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Portrait of the Artist

When I see my first puppy, and then, shortly afterward, a small dog, I may not only see the puppy in the older pooch, I may also, quite naturally, notice a few differences, although it may take more than one experience to give me this facility. For instance, after examining a paramecium in the scope, my untutored eye may be hard put to differentiate it from any other ciliate who might swim into view. Like Berkeley, I can pretend I superimpose puppy upon pooch; however, in Wollheim’s “two-folded” perception, I am not comparing two or more pups (members of the same species), but ontologically heteronomous phenomena, as Socrates suggests we do so as to ascend the ladder of Beauty in the Symposium. There we are, first, to find the beauty that is common to fair physical forms (proportion and perfected function), next, to seek it among souls, however ugly and maladroit their containers (where beauty will be an order installed in order to know order), and then through a survey of constitutions and laws (in which the harmony of a proper hierarchy will prove essential), to reach into the realm of theory itself (the discovery of regularity and relation), eventually to realize the idea that governs any order whatever—the Form of form itself.

However, Wollheim’s observer does not perceive a universal or some ordering idea, but another content: two pictures (one, a surface, the other, an image in that surface), certainly not two strikingly different entities with nevertheless a common structure. What justifies the perilous maintenance of this duality? Why shouldn’t I look through the painting like a window on a world which would be otherwise unreachable, since Henry VIII is dead, real snakes are sometimes dangerous, le bain Turk is off-limits to infidels, and I can’t afford to travel to the Alps for an actual glimpse? Because any crude nude might do, in that case; any mountain tipped with snow might do. And I should miss out on what the painter adds to the apple by painting it: a state of mind, an intention fulfilled.

Wollheim’s view of painting is nearly the philosophical opposite of Plato’s; but like all true opposites, they must share the same field of combat, though they charge at one another from different ends of the list. For Plato, Form is Content, and the less embodiment the better; for Wollheim, Artistic Intention is Content, and the painting is but a bearer of the bond of consciousness the spectator and the artist will realize together.

Wollheim avoids one consequence of a communication theory of art that has always seemed to me to be fatal: the messenger—the message delivered—is slain, or, at best, pensioned off, and the meaning of the message is used up in action or in understanding. If we return to the painting, we’re not sure we got it all the first time; or we come back the way a child does to a nursery tale, wanting to hear the words recited again, the ritual seeming to promise us a secure and comfortable world, just as we are inclined to resay, through a changing life, the same unchanging saws. Perhaps we wish to hear once more, and not from another mouth, some version of the formula for “I love you.” After all, the last “I love you” was yesterday, and love is a product with an inherently vague date of safe use. Here, in Wollheim’s view, the painting is not abandoned like a pillaged palace. It must be continually returned to; not, however, as we return to the dinner table, or to a body that stirs us because we are repeatedly in a rut, but because there is always more to be found there, like that magical trunk in the attic which yielded to our childhood heart yet one more imaginary memory, one more mysterious silken scarf.

There is always more to be learned since every jot and tittle of the work is intentional—every crossed t and dotted i—and because the details of execution are almost endless, and the artist’s control is total.

Suppose we watched our pacing person as if he were doing a dance. Then a bit of coat-flutter would matter, the tilt of his hat, the length of a stride, a sly swivel of the head—if only as clues—each leading to an element of the dancer’s intention. And instead of looking for answers in the larger life and remoter causes of our subject’s present behavior, which would draw us away from the gestures, we shall stay close to the “details” of his endeavor—the fullness of the flutter, its frequency of flap, the quality of the coat’s cloth, the color of his hat—because the dance is the domain of the intention.

Since we do not pretend to understand an artist’s work from a plan we have grasped by examining his biography, but arrive at our knowledge of his aims from the character of the work itself, we have not committed the “intentional fallacy.” Nevertheless, the performance is merely a means; the actual work of art is as mental as it was for Croce, and like many semiotic theories, with which Wollheim has properly little patience, it needs the myth of the artist’s total control (or the inexhaustible significance of the aesthetic surface) to keep our eye on the performance, the gesture, the object—or, as it seems to me it ought to be—on the thinghood of the thing.

Wollheim emphasizes “seeing-in”—as when we say, “I see a nose in that daub”—because, for him, it grounds representation, which is the principal strategy of painting: it is the manner in which intentions are realized. So the existence of abstract art, or nonrepresentational work of any merit, ought to prove a problem. Are Mondrians, Kandinskys, Rothkos, Pollocks, and so on, a challenge? One might answer that in the first place there are representational shadows in many of these paintings, as trees become sticks, hills wavy lines, and towns little jumbles of boxes. Furthermore, they wear labels that verify this, being called Afternoon in Barcelona, Landscape, The Guard, or Victory Boogie Woogie, as often as they are called Composition, Gray Scale, Gouache, No. 1, or Rhythmic Progression. More importantly, there are few paintings in which the existence of depth is at least not suggested—maybe by means of overlapping planes, scale shifts, some shadowy recessions, and so forth. Finally, squares, triangles, and ovals are also objects of representation, and not just when they appear in Flemish floor tiles, realistic roof eaves, or the formal shapes of faces.

Actually, my summary reply is expansive compared to Wollheim’s relatively terse treatment of this critical issue. A Mondrian may seem visibly to vibrate, one of Pollock’s friezes entrap a space inside its tangled skeins of paint, and an orb of pink, like a cosmetic test patch, may dominate Kandinsky’s Arrow Toward the Circle, but such aspects fail to account for the power, or even the interest, of these paintings, and, unless one is a Platonist, the rectangles, arcs, and swollen lines, which occupied so many artists for a time, are simply circles, squares, and splotches, not representations of them. At last, in work of this kind, a daub is a daub, with no pretense to be a nose. It is true that many painters, beholden to a higher reality, had no more confidence than the critics in the value of painting by itself, and for them these geometries were a way of revealing mystical spiritualities (Mondrian and Kandinsky were depressing instances); nevertheless, their crisp grids, pure tones, and abstract harmonies were not believed to picture it.

Surely it is the intention of at least some of these paintings to attack (as De Kooning assaults his subjects sometimes) the very idea of representation. If any are successful as paintings: What then? And might not a theory so resolutely determined to limit this art to that of representation, in such a day and age as ours, be accused of attempting to turn back, if not stop, the clock, and to restore to its former station and privileges the basically self-regarding bourgeois eye?

Principally what is represented in paintings are things—things seen—but things do not comprise entire states of mind. There are beliefs, ideas; there are feelings, moods, and emotions; there are needs; there are dreams. The perception with which the painter supplies us must be expressive, not merely depictive. Characteristically, Wollheim’s account of this aspect is condensed, traditional (though with saving modifications), and philosophically subtle. We may, he suggests, give a mood to the world, or take one from it. In infancy we throw a tantrum without looking for a glove, but later, more mature, we are able to find correspondences between physical conditions and their psychic counterparts, so that a proper game of pitch and catch develops. It is not that the world weeps for Adonais because the poet does (the classical version of the pathetic fallacy); it is rather that the world may sometimes seem, as a slow, gray, stillness settles over it, to be in the same slow gray mood as we are, and when that’s true, descriptions of self and situation can shift to and fro without disqualifying falsifications.

But in what do these similarities consist that let us join our melancholy to the one of the painting, whose own tone depends on its fidelity to the coloration of its worldly subject? The difficulty is that, as always, Nature, Art, and Consciousness express themselves in fundamentally different mediums, and only one of the three is really in pain, or is gleeful, or eaten by remorse. Their resemblance has to rest, it seems to me, on their commonality of form.

If an emotion were itself conceived as a perception—a perception which invariably had to do with the relation of ourselves to some part or even the untidy whole of our life (the way, in our home, we are located among the members of our family, positioned among the plants, animals, furniture, and functions of things), and the “feel” of the feeling were an evaluation of our situation that could very well be on the mark or off the wall (stupidly envious of someone’s shiftless spouse, or fearful when there was nothing to fear, not even fear itself, loving when honestly surrounded by worthy and supportive hearts, or lonely when really out of sync and touch)—then to reprise any such system of relations (I push a little more formalism at Professor Wollheim) so that it shows up in the thick of these represented things as palpably as another thing itself, should enable us to perceive any painted feeling the way we perceive the painted water, sky, and trees, whose qualities and constellations cover the canvas.

Every painting, in its party dress and flouncy frame, asks for an admirer. Furthermore, for most, there is a place from which, in reasonable light, it may be ideally viewed. The size of the canvas, quite apart from any other consideration, has immense importance, whether it is one of Rubens’s flesh-refulgent nudes, intended to enhance a palace wall, a vast abstraction by Clyfford Still, dreaming of a corporate lobby or a public hall in which to loom, or, in contrast, one of Cornell’s peekaboo boxes, meant to be voyeured, and remembered, too, as one remembers the nested troves and other lost treasures of childhood. The huge seems secure because mighty, while the small is secure because it will be overlooked, yet each directs its traffic as confidently as a cop.

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