Common ground

Ode to the rooftops (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)


Pursuing a link between moods and art, Schmetkamp (2017: 1683) claims that ‘moods are the expressive equivalent of perspectives, of how we perceive and are in the world.’ Schmetkamp (2017: 1683; 1693) argues that films, in invoking particular moods, invite a shift in perspective. This is an initially attractive suggestion, because it seems to lead us away from the impulse to understand a work of art, a cognitive act, and to permit us to encounter the work of art in a pre-reflective way. In the case of painting, we might correspondingly argue that rather than confronting symbols in need of interpretation, we confront the perspective of another person–the painter–and are invited to try on that perspective, inhabit it, and perhaps adjust our own perspective accordingly.

But the idea of perspective-shifting is still chained to the impulse to understand another, as if the head of another is a ‘container of objects’ to which we somehow seek to gain access (Slaby 2014: 253; 255). Perspective-shifting is one way of describing empathy: as an ability to inhabit another’s perspective and thereby predict and share in their emotions (Goldie, 2011: 303; Slaby, 2014: 249). Slaby’s (2014: 252) compelling critique of empathy will thus help us grasp why perspective-shifting is equally unsatisfying in the realm of aesthetics, because of the parallel importance of agency. Beyond mere perspective-shifting, I propose that a painting, as an affective encounter between painter and viewer, offers a fertile, physical ‘we-space’ in which, rather than attempting to understand a painter, we may to some extent co-author our positions in the world: a shared and ongoing project (Krueger, 2011: 644).


II Three broad categories: Perception, knowledge and agency

Empathy can be very broadly conceived in two ways. The first captures the directness with which we sometimes relate to others. Sometimes our emotional response to another person is automatic, involuntary and passive (Slaby, 2014: 255). Their emotions are not buried or locked away, but visible at the surface, directly available to perception (Slaby, 2014: 255; Zahavi, 2001: 153). Such direct responses are sometimes classed as ‘lower level’ empathy, for not being cognitively demanding (Slaby, 2014: 251). They encompass the kind of matching that goes on when a group spreads its contagious solemnity or rage or excitement, or the simulation explained by mirror neurons (Goldman, 2011: 33-36). Parallels with art may be traced in Tolstoy’s (1896) memorable but largely rejected contagion theory (Wollheim, 1980: 119), in which an artwork directly infects us with its emotional content. Any such superficial matching is problematic because it can be completely detached from the context of the original emotions–Coplan (2011: 7; 8) expresses this concern in terms of insufficient accuracy, and argues that empathy demands, in addition to some kind of matching, a more active and imaginative engagement with the emotions of others. Simply feeling along with someone without appreciating why they feel as they do seems too primitive a response to be considered empathy.

The second broad way is to prioritise the cognitive or reflective aspect of our encounter with others, and it treats emotions as a kind of knowledge to be obtained. This is where the urge to understand becomes particularly prominent. Another person’s emotions become pieces of information to be accessed and interpreted, they demand some active consideration, not unthinking mimicry, and once we have organised this information we are in a better position to say that we understand the other person as a whole. These responses are grouped as ‘higher level processes’, emphasising ‘the information-processing sense of that term’ (Coplan, 2011: 5; Goldman, 2006: 39; Goldie, 2011: 304). Goldman (2011: 36-38) calls it the ‘reconstructive route’ to empathy. The idea of a privileged first-person position, in which I have special access to my own emotions, fuels this attitude. While we might simply distinguish between our own experience of an emotion and another person’s experience of us having that emotion, emphasising a phenomenological difference, there is often rather the implication that we hold ‘an epistemically privileged position’ towards our own emotions–that we can know them more accurately than another (Slaby, 2014: 254). It becomes questionable here how far one can call such understanding of another person ‘empathy,’ since a psychopath could ably perform such intellectual puzzle-solving but would seem to lack a necessary element of feeling. Analogously, intellectually decoding a painting seems to miss the affective richness of a painting, which we would rather hope would move us.

Both of these broad categories, though they prioritise very different things, are united by a common underlying assumption. Whether perceptually accessed and mirrored, or reflectively computed and understood, emotions are on both accounts reified (Slaby, 2014: 257). From either position, emotions are treated as fixed objects, whether reproducible, observable, discoverable or knowable (Slaby, 2014: 253), whether by oneself or by another. It is this unsatisfying ‘common pattern’ of treating our experiences as bytes of information locked away in storage or transmitted as complete units that leads Slaby (2014: 253; 255) to defend a third broad conception of relatedness, one rooted in the phenomenological tradition, that shatters the very concept of empathy.

This third broad category, to which interaction theory belongs, moves away from these pre-packaged inner states and towards an active, embodied agency that is bound up with the world itself (Krueger, 2010: 644). It stresses the ongoing, future-oriented authorship of our perspectives. And, as beings wrapped up in the world, it emphasises the shared aspects of that agency (Slaby, 2014: 255). Abandoning the attitude that a painter embeds little packets of emotional information into a painting, which either directly arrest us or which we systematically interpret, we might instead approach the painting as a physical setting for the active construction of perspectives. The painter wrestles with her perspective in laying down paint; the viewer wrestles with his in mingling the two perspectives–not, as Schmetkamp (2017: 1683) claims, merely trying the painter’s perspective on. Agency changes the interaction between these perspectives, opening up a more sophisticated exchange than perspective-shifting. First we must consider what a perspective is.


III Perspective

Drawing heavily on Merleau-Ponty, I frame perspective in terms of an ongoing project of positioning oneself in an ever-shifting world. Merleau-Ponty (2012 [1945]: 77-80) challenges the scientifically-driven assumption that the world is static and objectively knowable, that is, able to be described as if ‘from nowhere,’ stressing two crucial points. The world, in which we are inextricably immersed, can only be described in terms of relations. This is a familiar enough concept for a painter, who does not (usually) attempt to transcribe blue or yellow, as though these hues possessed fixed frequencies, but who rather sees that a mixture of grey next to a vivid yellow can appear blue: it is the relation between these hues that gives a certain effect. Likewise, the hills that shimmer a soft blue in the distance do so precisely because of the yawning gulf between us and them. The painted blue describes no objective feature of the hills, but rather the relation between us and the hills. (It is no accident that Leonardo da Vinci (2008: 113) adds this hue-shift to his list of types of perspective, calling it ‘perspective of colour.’) A perspective must be made sense of in terms of our relations with other constituents of the world.

Secondly, and drawing on Husserl (1973 [1948]: 87), Merleau-Ponty (2012: 196) emphasises the indeterminacy of the the world. It ‘shimmers’ at its edges, open-ended, unresolved and brimming with unactualised possibility. Part of our being in the world involves acting on our possibilities, realising some and abandoning others, a process that reconfigures the world such that it offers a fresh spread of possibilities with every act. Our actions influence and alter how the world unfolds–we are participatory agents, and, what is more, we are directed towards an unfixed future. Our actions seize some possibilities and concretise our position in the world: I stand here in relation to the bluish haze of Kahlenberg; I stand here in relation to the restless rumblings of nationalism. And our perspective is never complete, we are continually authoring it as we move through the world.

Our perspective, then, may be considered quite literally as a view from where we stand in relation to others and the world, as a worldview, but importantly as an actively constructed and future-looking worldview that constantly incorporates new input even as it influences that world. Agency emerges as an integral part of perspective thus considered. Perspective proves to be not a passive apprehension of a predictable and rigid world, but a ‘practical point of view’ (Slaby, 2014: 252). In taking up our positions, we ‘enact a world’ (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007: 488). As agents, argues Slaby (2014: 253), we are precisely not a hold for discrete entities and replicable states; rather, each of us has ‘a say in specifying, in ultimately deciding and committing to what one will have on one’s mind,’ and we partake in an ‘active, prospective engagement with the world: a future-directed positioning towards what goes on.’

This positioning is far more than descriptive; it suffuses the world with significance. Heidegger (1993 [1927]: 185-187) argues for a practical significance, or ‘mattering,’ generated by our immersion in our projects and our seamless fusion with our tools; Sartre (1998 [1943]: 36-38) argues that acts as small as lighting cigarettes, or even failures to act, are the very things that affirm who we are and both indicate and bestow significance. The failure to quit one’s comfortable job and become a painter demonstrates that one wants a life of security and stability more than one wants to paint, however much one apparently regrets this inaction.

These embodied ways of conceiving of significance contrast starkly with the search for meaning and its linguistic overtones. Meaning or sense prompts us to make a propositional substitution, to uncover an objectified packet of knowledge which the thing directly encountered stands for. In replacing something with its ‘meaning,’ we claim we finally understand it and its import. This attitude puts us in a troubling position when relating to others: we presume we ‘have to work out each other’s minds much like [we] do with scientific problems’ (De Jaegher and Di Paolo, 2007: 486). De Jaegher and Di Paolo (2007: 486; 487) thus begin to flesh out an embodied, active and shared approach to introducing (rather than uncovering ready-made) significance into the world: ‘the enactive notion of sense-making.

De Jaegher and Di Paolo’s (2007: 497) account of participatory sense-making gives another slant to perspective, emphasising that agents may cooperatively and expressively position themselves. This begins to look a lot like Slaby’s (2014: 255) alternative to empathy, a ‘co-presence’ that echoes Heidegger’s (1962 [1927]: 118) Mitwelt. Far from trying to get inside one another’s heads, or to bridge some unfathomable abyss, agents accept what they perceive at the surface–the cheerful smile of their cycling companion as they surge up Kahlenberg–and construct a shared perspective (Slaby, 2014: 255-6). Two happy parties navigate vineyards and Heuriger vitrines and jointly author a golden afternoon in the Viennese hills, an experience different from that which each would author alone, and without needing to imagine themselves inside the head of the other to forge an honest and valid connection. ‘We thus drop the assumption,’ declares Slaby (2014: 256) ‘that the goal of interpersonal relatedness would inevitably have to be an encompassing understanding of the other person.’


IV Painting

Painting could arguably occupy a special place in such embodied discussions of affective relatedness. A painter goes a step further when positioning herself in the world: she gives her perspective physical form. Painting is another kind of act; the painter not only takes up a position in the world, considering and selecting and rejecting certain possibilities as she applies paint, but she also openly lays out that position in that same act. The painting is like a smile. But instead of saying that a painting opens up the painter’s mind to us (as though it were some closed-off realm), we ought to say that a painting lets us see through the painter’s eyes. ‘The view from here,’ she declares, laying it out before us, actualising those fleeting moments in a carefully arranged and subtly related way, ‘looks like this.’

But how can we say, ‘The view from here looks like this’ when paintings invariably lie? The soul of painting seems to be precisely the way it deviates from our ordinary perceptual experience, whether very subtly, as in very naturalistic paintings, which nevertheless involve choices about contrast and atmosphere and how fine-grained the modelling should be, or whether quite dramatically, as when edges dissolve into one another, or crude chunks of colour merely suggest masses, or when the world is fragmented into flat and interlocking geometric forms. Rather than saying abstractly that the painter gives her perspective physical form, we ought to investigate what this actually consists in.

In the paintings of Ruprecht von Kaufmann, for example, people fly through the air, or grow fish heads, often have no head at all, or their toes melt together into a single sturdy foot mass. This is certainly not how the world literally looks; we are not dealing with mere perception. If we are to cast these paintings as von Kaufmann’s perspective, we need to admit other modes of intentionality into perspective. Imagination is very relevant here: von Kaufmann invents things that could not exist. But there is also a sense of anticipation, of imagining how things might unfold: a leaping person or a diving person on a certain trajectory, headed towards a partly visible and partly foggy future. Remembering is equally important. Von Kaufmann’s deeply emotional experiences with family, loss and doubt haunt the paintings.

Remembering even plays a much more pedestrian, technical role in his work (von Kaufmann, 2014). Von Kaufmann actively observes the world about him and commits things to memory before reprising them in his paintings. The construction of a chair, the bone structure of a particular face, the character of a foot, the pattern of a fabric all resurface in his paintings after long gestation periods. Here I want to be careful not to say that he stores them up, fully-formed images catalogued in Augustinian caverns of memory, ready to be summoned (St Augustine, 2009: 152; 172). I want to emphasise that our memories are permeated and transformed by other emotions, other encounters and other expectations. When von Kaufmann paints a remembered sofa, it is a sofa embedded in a fabric of experiences, and it emerges from his brush stained by those experiences–it sags mournfully, it fades with resignation. How the world ‘looks’ is shorthand for: ‘this is a visual approximation of many interrelated and nuanced modes of intentionality towards the world.’ Von Kaufmann’s mellow and faded purples, the dampness that permeates his world through sludgy textures and glistening highlights and trickles of paint all combine to work up an uneasy mood.


V Moods and emotions

Moods are not emotions, except perhaps for Heidegger (1962 [1927]: 136), who uses the terms more freely and interchangeably. There are very precise ways of teasing the two apart (see for example Gallegos, 2017: 1500), but a simple distinction on the grounds of intentionality will do here (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1684-5). Emotions are usually considered to be directed at some particular object: I am sad about the cancelled Kahlenberg outing. But von Kaufmann’s paintings, though they might leak a sort of sadness, cannot really be said to express sadness about any particular thing. Rather, they build up a diffuse kind of tone or atmosphere, which might be better described as a feeling directed toward the whole world or even toward existence itself: a mood. Heidegger (1962: 179; 228-235; 1978: 99) goes so far as to say that such undirected moods are the precondition for finding ourselves in a world at all, that our every encounter with the world happens through some pervading sense of menace or serenity or boredom or some other mood. Ratcliffe (2005: 49; 52) describes a similar affective background of bodily ‘existential feelings,’ which are similarly non-intentional but set the scene for the way we open up onto the world. Although there are fearful objects in von Kaufmann’s paintings, such as fish-headed men, we are not really invited to fear them or direct some emotion at them. Still, they draw some affective response from us, especially situated as they are in a murky and oppressive old room with their damp skin, casually violating one another. Thus, it would be more philosophically precise to say that von Kaufmann’s paintings are mooded.

Schmetkamp (2017: 1682-3) suggests that this more careful affective distinction dramatically changes the aesthetic terrain. While emotions and art have an enduring philosophical relationship (reaching right back to Plato’s (Rep. 595a-b) admonitions against the arts for their propensity to move and thus destabilise us), moods open up fundamentally different questions about how we relate to art, while holding fast to their affective core. Having elaborated what we mean by perspective, particularly in terms of painting, we are in a better position to look at Schmetkamp’s (2017: 1683) main claim that ‘moods are the expressive equivalent of perspectives.’ Moods, by her account, add an affective layer to perspective, a layer quite distinct from directed emotions. This has a very Heideggerian flavour, especially insofar as she invokes their pre-reflective, ‘world-disclosing capacity’ (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1684-5). The moods of others, expressed in artworks, she asserts, ‘assail human beings holistically,’ enabling them to ‘comprehend a perspective in an encompassing manner’ (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1683). Moods are not perspectives, she clarifies; rather they give us access to perspectives: they are the precondition for having a perspective at all, and the gateway to trespassing into another’s perspective (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1690).


VI The problem with perspective-shifting

Moods really come into play in art, according to Schmetkamp (2017: 1692), in two respects. The first, interestingly, is that they ought to help us to understand a work of art. Concentrating on film, Schmetkamp (2017: 1692) argues that since a film thematises a mood, correctly apprehending that mood is central to understanding the film. This strikes me as immediately problematic, for the same reason Slaby (2014: 256) is uneasy about trying to understand other people empathetically. Schmetkamp has snuck in the idea that moods are objects, pre-packaged and ready to be delivered up to our cognitive faculties.

Secondly, Schmetkamp (2017: 1685; 1692) argues that moods are important in art because they acquaint us with the perspective of another. Specifically, they enclose us in that perspective, inviting a confrontation between that perspective and our own. A film allows us to temporarily shift our perspective–‘without being totally absorbed’–and to potentially change our own perspective accordingly (Schmetkamp, 2017: 1691; 1693-4). It would not be much of a stretch to say this sounds like another form of empathy in which we try to inhabit the mood rather than the emotions of another person.

A non-trivial problem with this proposed shift in perspectives is that, as Goldie (2011: 302) makes clear, there are two ways we might try to do it. We might imagine ourselves in the other’s position–Goldie (2011: 302) calls this ‘in-his-shoes perspective-shifting,’ in which we draw a firm boundary between the self and the other (Coplan, 2011: 5)–or we might imagine ourselves as the other. The former would seem to miss the point of empathy, of Einfühlung or ‘feeling-into’ another, ignoring the situation as it applies to them (Slaby, 2014: 250). If you hate cycling up cobbled hills in the height of summer, imagining yourself in my position will not result in the same jubilant glee at the prospect of doing so. But imagining that you are me and all my confounding perplexities is no mean feat, and not only because you lack my background experiences, quirks of character, inexplicable love for the hills and other irrationalities (Goldie, 2011: 309; Slaby, 2014: 252-3). And not only because you would have to artificially objectify these background influences and bring them into the foreground to perform such a feat of empathy (Slaby, 2014: 252). Worse: you would deny my moment-by-moment authorship of my perspective–you would usurp my agency (Goldie, 2011: 315; Slaby, 2014: 252). My perspective is not a thing to be entered into, because as soon as you trespass upon it, you begin to author it.


VII Co-authorship

When we confront a painting by von Kaufmann, then, taking it to be an extension of his perspective, there is always an element of authorship from our side. Granted, it is not the same kind of authorship as he performs when he physically wrestles with the surface of the picture. Von Kaufmann posits himself in the world as he lays down paint, and the moods that swell up in his paintings originate in his own mooded opening onto the world itself. He repeatedly encounters the world as ominous, treacherous, doubt-riddled, dizzying, but also irresistibly beautiful in its relentless and indifferent onward surge. The curve of a shark’s nose slices onwards with the same elegant and ruthless force of life itself. As a well-dressed headless man leaps from a building, von Kaufmann’s undirected mood materialises in a precarious viewpoint, in the contrast between the clean angle of the building and the trembling texture of the fragile figure, in the unresolved edges and muted purples.

But von Kaufmann is not claiming authorship from our side, nor trying to persuade us to adopt his doubt, nor to revise our own perspective in the wake of a perspectival showdown. Rather sagaciously, von Kaufmann (via personal communication, December 2017) explicitly explains that he wants to give us just enough narrative substance that we feel we have a stake in each painting, that we are compelled to pick up and continue the story, for those stories are another way of making sense of the world (a sentiment echoed by Krueger (2011: 645), and a topic for another time). The magic happens when we find that something in this plainly laid out perspective already aligns with something of our own. It resonates with us precisely because of its familiarity, as though it were an expression of our own doubts. That is to say: we are not confronting some alternative view, but meeting with von Kaufmann on some common ground.

The painting reflects a shared space: the plane of the picture opens into an active field. As viewers, we are invited to author something else. We are prompted, at a common affective juncture, to continue to build our own perspective around this powerful embodied expression bestowed upon us Iike a gift. Our own background and idiosyncrasies and variable moods latch onto the ponderous mood, the anxiety, the bewilderment, but the stories that we weave are our own.

The shared space of a painting evidently lacks the reciprocation of a face-to-face encounter, and only loosely takes inspiration from Krueger’s (2011: 643-4) ‘we-space.’ The interaction cannot possibly happen in the same dynamic way that he argues for, for indeed there is no interaction between agents (Krueger, 2011: 646). Instead, each agent interacts with the painting. But what is crucial is that both painter and viewer remain agents; each understands that the other affectively engages with the painting and finds compelling common ground in that thin layer of paint because of the background-driven, future-oriented authorship of each party, however differently their actions might manifest.



A painting invites not a shift in perspective, but active authorship in an affective space that is live for both painter and viewer. The perspectives of the two necessarily differ, but sometimes there is enough overlap to forge a strong connection between the two, allowing each agent to author a different perspective from this common ground. Rather than trying to inhabit the painter’s perspective or to cognitively understand a painting as if its affective power lay merely in the uncovering of discrete packets of affective information, stressing the future-oriented agency of active parties physically immersed in an ever-unfolding world gives us a richer way forward in binding moods and art.


St Augustine. (2009). The Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University.

Coplan, A. (2011). Empathy: Features and effects. In A. Coplan, & P. Goldie, (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University.

Gallegos, F. (2017). Moods Are Not Coloured Lenses: Perceptualism and the Phenomenology of Moods. Philosophia, 45, 1497-1513.

Goldie, P. (2011). Anti-Empathy. In A. Coplan, & P. Goldie, (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University.

Goldman, A. I. (2006). Simulating minds : the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. Oxford: Oxford University.

Goldman, A. I. (2011) Two Routes to Empathy. In A. Coplan, & P. Goldie, (Eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University.

Heidegger, M. (1962 [1927]). Being and Time. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, (Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. (1978 [1929]). ‘What is Metaphysics?’ in his Basic Writings. D. F. Krell (Ed. and trans.). London: Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (1993 [1927]). Sein und Zeit. 19. Edition. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

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

De Jaegher, H., & E. Di Paolo. (2007). Participatory Sense-Making: An enactive approach to social cognition. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6, 485-507.

Von Kaufmann, R. (2014). Slideshow Lecture. Presented at the Laguna College of Art and Design. Laguna Beach, California. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 12 January 2015].

Krueger, J. (2011). Extended Cognition and the Space of Social Interaction. Consciousness and Cognition, 20, 643-657.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012 [1945]). Phenomenology of Perception. Hoboken: Routledge.

Plato. (1988). The Republic, 2nd edition. Desmond Lee (Trans.). London: Penguin.

Ratcliffe, M. (2005). The Feeling of Being. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12(8-10), 43-60.

Sartre, J. P. (1998 [1943]). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Hazel E. Barnes (Trans.). London: Routledge.

Slaby, J. (2014). Empathy’s Blind Spot. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 17, 249-258.

Tolstoy, L. (1996 [1896]). What is Art? Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (Trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Da Vinci, L. (2008). Notebooks. Selected by Irma A. Richter. Thereza Wells (Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University.

Wollheim, R. (1980). Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. Reprinted 2. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Zahavi, D. (2001). Beyond Empathy: Phenomenological Approaches to Intersubjectivity. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8(5-7), 151-67.


The image

Divided (c) Samantha Groenestyn

The painter practices a shadowy art: one of flimsy surfaces imbued with illusory depth, one of treacherous likenesses, one of unbounded profusion that disrupts the rigorous order imposed by the rational mind, one of quivering movement that breaks the quietude of the soul. But this is only within the carefully demarcated world of representation, built upon the long-entrenched prejudices of Platonism. The world of representation infers models for every copy; it assumes every image to be in a degraded relation of dependency upon some unwavering truth (Deleuze, 1990 [1969]: 259). Being visible, painting may only approximate truth. It must imperfectly mimic truth, offering us merely a plausible rendition (Plato, Tim., 28a; 29b). Painting proliferates wildly, disgorging as many iterations of truth as there are viewpoints at every conceivable time. Painting boils over with the feverish richness of experience, actualising every basic human truth–love, longing, loss, contentedness–in every different shade and hue. Painting challenges the impulse to declare truth abstract and constant. Each life might be reduced to the same few categories, but the art is in the living, in the particular threads we weave. The painter who escapes the arena of representation makes a claim for the positive power of the image, shedding the conception of the image as imitation. She attempts to ‘reverse Platonism’ (Deleuze, 1990: 253; 262).



Representation is founded on a false relation. It draws a connection between a painting and the world, suggesting that the painting, like a word, stands in for something in the world–something which thus must be more real. The relation is unequal, for the world does not refer to the painting. Better yet, says representation, the painting–like a word–might stand in for something far more abstract, something not even visible in the world. By an elaborate chain of substitution, a painting is first divided into colour and drawing, and by means of drawing it is dismembered into figures and ground: a figure is selected and cut out by line, peeled out of its context and raised up as a sign; that sign, now sharply recognisable, can shed its visual form for a word, a word which refers to an object in the world which in turn is but a metaphor for a deeper idea. This is to say: representation denies a painting its own status. It places it at the end of a long series of imperfect replacements for verbal thought. The original assumption behind representation is that thought is necessarily abstract and invisible, but that to trade thoughts with one another we must dress them up in inadequate clothing.

To challenge this assumption is to assert other modes of thought. It is to suggest that the painting, as it is, in its entirety, is complete; that it may be confronted on its own terms, not greeted as a carrier of other messages. This would break down Art as we have come to know it: tour guides, artist statements and historical notes would prove incidental. Painters would not calculate their strokes according to verbal ideas, nor would they translate their technically weak paintings back into words that explain them. It is only representation that demands explanation, that drives the impulse to understand. Explanation and understanding pursue the referents at the expense of their disposable carriers. Once the truths buried in the painting are uncovered, the skin that is the painting may be cast aside.

But the painting may not be cast aside as a skin. If this were the case, any skin would do: any covering would only imperfectly approximate that buried truth, and many coverings could be reduced to that single truth. Wittgenstein (1966: 36) holds up the stubbornness of the particular and the mad repetition it induces–not just any minuet will do; not just any Mary, not just any Nordic sea. It is this one that resonates with me in this moment, it is this one I return to again and again. The idea is not enough; what moves me is precisely this manifestation in all its particularity.



We begin, with Deleuze (1990: 7), to return to the surface, accepting its limitless possibility. We confront the flatness of the painting and we do not demand depth of it, layered meanings, or buried truths. We do not dissect it, because such holes would deflate this thing that hovers before us as a unity, carefully interwoven, every stroke balanced against every other. We turn from our analysis and begin to affirm, with Lucretius (DRN IV), the multiple, the positivity of the infinite, the world itself (Deleuze, 1990: 279). The world mirrors the abundance of the picture plane, and its surface–across which the particularities of experience spread–offers us its most profound truths. Where we search for patterns, we find exceptions; where we impose laws, we must amend them to cope with variables. The world’s movements are subtle and fluid, and our explanations are clunky. But where our minds struggle to describe with precision, our bodies adapt to the rhythms of the world with remarkable dexterity (Merleau-Ponty, 2012 [1945]: 171-172). The search for depth confounds us; the direct contact reassures us.



Plato’s (Tim., 27c; 29b) old dichotomy haunts philosophy of art; we still divide the world into being and becoming and we trust the one more than the other. We set them as our standards for knowledge, and we condemn the painter along with the Sophist. For the ‘image’ is not simply a picture; in our tradition it has an enduring status as an imitation, as a copy of a model (Plato, Tim., 29b). It stands as the original mould of representation, since it necessarily clings to its referent. An image might be a picture, but it might be anything sensory–as Augustine’s (2009: 152; 172) vast palaces of the memory, catalogues of images gathered through all sensory channels, make clear. Whatever sensory mode it takes, ‘the image … is an ever-moving apparition of something else’ (Plato, Tim., 52c).

Plato (Tim., 29b) casts the image under the banner of becoming, which he considers an imperfect copy of eternal being. And the nature of becoming is that it is restless. It is always in transit, and never arriving. It is not height, but shrinking or growing, and each implies the other, because becoming is the possibility of all movement, it is the pull of opposing possibilities at once. ‘Alice does not grow without shrinking’ because becoming is the relation between what has been and what will be (Deleuze, 1990: 1). Becoming admits that the world consists in these comparisons; it admits how readily we slide between them as we shift our position or traverse time. Becoming encapsulates the surge towards but never the goal. Time itself, the very condition of movement and change, is the image of eternity (Plato, Tim., 37d). The instability it introduces into the world is the direct result of its status as a flawed copy of a perfect model. Indeed, the world itself, being visible, being encountered via the senses, is on Plato’s (Tim., 28b-29b) terms merely an image.



It is not, then, that Plato urges us to distrust our senses, only that the world in all its loveliness is pitched as inferior to the divine. What is mental and spiritual cannot be grasped through the senses; it is the special privilege of intellect to think abstract thoughts (Plato, Tim., 34c, 37c, 45a). As abstractions, such thoughts distill the multiplicity of the world into immovable and universal concepts, revealing the simplicity and order of the structure of the world. Rather than ‘embracements of flesh,’ abstract thought permits the ‘embracement of my inner man: where there shineth into my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away’ (Augustine, 2009, p. 150). While Augustine’s (2009: 152-153) palaces of memory are conceived spatially, as interlocking caverns where images (and not the things themselves) are stored up inside of us, abstract thoughts escape this spatial constraint. These purely intellectual products of reason and number–‘the things themselves’ and not images of them–take up ghostly residence in us, in no place (Augustine, 2009: 154-155).

Movement is characteristic of the surface, while the rational stillness of being can only lie at some deep core (Plato, Tim., 57d-58a). Plato shuns movement not only because it is disruptive and uncontainable, but also because it is superficial. It corresponds to passive perception rather than deep reflection; it blithely concerns itself with unassuming exteriors rather than troubling to dig for truth. The body gives us no access to the depths and its palpitations distract us from such sober and bodiless thoughts.

And when the painter coats a swathe of linen with a thin film of pigment bound with oil, promising nothing of depth, but only a reflection of our own turbulent emotions, she seems to leer as the charming Sophist, winning our trust with superficially appealing approximations rather than honest and probing arguments. Her art is a rhetorical one: she carefully appraises the situation and adapts her picture accordingly, responding to its effect rather than holding fast to truth (Lichtenstein, 1993 [1989]: 180). Truth becomes subordinate to the effectiveness of her picture, and a picture is not effective when it accurately conveys a message to us but when it moves us. The imitative art of painting mirrors, in all its shifty superficiality, the ‘imitative art of reasoning’ (Plato, Soph., 234b-c). Aligned with becoming rather than being, the painter and the Sophist at best make plausible claims; at worst they deliberately deceive. In any case, they lay no claim on knowledge, since they refuse to excavate the truth (Plato, Tim., 29b; Rep., 510a). The imitative art of painting and the imitative art of reasoning are arts of the surface.



Yet the imitative art consists in two distinct breeds, even by Plato’s (Soph., 235d-236c) account. He considers the art of likeness-making less reproachable than the art of making appearances. The likeness strives after the inner being of the object, attempting to remain faithful to its objective proportions, while the appearance fixes on its surface and, like the painter, preserves the relations between object and observer. The maker of appearances affirms with Merleau-Ponty (2012: 77-80; 196) that there is no view from nowhere, but only perspectives: views from here or there, a shifting web of relations across a rippling and indeterminate world. The maker of appearances is the agent of becoming (Deleuze, 1990, p. 256). The painter and the Sophist don the same guise, accused by Plato (Rep., 597b-e) of standing at the third remove from reality. Their copies are not honest copies of nature, such as the carpenter might construct. With utter disregard for things ‘as they are,’ the agents of becoming dazzle us with a false knowledge which only skims the surface. Their cheap imitation is only concerned with how things appear (Plato, Rep., 598a-600e).

The echoes of this accusation of sophistry ring well into the twentieth century. The Cubist painters fret over how to paint things as they are, and renounce the ‘surface effects’ of light and perspective, the painter’s traditional tools of depth (Rivière, 1966 [1912]: 82-83; Gleizes and Metzinger, 1988 [1912]: 37-38). In a fit of irony, the Cubists scramble to portray their inner selves by trying to depict the insides of mundane objects, and this they attempt by multiplying the surfaces of those objects and consciously depriving them of depth (Rivière, 1966: 88; Gleizes and Metzinger, 1988: 46; 52). Painting approaches higher peaks of absurdity the deeper it descends. Its intellectualism retreats from the sensory, seeking the bodiless abstractions that occupy no space in Augustine’s palaces of the memory. But its method remains stubbornly physical. Painting, after all, takes up space, it gives presence to thoughts. The Cubists encounter the limits of representation: if truth is deep, and painting remains at the surface, painting and truth are incompatible. And this is the very philosophical landscape Plato has herded us into: painting is in bondage to representation, inescapably subject to its hierarchy, by definition subordinate to it (Deleuze, 1990: 259-260).



By insisting on what we have called the false relation of image to world, Plato has obscured the crucial division. Distracted with distinguishing copies from models, we failed to notice that we confront two types of images (Deleuze, 1990: 256). And these are not simply the true likeness (as of the craftsman) and the deceptive appearance of the painter-Sophist. Deleuze (1990: 257) makes very plain that ‘if we say it is a copy of a copy, an infinitely degraded icon, loose resemblance, we miss the difference in nature between simulacrum and copy.’

This difference in nature lies in a fundamental difference in conception of resemblance. Resemblance may stem from an original similitude or even identity, from which it decays the further it strays from the model, as in Plato’s position. Or it may stem from a fundamental disparity (Deleuze, 1990: 261). In the case of the former, the traditional copy, an inner, spiritual, mental resemblance is imperfectly preserved. The copy makes feeble reference to the model. But in the latter, no such inner structure binds the two; they converge precisely because they are different. Plato bears down on us with the insistence that this outward similarity is a trick, trying to mimic an inner bond. But Deleuze (1990: 253) stands firm, defiant in his effort to ‘reverse Platonism.’ The simulacrum, he insists, ‘internalises a dissimilarity’ (Deleuze, 1990: 258). The way out of the trap of representation is to seize upon this inner unrest.

The inner disparity revels in the outward profusion of similitude in the world. The world is a jubilant profusion of diversity, of reckless variation and rampant growth, spawning rainforests of unimaginable beasts and vegetation whose individuals yet present their own personal traits (Deleuze, 1990: 266). Amplifying on Lucretius (DRN IV), Deleuze (1990: 266; 268) argues that this abundance presents no threat; rather, ‘nature must be thought of as the principle of the diverse and its production,’ and that principle is a limiting one. Increase and multiplication do not run along every axis. The number of kinds is not infinite, but among each kind, infinite instances may occur. Growth is not entirely unrestricted–there is method in its madness. Permitting the wild permutations of the world affirms truth of an entirely different flavour: one that aligns with our experience at the surface of the world, daily confirmed by our bodily immersion in the world.



The proliferation at the surface of the world cannot be described in representational terms. Each manifestation is not a deviation from a model, but it ‘speak[s] across difference’ (Foucault, 1983 [1973]: 32). The world multiplies in series, a level field of different objects without hierarchy, sitting by one another in all their distinctness. Where they resemble one another, we must understand this as the outward convergence of inwardly disparate things. Foucault (1983: 44) further refines the concept of resemblance, teasing out the inward disparity and calling it ‘similitude,’ abandoning ‘resemblance’ to representation. The visual likeness that a painting may offer appeals to similitude, to the proliferation in series like that at the surface of the world. It can move in any direction, as Alice shrinks and grows at once–for it is always becoming. It posits the ‘indefinite and reversible’ relations between cohabitant things, not the firm reference to a model (Foucault, 1983: 44). It is in this sense that it ‘refer[s] to nothing;’ it refers not to things but to fluid relations between things (Foucault, 1983: 48).

This likeness is of an entirely other kind than that for which Foucault reserves the term ‘resemblance,’ which is inescapably grounded on a model, clinging to that inner likeness (if not identity). Resemblance always returns to the model, its purpose is ever to sacrifice itself in order to reveal the model (Foucault, 1983: 44). It is the skin that sheds itself, the superficial layer that conceals, only to finally reveal, the depths. Resemblance proves to be in servitude to representation because it treats likeness as a sign. The sign is the gateway to penetrating the surface, and it ruthlessly requires substitution: ‘This thing,’ the sign proudly declares as it annihilates itself, ‘is something else’ (Foucault, 1983: 44).

And this is how, according to Foucault (1983: 53), resemblance reintroduces words into the world of shape, which actively resisted it. While painters worked wordlessly in their studios, marvelling at their own physical encounter with the surface of the world, at the golden sunlight that melted over a late afternoon in early Summer, at the shocking discord they discovered between themselves and close companions, at the dreary fog of futility that seemed to descend on a Sunday, noting all these things in their particularity and setting them down in paint from their own perspective, words were ever stalking the boundaries of likeness and waiting to seize it for deeper purposes (Foucault, 1983: 41). The painter may defer to either side, either embracing the sign or denying it. When she denies it, she reveals the depths to be empty. There was never anything to uncover, to understand or to interpret. ‘Absence reäscends to the surface’ (Foucault, 1983: 41).



Having cleared the depths, we must now face this absence. The painting looms before us, flat and silent. Disarmed of our representational tools, we must simply confront the surface, accepting that painters do not bury treasures but simply reflect an experience of the world. That world is lavish and indeterminate, shimmering at its edges (Husserl, 1973 [1948]: 87). It offers an ever-changing array of possibilities upon which we may seize, with each act opening out into a new branch of possibilities. This openness affirms the movement of the world, the agitation of a world that is always surging towards and never arriving, a world premised only upon becoming without any deeper and constant being. The movement ripples back and forth across a surface of reversible relations, of which the painter is one small thread in a complex weave. Though her position is arbitrary, it is nevertheless her own, and she wields her brush with conviction, actualising a little corner of that world from her perspective, emphasising the relations that resonate with her, imposing the order of perspective, not of internal resemblance. Things make sense from her angle, or rather, she makes sense of them, by setting these relations into a holistic harmony with one another, a harmony of colours, tones, shapes, lines and textures. She demonstrates not what the world means, but why it matters, praising each particular.

The painter thinks in terms of Augustine’s stored up images and not in the hovering truths of number. She returns to her easel with the same recurring impressions circling in her head, reconfiguring them and reformulating them until they touch a nerve, bypassing the intellect altogether (Sylvester and Bacon, 1975: 18). What she puts forward is not a statement, but something that, when effective, also resonates with us as viewers when we linger at the surface.



The image is a tarnished concept, inextricably bound up in imitation: in the reference that copy makes to model. It binds us to the world of representation, a world in which painters are either deceitful Sophists with seductive rhetorical tricks, or in which they must disavow the surface and proclaim themselves messengers of deep truths, and try to resolve the paradox of giving spatial form to what is purely abstract. Where the image cannot be rescued, it must be replaced. We must appeal instead to the simulacrum, to similitude, to series and to surface. Painters side with the Sophist only to turn his question upon Plato (Soph. 239d): ‘Pray, what do you mean at all by an image?’ It is Plato (Soph. 239e-240a) who, ‘when you address him as though he had eyes,’ laughs in response, who ‘pretend[s] that he knows nothing of mirrors and streams, or of sight at all; [who] will say that he is talking about an idea.’ The painter wordlessly wipes back her thin film of wet paint and exposes nothing but the blank expectation of experience, of life ready to be lived.


Augustine. (2009). The Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University.

Deleuze, Gilles. (1990 [1969]). The Logic of Sense. Edited by Constantin V. Boundas. Translated by Mark Lester. London: Athlone.

Foucault, Michel. (1983 [1973]). This Is Not a Pipe. Translated by James Harkness. Berkeley: University of California.

Gleizes, Albert, und Jean Metzinger. (1988 [1912]). Über den ,Kubismus.’ Übertragung von Fritz Metzinger. Frankfurt (Main): Fischer.

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

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. (1993 [1989]). The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Translated by Emily McVarish. Berkeley: University of California.

Lucretius, C. T., & Bailey, C. (1948). Lucretius on the nature of things. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

Plato. (1988). The Republic, 2nd edition. Translated by Desmond Lee. London: Penguin.

Plato. (1984). The being of the beautiful : Plato’s Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Plato. (1976). Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Desmond Lee. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin.

Rivière, Jacques. (1966 [1912]). ‘Gegenwärtige Strömungen in der Malerei,’ in Der Kubismus, Ed. Edward Fry. Köln: DuMont Schauberg.

Sylvester, David, and Francis Bacon. (1975). Francis Bacon. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1966). Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. by Cyril Barrett. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


The effect

The drawing class (c) 2017 Samantha Groenestyn

Images seep into language, and in so doing they add colour and liveliness. The metaphor chases after the potency of the image, abandoning the bald precision of description for a surprising visual equivalence painted in words. But Lichtenstein (1993: 204) is eager to persuade us that the image itself is something autonomous and specific. Though it can be imported into language, it does not consist in language. Nor is it simply the flipside of verbal description, an illustration of words. Our encounter with the image should reach beyond the boundaries of language.

Lichtenstein’s (1993 [1989]: 4, 63) incredible book, The Eloquence of Colour, champions the unruly and indispensable element of painting that is colour, the rogue party in painting’s troubled relationship with philosophy. She sees in colour–stubbornly material, emotional and seductive–the very thing that makes painting both distinct and effective. It is the part that Plato could not subdue, when he rightly recognised the seductive and deceptive threat of the image. Plato’s move, Lichtenstein (1993: 142) explains, was swift and decisive: he derailed the theoretical hopes of the image by framing the debate on the territory of language. The image must defend itself by the standards of discourse, and so too must painting if it wishes to emerge from the mechanical arts and prove itself a ‘legitimate form of knowledge’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 204).

Even Aristotle’s defence of the visual does not challenge this founding assumption, which has plagued the visual and performative arts ever since (Lichtenstein, 1993: 62). He resigns himself to the ontologically deficient status of materiality, to the inferiority of appearances and the Spectacle (Aristotle. Rhet. III.1, 1404a1-4, trans. Roberts; Poet. B.6, 1450b17-19, trans. Bywater; Lichtenstein, 1993: 63). Colour suffers from this prejudice more than drawing–for drawing is crisp and measurable, and able to describe a story, and thus more readily tamed for discursive purposes. Yet in defining the image as something linear and illustrative–as the metaphor–philosophical discourse frames the question for its own advantage, constructing a straw man which it then proceeds to dominate (Lichtenstein, 1993: 44; 82). Painting, resplendent with colour, defies discourse because it does not consist entirely in drawing. The image ought to defend itself precisely on its own non-discursive grounds.

This discursive attack that puts the image on the defensive is precisely the fate suffered by rhetoric, and Lichtenstein thus finds in rhetoric an unexpected ally for painting (Lichtenstein, 1993: 205). Discourse seeks to distance itself from rhetoric, demanding logical rigour in arguments above persuasive delivery of them. The visible, theatrical aspects of speech open the door to all manner of deception. The charge of sophistry is levelled at both rhetoric and painting, Lichtenstein (1993: 68) argues, not simply because they are visual, but because of how persuasive the visual is. Their very charm, their incontestable effectiveness, is exactly what sparks this mistrust.

Discourse may colour itself with metaphors, but rhetoric strides to the edge of logical argument, sets its words aside and simply shows us. We hear the image in discourse; we simply see it in rhetoric (Lichtenstein, 1993: 129). Action is no metaphor. A forceful gesture is forceful; a proud bearing is proud; a wavering voice does waver; a heavy silence bears down on us heavily. ‘Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration,’ says Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355a4-5). These actual, active demonstrations threaten language–they suggest a deficiency in language, and they hint at their own independence from language, their escape from the carefully defined terms of language (Lichtenstein, 1993: 92, 111). The hierarchy of language above the image might be overturned, the image might prove stronger.

But neither Lichtenstein nor Aristotle attempt to invert the traditional hierarchy. Lichtenstein (1993: 75, 111) would rather abandon hierarchies altogether, and clarify instead how the visible and the discursive complement one another. Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355a20-25, 1356a20-25) still requires that the orator ‘be able to reason logically,’ and thus considers rhetoric ‘an offshoot of dialectic’ rather than a rival; the orator cannot afford to let truth itself go unnoticed merely because his audience pays too little heed to his intricate arguments. Platonism urges us to look for hierarchies and homogeneity in theories of representation, Lichtenstein (1993: 55) suggests; Aristotelianism tends to permit more heterogeneous theories of representation, the kinds that embrace logically elusive concepts like desire and pleasure.

The sign itself represents the attempt to ‘master the image logically’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 51). The sign models representation on language: it assumes that representation, too, must be discursive. It implies that every visual, like a word, stands in for what it represents, and that this is how it acquires meaning. There is a referential relationship between the sign and what it signifies (Lichtenstein, 1993: 179). Lichtenstein counters that meaning exists in the image as a unity, it permeates its materiality; even without precise contours a painting can persuade us through a haze of convincing colours–the part that Descartes (2008 [1641]: 15) says remains true when all else is fictitious. Wherever we try to interpret, we seek a referent for a sign; whenever we speak of resemblance, we are making a comparison between two disconnected things, we are approaching the painting with a discursive attitude (Lichtenstein, 1993: 51). Representation is much simpler if we take rhetoric as our model: the painting, like the orator, simply re-presents the very object or emotion before our eyes (Lichtenstein, 1993: 123). It does not tell, it shows.

The most pressing thing, then, is not how much a painting resembles its referent, how accurately it embodies this information, but rather how captivating it is. The painting must, like the orator, hold our attention, capture our fancy, and move us. Lichtenstein (1993: 180) argues that ‘truth in painting lies in the effect of the representation on those who see it’–that representation consists in perception, which takes place in the viewer, not reference, a relation between the painting and its referent.

Insisting on the effect rather than the internal cohesiveness of the painting itself, and on what the artist intended to embed in it, seems problematic at first glance. But this emphasis on perception has less to do with private, subjective interpretations of a painting by scattered viewers, and more to do with an immediate sensory encounter with it. For interpretations, you will recall, are discursive decodings of images. In placing perception at the centre of our theory of representation, we are exchanging the cerebral encounter with the painting for a sensory one: we are approaching it on material grounds, responding to its material presence with our bodily awareness. We let our eyes apprehend the painting, we let them roam where it urges them, we let its mood wash over us, we trust its silent proddings rather than searching for intellectual substitutions we might make.

Unlike the discordant diversity of subjective interpretations, I would argue that this immediate sensory apprehension brings us much nearer to the intention of the artist. It is the way a painting seems to ‘come across directly onto the nervous system,’ as Bacon (1975: 18) strives after; it reflects Wollheim’s (1987: 43) observation that the artist assumes the dual role of artist and spectator in one, constantly testing and retesting the painting’s effect on herself, in order to know whether it will have the same effect on other spectators. ‘The painter’s pleasure is also that of the viewer’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 182). The spectator comes nearer the painter’s intention if he simply perceives the painting and lets its silent visual elements work on him.

Yet even the path of perception is fraught with philosophical difficulties. Descartes has long since challenged the ontological status of sensory perceptions, finding a way to convert them into intellectual ideas independent of the body. For if we experience sensations in our dreams, they must, reasons Descartes (2008 [1641]: 14; 20-1), have very little to do with physical experience. Scoring points on the side of discourse, he (2008 [1641]: 23) concludes that ‘perception … is an inspection by the mind alone.’ Kant (2009 [1783]: §1; §10) is clear to point out that we are dealing with metaphysics, not physics; whatever a physical thing is, he argues, all we can measure is our own idea of it. Materiality has suffered heavily under our discursive tradition of metaphysics. Arguing for the significance of the material and our perception of it is no small task within this enduring theoretical domain.

Perhaps the best route out is that suggested by Lichtenstein (1993: 182): to prove that illusion is no deception, for the simple reason that it shows itself. The illusion never asks us to believe in its truth, it never attempts to stand in for reality. It shows us something of the world, all the while admitting its own artifice, and we indulge ourselves momentarily in the illusion because it is pleasurable (Lichtenstein, 1993: 179). Painting is comparable to cosmetics: it seeks to delight us, to captivate us, to seduce us, but not to trick us into believing in a false reality. This playful artifice does not deserve the accusation of sophistry, argues Lichtenstein (1993: 187); rather, the kind of persuasion that promises truth by airtight feats of logic but quietly leads us astray is sophistry. ‘What makes a man a ‘sophist’ is not his faculty, but his moral purpose,’ retorts Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355b15-20). The key, Lichtenstein (1993: 181) insists, lies in realising that truth in painting, like in rhetoric, is measured by its effectiveness in the spectator, not by its relation to reality or our idea of it.

To establish painting’s theoretical validity, then, on the grounds of its rhetorical persuasiveness rather than on discursive grounds, we need to show how this effectiveness can be deliberately achieved. Generally, a discipline has had to prove itself on both theoretical and pedagogical grounds to be recognised as a liberal art: Lichtenstein (1993: 139) describes the rocky emergence of the Royal French Academy in 1635 and painting’s troubles in both domains, particularly the reluctance of the newfound professors to verbalise their practice. Lichtenstein (1993: 152) surmises that ‘drawing is the only thing in painting that can really be subjected to rules’–and thus the only part of painting which can truly be taught, and systematically theorised about. Here we will raise a resounding objection: colour can indeed be taught, and thus we can put forward an alternate way of theorising about painting, one that suits colour and drawing equally, and that accommodates a perceptual theory of representation.

First we need to be clear what we mean by ‘rules.’ I am not endorsing binding, homogeneous laws of painting. Rather, I am arguing for systematic, orderly but adaptive principles that approximate our perception and work in conjunction with it. They explicitly avoid the strict recipes and dogmas of the studio; they permit great but knowledgeable flexibility in technique. They require each artist to develop her own sensibility, to order her perceptions according to her own aesthetic preferences–they demand great facility and understanding but also offer the greatest liberation from rules and haphazard fortuitousness alike. They are not rules at all.

They are the kinds of systems described by Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 28-30) in his book on perspective, which emphasises the difference between the rigid mathematical space that our linear perspective imposes upon space as we actually perceive it through two spherical eyes, but which we adapt to our aesthetic purposes nonetheless, and the kind of systems described by Runge (1810) and more lately by David Briggs (2017) which describe colour space three dimensionally, either strictly geometrically like Runge, or in conjunction with light indices like Briggs. These systems deny absolutes; they acknowledge that what we perceive is difficult to describe, but they find relational ways to do so that encourage the active participation of the artist.

And, being able to be taught, these systems meet both the theoretical and the pedagogical requirements of a liberal art (Lichtenstein, 1993: 151). They achieve all this far from the narrow demands of language and discourse, holding fast to a rhetorical conception of representation, embracing what is explicitly visual in painting, preserving and promoting its characteristic and autonomous effectiveness.

Aristotle. 1984. The Rhetoric and the Poetics. Edited by Edward P. J. Corbett. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater. New York: The Modern Library.

Briggs, David. 2017. The Dimensions of Colour.

Descartes, René. 2008 [1641]. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Translated by Michael Moriarty. Oxford: Oxford University.

Kant, Immanuel. 2009 [1783] Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können. Edited by Rudolf Malter. Reclams Universal-Bibliothek, Nr. 2468. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. 1993 [1989] The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Translated by Emily McVarish. Berkeley: University of California.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1991 [1927]. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone.

Runge, Philipp Otto. 1810. Farbenkugel: Konstruktion Des Verhältnisses Aller Mischungen Der Farben Zueinander Und Ihrer Vollständigen Affinität. Köln: Tropen.

Sylvester, David, and Francis Bacon. 1975. Francis Bacon. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon.

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


Geometry & painting

Adèle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Importing mathematics into painting has some potentially grand implications. The idea makes me flush with uncontainable excitement; it smacks of Descartes (2006 [1637]: 9) and his methodical approach to knowledge, and I would echo his rationalist sentiment: ‘I was most keen on mathematics, because of its certainty and the incontrovertibility of its proofs.’ This unlikely marriage between mathematics and painting is especially dear to me because it offers something steady and dependable in terms of colour and not merely in terms of drawing; it promises to embrace the entirety of painting with its sober orderliness. This systematisation hardly destroys the poetry of painting. Rather, it allows us to sharpen our technical methods, which equips the genius (of the Kantian flavour) to paint something deeply insightful and moving. And it promises a double elegance: the sight of the painting itself, just like the sounds in music, may please us, and at the same time be grounded in delightfully crisp mathematical relationships, just like the improbable mathematical elegance of harmony in music.

These longings for order and systematisation sound rather like seventeenth-century aspirations to elevate painting to a science, or at least to a liberal art, which has much to do with shedding its humble craft status, as a trade practiced by illiterates. Painting has certainly made many efforts in this direction; it may boast of its academic status now that it is so commonly taught in universities rather than in ateliers, now that it defends itself verbally and indeed often consists more in its verbal conception and explanation than in its visual execution. But perhaps these victories are no victories at all: they strip painting of the very things that distinguish it as painting. Painting might have done better to have sought an intellectual ally in mathematics rather than in language, for there it would have found ways to describe its visual concepts succinctly and precisely.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

This camaraderie is most apparent when it comes to colour. Colour is the rogue that has been seized by painters who want to defy philosophical discourse, and it is the uncontainable element that philosophy has used to subordinate painting. It seems to defy principles, thus it eludes philosophers, and it seems to operate largely by inspiration, superstition and magic, which seems to be attractive to painters. Across both disciplines, there is general agreement that colour is definitively not rule-amenable, while drawing is. Jacqueline Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 4; 62-3), in The Eloquence of Colour, traces this long-standing tension back to Plato and Aristotle, observing that ‘being material, colour has always been seen as belonging to the ontologically deficient categories of the ephemeral and the random.’ Philosophy has, she writes, thus favoured the more conceptually manageable element of painting: drawing (Lichtenstein, 1989 [1993]: 4).

If colour does not lend itself to principles, this has another, more practical, result. Philosophy aside, it means that colour cannot be taught. This lends itself to all varieties of unwelcome mysticism, that I personally would like to see chased out of the discipline of painting. It suggests that painters are ‘gifted,’ that they are conduits for ‘inspiration,’ or that they must operate by chance–all of which deny that painting is a disciplined skill that can be developed and improved and harnessed for aesthetic purposes. This is an unhappy state for painting to be in, for it grants artists license to all sorts of nonsense and self-indulgence, and abuses the viewer with all manner of ineptly executed work. In short, it encourages carelessness and invites decadence. Painting is visibly decaying before our eyes.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

In the face of these two apparent deficiencies, I want to argue that the emphasis on drawing–both as philosophically acceptable and as practically teachable–is misplaced. Drawing certainly does lend itself to principles which can indeed be taught, and perhaps this fact is even overplayed. There are elements to drawing that cannot be taught, because each draughtswoman will adapt the learned principles to her own sensibility; she will interpret them, introducing a quality of line that no one else has. And, more broadly, the principles that are discussed and taught are not incontestable facts of existence. This is very clearly described by Panofsky’s (1991 [1927]: 37) contrast of spherical and linear perspective. Lastly, I want to raise a surprisingly little-grasped fact, one that is also popularly rejected by painters: colour is indeed amenable to principles, and there are painters who work with these principles and succeed in teaching them. Colour is very acutely described by geometry. In our infatuation with language, this straightforward ordering of colour has persisted largely unnoticed for at least two hundred years.

Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 142) notes that ‘ever since society has set a hierarchy among human activities, their relation to language has been the ultimate criterion for the establishment of a division, both social and philosophical, between the noble arts and the servile trades.’ Because of this, she explains, painting has sought to prove itself by ‘literary credentials;’ in order to do this, it has been expected to ‘satisfy both theoretical and pedagogical objectives,’ as we have already considered (Lichtenstein 1993 [1989]: 142; 151). Since she accepts that colour defies principles, she looks to rhetoric to redeem the intellectual status of painting, a fascinating move that demands more attention elsewhere, but we may here respond with our geometry of colour.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

A fascinating little tract by Philipp Otto Runge appeared in the early 1800s. His Farbenkugel, or ‘colour sphere,’ is a mathematically pure way of conceptualising colour. It conceives of the relations between all colours three-dimensionally. He begins with a flat triangle that represents the three unmixed colours of red, yellow and blue. Each line is bisected to indicate that, mathematically, the secondary colours are the halfway points between each of these: orange, green and purple. These six points are extended out to the edges of a circle, which is then pierced by a perpendicular axis at whose poles stand white and black. The mid-point of this pole is, mathematically, a mid-tone grey. As colours move directly across the horizontal axis, they are neutralised by their mathematical opposite, entirely cancelling each other out as grey at the mid-point–yellow becomes, not more purplish, but more grey, as it moves towards purple, its opposite. Green and red exist in the same relation, and orange and blue. The knowledge of these relationships means a painter in fact need not use a black paint to recreate these relationships in paint: grey is not the absence of colour, but the annihilation of one colour in its mathematical opposite–‘alle einander auf derselben Gerade gegenüberliegenden Farben [sind] als Kräfte anzunehmen, welche einander entgegenstehen und sich durch ihre Vermischung zerstören in Grau’ (‘all colours that lay across from each other on the same line are to be assumed opposing forces that, upon mixing, annihilate each other in grey’) (Runge, 1810: 28). The rest of the sphere is filled out by every conceivable mixed colour and in every level of lightness and darkness, vividness and neutrality. The whole thing is most easily grasped visually, and this is the advantage of geometry.

(After Philipp Otto Runge)

It is a very beautiful model, one developed concomitantly with discussions with Goethe, and a living idea still used and taught by artists who appreciate the more rugged borders of three-dimensional colour-space. But more than this, the emphasis on relationships allows a shift in thinking: rather than considering colours as absolutes, bound to precise recipes of two-parts cadmium yellow to one-part prussian blue, they may instead be managed and manipulated as a complex but entirely rational web of relationships. This means, in fact, an emancipation from the types of dogmas that more mystically-inclined painters tend to bark at other painters: it means a shift from objectively defining colours to subjectively experiencing them. It allows a painter to recreate her perceptual experience of seeing colours; it allows for the fact that a certain mixture can appear pink or green, depending on the context it is set in. It marks a dramatic difference between painters who ask ‘what colour this really is,’ and those who ask how they perceive it. The second mindset affords far greater flexibility and dexterity with colour. And it can be taught.

(From Philipp Otto Runge, Farbenkugel)

This kind of dexterity is important because ultimately, while we might define our concept of colour in a pure mathematical way, paint itself does not respond to such precise geometrical divisions, and does not correspond so precisely to light. The painter must cope with two additional overlays to her mathematical concept of colour: the chemistry of paint and how the mixtures are achieved by actual pigments of vastly different physical properties, and the physics of light and the fact that her eyes take in a much broader gamut of colours than her paint is capable of mixing. A swift and nimble understanding of the relationships as geometric proportions is a solid conceptual ground that can be modified empirically as the painter’s experience with using paint and approximating it to what she sees grows. Runge (1810: 62) notes this as an aside to Goethe in one of his letters: ‘Ich kann mich hier nicht über die Praktik ausbreiten, weil es erstlich zu weitläufig wäre,’ (‘I cannot expand upon the practice here, firstly because it would ramble on too long,’) but he mentions that the artist requires ‘den nötigen chemischen wie mathematischen Kenntnissen’ (‘the necessary chemical alongside the mathematical knowledge.’)

Such systems equip us with knowledge, and thus confidence, and in the case of colour, adequately describe and organise the material reality of paint and at the same time accommodate our subjective, perceptual experience of it. Runge (1810: 42; 61) hopes that these pure insights will permit more definite expression; he thinks that being secure in the mental connections of the elements is the only means of setting a painter’s mind at ease, in the face of such superstition and chance. It would be well at this point to remind ourselves not to take the implications of these principles too far, and thus to return to Panofsky.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

For the principles of vanishing-point perspective, the mainstay of principled drawing, are, indeed, a construction devised during the Renaissance, as Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 27) notes early on. It provides us with a mathematical space that is actually at odds with our perceptual experience of space, but that does not undermine its usefulness to us. Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 29-30) contrasts the visibly rigid ‘structure of an infinite, unchanging and homogenous space–in short, a purely mathematical space’ with ‘the structure of psychophysiological space.’ Our working concept of perspective demands that space conforms entirely to reason, that it is ‘infinite, unchanging and homogeneous’ (Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 28-9); but that demands certain assumptions that deny our experience of it: firstly, ‘that we see with a single and immobile eye,’ and secondly, that a flat plane adequately reproduces our curved optical image–two ‘rather bold abstractions’ from our perceptual experience.

‘In a sense,’ write Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 31), ‘perspective transforms psychophysiological space into mathematical space.’ And there is indeed nothing wrong with that if we recognise it as such, and do not take our theoretical underpinnings too far, thus over-emphasising the theoretical validity of drawing over colour.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

Beginning with (helpfully visual) geometric principles, we can thus devise rigorous and teachable theoretical systems for both of the equally important parts of painting, for drawing and for colour, describing them in pure, abstracted, mathematical terms, whose constancy is beautiful in and of itself. We can reclaim the liberal art of painting, award it some intellectual prestige, and even ground it in scientific principles that draw on chemistry and physics as well. Descartes’ project might not prove so alien in the murky and superstitious realm of painting.

Copy after Rodin, The sculptor and his muse

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. 1993 [1989]. The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Translated by Emily McVarish. Berkeley: University of California.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1991 [1927]. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone.

Runge, Philipp Otto. 1810. Farbenkugel: Konstruktion Des Verhältnisses Aller Mischungen Der Farben Zueinander Und Ihrer Vollständigen Affinität. Köln: Tropen.