Painting, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M048-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2020, from

5. Painting and experience

The last section focused on construals of the Aristotelian formula, namely that art is mimēsis, which make do with a thin notion of imitation. A rather different set of views opens up if we draw on another of our basic observations outlined above. Perhaps the way pictures imitate is unique, essentially a matter of how they are experienced. This idea receives particularly clear expression in a view which there are some grounds for attributing to Lessing. As noted, we cannot put much weight on his talk of ‘illusion’ per se. However, he not only identifies illusion with vivid sensory imagining, he also seems to hold that imagining differs from sense perception only in terms of vivacity. If so, the most vivid acts of imagination will be indistinguishable, in terms of phenomenology, from acts of perception. Illusionism is the view that our experience of pictures is phenomenally identical with our experience of what they represent. The idea that this is painting’s special gift, or at least its proper aim, has a very long history. Moreover, it links painting to vision in the strongest possible way. Can it also form the basis for a distinctive painterly aesthetic?

‘It cannot. The problem is not that many pictures do not generate illusion, in this sense. That is true, but shows the view to be false only as an account of pictorial representation, not as stating an ideal at which pictorial art should aim. Nor is the problem that this ideal has never been recognized by painting, or never attained. There are genuinely illusionistic moments in some pictorial art in the Western tradition. In the foreground of Caravaggio’s The Lute Player (Metropolitan Museum, New York) lies a flute so realistic that one really does seem to be looking at polished wood glinting in the light. The problem is rather that too much great pictorial art does not even aspire to these effects. Consider the achievements of the twentieth century, the great Japanese woodcuts or medieval icon painting.

‘Nonetheless, illusionism does raise two problems of more general significance. First, if a painting’s worth lies in its generating an experience as of its object, what does the picture have to offer that is not already on offer from the object itself? Of course, the latter may not be to hand, or may not even exist. But if the value of painting reduces to that of a convenient visual substitute, it is hard to understand the place it has held in Western culture. We might hope to circumvent this difficulty by saying that painting’s value lies not in the nature of the experience it affords, but in the achievement involved in engendering that experience. It is nothing for a flute to present the appearance of one, but a considerable achievement for paint on canvas to do so.

‘However this, while appealing, runs into the second difficulty. It is very tempting to think that aesthetic value is peculiarly bound to experience. The most compelling form of this thought is that, if I experience two objects in exactly the same way, they cannot differ in value for me. Illusionism, as an aesthetic doctrine, precisely advocates such matching of experiences, of the painting and its object, as an ideal for pictorial art. But then painting and object cannot differ in value after all. Of course, illusionism can allow that the achieving of illusion may be manifest in experience of the painting, but only to the extent that the achievement is partial; the painting, by revealing its own presence, fails to present the appearance of the object. Thus we are forced into the paradox that, the greater the achievement, the less it is present. Art does not so much conceal, as annihilate, itself.

‘Both these problems hold more widely. The principle behind the second is at the heart of the problem of forgery, of how an original can be of differing aesthetic value from a perfect copy (see Artistic forgery). And the difficulty of differentiating aesthetically between a painting and its object threatens many views which attempt to understand the value of painting in terms of its relations to vision. However, illusionism raises these difficulties in a particularly acute form. To make progress with them, we need a less extreme position.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. Painting and experience. Painting, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M048-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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