Le néant

‘Nothingness,’ writes Sartre (1998 [1943]: 21) ominously, ‘lies coiled in the heart of being–like a worm.’ His pessimism is pervasive, but mundane. His obsession with nothingness brings us from the edge of the howling abyss to the yawning emptiness of our wallets, but the view from precipice–or that from the lively but friendless café–permits him to trace deep undercurrents through the nature of our being (1998: 6; 9-10; 30). The holes–the gaps–the refusals–the unremarked slipping by of opportunities–can certainly cause us to well up with existential dread. But they also reveal the immense power we can have over our lives, and the immense responsibility we have for the way we live them. For Sartre, this responsibility is a radical freedom so intoxicating and so burdensome it can make us sick; it is also inextricably bound up with even the tiniest eruptions of nothingness that surface in the world.

Copies after Meštrovic and Mihanovic

For we are the originators of nothingness, Sartre (1998: 8; 24) argues; every nothingness lives in our own minds as a sheer fabrication, a mere interpretation of events. Destruction is but a perspective: a city is only destroyed if we view it as such; in purely physical terms its components are merely rearranged. ‘There is no less after the storm than before. There is something else’ (Sartre, 1998: 8). The world surges on like a ruthless, rolling ocean, re-adjusting its parts without regard for the petty values we place on certain arrangements. The very concept of negation comes from the thwarted sense of importance we have arbitrarily placed on something.

Perhaps he first glimpsed this thread in Husserl. In posing a question, says Sartre (1998: 4-5; 23), we thrust a negative element into the world. Inserting nothingness into the world, we make ‘the world iridescent, casting a shimmer over things’ (Sartre, 1998: 23). When we ask, we admit space for the answer to be ‘no.’ As Husserl (1973 [1948]) puts it, we invite doubt into the world, we acknowledge that things are not unfolding mechanistically, we entertain other futures. Doubt is thus the flip side of possibility. For something to be possible–not definite–it must be able to waver. It could come off or it might not. Doubt, which seems to undermine our plans and our sense of self, in fact gives the world its luxurious openness. Uncertainty looms ahead of us like a door left ajar, it gives us a foothold, it shows the world to be full of cracks into which we can force ourselves and impose our will, through which we can inflict change on the world, redirect its course.

And so Husserl (1972: 87) sees the world as a kaleidoscopic churning of possibilities, of open questions, of expectations, trembling at its edges. As we stalk those edges with trepidation, they shift and reorient themselves according to our every move. The structure of the world, asserts Husserl (1972: 82-83; 1999 [1950]: 45), against the scientific spirit, is horizonal; its horizons are ever just at the edge of our sight, but ever rolling away from it. The view is different from wherever we stand: but from whichever position it remains petulantly ambiguous (Merleau-Ponty, 2012: 79, 80; 196).

We only discover this structure, says Heidegger (1993 [1927]: 74-75), when things break down. When our equipment falters and shocks us out of our practical unity with them, when our reflective, thinking attention is drawn to their heavy uselessness and suddenly obvious separateness from our own bodies. Or when we discover them not there–the unfortunate lightness of our wallets–we are cast into the solemn and terrible mood that is Angst. The small non-beings bring us face to face with the great nothingness, face to face with ourselves. Where we are ordinarily lost in our doings and projects, merged with the world in practical little acts, our sudden reflective detachment from the world presents us with the unimportance of our little schemes and ushers in a sickening sense of futility. Stripped of its practical significance, the world is bare before us, devoid of meaning, robbed of value (Heidegger, 1993: 185-187).

But it is Sartre who remains gravely optimistic. This Angst is too all-encompassing; it makes the world too precarious, a world which in any case has no meaning. Negation greets us in some form at every turn, and it is not so earth-shattering as Heidegger would have it. The small nothingnesses whisper to us sweetly in their languid triviality, but even in their banality they can give us sharp moments of insight to our own freedom.

These insights cause us anguish, but it is anguish that urges us from the wavering edge of indecision. Anguish is an agony that eats us from the inside. Fear stalks us from outside, when we feel ourselves threatened or cornered, at the mercy of fate. Fear swells in us at the edge of the cliff, as we eye the loose gravel and step timidly on the uneven ground. But fear becomes anguish when the sinister thought enters our mind that we could cast ourselves over the edge (Sartre, 1998: 29). That the car keeps to its steady course on the endless highway because of the gentle guidance of our calm hands, but that a violent, decisive movement would wrench us into the oncoming truck. In that moment, we see that all our impulses are alike, that all are equally in our hands, that we are not cast about at the whim of chance but are shaping our future with every act. That every time we fail to choose (another tiny negation), every time we quietly watch an opportunity politely fade away, we have made as firm a choice as had we grasped it.

Even these small, offhand acts, lighting a cigarette, raising a coffee to our lips, are the very things that inject value into the world, insists Sartre (1992: 36-38). In taking up this pen, this brush, I affirm that writing, painting, matter to me, ‘without justification and without excuse’ (Sartre, 1992: 39). In painting this picture I affirm myself, I force myself onto the world as a painter, I construct my identity, I project my future, I declare that ‘I am the self which I will be, in the mode of not being it’ (Sartre, 1998: 32). I make small steps toward that future, laying little seeds of meaning in the world like a trail of shiny coins. I solemnly make appointments with myself in the future, with anguish lurking at my back, agonising at the thought that I might not meet myself there (Sartre, 1998: 36).

Sartre digs up nothingness where others would rather not, but it is because he has seen that possibility implies negation. And where there is possibility one can exert one’s freedom. We must choose at every juncture, continually remake ourselves, examine ourselves at every step, question ourselves, even doubt ourselves (Sartre, 1998: 35). That we might fail is the very condition of possibility: that something is at stake affirms that something matters to us, that we have imposed a pocket of meaning in the world. With anguish hounding us we must seize the burden of responsibility. ‘Only those who can truly give themselves a burden are free.’ (Heidegger, 1995 [1983]: §38).

Heidegger, Martin. 1995 [1983]. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Heidegger, Martin. 1993 [1927]. Sein und Zeit. 19. edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1999 [1950]. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Trans. Dorion Cairns. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Husserl, Edmund. 1973 [1948]. Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970 [1954]. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans: David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012 [1945]. Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1998 [1943]. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. London: Routledge.

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The world or the picture

manet-nymphe-surprise

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.

titian-wine

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).

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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.

titian-lucretia

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.

titian-lucretia-head

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).

titian-woman-dont-touch-me

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.

poussin-diana-mad-again

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.’

poussin-sabines

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.

poussin-composition-khm

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.

titian-girl-with-fan

 

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.

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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.

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‘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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The punch

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been chewing over the role of a ‘conceptual rationale’ in art. Firstly, let it be recognised that I am not against concepts in art. Paintings should move us, and when they do they are more than mere decoration. But I am not interested in the types of concepts that only resonate in words, and that are swallowed whole in little capsules of artists’ statements, no chewing required. The real punch, the real power of art, is that it can make us sense something, consider something, meditate on something, and even feel something, just by channelling carefully composed signals through our eyes. I want to argue that while many a painting lacks a punch line, or fails to explain itself in words, it may still be about something, still built on an idea, and it may still speak softly to us, and perhaps even resonate fiercely with us as our history with it deepens. In Delacroix’s (p. 41) words, ‘What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’

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A humble painting of an interior sits shyly beside an unlovely outburst of so-called modern conceptual art. Without being punched in the face by unpleasant truths and by the sheer disgustingness of waste in our culture, the modern art viewer can find no meaning to lock on to when confronted with a work of art. Our time certainly is not one for subtlety, and images that demand too much of us are bound to be dismissed. Perhaps we feel an attraction to a still life scene, but sense that it would be too much work to justify this attraction—and, further, perhaps we feel a certain impatience with the painter for not simply being more clever about it so the painting’s relevance was immediately obvious. Whichever way I look at it, we are faced with a paradox: the painter wants to speak in a language that no one wants to learn. And even when he gets through to us, we cast off his whisperings as meaningless.

Yet, ‘If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?’ art critic Dave Hickey (in Poynor, p. 43) asks. Hickey argues that the power of many images can be traced to beauty, ‘to the iconography of desire,’ but I want to return to beauty shortly. It seems to me that while many paintings certainly are beautiful, they appeal to us in another even simpler way. They permit us to look at ourselves.

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In the words of Jacques Pienaar, ‘If ever art had a job to do, it’s to make humanity look at itself.’ This might be as literal as a portrait of a known individual. It might be a nude—revealing our physical form at its simplest and most honest, unadorned, plump or bony, asymmetric, uniquely proportioned, secret toilet parts included (unlike the false view of ourselves afforded, for example, by much pornography). It might be the warmth of the painter’s home, traces of their life left in the arrangement of their living quarters. It might be a five-hundred-year-old Dutch breakfast, which can fill us with envy as much as the meals at the table next to us in a café today. Whatever else a painter may have intended, when painting from life he or she has done humanity a marvellous service in making a visual record of our temporal intersection with the physical world. Our cumulative knowledge has been recorded by philosophers and scientists; our successive sensory experiences have been recorded by artists—and what a vault of lived human experience remains! And further: no amount of adding to this collection is redundant, for we live in ever changing times and our present experiences are just as valid, as is the recording of them.

Of course, art is not always truthful, but there is also meaning in this. Where a representational painting sweeps some things away and introduces others, or chases a particular light or settles into a particular mood, the painting itself becomes a sort of bridge to the future. We see the world now, but we are also permitted to see a possible future through the vision of the painter. Frank Chimero (p. 68) argues that ‘every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done.’ He cites art historian George Kubler (p. 122): ‘The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it,’ adding, ‘All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.’

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Let us return to Dave Hickey and his efforts to direct our attention ‘to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!’ Wendy Steiner (xxi) analyses the twentieth-century discomfort with beauty, the prevailing suspicion that beauty is the villain—‘a siren or a whore.’ Steiner suggests we might be more comfortable with our experience of beauty, remarking that since we all succumb to it, ‘it would be well if we could recognise the meaning of our succumbing as a valuable response, an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.’ Given our positive response to a meaningful arrangement of temporary objects, let us dwell a little longer on why these things speak to us, even though they are not clever and satirical and politically charged. Perhaps Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to us because of the incisive political claims made by the main characters—perhaps it’s because of the humanity of the people portrayed, the similarity of their hopes to our own, and the impact of their historical situation on those hopes. We long to feel with each other, and in art, we can.

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Delacroix (p. 66) felt keenly that too many artists were swayed by trends—the market, or popular opinion perhaps, or government demands. ‘A great number of talented artists had never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment.’ I feel that while much art that is considered ‘classical’ and hence antagonistic to concepts in fact grows up around more slowly-unravelled concepts, perhaps this obsession with concept-above-all-else is the sort of fashion that we must brush aside and simply carry on working. We know that we are not subverting everything that has gone before, but we know that we are building on a meaningful history and connecting with people in inexplicable ways. And Delacroix (p. 43) urges us on:

You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things they have hitherto failed to appreciate. Make them feel they have never before heard the song of the nightingale, or been aware of the vastness of the sea—everything that their gross senses can perceive only when someone else takes the trouble to feel it for them. And do not let language trouble you. If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.

Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design. (Self published).

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Poynor, Rick. 2006 ‘The beauty part.’ In Looking Closer Five: Critical writings on graphic design. Ed. Michael Bierut, William Drentel and Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.

Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.

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The Atheist’s Bible

There is a good reason why the tendency religion is so entrenched in the human psyche: it provides us with a sense of purpose and meaning without which we would struggle to survive. Survival after all first requires a motivation to live, and this motivation is strongly tied to a sense of purpose.

Our brains are paradoxical things, because life itself is paradoxical. On one hand, life is pointless; on the other hand, its function is to survive. But if existence is pointless, how can we justify the drive to continue existing?

Mirroring this dilemma, the human brain evolved intelligence to enable us to understand the world around us and make us better at survival. On the other hand, our new understanding of the world threatened to expose the pointlessness of existence, thereby removing the very motivation to survive, even while we had all of the tools. Intelligence seems by nature to be self-destructive.

Fortunately, there is a way out – religion. Our tendency to believe in a higher power without question, that is, our capacity for faith, protects us from the self-destructiveness and depression brought on by existential angst. Unfortunately, as we soar to greater intellectual heights, fewer and fewer of us find satisfaction with the answers religion has to offer. We now question everything, and we no longer see any reason to take things on faith- in fact, we actively reject faith as being misleading and outdated. Religion as we know it cannot keep up with the demands of the advancing human psyche, and the mental tools we now have are too advanced to be curbed by the primitive blade of “God”.

The modern atheist faces a dire problem: how can we save ourselves from the killing apathy of knowing that we are insignificant and that all is futile?

A new solution is emerging. We are sophisticated enough now to realize that the futility of existence has no bearing on our lives, which are nevertheless filled with a richness of experience, both pleasurable and painful, still better than death and non-existence. The new generation is a generation of experience seekers, who realize that life creates its purpose from within. We do not need meaning to be imposed from outside, but prefer to discover meaning through action. We discover our own Gods and superstitions through the mystery of everyday living. The days when a single narrative written in one book could govern the lives of many people is gone; now every person has their own story, their own plot and purpose. The book of the individual is partly defined by character and partly by one’s experiences in the world, different parts of which are accessible to all of us. So even though we still have a common thread between us, we all find a different meaning behind the events that occur, and it is the trading of our interwoven stories that will write the narrative of the new bible.

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