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Portrait of the Artist

This example, which is given to us early on, is very worrisome, because there are a number of things about it that do not fit the case of painting, at least not at first glance. Painting, like pacing, is made up of a series of actions most of which resemble one another. The pacing and the painting consume themselves, and disappear—the first into the passing bus, the second into the completed canvas. The painter leaves tracks like the trail of an animal. If our imaginary man is erasing lines of chalk, he continues to fit the painter’s pattern, because each of his acts has a single end, and none is linear (as waiting and boarding the bus are), or tangential (like pacing while waiting, pacing and puffing on a cigar). The smeary squares, if that’s what remains, should tell us something about the man’s intentions. But now we strike a significant difference: his aim was to spoil the children’s game, not send us a message. So we must return to one of Wollheim’s suggestions: that the man intends to distract nearby police from a robbery under way around the corner. He intends to create a state of mind: puzzlement or curiosity. But the police, if he succeeds, are in one condition, while we, who watch from our window, are in quite another; and the difference between us is precisely that we know the pacing man’s intention, whereas the cops, presumably, do not.

The alternatives we are considering are troubling because (1) only in the case of the man’s meanness do the rubbed out marks provide us with a product; (2) we don’t treat this product as we would a valued painting, returning to it again and again, roping it off, putting up umbrellas between the chalk and the rain, arguing about whether the surface would be better preserved if shellacked, and placing it, in our thoughts, among other graffiti; (3) the bemusement of the police, and the amusement of our more canny observers, would, if they took up residence in one consciousness, interfere and cancel one another; because (4) suffering from a meaning (as the cops are), sharing the experience of a meaning (as spectators at ballgames can), and merely grasping a meaning (like the difference between holding and shaking hands), are not at all the same; and because (5) the acts of the artist are transitive only up to a point—the realization of the work—so that, unlike a nervous tattoo or repeated pacing, each act is largely governed by the results of the ones before. Consequently the created thing takes on an intention of its own, as improvisation does, in as much as the idea that the artist “knows” what he is doing, and can be said to have an intention, is plausible only in the vague general sense that I might know I wished to win the hand of a fair lady, or it is plausible if I were an insecure and anal type of person who worked only according to some prearranged outline, to rule and by rote, or if, like a diamond cutter, I were given rare, expensive, and relatively recalcitrant materials to manage.

However, too much can be asked of an illustration. Wollheim very properly stresses the painter’s continued vigilance as he responds to every stroke, and adjusts his next one accordingly. He points out that “mark,” “surface,” and “edge,” are painting’s most primitive ideas. The first daub is just that, and finds its place within an arena of relative emptiness, yet together the mark, surface, and edge may encourage the artist to prefer one angle of observation over another, and thus give the emerging work “orientation,” although why one situation should seem superior to another remains obscure. When the field on which this activity is taking place itself assumes the importance of a mark, then the drawing (as we may prematurely call it) has been “thematized,” which is what happens when any hitherto unrecognized feature is taken account of and incorporated. One of the characteristics of a true artist will be this ability to employ more and more such elements as the work proceeds. And as it proceeds, the various strokes, their nature, the spaces between them, the relation of each to an edge, and so on, will begin to combine, to coalesce. This primitive entity is called “the motif,” and when it begins to control the artist’s behavior, it, too, will have been thematized.

It is not clear at this level of analysis why one orientation should be preferred to another, or why one feature, hitherto ignored, should suddenly be singled out, or why any set of blanks and smears should all at once seem an entity, unless it is dimly felt to prefigure an “image”—that is, to suggest the presence on the two-dimensional surface of three-dimensional relations. Such vaguely intimated space is the most primitive of “representations.”. Definable “figures” come later.

The itch that directs these scratches, however confusedly felt, is that for meaning; that is, for representation, which turns out to be the fundamental way meaning is created and transmitted. The artist’s intention is communicated to the spectator through these painted images—images which the spectator must have learned to see and read. Wollheim does not believe this transmittal is like that of a disease (which would commit once again Tolstoy’s famous confusion of infection with information—the twin senses of “communication”); instead, the painting places its observer in “an appropriately related mental condition.”

Wollheim may have breathed more significance into the little balloon that encloses “intention” than it can contain without bursting (for the balloon includes “desires, thoughts, beliefs, experiences, emotions, commitments,” or anything that “motivates the artist to paint as he does”). Nor will the example of the nervously pacing man help us, because I don’t think we feel we need to know all that makes him act as he does, but only his immediate motives (although Wollheim also dangerously inflates this word). In fact, if we fall in with the total determinates of our pacing person’s character, we shall inevitably be robbed of our power to explain, since it is not his life in general we want to understand, but this mean-spirited rubbing and scuffing in particular. Unlike most psychological critics, whose musings about the Oedipal elements of their victim’s psyche must color every interpretation, Wollheim, in his account of specific paintings, usually stays close to the artistic intentions immediately behind them. That the artist intended to include the spectator in the painting’s aesthetic field may actually provide a sufficient reason for some of its features, whereas mother love is like a hankie waved at a train, and will do for any departure.

A representation, for Wollheim, must not only depict some condition of experience or item in the world. It must transmit the artist’s moods and emotions, ideas and desires, to observers (who are themselves uncountable and indeterminately different), in such a way that these spectators become shareholders in another life. Most immediately one might imagine my conveying to you my dislike of dogs, for instance, by drawing a disagreeable one, or, not much more subtly, picturing a chewed shoe or a pissed-on post. Perhaps it is a general attitude toward things that is to be communicated, in which case a gloomy landscape might be employed, or a lovingly seen and minutely rendered domestic interior.

But, first, how is any representation achieved? And then, if one is once realized, how can it be intersubjectively effective? Ideas can be easily conveyed because they are made of universals, and are shareable on principle. Feelings, moods, attitudes, and longings can be read from the symptoms they have and the actions they provoke, as I may have inferred our scuffer’s malice, but what I gain in that case is not a resembling psychic condition, it is an abstract description. How specific is this intention that is transmitted? Is it so specific that I must become, in having it, kin to its original possessor? And how alike in object, tone, and temperature to the sender’s signal must my reception be?

Essential to Wollheim’s account of representation and how it arises is the concept of “seeing-in,” and what he calls seeing-in’s “two-foldedness.” However, he does not convince me that this ability is innate (as he suggests), or even a very special phenomenon of particular importance to the aesthetics of painting. If I see a camel in a cloud, the face of an enemy in a spatter of spit, the shape of Italy in a damp spot on a wall, and then, in that map, a boot; or perhaps when I derive some sexual significance from a prearranged blot of ink: must it not be because I have taken certain spatial features from my experience, and now find them again refigured in the face of a rock or a collision of lines? Nor is my action simply one of arrogant projection (although the Rorschach example might seem to suggest it), because (as Wollheim also argues) appearances of this kind do not escape the demands of accuracy and the claims of truth by hiding inside the subjective. Elvis Presley look-alikes either look like him or they do not, and celebrity judges are corraled to corroborate and reward the similarities.

I see the wet wall, of course; I see its stained and cracked and pitted surface; while at the same time (and not as if there were two separate, although immediately linked perceptions), I see a figure there, a face or dark mountains and a gleaming river. When the painter paints, he cashes in on this primitive phenomenon, this basic ability; but where it may have been that early man believe there was a bison in his depicted bison (through the evidence of the arrows we find drawn on their woolly hides), the painter must paint in such a way that the subject is neither seen through the medium as though its lines and colors were as clear as clean glass, nor discovered to coalesce with it, the copy luring like a magnet at least the essence of its original to enliven a surrogate shape; but he must preserve through every difficulty the doubleness of the perception, perhaps enjoying the swing to and fro (it is an image/it is an object), yet never becoming merely a vision, where the statue one desires grows warm and smiles.

In short, of the three traditionally enmeshed meanings of mimesis (…in which a representation of a god permitted such a genuinely seeming impersonation that the god himself—in a moment of religious, if not artistic, success—participated in the actor’s speech and movement, with the consequence that the presence of the deity on the arena stage drew the audience into the same trance, and where, in the communal confusion, undesirable emotions such as pity and terror were purged, or souls saved, when the hero’s eventual triumph over crime, guilt, shame, and death was shared), Wollheim is willing to retain representation in its relatively original form; but he redirects the flow of the ecstatic current so that it is the spirit of the artist (in the shape of an intention) that descends to occupy the spectator’s consciousness, and not that of a hoped-for god. He does not tell us why this is an improvement.

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