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Portrait of the Artist

Painting as an Art

by Richard Wollheim
Princeton University Press, 384 pp., $45.00

The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts were inaugurated by Jacques Maritain in 1952, and in subsequent years, Kenneth Clark, Herbert Read, Etienne Gilson, E.H. Gombrich, and Siegfried Giedion gave public talks at the National Gallery which, expanded and rewritten for publication in the Bollingen Series, made significant theoretical and historical contributions to the understanding of the arts and their interrelations. During the decades that followed, many important figures in the field gave their best to these presentations, and the set for 1984, which Richard Wollheim was asked to give, has now been published. It is one of the more accomplished volumes, not only in its philosophical elegance, clarity, and grip, and in its apt selection of illustrations, but also in the provocative and revelatory quality of the text when it turns to particular works, although a reader unfamiliar with contemporary philosophical discourse may find this characterization difficult to apply, since the argument of the text is dense, continuous, and often technical. One can find something to question and contend in nearly every line—a circumstance which leads to the best sort of intellectual exchange.

Painting is certainly a familiar activity. Some people paint their nails, others houses, still others plates. There are those who paint in prose, and those who sell scenes of merriment—along with sunsets and sailboats in gross lots—to enliven hotel walls and stultify, for sleep, the traveler’s eye. Starving artists auction off sofa-sized canvases at nearly nothing an inch, while rich ones lacquer lobbies and long public halls for a bundle. There is nothing we can immediately discern in what Elliott Carter is doing when he composes that would lead us to differentiate it from what Irving Berlin does, unless, of course, we looked at the notes; both James Michener and John Barth must fill the page with words that say themselves in sentences; souvenir mugs and richly glazed vases sit in the same kiln, baking away like so many city bodies on the beach. What is there about one procedure that sets it as far off from the other as a bike’s bell is from the ringing of a church’s changes? What were Daumier or Lautrec contriving that the tabloid illustrators couldn’t? Each covered emptiness with color; each made marks; each peddled his product. What makes the act of painting into an act of art?

Questions of quality are not currently thought to be the correct questions. A tolerant pluralism is politically expedient and commercially profitable; relativism sounds liberal and inclusive, welcoming every sex, age, race, and nation; certain kinds of skepticism save one from the labors of disproof; elitism smacks of elitism, the acne of the upper crust; and not having to take a stand allows one the immediate luxury of sitting down. “Quality” is a word wet with the salesman’s saliva; intellectuals ring up ideas on a register imported from France, and render freshly apt the expression “the treason of the clerks.”

Quality, we are told, distinction, and what are called “refinements of taste”—are only made in order to divide and conquer, to put “the lower orders” in their place, to maintain a cultural superiority through theory and obfuscation that could not otherwise be honestly sustained. These reductive and equalizing arguments, however (“it’s only being done for X” so “you’re no better than the rest of us”), regularly make the same mistake; for if one wishes to become powerful, rich, or famous, the crucial and testing questions are “Do you deserve your station?,” “How did you make your money?,” and “What are you famous for?” since we should never assume the absence of a noble motive when we look for, and discover with malicious delight, the ignoble ones.

These days the ivory tower is just another corporate headquarters, so it is not surprising (though it remains morally disturbing) to find that philosophical theories have followed whatever style is in fashion with arguments cut to the cloth of a commercial and consumer culture; and Richard Wollheim begins his book by mentioning one or two, which he disposes of in these early pages—and in the pages of his notes, because his is a text whose citations and asides need to be consulted while walking with the main thought, in as much as they are, themselves, rich in observation, reference, and persuasion.

The Art World, as we currently understand it, is made up of agents and dealers, patrons and purchasers and critics and connoisseurs, museum directors, promoters, journalists and other flacks, publishers, printers, auctioneers, appraisers, thieves, forgers and their fences, as well as the artists themselves and a few of their useful friends. According to a popular point of view, it is this group, in their customary interactions, which really determines what idea, act, or object, is a work of art, by the mere fact of their moving it through the conduits of exchange, by virtue of what they say and do and write about it, in terms of the saucers of feeling that are stirred up, the degree of attention that is paid. Their choices are confirmed by rising prices, by successful sales, by the amount of money that eventually changes hands.

The argument resembles, in form though not in tone, the complaint of a disgruntled outsider who believes the whole of the theatrical or musical, literary or art world, is run by a few conspirators who meet and carry on their machinations during intermissions, at long Lucullian lunches, in salons or cocktail parties, while sharing cabs. The difference lies in the triumphant cynicism with which this opinion is now affirmed, because it is the insiders who affirm it, who pride themselves on their present powers.

Indeed, the questions that Wollheim puts to this position are those that are properly asked of any alleged collusion:

Does the art-world really nominate representatives? If it does, when, where, and how, do these nominations take place? Do the representatives, if they exist, pass in review all candidates for the status of art, and do they then, while conferring this status on some, deny it to others? What record is kept of these conferrals, and is the status itself subject to revision? If so, at what intervals, how, and by whom? And, last but not least, Is there really such a thing as the art-world, with the coherence of a social group, capable of having representatives, who are in turn capable of carrying out acts that society is bound to endorse?

Wollheim is being unfairly literal here, I think, because so many of the actions of such a “society” are tacit; ears are everywhere to the ground; tips are as valuable and misleading as those that influence the market; competition is also keen and ruthless; anticipation (whether in hope or fear) is a permanent frame of mind; there are many mess-ups and surprises; nevertheless, one might continue to argue, it is out of just this warlike environment that the judgments, the reputations, the determinations in question, arise.

Yet Wollheim is surely right in insisting that this position has made essences out of accidents, and conferred upon external properties a defining function, as if an observer of the financial world, impressed by what he saw as unbridled greed, were to decide that desire alone makes a stock valuable, and that monetary gain by itself determines desire, while omitting to consider the business character of the companies in question, and the long-term effects of whatever quality they created, sustained, and effectively distributed. The status of a work of art, on such a view, is created by the art world’s belief in it. Provided this faith is extensive enough and sufficiently enduring, like one of the ancient gods who never existed either, the work will insinuate itself into the tradition, and its name remain in history.

Wollheim dispatches “formalism” with similar speed, and scarcely allows the term, or the notions it represents, to trouble the remainder of his text. Clearing the ground is what pioneers do, and it is an admirable exercise so long as the clearing doesn’t fill faster with regrowth from the stumps than sprouts from the replacing seeds; however, Wollheim’s work represents not New Land but Old World, and, as it proceeds, issue after issue is eagerly opened like a newspaper just off the press, yet fresh from a former age.

When we try to think philosophically about any human activity, we tend to single out one aspect as the explanatory center, crown it, and make every other element into a courtier, mistress, or servant. We might isolate the act itself (shooting off a gun, for instance), and concentrate upon its character and qualities; or we might move in the direction of its ever more distant consequences (the killing of the king, the overthrow of the government, the improvement of the lot of the people); or we might turn toward the agent, instead, and the agent’s state of mind (feelings, intentions, attitudes), or press more deeply inward (encountering desires, needs, instincts, drives). Our generalizations will tend to grow less personal and particular at the high ends of this continuum, which swings from the inner yet abstractly defined Nature of Man down through increasingly specific instances of human behavior until the path rises again in the direction of Society and its externally organized conditions.

There is an ontological break at the very bottom of this arc, however, where the states of mind and feeling that make up one slope attempt to join the observable activities that comprise the other. Some philosophers feel that in order to avoid having to jump the gap—a gap considered inconsistent and inexplicable, an act believed impossible—the entire swing must be viewed from the outside, as though watching a playing child; others take the position of the swinger, and pass without metaphysical interruption from the intentions of agents to the very insides of their actions, and thence into the implicit aims of social mores and laws, for instance (intentions imagined for a system), and then to the spirit of the times, and so on.

For Wollheim, painting is an intentional activity, which means that it is governed by some of the “thoughts” that go on in the painter’s head; and our understanding of the painter’s actions will be correct when we can formulate from those actions his actions’ aims. He asks us to imagine that we are watching through a window a man across the street who is walking repeatedly up and down, and that we put to ourselves the question: What is he doing? a question we can answer only by knowing why. A number of descriptions of the pacing man might be, in their own fashion, accurate, but they could also be irrelevant. Suppose we said he was simply wearing thin the soles of his shoes, or occupying out of meanness the neighborhood children’s hopscotch court, or merely casting playful shadows on the pavement. In order to know which of these things he is doing we must know what he is thinking, and we have no other way of knowing this than by reading his mind from his figure, his stiffly held arms, his feet. In the same way we may be able to infer our scuffer’s feelings—he seems nervous, anxious, or angry—and add these to our understanding of his state of mind. The further behavior of our subject may verify one or other of our guesses. A bus pulls up and he boards, or his movements become less ambiguous as he begins to erase the children’s chalk marks with his shoes.

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