Representation: Some groundwork

Veronese Hercules

(After Veronese)

To establish some groundwork for my investigation into painting as language, I want to linger a while on the concept of representation, at the same time considering its intimate connection with expression. In the studio, I have seen the word ‘representational’ used passionately, dogmatically, often loosely, but sometimes also cautiously—generally to single out a particular kind of painting that pitches itself against ‘abstract’ painting, though it is also sometimes the preferred term of painters who are equally opposed to ‘realistic’ painting of a more photographic flavour. In such circles, ‘representational painting’ roughly categorises the kind of painting that recognisably looks like something, even if, as in the case of, say, Vuillard, the eyes must linger a while and actively search. Among such artists, there are always some (myself included) who would assert that all painting is an abstraction to some degree—or perhaps better: even the paintings that most closely approximate reality are still an interpretation of things seen.

I like this barrier between painting and the world itself that abstraction and interpretation insert, because it reinforces the idea that an artist never tries to and indeed never can duplicate the physical world, but humbly models her own take on it, a version of it mingled with her own thought and with her own labour—with her very body. Thus, there is only a certain kind of abstraction that such artists would distance themselves from, and it is one that shuns the physical world entirely, expelling it even from memory; a kind of painting that removes all content and distils painting to an exercise in formal properties like shape, colour, tone and the physicality of the surface of the paint. And even then, these representational artists are already very well-versed in such abstractions and use them as jubilantly as their opponents—and usually much more knowledgeably and subtly. The difference, then, must come down to a desire for content, or for the lack thereof.

Thus, we might crudely say that representation implies content—some thing represented. And it may be represented with a high degree of abstraction, though the artist risks being misunderstood the further she strays from the recognisable, or from interpretations of reality that we are already familiar with. The Impressionists took just such a risk, though they finally succeeded when we learned to make sense of their organisation of light (in Gombrich 1959: 275). But much philosophical work has been done on the finer points of representation. It is certainly not enough to appeal to the level of similarity between a picture and that which it represents. Plato (in Gombrich, 1959: 99) decried art for deceiving the mind with illusions, but we are certainly not so taken in by paintings that we believe ourselves transported to another realm, or that we believe the person portrayed to be standing before us. Likeness or resemblance was thus a very early explanation of representation, a crude equivalence of which we have both nothing to fear (in terms of deception) and little to gain. For while Velázquez’s portrait represents Philip IV of Spain, Philip IV does not represent his portrait.

(After Van Dyck)

(After Van Dyck)

Goodman (1976: 4) points out this simple observation in Languages of Art, and I think it is a good place to start, if only to remind artists themselves that likeness is not the Promised Land, and that representation opens up a much more generous, exploratory realm. To capture this idea that representation implies content, but that the implication only goes one way, Goodman (1976: 5; 233) appeals to the term ‘denotation.’ When a picture represents some object, the picture denotes the object, that object is denoted by the picture. Denotation introduces symbolism into representation. The picture operates as a symbolic reference to the object, but the object does not symbolically refer to the picture, whatever similarity exists between the two. ‘Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance,’ explains Goodman (1976: 5). Denotation more explicitly conveys the asymmetry of representation, since we naturally think of a symbol as somehow dependent on the thing it signifies. Denotation runs in one direction.

We thus need another term to capture the relation in the other direction: Goodman (1976: 52; 233) chooses ‘exemplification.’ The object exemplifies what is represented in the picture. With such a relation, we can identify a particular object in a painting, though it was not the very same painted by the artist. We might even align our own private emotions with the content of the picture, finding the picture to be expressive of an emotion we personally feel. The artist surely did not seek to paint our emotion, but our emotion exemplifies that embedded in the painting. More complex than plain symmetry, Goodman has developed a system grounded in symbols comprised of two opposing currents, markedly different in character.

Representation, for Goodman (1976: 40), bears some similarity to verbal description. It runs in the same direction with respect to the object: both verbal descriptions and visual representations denote the object. But for Goodman, the emotional tint of the picture runs counter to this cold, symbolic summary of the object. The emotions come from the side of the viewer, who apprehends the picture ‘through the feelings as well as through the senses’ (Goodman 1976: 248). The expressiveness of the picture is then a subjective experience, coming from the way the spectator identifies with the content of the picture. He integrates its symbols into his own symbol system, and finds his own emotions reflected back at him.

(After Pacetti)

(After Pacetti)

Gombrich (1959: 310) openly questions the division of expression from representation in Art and Illusion. Writing almost two decades earlier than Goodman, he is more liberal with his language analogy, pointing out that not only is verbal language descriptive, it can at the same time be highly charged with emotion, and every shade in between (1959: 310). He suggests a simpler blending of the two, rather than a fundamentally and logically opposed relation. Thus, representation is not simply comparable to verbal description, not simply a record of information by translatable symbols, but it is the very means by which we convey a broad spectrum of descriptive and expressive content. ‘Representation,’ argues Gombrich (1959: 319) ‘is the instrument of information and expression.’

But what can this ‘instrument’ really refer to other than the way paint itself is used? By which I mean the body of the artist mingling, through movement, with the substance of the paint to give both physical form and visual presence to things thought, seen, or imagined. To remove the paint, or other medium, is to force a reliance on something purely conceptual that may take on any physical guise: probably symbols, which may be more readily substituted for words. And this is a mistake that Gombrich falls into. Continuing the analogy with language, Gombrich (1959: 326) argues that ‘all human communication is through symbols.’ Painting, then, may be blanched of its paint, may be stripped to its pictorial skeleton, dissected, analysed, and thus understood. My complaint with him (and with Goodman) is that symbols are not enough; representation consists in so much more: that when we represent something visible by visual means, every physical element is necessary and contributes in some way, even if ever so slightly, even if with such feathery nuance, even if so delicately integrated with other elements that it cannot be individually extracted and examined. Representation may indeed serve description and expression in such a blended way, but always via the medium invoked.


(from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter)

Gombrich’s appeal to illusion is grounded in a very simple example, which I think demonstrates this fundamental problem in his position on representation. He cites the optical illusion of the duck-rabbit—a picture that at some times resembles a duck, but which by effort of the attention transforms its beak into the long ears of a rabbit. Gombrich’s argument is that one cannot experience illusion at the same time as one experiences reality. It is either rabbit or duck. Thus we cannot be absorbed in the illusion of the picture and at the same time consciously aware of the painted surface. What Gombrich disregards is that we can indeed simultaneously see that the rabbit, drawn in fastidious lines, is printed in black ink on paper, and that likewise, the duck, comprised of the same lines, even as it appears as a duck is evidently printed in black ink upon a page. It is the duck and the rabbit—the content of the representation—that we cannot see at the same time. In fact, the illusion works precisely because of the printed ink: paint would destroy the trick, for colours would suggest different creatures and tone would give greater or lesser volume to beaks and ears than our eyes would believe. In each case, the representation is bound up in the simplicity of the medium of pen and ink, which can conveniently leave out information that would detract from the other representation. The analogy is misplaced: we certainly cannot see simultaneous competing representations, but we can see a representation and at the same time be aware of its physical extension.

(After Delacroix)

(After Delacroix)

Better than illusion, then: let us follow Wollheim (1987: 185) in finding in representation a call to imagination. We are too aware to be fooled into thinking that representations are reality, or that we do not notice what the representation consists in. But we can gain immense satisfaction from picking up the hints a picture drops and adventuring along a train of thought that it sets in motion. For Wollheim (1987: 101), representation does more than communicate something, and more than stimulate some private daydream. It coaxes us in a particular direction, at the urging of the artist, who inscribes her very trails of thought in wandering streaks of paint. For Wollheim (1987: 7, 15) the medium is indispensable; one cannot divorce the meaning of a painting from the paint. For thoughts are worked through, laid up, reconsidered through the medium. And representation and expression—by means of the medium—‘are the two basic forms of pictorial meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 305). Rather than looking for a dialogue between painter and spectator, Wollheim grounds everything in a kernel of meaning buried deep in a picture, discoverable, moving, compelling, but not linguistic, not ceremoniously imparted from ‘speaker’ to ‘listener.’ A painting does not speak, but guards a thought.

The medium shows its significance in a more primitive visual experience that logically precedes representation: that of ‘seeing-in.’ Wollheim (1987: 306) finds it most expedient to explain what it is to represent by this simple and familiar experience. It is exactly that cited by da Vinci (in Gombrich 1959: 159) as a stimulus to imagination—of seeking forms and faces, even battles and civilisations, in the coarse textures of crumbling walls—and exactly that deemed impossible by Gombrich, of seeing at the same time the suggestion of a figure and the ragged plaster. These simple fancies are the result of imagination, but exist by chance, moulded by the ravages of nature and not carefully crafted after human intentions, and so they are not representations. But the same thing happens when we look at a crafted picture: we are both ‘aware of the surface and [see] something in it’ (Wollheim 1987: 46). When the artist makes use of this feat of vision and applies her paint with the intention that a spectator should discover some particular thing in those marks, this intention, says Wollhem (1987: 101), is representation.

the artist

Expression, for Wollheim (1987: 89), colours representation. Emotions are crucial to painting, and expression describes the way they weave through the application of paint, the organisation of the picture, the deliberate colour choices and the atmospheric decisions, to list but a few variables, in order to provoke a particular emotional response from the viewer. This means the painter in fact steers away from ‘cold’ naturalism, from faithful visual description, and imbues her representation with visual qualities that imply something intangible. It means that we are invited to see emotion, as it plays out in the delicate interplay of painterly techniques. Something in reality is sacrificed, some accuracy or disinterested depiction, in order to co-opt expression into representation. The two are woven together with paint into one visual output. Expression abstracts representation into a more emotional variation on things seen or imagined.

But the viewer needs to bring a certain sensitivity to the expressive tint of the picture, a type of perception even, which Wollheim (1987: 80) calls ‘expressive perception.’ As Wollheim (1987: 82) elaborates, there are mirrored means of transferring emotions between ourselves and the external world; either our own mood alters the way we perceive what is around us—what we would commonly call projection—or we are affected by our surroundings. It is true that we could project our own feelings, likewise, onto a painting, but since the artist has mixed emotional content into the paint, a greater receptiveness promises to yield something specific from the painting. It is our own ability to project emotions onto what we see that enables us to sympathise with a painter doing the same in paint. She asks us to forget ourselves for a moment and to see through her eyes, through her sunny disposition or her fog of melancholy.


Wollheim’s demand for expressive perception is rather nice, because it requires a certain kind of attention from the viewer, but does not permit him to read just anything he likes into a painting. Viewers like to have something to do (Gombrich 1959: 169), and we will grant them this responsibility without giving away the creative authority of the artist. Wollheim’s (1987: 305) demand means that a standard of correctness accompanies both representation and expression. The artist intends to convey certain content laden with certain emotions, all of which is accessible to the viewer by direct communion with the picture, with the implication that he can be correct or incorrect about what he discovers there (Wollheim 1987: 85, 101).

But such standards hardly remove the pleasure of looking at a painting. Wollheim (1987: 98, 100) is eager to convey that seeing the paint is a delightful experience in itself, and that simple visual delight in a painting, provoked by the deliciously expressive qualities of paint and its handling, comprises no small part of our encounter with painting. Wollheim sends us in the direction of Proust for a lovely elucidation of this experience. Chardin, Proust (1988: 102) describes, has seen serene beauty in a humble arrangement in a kitchen, and has painted it with palpable tenderness; his ‘pleasure was so intense that it overflowed into smooth strokes, eternal colours.’ The viewer, utterly seduced by Chardin’s vision, thenceforth notices that a fresh charm falls over ordinary domestic scenes. This delight, notes Wollheim (1987: 99), is stirred up by Chardin’s expert control of his own emotional projection that he invites us to sample. ‘Your awareness had to wait until Chardin entered into the scene to raise it to his level of pleasure’ (Proust 1988: 102).


And so Wollheim (1987: 185) hopes to persuade us that representational paintings do not ‘trade on illusion,’ but rely on, rather, ‘in a supplementary role, imagination.’ Representation does not simply hand us a likeness, it does not forge a strict equivalence with the world, or simply stand in for it symbolically; nor does it seek to deceive us. Instead, it appeals to our pleasure in discovering that guarded thought in the lather of paint. This underlines the irrevocable importance of the paint, the matiére, the medium that carries the thoughts of the artist via her movements.

Representation, in a sort of self-conscious way, hopes to draw attention to its physicality while seducing us with a hint of something recognisable shot through with emotions. It invites us to linger on the interlocking cues in the way the paint is applied and in the content, to discover something of the artist’s insight. We are asked to imagine the world intentionally reconfigured in muddy paste on a flat surface; we are asked to imagine the way one feels if one looks at the world and projects emotions that colour the world this way or that. Representation is more fundamentally grounded in the technical than in resemblance, symbols or illusion. In bringing us ever back to the way paint is applied, it offers a firm starting point for a theory of a visual language.


Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion. Phaidon: London.

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

Proust, Marcel. [1954] 1988. ‘Chardin: The Essence of Things,’ trans. Mina Curtiss, in Against Saint-Beuve and Other Essays. Penguin: London.

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


Notation, language & painting

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Robert Nelson’s (2010: 167; 169) treatise on The Visual Language of Painting dwells on an analogy between painting and language, an analogy deemed ‘ill-considered’ by Richard Wollheim (1987: 181) for the way in which it ‘foists upon painting something akin to grammar’ with its array of syntactic and semantic requirements. But Nelson (2010: 178) pleads that ‘it is unfair to judge visual language by the prejudicial, logocentric criteria of verbal language,’ conceding nonetheless that this ‘seems like an almost anti-intellectual deflection of dialectic and intelligent responsibility.’ Nelson (2010: 181) insists that ‘the semantics are less important than the consciousness that they scramble for,’ and I would like to cast a sympathetic eye over his book and ask whether there is, after all, something valid to be gained from an analogy between painting and language, or whether he is indeed wading into dangerous territory.


To begin, let us consider his motivation for pursuing this analogy. Nelson (2010: x), familiar with the internal machinations of a fine art academy, opens his book with the premise that painting needs rescuing: ‘The only power that will resuscitate painting and give it long-term sustainability is language: verbal language that recognises visual language, the visual language proper to representational painting.’ Nelson is operating under the assumption that painting is stuck with words: whether it be artist statements, catalogue notes or doctoral theses, the written word clings to painting as a child to its mother’s skirt. In many ways, all this talk obscures painting itself. Our literacy perhaps hinders our visual attentiveness, our perceptiveness. Perhaps we can better learn to approach paintings, surmises Nelson, if we borrow this reassuringly familiar concept of language and describe what it could metaphorically mean in the visual realm of painting. Perhaps we could encourage a comparable ‘visual literacy’ in order to actually liberate painting from words. Words might then accompany painting, rather than smother it.

In no way does Nelson want to establish a strict framework for painting, then; he sees it already constricted by verbal language and he is seeking salvation by means of language. Language literally, in that we will write about painting and discuss it in words, and language metaphorically, in that we will apply the concept of language to the visual realm. This is a vastly different project to an analytical investigation of aesthetics.


Nelson’s metaphor leads him to consider what might be most salient about language, and to then import this trait into painting. Among the many uses and virtues of language, Nelson—like Tolstoy (in Wollheim 1980: 119)—gravitates most strongly towards its communicative possibilities. ‘Visuality,’ he explains of a term he uses interchangeably with ‘the visual language,’ ‘is implicitly a recognition of the visual as being recognisable and capable of transacting communications, a form of language, then, which presents the contemporary world with a certain urgency’ (Nelson, 2010: 167). The visual language is grounded in the intention of the artist and her desire to communicate to others. Not everything that is visible is in a language: rather, it is only when things seen make a ‘purposeful address to the eyes, [that] they become linguistic in character’ (Nelson, 2010: 168). And even when he considers the development and expression of individual thoughts by means of language, he insists on the status of language as a ‘social system’ which above all enables the ‘transaction’ and ‘recognition’ of those thoughts (Nelson, 2010: 176).


At this point we might pose a little interjection from Wollheim, who does in fact entertain the analogy between art and language, though he uses it to demonstrate flaws in what he calls the Ideal Theory of art, which I shall not consider here. First, he very cautiously asks the crucial question, ‘how are we to use the analogy?’ (Wollheim, 1996: 118). Then he firmly states that ‘a point is reached at which the analogy runs out’ (Wollheim, 1980: 137). Wollheim (1980: 137) notes that there is some discomfort at the idea of calling art ‘communicative,’ when it might be pitched precisely against language as ‘expressive.’ That is to say, art and language have different and incomparable functions. But he brushes this objection aside with the simple observation that ‘the theory that language is essentially concerned with communication of ideas is a dogmatic notion, which does not even take account of the variety of ways in which ideas are communicated’ (Wollheim 1980: 137).

There are three things we might say on this. First, Wollheim seems very sensible to caution that the analogy between language and painting might hold, but perhaps not unconditionally. It might only be relevant for demonstrating one point (such as the validity of the Ideal Theory), but we might push it too far if, for example, we demand an actual visual grammar. Should we want to wield this analogy, we must be very precise about why and how we are using it, and upfront about its limitations. Painting is not, after all, literally a language, and metaphors are poetic illustrations and not statements of logical identity.

Second, Wollheim is right to note that there are many important traits of language, possibly co-equal ones, and we might equally consider the way language functions as a medium for private thought, a tool of analysis, a descriptive record of information, a poetic mode of expression and so forth. Then we would need to ask whether it is legitimate to import all of these functions into painting, and why such a correspondence should hold. This motivation might have something to do with finding a lack of generosity in, for example, contemporary painting, in its persistent refusal to visually connect with its viewers, necessitating the dependence on actual text.

And third, Wollheim does something quite spectacular when he says language does not hold a monopoly over communication. And he is correct: ideas are conveyed in many ways, though the types of ideas may vary by medium. Much is conveyed through body language, for example, or diagrams, or music, or the extremely controlled movement of the body that we call dance. Certainly, a ballet does not communicate the same thoughts as a scientific report. But it can wordlessly transmit other ideas about the human condition. In fact, Wollheim’s dismissive observation invites us to think of many things as being at least partially analogous with language. Though perhaps what he really wants to emphasise is that communication and language are not identical, and that painting might be more closely analogous to some other mode of communication.


The way that Nelson uses the analogy between language and painting is rather loose and imprecise. He senses that there are limits, and thus centres all his comparisons on his chosen principle trait of communication, which is arguably the most obvious trait of language, without necessarily excluding the nuance of a perspective like Wollheim’s. As for why, Nelson is motivated by painting’s existing bondage to verbal language. He wants to defeat language with language.

Let us look at how Nelson conceives of the visual language of painting—how he applies the analogy. He is very quick to emphasise that the visual language of painting does not consist purely in technique, though technique turns out to be a fruitful way of investigating it. He argues that a ‘visual perspicacity and mental agility’ necessarily merge with the material when the visual language of painting is used effectively (Nelson, 2010: xi). This makes his position psychological rather in the way that Wollheim’s (1987: 22) is, because he necessarily incorporates the inner life of the artist—particularly her thoughts and intentions—into the manipulation of the medium. Keeping this attitude in mind, Nelson turns to the complicated and interlocking technical components of painting—each chapter dealing with the nebulous themes of colour, drawing, structure and composition, tone and plasticity, gesture, edge control and atmosphere, detail and weight, and layering and luminosity—in an effort to build up a rich tapestry of the visual language. Music, he concedes, lends itself much more easily to parallels with language, mostly because it is easier to compare them since it is easier to identify their ‘quantum units’ (Nelson, 2010: 170). It is easier to point to a note, a word, and compare—for example—their symbolic possibilities. Painting offers no obvious quantum unit; only a gently fluctuating integration of such elements as those listed above, and quite probably more. As such, painting ‘is harder to recognise as a language’ (Nelson, 2010: 172).

Here the analogy becomes a little hazy. Nelson (2010: xi; 170) starts dropping words like ‘symbol;’ right from the beginning he talks about the thoughts of the artist being ‘pictorially encoded’ in the medium. Again, we might defer to the thorough Wollheim (1980: 132): ‘The analogy… is one between art and language. The insistence is necessary: for there is another analogy, which bears a superficial resemblance to mine, and which may, deliberately or in error, be substituted for it. That is the analogy between art and a code.’ Wollheim (1980: 132) identifies two corresponding streams of thought, both of which he says lead into error: the first, that the more apt analogy holds between art and code than art and language; the second, that language and code ‘become so confused or transposed’ that the analogy slips, and ‘in point of fact it is to a code, not to language, that art is assimilated.’ In Robert Nelson’s case, the confusion is only slight, and his resistance of syntax likely saves him from labouring the idea of a code too far. But in the case of Nelson Goodman, the analogy undeniably shifts to code, and, as I see it, leaves the question of language and painting unresolved, and certainly not refuted.


Goodman, in Languages of Art, is cautious in his approach, starting with the theme of pictorial representation. He tentatively proposes an ‘analogy between pictorial representation and verbal description,’ that is, between one aspect of painting and one aspect of language (Goodman, 1976: 40). ‘The temptation is to call a system of depiction a language; but here I stop short,’ says Goodman (1976: 41), with immense restraint. And from here he embarks on a long, technical investigation of ‘what distinguishes representational from linguistic systems’ (Goodman, 1976: 41). He makes a fundamental division in the arts which leads him to focus on notation, and that division stems from the puzzle of forgeries: ‘in music, unlike painting, there is no such thing as a forgery of a known work’ (Goodman, 1976: 112).

Goodman identifies that there is something importantly different about ‘single’ and ‘multiple’ arts, and, explains Wollheim (in a supplementary essay to Art and its Objects, 1980: 167), ‘thinks that the more fundamental division within works of art is between the ‘autographic’ and the ‘allographic.’’ For an autographic work of art, the original and the copy are importantly distinct (Goodman, 1976: 113). It matters very much how the work came into being: its history of production—for whether it was or was not painted by, say, Van Dyck makes a spectacular difference. Each autographic work is a one-off. But we may perform a Chopin Nocturne without compromising the integrity of that work of art. ‘Thus painting is autographic, music nonautographic, or allographic’ (Goodman, 1976: 113). Wollheim’s (1980: 168) terms are a little less imposing: he simply speaks of ‘individuals’ (paintings), and ‘types’ and their ‘tokens’ (plays, books, musical pieces and their instances). Yet their categories are drawn up a little differently: Wollheim (1980: 167; 170) considers history of production across all art forms to be essential. Goodman (1976: 122), however, considers it only relevant to one-off works, simply as the means of identifying them. Allographic works, he argues, are severed from their creator and freed of their history of production, and because of that we need an alternative way to identify them: a notation.


‘Why,’ Goodman (1976: 121) asks, is the use of notation appropriate in some arts but not in others?’ In short, because some can already be identified by their history of production. The purpose of devising a notation is to ensure we are in fact encountering this specific work of art in one of its instances. And, further, they are necessary for the kinds of works of art that would overtax an individual: notations enable us ‘to transcend the limitations of time and the individual’ (Goodman, 1976: 121). By means of a score, a script, a manuscript, we can both reproduce and identify a work of art, divorced from its author (Goodman, 1976: 122).

And thus, on Goodman’s (1976: 121) terms, painting does not qualify as amenable to notation. But nor, he goes on to explain, do any of our natural languages qualify as notational systems (Goodman, 1976: 178). Goodman’s (1976: 225) analysis of musical scores (an arguably arbitrary choice which sets up the framework for his entire book) leads him to submit five semantic and syntactic requirements for a notational system; language is only able to meet the first two syntactic requirements. His analogy remains firmly between painting and code, and in rejecting any congruence between painting and notation, he does not reject possible parallels between painting and language. And I am quite happy to abandon this conception of a painterly notation (in the very literal sense of encoding meaning into a strict painterly grammar). As, I am sure, is Nelson, who takes great pains to describe the fluidity and unpredictability of his proposed visual language, while nevertheless insisting that painters hold fast to their communicative responsibility. And Wollheim (1980: 83) is unimpressed when he entertains the idea of notation permeating the entire range of the arts: ‘With such a notation there would no longer be any executant arts: the whole of the execution would have been anticipated in the notation.’ Painting, along with the other art forms, would collapse into a display of ‘mechanical skills’ (Wollheim, 1980: 84). Painting as notation is not an attractive analogy and is not the idea being put forward.


Yet Goodman (1976: 192) perseveres: ‘A sketch,’ (and by extension other autographic works of art like paintings) ‘is not in a language.’ No, he considers these works to be in entirely nonlinguistic systems, which ‘differ from languages … primarily through lack of differentiation—indeed through density (and consequent total absence of articulation)—of the symbol system’ (Goodman, 1976: 226). Painting would belong to a representational system, which must be dense, which one might imagine as continuous like an analogue gauge. Language does not represent, but describes; and descriptions, by contrast, are articulate, like discrete digital measures (Goodman, 1976: 230). Painting, Goodman (1976: 234) is trying to get us to understand, is too flexible, too nuanced, too direct (where it actually exemplifies the colour, shape, or feeling represented) to be subsumed under a structured, differentiated and abstracted system like language.

But to insist on the articulacy of language would be to discredit its qualities of subtlety and expression. Wollheim’s (1980: 135) level-headed remark brings that back into focus: ‘The elements or alphabet of a code are denumerable, whereas no precise limit can be set to the vocabulary of a language.’ Language itself has enough fluidity to perhaps rival the density of painting. And perhaps painting would profit from finding limits to its unbounded physical possibilities—perhaps this very limitlessness is what leads painting into incomprehensibility. Perhaps language teaches us (only by analogy) that if we want to capture meaning, to even make ourselves understood, we need to find common ground with our audience.


Language thus may still be nebulous enough a concept to import into painting, but we must ask ourselves seriously what for, and how far we are committed to drawing that analogy—and at what point it runs out. If Nelson’s reason for seizing a metaphorical visual language as a way to escape the tyranny of a limited verbal language in the current practice of painting is compelling, I do not see a reason against it, at least not from Goodman’s notation-focussed perspective. It only prompts us to consider whether other, better, analogies might exist—between, perhaps, painting and music, or painting and dance—and forces us to examine our obsessive preoccupation with language and our tendency to view it as the key to unlock all our problems. Literacy has swollen into the panacea of our age, but perhaps illegitimately so.



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

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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

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


The world or the picture


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

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

Tizian Danae

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

Poussin khm

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


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



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

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

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


An unlikely protagonist

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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



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


On meaning

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

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


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

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


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

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

  1. The mental state of the artist

  2. The way this causes him to mark the surface

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

Or, more descriptively (Wollheim 1987: 22):

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

  1. Seeing-in

  2. Expressive perception

  3. The capacity to experience visual delight.

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


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

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


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

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


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



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

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

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


The work of art

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

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

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


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

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

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

Circle hats

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

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

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

Rubens ladies

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

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


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

Van Dyck


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

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

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

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