparable from a radically transformed notion of what constitutes sensation for a human subject. Within the increasingly sophisticated laboratory environment, sensation became an effect or a set of effects that were technologically produced and were used to describe a subject who was compatible with those technical conditions. That is, its significance as an “interior” faculty disappeared and it became a quantity or set of effects that could be measured or observed externally. […] Within this vast project, an older model of sensation as something belonging to a subject became irrelevant. Sensation now had empirical significance only in terms of magnitudes that corresponded to specific quantities of energy (e.g., light) on one hand and to measurable reaction times and other forms of performative behavior on the other. It cannot be emphasised too strongly how, by the 1880s, the classical idea of sensation ceases to be a significant component in the cognitive picture of nature” (Crary, 1999, pp. 26-27).

Before 1850s cognitive science were more thoughtful of how the interior had an impact on the senses.

Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884.

“La Grande Jatte, in particular, can be seen as an ambiguous puzzle, in Durkheimian terms, of the problematic nature of social association. Is the assemblage pictured here an image of harmony, the near-equilibrium state of solidarity, of individuals transformed into ‘social beings’? Or is it a statistical distribution of isolated and categorized units, the result of a merely additive principle of formal adjacency, in which depleted, anomic relations predominate beneath the spurious appearance of social concord?”

Durkheimian theory – is it a picture of late 19th century Parisian harmony of society all together or a critical work reacting to the increasing bourgeoisie Napoleon 3rd working class of Paris. At ease or competition between classes?


Georges Seurat, Cirque, 1890–91, is a picture “not […] of a circus but […] a frozen interval of a moving image that happens to be of circus performers. The image becomes like a fragment or section, detached from a continuum of images, that declares its remoteness from the conditions of ‘natural’ perception. The acrobat, the horse, and its rider are all immobilized as if through the exercise of nonhuman perception, in a simulation of a practice Reynaud effectively inaugurated, the freeze frame or stop action” (Crary, 1999, p.273).

Increasing technology, subject matter looking at emerging technology and film.

“As much as Reynaud, Muybridge, or Fuhrmann, Seurat too was a producer of what Jean-Louis Comolli calls ‘machines of the visible’; his work is also lodged amid the shift from artisanal practices to the repetitive and standardizing industrial modes of image making” (ibid.).
Machine matters more than subject matter.


  1. “Subjective vision” is the exclusive achievement of 19th-century psychophysics?
    (Made explicity in 1770 for the first time by immanuel Kant)

Kant: the forms of perception (space and time) are subjective in terms of their relation to the existent external world. I.e., the external world does not contain them – they are not ‘given’ with the stimuli coming to us from the external world. They are ‘added’ to the stimuli by our minds. Without these subjective “conditions of possibility” of perception, we could not perceive things of the world at all – or would at least perceive them extremely differently.

  1. “The disintegration of an indisputable distinction between the interior and exterior” is also something that belongs to the 19th century?

Kant: the forms that enable us to perceive what we think of as the external world are in fact ‘internal’ to our minds. Although space and time seem very much like attributes of the external world, in fact they are but subjective/internal forms of human perception.

  1. Attention has nothing to do with Kant’s theories?

Kant: Attention is the same as our self-affectation in acts of  perceiving ourselves inwardly: when I ask myself what am I seeing/feeling/thinking, I ask what kinds of sensory presentations are ‘in me’ right now. This Is the same as paying attention. (See CPR, B156, n.292.)


Sensation is radically reconceptualised in the 19th century. Instead of “an interior faculty”, instead of something that belongs to a subject, it now becomes an external effect or set thereof, which can be simulated in a laboratory.

Is this right?

Kant in CPR, A19–20/B34: “The effect of an object on our capacity for presentation, insofar as we are affected by the object, is sensation.”

I.e., in 1781/89 Kant defines sensation as the effect of an object (external in particular) on our senses (or, as he calls it, on sensibility, our capacity to represent objects given through sense stimuli).

In Critique of Judgement (1791) §VII/Ak. 189: “Sensation […] in its proper meaning […] stands for what is material (real) in presentations (that through which something existent is given) […]; sensation is also required for cognition of objects outside us” (emphasis added).

I.e., Kant even sees the external function of sensation as the ‘proper’ meaning of the term despite later widening his theory of sensation to include also ‘internal’ sensations, namely, feelings.

One crucial implication of Kants theory is that sensations are not given outside our spacial relations doesn’t come to you as a stimulus package but you have to do the work to put it together. For example; if you see two planes in the sky just seeing them doesn’t register the distance in your head, you have to have the knowledge to put it together yourself.

Going back to Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884 –
Readable social theory, making commentary of Parisian middle class, looking at the size difference of the people depicted in the image.


The spacial relations in the image are not correct, if they were he man in the top hat would be a tiny compared to the man lying down giving him more emphasis in the painting. This is a recurring theme in the image.


It is in this section of the image, this triangle of people that the sizing of the people is the most obvious as you can see how unstable the spacial relations are. The man in the top hat is much smaller than the young girl in the foreground and also the couple in the background.

Kant’s project is based on the claim that we need to process sensory stimuli by both sensuous forms of intuitions and conceptual forms of thought.

“Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”
(CPR, A51/B75).
We can see things without actually understanding what we are seeing. We need to be able to see, sense and also add the concept to it.

Discussing Claude Monet
“I remember his [Claude Monet’s] once saying this to me: ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue,here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you a naïve impression of the scene before you.’ He said he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint in this way without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him”

(Cabot Perry, 1927/1990, p.116).
Cabot Perry was one of Monet’s student – only getting the statement through her.

Monet’s paintings are quite photographic, as his career progresses you can see how his work becomes more and more spacially ambiguous. Don’t think about space conceptually – which relates to Kant’s theory on sensation.

Discussing Paul Cézanne

Throughout Paul Cézanne’s career he has seemingly had an issue with space, which has become more defined over time as you can see in the images shown.

“Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realizing one’s sensations” (Kendall, 2004, p.203).

–Emile Bernard: “So you understand art to be a union of the world and the individual?”

–Cézanne: “I understand it as personal apperception. This apperception I locate in sensation, and I require of the intellect that it should organize these sensations into a work of art.”

–Bernard: “But what sensations are you referring to? Those of your feelings or of your retina?

–Cézanne: I don’t think you can distinguish between the two; however, as a painter, I believe in the visual sensation above all else (ibid. p.193).

“There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other. It is necessary to work at their mutual development, in the eye by looking at nature, in the mind by the logic of organized sensations which provides the means of expression” (ibid p.203).

What Cézanne is discussing is a very Kantian theory on sensation.   

 László Moholy-Nagy


László Moholy-Nagy, Marseille, Port View, 1929.

In many of Moholy-Nagy’s images without context it could be difficult to be able to tell that we are actually looking at.
With Port View I knew straight away what I was looking at but with Untitled shown below it was a little unclear, especially as there is no clue in the title.
When I first looked at it I assumed that it was a roof terrace with the grass and tree below it but after a discussion on what we each saw it became very unclear and I was no longer sure what I was looking at. This completely goes against the idea of photographs being depictions of truth if we do not even know what it is we’re looking at.

László Moholy-Nagy, Untitled, 1940-44

There is evidence in the two images above that Moholy-Nagy was interested in Monet’s work as they have a close resemblance in how Moholy-Nagy has composed his image of the same place Monet painted.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Lumber, 1929/30

In Rodchenko’s work he is disrupting our visual perception also, without the knowledge of the title I think it would take me a long time to figure out what I was looking at. The lines almost make it look like I’m looking down on a field.




Bridget Riley, Fall, 1963

In Riley’s work they are tricking your mind into placing spatial structures in the image where there aren’t any. This creates the illusion that it’s moving.




Patrick Hughes, Vanishing Venice (date uncertain)

Lastly we looked at Patrick Hughes whose image Vanishing Venice creates the visual illusion that the closest part of the image actually looks the furthest away. This confuses our sense’s as we can see what is wrong with the image but can’t put it right. I have found this image the hardest to get my head around.



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