Painting as an Art
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.
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.
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.
If there are novels that write-in their own readers, there can be works of pictorial art that represent, at an appropriate remove from their fields and streams and dozing cattle, elements not directly present in the paintings. These are not simply the lines our thoughts propose to complete the draftsman’s broken ones, or the hidden bodies we infer still resting on chairs beneath the banquet table, the interiors that swell behind their shuttered windows, or those figures cleverly reflected in burnished brass, in pools and mirrors, hanging about out of sight like clothes in a closet; but, in addition, there can be designed yet undrawn spectators who stand between us and the canvas, if only as eyes, and whose gaze becomes a part of what we see and see through—scopes, as it were, for the scope and “inscape” of these imaged things.
I say, “if only as eyes,” because it is for what they will see that they are to be imagined there; however, Wollheim will not allow them to be “eyes only” in the mechanical sense often ascribed to the camera. The painter must assign to his invisible spectator “a repertoire that will grant him an inner life,” for this will enable you and me to put ourselves in his place as fully fledged perceivers. And he is a perceiver, I suspect, capable of having painterly intentions.
So now we understand that, for Wollheim, the artist has first of all imagined a mind, and secondly imagined a tableau to place before it, in order to paint a canvas—which eventually we shall witness—as if seen through the soul of his own fiction, thereby requiring us to return on a path made of multiple points of view toward our goal of grasping the artist’s increasingly complex intention. It is a brilliant idea. My question is: Just how many painters have been smart enough to employ it?
Wollheim’s principal examples of this kind of intention come from the hand of Edouard Manet, and while I haven’t here the space to brush in the details of his argument, a great deal of it depends on how in Manet’s paintings we read the focus and feeling of the eyes, as in a subsequent lecture concerning Ingres and Picasso the stare, the gaze, will be similarly essential—a consequence natural enough since, for a painter, the eyes are nearly everything, as ears would be for a musician, and, for the writer, a mind that can choreograph its concepts. Given any image with an eye, even a fish on a plate, a cat in a corner, the painter must decide where that eye ought to be looking, since it is our customary key to the direction of its owner’s attention, as well as a major contributor to the expression of the face.
Shall the glance be directed inside the frame of the painting? outside it yet in its virtual space? to nothing in particular but the great beyond? or brazenly, confidingly, seductively, at whoever happens to pass the easel? and shall the look be empty in order to harmonize with a blankness favored for all the features? or shall it be readable as a comic strip, whether of weariness, intensity, invitation, or isolation? One important formal reason for choosing an absence of expression is that it inhibits the anecdotalist who lurks after-hours in the museyroom, like Resentment with a vial of acid, to hurl his fancies at the helpless canvas. Figures often sit like the figures of early photos: in ceremonial soberness, their faces simply at rest in the shape of their faces, signifying nothing momentary, but a face all their faces return to after departing for a smile, a frown, a hiss, or a howl. These faces are faces for all time…such as their owners had.
When the stories start spinning, there are bound to be disagreements, and I have mine with Wollheim, as he has with others. On a double page of Ingres reproductions, one can observe that M. Granet is smiling, M. Lemoyne looks a bit anxious, and young Ingres himself seems quietly determined, well contained; nevertheless, these observations carry us a very little way, nor does the magisterial calm of Ingres’s classical subjects, for which calm is a simple “of course.” As for that painter’s great portrait of Louis-François Bertin, a work which is, in a sense, all face: it is a face which desolates description, which is neither this nor that, but which, magnificently and completely, simply is.
The dialogue between those who would and those who would not use expressive features—between, indeed, those who may accept or deny any sort of contortion in defiance of classical calm—has been long and contentious. It is by listening to that dialogue that we learn the significance and function of these different strategies (since there are crucifixions in which Christ hangs as quietly on the cross as an undisturbed drape, and others in which an agonized fist is clenched about nothing more painful than the stem of an evening pipe). However, Wollheim’s narrow focus on the canvas’s alleged psychological transactions suggests that what we need to possess is the fundamentals of a gestural psychology, when, it seems to me (as it has seemed to others) that we learn about painting from paintings (as the painters did), about music from music, and poetry from other poetry, and only bad habits from verse.
In the Degas painting, Au Café, which Wollheim singles out, we see a man and a woman seated at a banquette, he with his arms on the table, she with her hands properly in her lap, each with sloping shoulders, he with a backward tilting hat, she with a bonnet lilting forward, a weary meditative absence in their eyes. However, we need not rest our case, as the man does his arms, on the fact of the couple’s common slump, in order to read there the presence of “a deep, persistent inhibition of feeling,” because the planes of the tables also help us to that conclusion. They squeeze the figures into the right rear corner of the canvas; the shadows of the pair on the wall behind them could be said to be the pallid shadows of the souls, while the indifference of the surroundings, the isolation of every object, the recession of the table tops like disappearing floes of ice, make a heavy contribution (as Wollheim would no doubt insist himself). So that often, when we judge of some features the presence of this expression or that, it is because the configuration of the canvas has led us to it, and not simply some small turn of the mouth which otherwise might mean…who knows?
Then if we turn to another of Degas’s paintings, the double portrait of his sister and brother-in-law, which reveals, despite a difference in social milieu, a similar psychological content, we can say, “yes, but not quite,” because the formalities of this second painting suggest that the pair’s isolation from each other is willed, and not the result of weariness or a general dismay.
Whatever aspect of painting Wollheim examines, whether it is representation, expression, textual borrowing, or historical significance, reveals his single-minded pursuit of the mind, and he reiterates his reasons:
In these lectures I have been upholding a real distinction, or a distinction in the nature of things, between what a painting means and what falls outside its meaning, between what is, and what is not, part of its content…. The meaning of a painting derives from how it is made, or the creative process.
This process appears to have a vocabulary, but not a grammar.
When Wollheim discusses borrowings, for instance, his obsession serves him well, since his entire text is free of both fads and historical pieties. Any motif that a painter may appropriate, any idea he may employ, any iconic device, symbol or theme, belongs to the painting as a proper part of its content only if it has really passed through the deep regions of the painter’s psyche, so that it signifies something, finally, to him; and in that sense it matters not at all what this “text” has meant to others, or how it has been passed from brush to brush, or whether the artist has got “it” right. Poussin is a classic borrower and Wollheim’s treatment of the conflict in this painter, expressed as “reason mobilizing desire against desire,” is a masterful blend of his method and his background in both philosophy and psychology.
In addition to the primary meanings of a painting (which I enumerated above), there are secondary ones. The scuffling man, we might determine, was trying to rub out the children’s hopscotch court; and we would understand this by connecting the practicalities of rubbing-out with his intentions. In addition, the act itself might mean something to him (such as an assertion, at last, of his masculinity, or a testimony to his honesty in the forthright expression of his malice) which could be quite different from the act’s immediate objective. If we shared Melanie Klein’s view that a work of art attempts formally to repair a loved person or object which has, in fantasy and out of disappointment, been materially destroyed (thus completing, over and over again, a cycle of love, hate, and reparation), then these elements would also be what Wollheim calls secondary meanings. He devotes some of his most brilliant pages to an account of what he takes to be a conflict between primary and secondary levels of significance in the work of Ingres, extending a text which, moment by moment, grows richer in implication.
Wollheim’s final lecture—on Titian, Bellini, De Kooning, and Thomas Jones—contains some of his finest pages. A painting can be made to stand in a metaphorical relation to something else, and this something else is always an object, most importantly, a body or one of its parts. In Titian, the representation of bodies in the field of the painting can be so sensuously corporeal that when rocks, grass, trees, and bushes receive a similar treatment, the entire canvas becomes a nude. In like fashion will a writer confer upon every line of his text the physicality of the sounds the speaking mouth makes, as if they were being chewed or sucked or kissed. In other cases which Wollheim considers, the paint’s surface becomes skin, and so on.
Wollheim’s assimilation of aesthetics to psychology leaves the aesthetics of painting helplessly dependent on the fate of this other field. I wonder at the end how a painting can be made out of psychological gestures alone, and whether, to interpret a painting, one must first have in one’s head a theory of the psyche and the characteristic manner of its manifestations (as I assume a view that art was an expression of society would also require), and whether this standpoint had better be a sound one (Freud rather than Watson or Adler or Jung in Wollheim’s case). Nor is it clear why we should prefer one work to another, for would it be enough that the painting fulfilled an intention if the intention were trivial? Again, why should we care what the content of a painting was, if we were concerned with the formal properties that made it beautiful, rather than the psychological factors that rendered it merely interesting? Aesthetic attention may not be mediated by concepts, as Kant argued, and it might be necessary to ignore or look past a painting’s psychological signals in order to examine the structure which validates it, much as one judges the excellence of an argument.
These and other kinds of questions will always be around in one phase or other of arrival or departure, and they will never cease, like the incessant waves, to rise and fall and wet us. Nevertheless, Richard Wollheim’s thoughtful and imaginative volume—strong-headed as it is—should bestir us to consider every old issue anew, and as stale as we may be ourselves, to turn each idea around as energetically as if we were young to the world and fresh to its confusions.