Between dimensions

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on canvas)

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on canvas)

Berlin painter Ruprecht von Kaufmann recently exhibited in several art fairs across the world, and our far-flung circle was able to simultaneously attend two: in Vienna, natürlich, and in Chicago. We have up till now only encountered von Kaufmann’s eerie phantasmal universe in the flat pages of books and on flat laptop screens (which somehow manage to feel more flat than a book’s page), staring tensely at his dot-eyed spectres, his tormented ghosts half appearing and half disappearing through the surface, writhing and struggling through mysteriously colourful and seemingly interminable mists. It was therefore a relief to come face-to-face for the first time. The paintings are big, audacious; their feverish presence is impressive on a grand scale, enclosing one–as they did at the Vienna Contemporary–on three sides. At the Expo Chicago, despite the chaotic setting that threatened to drown them out, the main figures–a leaping horse and a ghostly couple–each remained bravely focused on their own personal battle to escape from the surface on which they were painted. For this is what quickens von Kaufmann’s paintings with that desperate, pounding pulse: that his figures seem to struggle against some invisible prison.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

Kapriole (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

What commands one’s attention above all is von Kaufmann’s drawing, and the calm assertion it seems to make: never be afraid to simply draw. For the drawing holds everything together, like a firm, strong thread. Sometimes the paint is so boldly understated, so lightly smeared, only hinting at the form with minimal tonal and colour contrast, but the way it is drawn exudes unending confidence. His drawing has swagger. It lilts across the picture with easy-going self-assurance. Von Kaufmann is noticeably comfortable in his figures, which distinguishes him from most contemporaries; they are drawn completely without strain. His figures are so lightly, breathily fixed to the surface. In person, one sees there is hardly anything there, and yet what is depicted is so substantial.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

The surfaces themselves are the other instantly striking thing about von Kaufmann’s paintings, and something that makes seeing them in person a whole other experience. This in itself is a battlecry for painting: an assertion that painting is a thousands times more than the image, that it is no laborious photography substitute. Paintings hold their ground in our digital age, they can leave us breathless in their physicality when we expect only pixels, cropped and filtered, able to be slipped into our pockets. No, von Kaufmann’s paintings do not respect digital borders, and they barely respect their substrates, with rebellious paint crawling over the edges, fused by time in their thick, viscous flow.

Von Kaufmann is near-abusive of the surface, pushed by his inquisitive, open-minded approach (and, one suspects, his sheer love of the tactility of his medium) to use tools of destruction against it. But every gouge in the surface is part of a larger vision that serves the image rather than destroys it. The large paintings in Vienna and Chicago are painted on linoleum (the small ones being in gouache). The lino itself becomes an intrinsic part of the picture. It buckles and bows–a three-dimensional quality not conveyed in digital reproductions–and seems to inflate figures intentionally under their deftly-painted folds of fabric. The synergy between image and surface betrays intention: von Kaufmann responds to the physical substrate, or plans its variegation; he is no careless adulterator of paintings.

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on

Ordnung (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum on canvas)

The lino emerges in yet other ways, the more one attends to the paintings. In places, the paint simply gives way to the bare lino, its neutral colour and mid-tone in perfect sympathy with the mostly dampened, melancholy purples, greens and blues. It shows through energetic scumbles of rough, matte paint. And even more dramatically, von Kaufmann digs into the lino, carving out broad shapes in a necessarily stippled manner, or scribing frenzied lines that swarm in textured scribbles and transmute imperceptibly into painted lines. Ordnung works the interplay of surface and content in a remarkably sophisticated way. The ‘figure’–for there is hardly one at all, only a skin of clothing trembling in the air, his deflated ankles withering away to nothing where they meet some worn shoes full of character and strongly drawn–sits burning with furious thoughts, his head just a fierce, pink glow. The ghostly outlines of fingers (again, paint gives way to drawing), loose and limber, seem to draw on a sketch pad, the little finger poised to hold the hand delicately aloft from the page as an artist might. A carved thread of line floats out of the page, inflating into a scribbled cloud–but even this web of lines belies an assured hand, able to exert lively control despite the force needed to cut into lino, despite the reversed direction of such a tool compared to the brush. This haze should be airy and insubstantial and seeming to come forward, and reads so in the context; but is provocatively flat, sharp and submerged in the buckled surface, physically rejecting all visual assumptions. From this abruptly two-dimensional fog, a fluidly-painted, mutely-coloured male torso with slick, shining skin slides (upside-down) into a cardboard box. The boxes likewise defy space, though all the tools of illusion  of depth are employed. A visual feast of textures vies with our comprehension of illusory space, with planes of the cartons variously scratched out, scraped, or heavily laden with mottled paint.

We sense that all this apparent violence against the painting–the scratchy, indistinct figures, the heavy daubs of paint that take on an agonising reality in their protrusion from the surface, the deep gouges in the lino–is invoked to a deeper purpose. The figures themselves are struggling to come to life, to rip and tear and ooze their way out of the flat two-dimensional prison in which the very medium of paint confines them. Von Kaufmann is merely trying his best to help his creations come to life, tearing open, re-stitching, surgically extending his works into the third dimension in a desperate effort to let his ghosts out into the world. Sometimes, when his distortions of the canvas body itself run to extremes — as in his recent Der Gefährte where straining heads are actually sculpted from flat painted strips of plastic — he takes on the role of an obsessed Dr Frankenstein, and his creations threaten to really enter our world.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

And one must also mention the patterns. Flat, geometric patterns that embellish the surface by infinitely subtle colour and tonal variations. We are continuously shaken from our three-dimensional illusions by these happy odes to the flat surface. We shift between three-dimensions and two with disconcerting ease by means of these decorative patterns. And, in a feat of technical integration, von Kaufmann sometimes paints their broad shapes, sometimes merely carves them as linear echoes, our eyes having to work hard to find the disjunct. This control over so many elements, both physical and visual, formal properties of composition, atmospheric effects, makes von Kaufmann a formidable painter. He experiments, but not to shock us: rather, he generously accommodates us, working to integrate traditional elements and unexpected ones alike into seamless images.

An der Haltestelle (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper)

An der Haltestelle (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper)

Our suggestion that von Kaufmann’s works are a struggle between dimensions might deserve some words of explanation. The charming book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, relates a scene in which a three-dimensional sphere explains his existence to a two-dimensional square:

‘I am not a plane Figure, but a Solid. … When I cut through your plane as I am now doing, I make in your plane a section which you, very rightly, call a Circle. For even a Sphere—which is my proper name in my own country—if he manifest himself at all to an inhabitant of Flatland—must needs manifest himself as a Circle. Do you not remember, I say, how, when you entered the realm of Lineland, you were compelled to manifest yourself to the King not as a Square, but as a Line, because that Linear Realm had not Dimensions enough to represent the whole of you, but only a slice or section of you? In precisely the same way, your country of Two Dimensions is not spacious enough to represent me, a being of Three, but can only exhibit a slice or section of me, which is what you call a Circle.’

The secret behind von Kaufmann’s partially-rendered figures, with their hands, limbs, and sometimes heads disembodied or invisible, is not unlike the grin of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland–it is a clue that we gaze upon beings whose essential existence lies outside the flat surface. The claustrophobia that permeates many of von Kaufmann’s pictures is masterfully conveyed through elements that are constant and repetitive. He uses the same opaque colours over and over, pressing in on all sides, and rigid abstract spaces that leave no room for life. All invention and novelty spring from the beings within the spaces, who seem to use every means available to them to try and escape from their perpetual limbo. The price is often high — a fantasy made into reality can become ugly, and the faces and bodies of von Kaufmann’s figures melt and scar when they are rendered in thick paint, often just escaping the  edges of the frame. The ghosts of older von Kaufmann paintings (which can still be called ‘paintings’ in the usual sense) evoke sympathy and sadness, seemingly lost in their flat prison cells. The figures of recent work inspire rather a feeling of fascination and fear, as we watch them slowly being born into the three-dimensional world, in ways that are sometimes transcendental and sometimes gory, but all of which affirm their independent life. We timorously beg von Kaufmann to stop before it’s too late–to keep the gate closed.

(c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

Kapriole (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

The flying steed in Kapriole seems a triumphant transgressor of the plane — the outline almost suggests an empty space left behind by a real horse that now roams about somewhere in the gallery. In its wake, even the clouds have become dislodged and stand out, physically removed from the canvas, glued to it only by the paint. The dimensional tension is comparatively more subdued in Berührungspunkt. The two figures here remain confined to their world, she looking wistfully behind, while he looks sadly the other way. Each perhaps contemplates a different route out of the canvas, but he, slumped in his armchair, seems more resigned to his prison. She is blown by a fitful wind that draws her towards the light, but is paused in the motion of turning, only by holding on to his hand.

Berührungspunkt (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

Berührungspunkt (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (oil on linoleum)

We’ll give von Kaufmann the final word:

‘Often ideas become more clear while I am working on them, and sometimes the idea will change as it evolves on the canvas. That is also a reason why I don’t use models or photos as reference. They tend to trap you in whatever reference material you have, and force you to stick to your initial plan to the bitter end. However there often is a certain point, when the painting develops a life of its own, and demands of you to change your mind, to surrender and follow its guidance.’

Der Sammler (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper)

Der Sammler (c) 2016 Ruprecht von Kaufmann (gouache on paper)

This paper was written in collaboration with physicist Dr Jacques Pienaar.


Abbott, Edwin Abbott. 1884. Flatland: A romance of many dimensions. Seeley & Co, London.


The world or the picture


In Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman undertakes an analytical investigation into precisely what qualifies as aesthetic. His search leads him on a rather arduous journey through some linguistic problems in order to conclude that it might be more helpful to suggest symptoms, rather than criteria, of the aesthetic (Goodman 1976: 252). In short, what he finds rather a hindrance is the persistent intuition that the cognitive and the aesthetic are by nature divorced from each other. This lingering ‘vague yet harsh dichotomy’ distracts us from seeing that the emotions, admittedly of special importance to the arts, ‘function cognitively’ (Goodman 1976: 254-5, 248). Goodman (1976: 264) suggests that by approaching aesthetics analytically, we are encouraged to leave behind our prejudices and discover some pleasant affinities between art and science (without attempting to say that the two are equivalent). His efforts to account for the emotions and their accompanying philosophical difficulties are laudable, but are distorted by the breadth of understanding he demands of art.

Setting aside his broader project of clarifying the nature of the aesthetic, let us concentrate on a ripe branch thereof. The aesthetic experience marks our intersection with art, as artist or spectator or both. Goodman, a symbolist, proposes some very strong aspects of that experience. We each carry about with us a personal symbol system through which we organise and make sense of the world around us, says Goodman (1976: 260; 265), and we expand and adapt these systems as we encounter new symbols. The aesthetic experience is accordingly an inquiring, inquisitive one that requires us to read an artwork—in our case, a painting (Goodman 1976: 14).

Tizian Danae

The aesthetic experience, Goodman (1976: 241-2) asserts, is active. ‘It involves making delicate discriminations and discerning subtle relationships. … The aesthetic attitude is restless, searching, testing—it is less attitude than action: creation and recreation.’ Goodman is right to demand such attentive engagement in an encounter with a painting; he gets rather carried away when he assigns the spectator a creative role. His enthusiasm leads him to declare that ‘nature is a product of art and discourse,’ (Goodman 1976: 33) and from here it is a swift descent into relativism, which he fiercely argues for.

He is lured into assigning the spectator a disproportionately creative role by the false assumption that preserving the picture makes us passive. We must, as he requires, certainly approach a painting attentively, engage with it inquiringly. Wollheim (1987: 22), who indeed argues that the picture is fixed, similarly demands that the spectator be ‘adequately sensitive, adequately informed’ when attending to the canvas. But Goodman’s (1976: 112) tone becomes palpably frustrated when he belligerently describes ‘the time-honoured Tingle-Immersion theory,’ which is how he characterises positions like Wollheim’s, ‘which tells us that the proper behaviour on encountering a work of art is to strip ourselves of all the vestments of knowledge and experience (since they might blunt the immediacy of our enjoyment), then submerge ourselves completely and gauge the aesthetic potency of the work by the intensity and duration of the resulting tingle.’

This view that the ‘direct apprehension of what is presented,’ the direct encounter with a painting, amounts to ‘passive contemplation of the immediately given’ to the exclusion of all else is to crudely caricature a position that respects the stability of the painting and the intentions of the artist (Goodman 1976: 241). Wollheim (1987: 44; 185) indeed insists that the spectator cannot tamper with the meaning of the painting: such permissiveness would embrace the idea that ‘the picture would have to gain content after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant alteration to its marked surface.’ And closer to Wollheim’s (1987: 95) central thesis, the spectator need not tamper with the meaning. His more subtle account emphasises that the painting already contains a rich font of information, expressively inscribed in paint, ready to be discovered by the inquisitive spectator. It is a careless and distracted spectator who discards the contents of the painting for his own interpretation.


But let us indulge Goodman, and ask what concerns him so much about a static picture. I see two concerns. The first is the varied understandings we have of the same paintings. The second is that our emotions never quite seem to align with those prompted by the painting—they are usually ‘muted and oblique,’ or even reversed (Goodman 1976: 245). Goodman (1976: 245) is bursting to tell us that ‘any picture of aesthetic experience as a sort of emotional bath or orgy is plainly preposterous.’ I would contend that few artists are carried away by such ecstasies, let alone respectable gallery visitors, and inducing such heightened emotion can hardly be the point of painting. Wollheim (1987: 45; 80) treats this question of the emotions as a matter of ‘expressive perception,’ which captures both the expressive treatment of what is depicted and the ability of the sensitive spectator to perceive the emotions infused therein. Wollheim (1987: 129) goes so far as to posit a mediator, an imaginary protagonist, whose position we step into and whose emotions we savour at a safe distance—a useful device that permits the dampening of emotions. And regarding the first concern: Wollheim (1987: 101) simply argues that the spectator can be correct or incorrect. He does not permit flexibility of the painting, and thus does not permit flexibility in the spectator; should differences arise, Wollheim is not afraid to call someone wrong. He refers ever back to the intentions of the painter, who has sought to embody some idea in paint (Wollheim 1987: 86).


By contrast, Goodman wants to permit a plurality of interpretations, ones that depend on context and personal experiences, and that take their cue from symbols embedded in the painting. The artist merely provides a stimulus for the spectator, who, on Goodman’s account, is the real creator—the agent to assign meaning. The spectator, ever refining his personal bank of symbols, is shaping the world itself in his encounter with art: ‘interpreting works and reorganising the world in terms of works and works in terms of the world.’ (Goodman 1976: 241; 260). And each encounter bears new fruit, not because we have been more attentive to the painting and the richness already contained within it (as I would argue, in sympathy with Wollheim), but because ‘what we read from and learn from a symbol varies with what we bring to it’ (Goodman 1976: 260). Because of our ever-evolving conception of the world, and to support our continual reconstruction of the world, Goodman (1976: 43; 231) argues for the full relativity of representation. Paintings are but carriers of symbols, and a symbol, he explains, ‘is only representational according to its own relationships to other symbols in a given system’ (Goodman 1976: 226). We are left with nothing firm beneath our feet: the world is completely awash.


Goodman proceeds to unpack the concept of representation. At first he suggests it might be a kind of denotation, which makes it similar to verbal description—though only as an analogy (Goodman 1976: 40). ‘A picture that represents Churchill, like a predicate that applies to him, denotes him’ (Goodman 1976: 58). Unlike Wollheim (1987: 22), who sees expression as bound up in the very marks that represent the thing represented, Goodman (1976: 46) separates representation from expression. He finds them irreconcilable upon logical analysis: they run in opposite directions. To express is not to denote but to metaphorically exemplify, or to possess and demonstrate an array of properties (Goodman 1976: 85). These properties, says Goodman (1976: 85), may be as diverse as colours, feelings, and thoughts, and the feelings and thoughts may be those of the artist or those of the spectator alike.


Goodman’s appeal to logic sounds authoritative—especially in the face of someone, like Wollheim (1987: 8), who turns trustingly to the painting when in doubt. But I find his explanation of expression problematic, not least in that it is so divorced from representation. Expression can hardly be so arbitrary—a thought or feeling must be expressed by someone, in an intentional way. A colour is certainly exemplified, but I find it troubling to treat emotions as the same type of properties as colours. As a spectator, I might encounter a picture that, by chance, ‘possesses’ the same emotion as me at a certain moment. But the painting hardly expresses my emotion, because there is no connection between me and the painter, who inscribed that emotion in the painting. At best, I could say that the picture ‘captures’ the emotion that I am also and independently feeling. The causal connection is not there; and in fact, I could understand the painting without mirroring the embedded emotion, whether accidentally or at the suggestion of the painting. I am far more persuaded by Wollheim, who weaves expression into the very manner of representation: lively, giddy, thick brushwork or diffused, foggy edges betray much of what is to be expressed, and are inseparable from the very representation of the thing represented. ‘The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator’ (Wollheim 1987: 22). Wollheim (1987: 39) concedes that ‘adopting the perspective of the artist requires us to give pride of place to what the agent does.’ But he continues: ‘it does not require us to ignore or reject the point of view of the spectator. It requires us only to rethink it.’

Dissatisfied with his initial explanation of representation, at any rate—because he cannot find a way to distinguish representation from other modes of denotation—Goodman (1976: 225) argues that an analysis of symbol systems allows us to be clearer on the nature of representation. ‘Representation,’ Goodman (1976:226) argues now, ‘is relative to a symbol system’—‘nothing is intrinsically a representation.’ A painting is thus completely in flux, and its meaning is bound up in every individual spectator’s own personal web of symbols. Further, a symbol is representational only in terms of ‘its own relationships to other symbols in a given system’ (Goodman 1976: 226).


By Goodman’s account, only the symbol is preserved, and our relationship to the symbol and its own relationship to other symbols is relative and variable, and the painting is merely a vessel for symbols. Wollheim (1987: 306), too, gives the imagination a lot of range, but tries to preserve the picture and its intended meaning—our relationship to that picture can be correct or incorrect. This difference traces back to the type of meaning sought: should the painting merely be a tool for understanding the world and our place in it, it is uninteresting as a fixed, self-contained entity.


When Goodman considers meaning in a painting, he steps right back and asks what the painting means in the world, how it contributes to our understanding of the world. His scope of understanding is very broad. The role of the artist is to ‘remake our world.’ She looks for new configurations: ‘And if the point of the picture is not only successfully made but is also well-taken, if the realignments it directly and indirectly effects are interesting and important, the picture—like a crucial experiment—makes a genuine contribution to knowledge’ (Goodman 1976: 33). The physical painting, which thus offers a plethora of meanings, remains relevant only as a vessel: ‘Discoveries become available knowledge only when preserved in accessible form’ (Goodman 1976: 260). Goodman (1976: 258) draws our attention to the purpose of symbolisation: ‘the drive is curiosity and the aim is enlightenment,’ he declares, ‘use of symbols … is for the sake of understanding; … what compels us is the urge to know, what delights is discovery.’


Wollheim, by contrast, narrows his scope to the painting itself. Wollheim wants to know what the painting means, to read the meaning contained within the four borders of the frame. He dignifies the painting as a self-contained statement—a complex, nuanced statement—originated by a thoughtful artist driven by particular intentions. I’m reminded of Friedrich Waismann’s (in McGuinness 2011: 198; 205) deference to Kafka as an artist of great prowess, able to shape language in order to carry the reader into unchartered mental territory: ‘The edges of Kafka’s world are lost in darkness; or, to put it differently, we come up here against the ineffable. … Perhaps, after all, that is the most interesting thing about Kafka: his attempt to say something for which we have no proper language. … It all seems patent nonsense. And yet, as I was reading, it came with a curious impact upon me, as if I had known these things before and forgotten all about them. … I was haunted by the novel. I was sure that there must be something behind it, and yet I was utterly unable to say why.’ It is Kafka, the creative agent, who is able to express these nuanced things, and who gently guides the reader into that particular aesthetic experience.

Poussin khm

In thus respecting the intentions of the artist, Wollheim lessens the role of interpretation, and offers other ways of dealing with the fluctuations of understanding and emotion, namely by calling for more attentive, more knowledgeable apprehension of the picture and the ability to perceive it expressively. His position is more attractive: it gives greater expressive power to the tools of the painter—such as composition, texture, design, edge treatment and other formal qualities—than symbolism allows.


To his credit, it is admirable that Goodman does not refer us to a fixed dictionary of symbols. His symbol systems attempt to account for the more delicate reading of a painting than such simple transcription would allow. But his symbol systems, in weaving the specatator and his experiences of the world into the meaning of the painting are too fluid and stray too far from the intentions of the artist. He makes this dramatic leap because he believes the painting offers us a means of understanding and recreating the world (Goodman 1976: 265). It becomes clear why we must be certain what kind of meaning we are pursuing. A painting may have its own internal meaning, as carefully explicated by Wollheim, or it may be a fragment of a greater context, and thus a tool for helping us understand the world. I stand by the integrity of the work, and urge fellow artists and spectators not to abandon the meaning of the work itself, lest our own unpredictable vacillations plunge us into the bottomless depths of relativism.



Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed., [Nachdr.]. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett.

McGuinness, Brian, ed. 2011. Friedrich Waismann: Causality and Logical Positivism. Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 15. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.


An unlikely protagonist

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

In Painting as an Art, Richard Wollheim (1987: 85; 101; 183) assigns himself the seemingly insurmountable task of binding together two startling yet attractive claims: that emotions are central to painting, and that a standard of correctness should nevertheless prevail. This means that we can look upon a painting and discern a certain mood, detect that the painting is expressive of some emotion—and that we can be correct or incorrect in this judgement. The intention of the artist is crucial to an accurate reading of the emotional content of the painting, which, in turn, is pivotal in grasping the meaning of the painting. When we speak of meaning, we acknowledge that the artist has embedded some discernable content in the painting.


Precisely how the artist inserts such meaning into a painting is of supreme importance to Wollheim. The idea that one can read a painting in a linguistic fashion irks him: being a sympathetic appreciator of art does not involve decoding a string of symbols. Symbols exist, undeniably, but—argues Wollheim (1987: 139)—they are but a small part of pictorial meaning. Ask a painter, and they will likely describe to you a complex and nuanced balance of technical factors, an arrangement of formal qualities that answers to some vision of what is coherent. Should this be too bland and technical, or too abstract, Wollheim offers a humanised solution: we could, he ventures, conceive of these loose formal decisions as a person, with a personality, with thoughts and biases and predilections, with feelings that colour their vision.

Yes, Wollheim (1987: 129) surges on, let’s posit a character, just like a literary protagonist, to mediate between artist and spectator! And while this suggestion seems at first rather metaphysically extravagant, there are several reasons we might seriously consider it. As already mentioned, the humanising quality makes it more palatable to non-artists, who might find a smattering of loosely held together formal properties impossibly tedious to attend to. Rather than becoming an expert on painting, one might appreciate painting as one commonly appreciates literature: by identifying with a character.


A second reason is more pressing for Wollheim (1987: 89): that all the information necessary for understanding a painting is contained within the painting. Everything that can be known about this character is enclosed within the picture ‘through the way in which the artist depicts whatever it is … that this spectator confronts’ (Wollheim 1987: 164). Wollheim is insistent on this point, because should we need to know something of the artist, her biography, to unlock the painting, the painting would be insufficient. And should our own arbitrary interpretation be tied to its meaning, the painting ‘would have to gain content after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant attention to its marked surface’ (Wollheim 1987: 185). Subjectivity is problematic for undermining the whole idea of meaning in painting. The very content of the picture would have to vary with each spectator, or even with each viewing by the same spectator (Wollheim 1987: 102). A painting would cease to ‘mean’ anything, and be reduced to nothing more than a stimulus, provoking our own chains of thought. Painting can lead us down rather delightful paths of reverie, but to state this as its primary purpose would be to fearfully undermine the artistic import of painting. Surely painting, just like books and theatre and music, can impart something to us rather than just provide a backdrop for our own thoughts.


A third reason is most compelling to me, which is that such a character imposes a comfortable distance between artist and painting, and between painting and spectator in turn. Neither artist nor spectator need directly identify with the content of the painting, but each experience it at some remove. That this is important becomes immediately apparent to anyone who has ever looked at a painting and failed to be moved by it. We might stand before a painting, perhaps a Caspar David Friedrich, and identify a heavy melancholy drenching the mountaintops, without ourselves feeling the least bit wistful. Rather than trying to take on the sadness of the painting, we can acknowledge the emotions contained within the picture by attributing them to our imagined character, and still discover the sense of the picture from our safely non-melancholy vantage point. ‘Imagination,’ writes Wollheim (1987: 129), ‘without inducing the experience I imagine, delivers the fruits of experience.’

But this distance is equally valuable in the other direction. The artist, as she paints, might paint expressively without expressing her immediate experience. Certainly, she must express something—and perhaps that something is an emotion she harboured in her chest for some lonely, stormy hours. But the restless night has passed, and her painting remains propped upon the easel for another month, perhaps two or three. Like a landscape, which infuriatingly shifts with the lengthening sunlight and with the intermittent cloud cover, an emotional shade must be painted partly from memory, for this internal condition is rarely sustained long enough to be able to paint it other than in a hasty and truncated manner. The artist can, however, construct a character who eternally embodies this emotion, who eternally sees the world through the thick fog of despair, or through the radiant sunshine of glee. But not only this—the character might be a vehicle for thoughts, opinions, worldviews, philosophies. This invented person, distinct from the artist, then embodies a thought experiment. The artist can investigate the world through these ideas in a hypothetical way, visually. She need be no activist, declaring, ‘I believe the world is ugly and broken,’ or ‘I find beauty in small things.’ She can simply entertain such positions, as though through the eyes of another. She can work as a visual philosopher, probing any possibilities in her search for her own convictions.


Who, then, is this spectator? Distinct from the person standing before the painting, whom Wollheim labels the ‘spectator of the picture,’ and distinct from the artist, who also periodically steps back and takes on a spectator role during the production of the painting, this spectator is also separate from any ‘spectator in the picture’ who painted within the frame and witnessing the main event of the picture. Wollheim (Wollheim 1987: 102) describes him rather as ‘an internal, an unrepresented internal, spectator.’ Should we return to the moody landscapes of Friedrich, we might clarify: this spectator is certainly not me, neither is he Friedrich himself, nor is he the windswept wanderer on the mountaintop whom I stand behind and whose shoulder I peer over. But when I look at the picture, I lose myself temporarily in the inner life of someone else, ‘the nature-artist of early-nineteenth century Pietism,’ suggests Wollheim (1987: 133).

‘He is a person, or a kind of person, who, disentangled from the exigencies of material life, gains a certain detachment from nature, which he then makes use of only so as to return to nature and make it the object of profound and devout contemplation. Through study and meditation he arrives at the secrets of nature, which are in effect the secrets of its maker.’

Friedrich invites us to try on this guise, to stand before nature, humbled, quieted, thoughtful, just as he tries it on. As a painter, Friedrich likely thinks more directly through the technical tools available to him to induce such a position: viewpoints that seem adrift in mid-air, with the ground rushing from beneath our feet; ghostly, transparent paint; atmospheric effects of tone; vast, crushing, empty space. But combined, these painterly decisions colour a painting with a certain emotion, and not only an emotion—a perspective, a manner of looking at the world. Taken together, we might indeed see them as contributing to the solemnising tendencies of the pious nature-artist that Wollheim suggests. This character exists purely in paint, we see him only through the way he sees what he sees, through the way Friedrich paints.


This suggestion is remarkable and important for the alternative it offers to symbolism. It diverts us from the usual manner of ‘decoding’ Friedrich, from all the ink that has been spilled over Friedrich’s powerful symbolism (Wollheim 1987: 138). When we stand before a painting by Friedrich, we need not reflect, ‘a ship means this: an anchor means that…—rather in the way in which a sentence gains its propositional content on the basis of what the individual words mean, and of how they are put together’ (Wollheim 1987: 138). Rather, we may indulge in the sense of foreboding the picture gives us without access to any such pictorial key. The unrepresented spectator certainly sees these objects, but they are full of import, argues Wollheim (1987: 139), because of the way he sees them, which is expressively. While Wollheim (1987: 138) recognises a role for symbols in painting, he argues that ‘the method misconstrues expression in painting. It treats pictorial expression as though it rested upon a lexicon linking represented elements to emotions and feelings.’

In order to be a character, our character requires some visible traits, something that Wollheim (1987: 129-130) calls a ‘repertoire’ or a ‘rich inner life.’ Not all paintings carry such a spectator, and we know we have found one when we begin to piece together elements that frame a cohesive and compelling outlook that differs from our own, that invites us to savour what we see in a new—and likely stirring—way.

To look at a turbulent painting and feel lighthearted and happy would simply be wrong—it would be to disregard everything that the artist has so carefully and expressively painted. Where a painting has emotional content we can correctly or incorrectly apprehend it. Wollheim delicately introduces an intermediary who helps us bridge the disconnect between our own feelings and those embedded in the painting. This allows us to preserve a standard of correctness in what would usually be considered the swampy, subjective realm of emotions. His unrepresented spectator in the picture, then, is by no means extravagant: we only summon him when faced with this disconnect (Wollheim 1987: 182). This palpable character with whom we can empathise is a bridge to understanding a painting, clothed in familiar human form.



Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.


Sight & touch

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder penned some truly delightful thoughts on Sculpture that make my fingers itch to knead and shape wax or clay. His observations, dripping with unexpected warmth and vitality, dip and meander through many themes, some more credible to our modern intelligence than others.

Sight and touch, he begins without delay, are fundamentally distinct, and we stand to gain very much by teasing them apart (Herder 2002: 33). Not least, we might gain a deeper understanding of beauty, a heavily sight-oriented notion (Herder 2002: 39). Touch demands something more solid of beauty than does sight, something more connected to purpose and to strong and healthy forms than to the shimmering and retreating effects of light. Touch searches out truth. This truth grounds us in the world of physical bodies, of living beings and of complete forms, discoverable even in the dark. ‘The dark of night’ even comes to the aid of our sense of touch: ‘with its sponge it removes all the colours from things and obliges us to attend to the presence and existence of an object’ (Herder 2002: 81).

Leave it to the other arts, urges Herder, to chase after ‘breath and speech,’ after the breeze that animates hair and drapery, after ‘the fugitive butterfly of wit and abstraction’ (Herder 2002: 97). Sculpture, like the very stone or wood or clay from which it is formed, is too weighty for such preoccupations—lovely though they are. ‘For this the statue is too true, too complete, too unified, too sacred’ (Herder 2002: 97). Let us touch on each in turn.

Copy after Rodin in wax

Copy after Rodin in wax


Too true

While sight allows us to swiftly estimate beauty, it only permits us to assess a surface, as it were. The physical world, as delivered to us by sight, is far more comparable to a flat picture than we commonly admit: sight gives us shapes, and only the ones revealed by light: we see but ‘a continuum of things placed alongside one another’ (Herder 2002: 35, 36). If we have learned to see bodies, to understand that they occupy space, that they consist in a substantial volume that is not at all times present to our eyes, we have learned to supplement our sight with touch, argues Herder (2002: 40): this ‘is not something we can learn through sight.’ It is merely that since childhood we have quickly learned to use these ‘sister’ senses together, such that they have all but fused together in a seamless partnership (Herder 2002: 39).

Sight affords us many excellent things, of course. What is present before our eyes is perceivable in an instant, and does not die away as do sounds. Because of this, Herder describes sight as the most philosophical of the senses, if the most artificial; it coaxes us into meditation and contemplation (Herder 2002: 39).


‘Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth’ (Herder 2002: 38). The more we concentrate on the surface features of an object, on the shapes revealed to us by light, on the flattened field before us obscured by roving shadows, the less attentive we are to the physical body before us (Herder 2002: 81). ‘It is remarkable how rarely a person appears to us,’ he (2002: 82) writes, ‘that someone embraces another person and holds him in such affection that he carries the person with him and gives him eternal existence.’ Touch uncovers the object, the person before us, by revealing to us how she consumes space, how her masses flow into each other, how they integrate and how they jointly operate. Light glancing off a shoulder tells us nothing of the fleshy functioning of the shoulder girdle, nothing of the astonishing flexibility of the clavicle, nothing of the tensing and softening machinations of the pulsing and breathing body before us. Touch gives us our first shocking awareness of substance.

And once we admit something substantial into our presence, we are able to inhabit that other form, as it were: ‘inner sympathy alone, feeling and the transposition of our entire human self into the figure we touch, is the true teacher and instrument of beauty’ (Herder 2002: 78). Observation is not enough, insists Herder (2002: 79; 81); we must also exist and feel in order to approach truth.



Too complete

Herder summons the Greeks and their arguably unsurpassed sculpture to demonstrate the strength of the whole in sculpture. The soul ‘expresses itself through the entire body,’ (Herder 2002: 79; 81) and each feature, each limb, each mass, each connecting joint displays the bearing of a person, all united to honestly convey something about the inner workings of that person. And conventions play no part here, Herder insists. Beauty consists in inner perfection, betrayed by the completeness of body (Herder 2002: 77):

‘The sublimity and beauty of the human body, whatever form it may take, is always an expression of health, life, strength and well-being in every limb of this artful creature.’

Herder takes us on a sensuous tour of the expressive parts of the body, describing how each reveals some inner truth about the person before us. Some suggestions are rather fanciful, but others quite profound, no less for an artist, who, in learning to construct the body, finds that no part exists in isolation. Even the humble foot, far from being a simple load-bearing base for the body, is ‘animated through to its smallest parts.’ The dedicated student of anatomy will attest that one does not simply learn to draw a foot, but ever thinks of how the block of the ankle, though quite distinct, flows seamlessly from the tibia into the prism of the foot; how the outer bump of the ankle is none other than the end of the fibula which stretches inflexibly up to the knee, where the hamstrings—some crossing two joints, reaching down from the pelvis—latch on to it. Our divisions are arbitrary: the foot ‘is not detached from the rest of the body and pulled on as if it were the shoe of a worm, but is one with the whole, which flows into it and is supported by it’ (Herder 2002: 75).

Von Stuck


Too unified

Painting has opportunity to explore abstractions, ideas, relations and stories, but sculpture, Herder argues, is not only too direct for such preoccupations, but is too pared-back and concrete. Sculpture gives us the person as a unified whole, divested of complex relations and extraneous props and setting. ‘It is never abstract love that stands before us, but the god or the goddess of love’—‘a single ensouled whole’ (Herder 2002: 97; 100). Sculpture suffers when it ventures into allegory, into weak and faceless ideals; it grows in strength when it presents a real, grieving woman to us rather than a vague and anonymous Pietà. Sculpture cannot cope with ‘the butterflies of wit and meaning,’ with the divisive interplay of multiple personalities in a group (necessary to depict a story), which rend the form with jarring wedges of air (Herder 2002: 100, 101).


And in more formal terms, a sculpture is unified in its independence, in its fierce solitariness. Herder (2002: 93) beautifully asserts:

‘A statue does not stand in light, it creates its own light; a statue is not placed in space, it creates its own space. … Sculpture does not possess a viewpoint: it explores everything in the dark, following the shape of limbs and forms.’

Too sacred

We sensuous human beings are so susceptible to touch. But a gravity accompanies sculpture, where a picture would stir our easily aroused imaginations. The truth embodied in sculpture, argues Herder (2002: 92), must encourage the graver failing of idolatry. An imposing physical form comes alive in still and solemn moments, in darkened and deserted rooms; ‘the daemon that animate[s] it [is] also present to the senses.’ Faced with such seductive, convincing, powerful forms, we must decide ‘either to pray to them or to destroy them.’

Though, Herder (2002: 92) notes, this spell does not last forever. The Italians’ long cohabitation with sculpture demonstrates the inevitable decline of art: ‘their extreme and exalted feeling would, with time, have resolved itself into art; art would have resolved itself into taste; and taste into disgust and neglect.’

Alex as statue (oil on linen--grisaille)

Alex as statue (oil on linen–grisaille)

Sight and touch, so often united, pull us in different directions. Sight is ever quick to carry us away, to adapt to new conditions of light, to new arrangements of colour and shape, to stimulate our fancy by seductive paint or by gleaming pixels, or by the very play of light rays reflecting off the natural world as if it too were nothing but a flat panel, a high-resolution display. Touch is simultaneously solemn and seductive; it returns us to the flesh, it grounds us, it makes us press ourselves up against truth. Painting is a playground for imagination; sculpture is the art form that ‘is able to hold us fast to substance and to reality’ (Herder 2002: 98). Should we accept such a distinction, we would have access to a deeper kind of beauty anchored in substance—in health, in content, in function, in truth—rather than appearances.


Herder, Johann Gottfried. 2002 [1778]. Sculpture : Some Observations On Shape And Form From Pygmalion’s Creative Dream. Translated by Jason Gaiger. Chicago: University of Chicago.


On meaning

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)


Richard Wollheim’s meticulous and absorbing book Painting as an Art stands, all three hundred and fifty hefty pages of it, in opposition to explanations of meaning in painting that depend on comparisons with language. I have found some useful analogies for painting in language, but such a rigorous book leads me to consider that my preoccupation with an ill-defined ‘visual language’ disguises a deeper concern with meaning itself in painting. I have considered Susan Sontag’s (1969) argument that ‘silence’ in paintings belies an absence of meaning, and have picked up her appeals to a kind of discussion, a back and forth between painter and spectator. But perhaps it is more illuminating to be yet clearer about the type of meaning that is to be manipulated (by the artist) and found (by the spectator) in paintings, and to be strict about the distinction between painting and language.

Painting as an Art inextricably binds meaning in painting to the materials of painting. Paint itself can be transformed into a medium that can ‘be so manipulated as to give rise to meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 7). What Wollheim (1987: 15) wants to hold on to here is the very ‘paintingness’ of a painting as integral to its meaning—that meaning must be contained within the painting, implanted in it by the artist, discoverable by the spectator, and independent of external validation or explanation.


‘Pictorial meaning,’ concedes Wollheim (1987: 22), ‘is diverse.’ From the outset, he casts aside any theory with a linguistic scent. ‘Structuralism, iconography, semiotics and various breeds of cultural relativism’ look for the kind of meaning that language has in painting. That is, they try to make sense of paintings by decoding them according to a variety of rules and conventions and symbol systems. But, argues Wollheim (1987: 22), while these sometimes influence the meaning of a painting, such codes do not lie at the heart of pictorial meaning.

And so Wollheim (1987: 22) sets out his own account of pictorial meaning, which he brands a psychological account in contradistinction to these linguistic theories. The core components of this account—and there are three—align happily with factors I have, as a painter myself, come to consider crucial in appreciating painting. Though initially uncomfortable with the term ‘psychological,’ I grow ever more convinced that it captures as fundamental something of the elusive inner, emotional machinations of the artist which a linguistic account might only add on later. Wollheim’s (1987: 22) triad of factors upon which pictorial meaning rests are:

  1. The mental state of the artist

  2. The way this causes him to mark the surface

  3. The mental state that the marked surface sets up in the sensitive and informed spectator.

Or, more descriptively (Wollheim 1987: 22):

‘On such an account what a painting means rests upon the experience induced in an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator by looking at the surface of the painting as the intentions of the artist led him to mark it. The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator if the result is to be that the spectator grasps the meaning of the picture.’

Beginning with the painter (for, as Wollheim (1987: 36) argues, ‘if we are interested in understanding either painting as such or individual paintings, we must start from the artist’) demands something substantial of the painter. It says that we expect her to embody some thought, some idea, in the paint she is carefully mixing on her palette, preparing to smear across her canvas. It does not say that we demand to know her history, her biography, her certified statement on the meaning of the painting. Wollheim (1987: 44) emphasises again and again that the information we seek should be embedded in the painting itself. Turning to the painter’s mental state is important because it demands an intention of her, not something careless, accidental, or mindless. A painting that does not embody a meaningful idea does not qualify, on Wollheim’s (1987: 13) terms, as art—and he is keen to do away with the type of painters that are not artists. This addresses Sontag’s (1969) concern for silent paintings that in fact have nothing to say to the spectator, without yet having to depend on a spectator. For the artist’s ‘major aim,’ so Wollheim (1987: 44) contends, is ‘to produce content or meaning.’


Wollheim (1987: 185) does not deny the spectator a role, but he treads very carefully where he fears that a painting might be endowed with meaning ‘after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant alteration to its marked surface.’ For this reason, he asks us to call to mind the posture of the artist: standing in front of her easel. This image of the artist before her work should continually remind us that the artist herself occupies ‘a multiplicity of roles:’ she must be both agent and spectator (Wollheim 1987: 43). ‘Inside each artist is a spectator upon whom the artist, the artist as agent, is dependent’ (Wollheim 1987: 43). This precise formulation captures exactly what I have observed when I have considered the self-indulgent hours an artist may pass considering her own work, without even picking up a brush: the apparent idleness that is actually a necessary (though passive) role by which the artist tests the calculated effect of her work (Wollheim 1987: 95).

We must, argues Wollheim (1987: 96) take care to recognise that the artist hypothetically, not categorically, imagines a spectator when she herself steps into the role of spectator. She does not necessarily paint with a specific spectator in mind, nor even approach her work with the attitude that another spectator will ever approach the painting. This further distinguishes painting from language, in Wollheim’s eyes. A painting may or may not be a form of communication, but it is not inherently a mode of communication. ‘Necessarily communication either is addressed to an identifiable audience … or is undertaken in the hope that an audience will materialise’ (1987: 96). I am not thoroughly persuaded on this point. A writer may similarly write for themselves, or for no one, in precisely the medium of language. Reams of private notes or sketches can be records addressed precisely to their creator in her role as spectator. The artist’s multiple roles seem, rather, to enable the possibility of an internal conversation.


It is through marking the surface, intentionally applying paint, that the artist attempts to give form to and perhaps eventually to convey her thoughts. Among the artist’s intentions, Wollheim (1987: 86) lists ‘thoughts, beliefs, memories, and, in particular, emotions and feelings, that the artist had and that specifically caused him to paint as he did.’ The key is that there ought always be a connection between the marks set down and the inner, mental state of the artist. For Wollheim, this connection is never one of direct transcription, as in language, but there is always a correspondence.

But more than this: the artist also intends that ‘a spectator should see something in [the marked surface]’ (Wollheim 1987: 101). This particular intention is what Wollheim calls respresentation. He (Wollheim 1987: 101) here finds room to introduce a standard of correctness and incorrectness: Since the artist had something in mind, and tried to put it down, a spectator might understand that intention correctly or incorrectly. Of course, spectators bring all sorts of personal musings to a painting, and there is a case to be made for reverie, but these wayward, subjective reflections can never comprise the core meaning of a painting. The artist’s intention can be grasped or misunderstood, or partially recognised. But respect for the artist’s intention is crucial if we are to salvage painting from the meaningless mire of subjectivity. Our personal reflections ought only augment the artist’s original idea.

The second important point here is that the spectator should discover this idea in the marked surface. We move smoothly from the intentions of the artist to the response of the spectator via the uncomplicated physicality of paint itself. We spot a glimmer of hope that ‘the sensuous and the meaningful can here for once be fused into an indissoluble unit,’ as Ernst Gombrich (1996: 453) writes of the Greek awakening to the expressiveness of the human form. The spectator can expect to discover, with enough patience and attention, what the artist hoped to convey, by viewing the picture itself. The painting reveals, after all, the way in which the artist worked. If we acknowledged this, rather than fumbling for written explanations of paintings, we would come a long way in restoring dignity to painting as a carrier of meaning.


The spectator, in turn, must bring something to the painting in order to grasp its meaning, though not in the sense of permitting a plurality of meanings, nor in the institution-dependent sense of being thoroughly educated in art history or appealing to authorities. The ‘sensitive’ and ‘informed’ spectator brings, rather, certain fundamental perceptual capacities, on Wollheim’s (1987: 45) account, and there are three:

  1. Seeing-in

  2. Expressive perception

  3. The capacity to experience visual delight.

Wollheim is a delightfully thorough writer: he is strict on his terms and takes the time to develop each of them fully, probing their weak spots and plugging them with logically necessary qualifications. One must not be deterred by his terms: though precise, they are not as difficult as their rigidity makes them appear. I am so taken with his explanations of the above three capacities that I intend to devote far more attention to them in dedicated essays. For now, let us introduce them, keeping his broader system in view.


By seeing-in, or twofoldness, Wollheim (1987: 46) means the very remarkable yet familiar experience of being aware of a surface but at the same time seeing something in it. This is, I contend, one of the most important aspects of a painting: it is not merely an image, nor do we desire to be completely drawn into some illusion of reality. The physicality of paintings stands ever at the fore. The very paint is seductive and never quite escapes our view, whatever image we see. Wollheim (1987: 46; 71) calls seeing-in a ‘distinct kind of perception’ upon which representation depends. The spectator, then, should notice both the paint and what is represented in paint, and see that both play a role in the meaning of a painting.

Emotion, that slippery aspect that ever eludes language but seems to be the particular strength—and perhaps even point of—art, enters with expressive perception. We know from experience that we are able to look at a painting and see it as depicting an emotion, and it is simply this ‘species of seeing’ that Wollheim (1987: 80) wants to capture with this term. He (Wollheim 1987:80) believes that because it is a genuine species of seeing, ‘it is capable of grounding a distinctive variety of pictorial meaning.’ What is attractive about this account is that it tries to establish the emotional content of a painting as a credible part of the meaning of the painting. The spectator must be attentive to it, and able to follow the painter’s cues, which may be far more complex than symbols.


The artist relies on the sensitive and informed spectator to bring a certain ‘cognitive stock’ to the painting in order to uncover its meaning, particularly some information about how it came to be made. But, Wollheim (1987: 89) emphasises, this information should be embedded by the artist in the painting itself. ‘What is invariably irrelevant,’ he (Wollheim 1987: 95) writes, ‘is some rule or convention that takes us from what is perceptible to some hidden meaning: in the way in which, say, a rule of language would.’ This information only gives itself up slowly, with long and attentive deliberation, and perhaps a familiarity with the larger body of the artist’s work. ‘Often careful, sensitive, and generally informed, scrutiny of the painting will extract from it the very information that is needed to understand it’ (Wollheim 1987: 89).

Lastly, the artist demands of the spectator the ability to experience pleasure in his encounter with art. Pleasure does not simply come from subject matter, Wollheim (1987: 98-99) argues, but rather from the way the artist carefully controls the spectator’s propensity to see the emotional character she has laid over an otherwise recognisable, and perhaps utterly ordinary image. Without the capacity for visual delight—which the artist is bursting to transmit—the spectator would remain unmoved by painting; an impenetrable barrier would ever stand between him and the appreciation of paintings, their meaning would ever elude him.


Wollheim’s Painting as an Art is dense but rewarding: his search for meaning within the painting itself, driven by the intention of an artist with something to express, not only restores dignity to the distinctly visual nature of painting, but does so without recourse to language or its associated symbols, conventions and syntaxes, which he considers an unfortunate and ‘ill-considered analogy’ (Wollheim 1987: 181). Ever reminding us of the limitations of such an analogy, Wollheim offers instead a persuasively thorough conception of meaning in painting that I find well worth deeper consideration. This continual return to the painting itself is just the sort of philosophical system that seems to allow for a breed of objectivity to surface. And this is a path through the murky forest of aesthetics which I should like to go down.



Gombrich, E. H., and Richard Woodfield. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. London: Phaidon Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1969. ‘The aesthetics of silence.’ In Styles of radical will.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.


The work of art

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Paul Ziff casts a penetrating eye over the term ‘work of art.’ Rather than trying to define it, he considers why we find it so difficult to define, and why we end up having irresolvable disputes over what is and isn’t art (Ziff 1967: 21). He offers two grounds for variation. Probably most significantly, he argues that art itself is not eternal, that it is historically situated, that it is ever changing. Besides this, the term ‘work of art’ is used in many different ways in our actual parlance, and not incorrectly. There is the tricky fact that the term ‘work of art’ encompasses different kinds of art, such as music and literature and poetry, and thus applies in different senses to very different works—across a whole spectrum of objects and non-objects.


Ziff (1967: 23), like Wittgenstein, by whom he was influenced, is ever keen to observe and describe how we actually do use words, and finds that ‘there are many uses of the phrase “work of art.”’ However, this does not mean that the word should be used more narrowly, or that we are being indiscriminate to use it so broadly. To illustrate, Ziff sets up a list of characteristics which would establish a painting by Poussin to be a clear-cut, characteristic case of a work of art, in the same way we might be able to present someone with a clear-cut, characteristic case of a table, in order to define the term ‘table.’ These characteristics include ‘it is a painting,’ and ‘it was made … deliberately and self-consciously with obvious skill and care, by Nicolas Poussin.’

Ziff (1967: 27) is at pains to make clear that these characteristics do no more than ‘provide us with a set of sufficient conditions for something’s being a work of art.’ But something that possesses only some of the characteristics might still be a work of art—for this is not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. For a start, many works of art are not paintings at all. Ziff (1967: 32) suggests that we might establish many such adequate sets of characteristics, and that each ‘is analogous in composition to every other set’—the sets applying to poems, novels, musical compositions and the like. We have to accept that we mean this term in many different senses.

It is possible that there is something common to all works of art—some necessary condition—which is exactly where Richard Wollheim begins his investigations in aesthetics. ‘For are we not overlooking the possibility,’ surmises Wollheim (1996: 2), ‘that the various particular answers to the questions What is a poem?, a painting?, etc., may, when they come, turn out to have something or even a great deal in common, in that the things they define or describe (i.e. works of art in their kinds) have many shared properties?’ But for now, let’s be content with the idea that there are different kinds of works of art, and our term is malleable enough to bridge our manifold use of it, which is one difficulty in drawing up a definition.

Circle hats

More interestingly for painting, and echoing Ernst Gombrich, Ziff points to the changing nature of works of art themselves throughout history. Even those hostile to the seismic shifts of the twentieth century are likely positively disposed towards the idea of innovation, of technical breakthroughs—of discoveries like linear perspective, of contributing something to the body of knowledge of painting. These ‘movements in history,’ as Gombrich (1996: 434-5) refers to them, whether we like to think of them as progress or not, are difficult for the artist to ignore or go back on: even ‘a slight improvement … makes earlier methods look first old-fashioned and soon ridiculous.’ But in a more guarded way, we might say that each time a painter made an influential and lasting discovery, ‘the tradition was … extended,’ and, clarifies Ziff (1967: 36), ‘this is merely another way of saying that there was some shift in the notion of a work of art.’

So the things that artists produce—works of art—vary over time: Ziff categorises these changes as changes of both ends and means. And the ends and means are correlated, he continues, and feed into each other. ‘With the development of new means there will be new ends that can be served, and with the appearance of new ends, new means will have to be developed to serve them’ (Ziff 1967: 45). Our term ‘work of art’ also has to cope with the varying nature of art.

The ends that Ziff brings to our attention are the purposes and aims of art, its functions in society, its role. It is this that, as Gombrich (1972) explicates in the buoyant and lively Story of Art, varies through history. ‘As the character of the society changes, the role of art in the society may also change’ (Ziff 1967: 39). But not only has the role varied: by extension, ‘the social consequences and implications of something’s being a work of art have varied in time, and no doubt they will continue to do so’ (Ziff 1967: 39).

Rubens ladies

And here we arrive at the disagreements over the ‘work of art’ between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ critics. Of course, Ziff grants, the two camps disagreed about the characteristics of a work of art. But Ziff (1967: 40, 42) asserts that the major disagreements between them arose from the role or roles of a work of art—what these roles are or ought to be. And this, as we have considered, is not easy to settle. The ends, purposes, roles, have been shifting since the dawn of art.

But interestingly, the traditional and the modern critics ‘agreed both in their desires and in their expectations with regard to the characteristic social consequences and implications of something’s being considered a work of art’ (Ziff 1967: 40). This mainly involves them being displayed in galleries, discussed, having books written and read about them. What was (and is) contested is rather which works of art should or do fulfill these social consequences.


Which is to say: it does no good to say that your rival is not making works of art, in order to achieve the generally desired social consequences of eternal glory and validation of having your own works hung in galleries and discussed and written and read about instead of theirs. Defining the ‘work of art’ once and for all will not put an end to disputes about which works deserve such recognition. For the task of defining a work of art is a devilishly difficult one that must account for two sliding scales: the fact that works of art are both manifold and varying. Ziff’s (1967: 46) best answer is that as ends and means tug at each other, we will have to adapt our definitions on the fly: ‘It may and most likely will be necessary to revise our definition of a work of art.’

Van Dyck


Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. Edited by Richard Woodfield. London: Phaidon.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

Wollheim, Richard. 1996. Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. Reprinted 2. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ziff, Paul. 1967. Philosophic Turnings: Essays in Conceptual Appreciation. 2.print. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UnivPress.


Scholars & Painters


At last I begin to pull the threads of my life together—to pare back the things that distract me, to braid my core pursuits together into one strong cord. Each sphere of my life centres around art in some manner: I have indeed run away to Europe to be a painter; I am deeply embedded in the sketch groups we have nurtured in Vienna, even extending my involvement to teaching drawing, and I am beginning to find my way in the University of Vienna as a philosophy doctoral candidate, wrapping my brain around some aesthetic ideas that have their roots in very old Germanic thought. And, of course, I have a circle of young and agile minds around me, constantly charging my head with new and difficult ideas. I couldn’t imagine a more practically, intellectually and socially demanding and satisfying way of life.

Universität Wien

Universität Wien

When I think of these circles, through which I move so fluidly, I realise that the divide between the scholarly and the artistic can be unexpectedly deep. I see the thinkers’ mistrust of painters’ visual ideas, and I see the painters’ discomfort at others intellectualising their field. At best, the intellectuals graciously entertain thought experiments, but perhaps fail to appreciate aspects best approached by doing, if not denying them entirely. The painters, meanwhile, either quickly become intimidated, boasting loudly about a non-academic book they’ve read or bowing to any thinker who uses big words, or shunning anything that reeks of intellectualism. This disconnect seems alarming at first.


(c) Sasa

But when a painter friend, confronted with an aesthetic idea, felt the need to defend himself, it became much clearer to me. ‘Painting is breathing,’ he said simply, his open hands revealing his sense of explanatory inadequacy. Painters presume that scholarship establishes some kind of framework, a justification for painting. Painters themselves usually don’t have a rigorous theoretical conception of painting, they are simply compelled to paint. And those that seek to find one sometimes spiral into impenetrable written treatises whose ability to improve, support or defend their practical work is deeply questionable. But perhaps this burden doesn’t really exist. No painter should feel threatened by a scholar of aesthetics, or feel that their work is incomplete without theory. Painters and scholars are simply not at all aiming at the same thing.

(c) Sasa

(c) Sasa

Hermann Weyl (1968: 631), the German mathematician, physicist and philosopher, makes an illuminating distinction between Erkenntnis and Besinnung:

‘Im geistigen Leben des Menschen sondern sich deutlich voneinander ein Bereich des Handelns, der Gestaltung, der Konstruktion auf der einen Seite, dem der tätige Künstler, Wissenschaftler, Techniker, Staatsmann hingegeben ist und der im Gebiete der Wissenschaft unter der Norm der Objektivität steht—und ein Bereich der Besinnung auf der andern Seite, die in Einsichten sich vollzieht und die, als Ringen um den Sinn unseres Handelns, als die eigentliche Domäne des Philosophen anzusehen ist.’

[‘In the human mental life there is rather—clearly distinguishable from one another—a region of actions, creation, construction on one side; that which is given to the active artist, scientist, technician, statesman and that which stands in the domain of science under the norm of objectivity—and a region of reflection on the other side, that takes place in insights and that, as rings around the sense of our actions, is to be seen as the actual domain of philosophers.’]

According to Weyl (and very sensibly, I would suggest), the activities of the philosopher, while posing questions which stem from art or any other human endeavour, are of an altogether different nature than the practical activities themselves. While it orbits around the practice of art, it does not so much support it as probe it, test it, inspect it, challenge it, ponder the nature of it. Philosophy of art as Besinnung, as a contemplative reflection on what art is and what role it plays, is a very different thing from the Erkenntnis, the technical knowledge, that painters cultivate. Philosophers unearth puzzles about the nature of beauty, of sensations, of the role of art, of its ethical import. They try to make sense of the commonalities among the arts, the significance of objects, what ‘style’ could mean, what types of meaning exist in paintings and whether the painting or the painter is self-reflexive. These endlessly fascinating puzzles emerge from the nature of painting, but to be a better painter, one must concentrate on how to mix paints and how to stick them to a surface.


The painter, by contrast, busies herself with visual problems: problems of space and depth, of volume and design, of edges and atmosphere, of the translation of ideas into a physical substance. She grapples with the aesthetic experiences themselves: the intense sensations and emotions and how to record them, how to ignite them in others, how to use a humble physical medium to stir something less rational than the intellect.

These aims, however divorced, need not be antagonistic. Philosophy need not be inaccessible: aesthetic ideas can be expressed clearly and generously. And perhaps philosophical insights, while not justifying painting, or dictating the way in which it should go, can open new avenues for thoughtful painters, or help clarify the nebulous thoughts already hovering in their minds. I only hope that as a painter myself, my philosophical investigations will remain grounded and intelligible because of my honest contact with painting itself. But I seek not to justify painting—only to obsess over it in another manner.


Weyl, Hermann. 1968. ‘Erkenntnis Und Besinnung (Ein Lebensrückblick)’. In Gesmmelte Abhandlungen IV, 631–49. Berlin: Springer.