Whitney Davis is George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art. He is also Honorary Visiting Professor of Art History at the University of York, UK, where he leads the annual York Summer Theory Institute in Art History (YSTI). He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 2001. Previously he taught at Northwestern University, where he was John Evans Professor of Art History, Director of the Alice Berline Kaplan Center for the Humanities, and a member of the Program in African Studies. Focusing on ancient African, ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern, Mediterranean Bronze Age, and Greco-Roman classical art and archaeology, he received his PhD in Fine Arts from Harvard University in 1985, where he was a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows from 1983 to 1986. He did his undergraduate studies at Harvard College, where he focused on evolutionary human biology, prehistoric archaeology, and the history of philosophy in addition to the history of art. Prior to college he was educated in Canada and the UK. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.
Davis’s teaching and research interests include prehistoric and archaic arts (especially prehistoric arts of north Africa and European Paleolithic art); 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, anthropology, and other disciplines; art theory in visual-cultural studies, especially problems of pictorial representation in relation to computation and notation; aspects of modern art history, especially its expression (or not) of non-normative 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. He has published books and articles/book chapters (over 115) in all of these fields.
He is the author of ten books: The Canonical Tradition in Ancient Egyptian Art (Cambridge UP, 1989); Masking the Blow: The Scene of Representation in Late Prehistoric Egyptian Art (California UP, 1992); Pacing the World: Construction in the Sculpture of David Rabinowitch (Harvard UP, 1996); Drawing the Dream of the Wolves: Homosexuality, Interpretation, and Freud’s “Wolf Man” Case (Indiana UP, 1996); Replications: Archaeology, Art History, Psychoanalysis (Penn State UP, 1996); Queer Beauty: Sexuality and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Freud and Beyond (Columbia UP, 2010); A General Theory of Visual Culture (Princeton UP, 2010), which received the Monograph Prize of the American Society for Aesthetics and the Susanne K. Langer Award of the Media Ecology Association; Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton UP, 2017); Space, Time, and Depiction (forthcoming), based on his Research Forum Lectures at the Courtauld Institute of Art of the University of London; and Visions of Art History (forthcoming), a volume of essays on art historians and art-historical schools of thought. He is the editor or co-editor of several other volumes.
At the moment he is working on three new books. A Problem in Queer Ethics deals with the Victorian art-writer and homosexual emancipationist John Addington Symonds and his relations to contemporary traditions of British moral philosophy and to Greco-Roman ethical teachings. Sculptural Representation addresses the problem of “three-dimensional depiction,” that is, depiction in the medium of “sculpture” (and to a lesser extent relief); the book emphasizes the importance of the beholder’s moving standpoint and the unfolding of multiple “pictorialities” in the 3D artifact. Though its comparative compass is global, many examples are drawn from twentieth-century British sculpture. Pictures and Populations is about the worldwide prehistoric dissemination of pictures (by c. 40,000 BCE) as one of the cognitive thresholds of “psychologically modern humanity” as well as a key element both in humans’ success in gaining genetic control over many other species and in the global cultural diversification of their own species.
Davis was one of the core editors of the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, edited by Michael Kelly, published in six volumes by Oxford University Press in 2014. He has published over one hundred articles in journals, anthologies, and conference proceedings. Recent articles deal with eighteenth-century British portraiture; the representation of climate change in prehistoric art; frontality, scale, and illusion in ancient Egyptian depiction; the effect of artistic modernism on the description of Classical Greek art in the early twentieth century; the nature of “post-formalism” in art history in the early 21st century; Michael Baxandall’s model of the “idiographic stance”; the problematics of “presence” in Paleolithic visual art; On Kawara’s artworks in the early 1960s in response to his visit to the Paleolithic cave of Altamira; Walter Pater’s account of the temporality of the Classical ideal in art; Hegel’s theory of Symbolic Art in light of recent anthropology; re-readings of Panofsky’s “Perspective as Symbolic Form” in light of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit; the obsolescence of the “analog/digital” distinction in recent new-media visual and spatial arts; Franz Boas’s theory of the beholder’s share; the use of paintings by Piet Mondrian in neuropsychological research; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of the “epistemology of the closet”; Jackson Pollock’s Mural in “the light of photography”; J. G. Herder’s “naturalist” aesthetics”; and Middle Paleolithic rock painting at the Wadi Defeit, Egypt, c. 45 ka. Recent invited talks include the Rumble Lecture on Classical Art at King’s College London (March, 2016), presentations and discussions at a two-day symposium on his work at the Dahlem Humanities Center of the Free University of Berlin (April, 2016), the 2018 FORART lecture in Oslo, and lectures for the universities of Essex, Antwerp, Virginia, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, Washington, British Columbia, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Oxford, Southern California, Toronto, Chicago, Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland, York, Brno, and Vienna, and for University College London, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the Warburg Institute. His writing has been translated into French, Polish, and Chinese and anthologized in textbooks and reference volumes on art history, queer studies, aesthetics, and archaeology.
At UC Berkeley, Davis has regularly taught History of Art 100, a course in “methods and theories of art history” required of undergraduate majors in History of Art, and History of Art 200, a proseminar in the same materials required of first-year PhD students in History of Art. Other courses have included lecture courses on The Origins of Art, Queer Visual Culture (in the minor program in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies), Ancient Art & the Modern Imagination; undergraduate seminars on Art History in the 21st Century and on Darwin and the Arts; and graduate seminars on Notations, World Art Studies, Visuality, and Evolutionary-Developmental Approaches to the History of Art. In fall semester 2016 he led a special interdisciplinary graduate seminar on the work of the influential psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, who was a scholar and writer in residence at the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the 2016 Avenali Lecturer in the Humanities. In fall 2022 he organized an international lecture series on “World Art Studies 2022: Issues and Prospects.”
Davis has been awarded fellowships by the Stanford Humanities Center, the National Humanities Center, the Getty Research Institute, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Humanities Research Fund of UC Berkeley. He has held visiting scholar and visiting professor appointments at Duke University, the Courtauld Institute of Art of the University of London, the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, and the University of York, UK, where he was part-time Visiting Professor of History of Art from 2013 to 2016 and remains Honorary Visiting Professor. He has served as member of the board of the College Art Association and recently as a member of the Advisory Boards of CASVA and the Research and Academic Programs at the Clark Art Institute. He has served on the editorial boards of Art History; Representations; Open Arts; the Journal of South Asian Studies; the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism; Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics; and Theory, Culture, and Critique. At Berkeley, he has served as Chair of the Department of History of Art (twice), as Director of the Film Studies Program, as Director of the LGBT Minor Program, as Chair of the University Senate Committee on the Library and Scholarly Communication, and as Director of the Consortium for the Arts and the Arts Research Center. He was a founding member of what is now the Berkeley Center for New Media.