Painting, aesthetics of

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

4. Pure content

Positions geometrically opposed to that of Greenberg insist that the value of painting is entirely a matter of representation. Such views are the inheritors of the Aristotelian tradition that sees art as essentially mimēsis, or imitation (see Mimēsis). (Aristotle distinguished these notions but the tradition following him did not.) If we reduce imitation to the bare power to represent something else, the tradition holds little promise. For even the crudest images or simplest combinations of words represent. Mere representing is thus neither special to pictorial art, nor in itself of aesthetic interest. However, perhaps we can progress further if we identify something distinctive about the representational content of pictures, something which might be developed by pictorial art.

‘At this point emerges a theme which has great prominence in the literature on painting, both philosophical and art historical. If there is something special about pictorial content, it lies in some kind of tie to vision. It is not just that pictures must be seen to be understood – that much is true of written language. It is that pictures represent things we see, and represent them in something like the way in which vision itself does. Something like this underlies the commonplace, developed by Ruskin into a principle of criticism, that pictorial art can sharpen our visual engagement with the world around us. Thus it is perhaps to painting that we owe the discovery that shadows can be coloured or our sense of the varieties of appearance which can be presented by clouds, trees or mountainsides (Ruskin 1843–60). And it is a closely related suggestion that painting might take visual experience as its explicit subject matter, capturing, for instance, the way that visual detail is distributed across the field of vision in response to shifts in focus and attention (Baxandall 1985). But perhaps the most systematic development of ideas in this vein lies in Lessing’s Laocoon (1766) (see Lessing, G.E.).

‘Lessing’s attempt to separate painting from poetry begins with a feature they have in common: the aim of both is what he calls ‘illusion’. The name may be misleading – Lessing’s position is that each art aims to stimulate vivid sensory imaginings. The difference between the two arts stems from the signs each uses to represent. Since those of painting are simultaneously existing and spatially organized, they can ‘express only objects whose wholes or parts coexist’. Poetry, in contrast, exploits signs which follow one another, and can thus ‘express’ only items made up of consecutive parts, that is, actions.

An important corollary is that painting can capture the aesthetic merit things have by virtue of the interrelations of their co-existing parts, i.e. ‘material beauty’. Poetry is unable to imitate this, since our psychological limitations prevent us forming decent sensory images of the simultaneous on the basis of exposure to the successive. It is thus restricted to imitating the effects of material beauty, or beauty in movement, which Lessing calls ‘charm’. Painting’s task is to imitate material beauty. Lessing at least comes close to a stronger claim: that a painting’s beauty – for him its main aesthetic merit – reduces to that of the thing represented.

There is much to question here. It is certainly false that a painting is only as beautiful as its represented object. There is more to a work, and to our awareness of it, than its representational aspect. We are aware of configurational properties too, and this alone makes it likely that the beauty of the whole comes apart from that of the represented object. Examples are easy to find. Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan is a work of an exquisite and delicate beauty; the represented Doge, while undeniably an impressive figure, does not have these qualities. Perhaps more damagingly, Lessing’s prizing of beauty above all other painterly values seems, if only in the light of developments in art since his day, severely constricting.

‘These problems can be eased, if not entirely solved, without sacrificing the spirit of Lessing’s view. We can explicitly deny that a painting is only as beautiful as its object, without thereby losing one of Lessing’s key insights – that represented beauty can at least contribute to the beauty of the representation (Hopkins 1997). And the narrow focus on beauty can be expanded to include other aesthetic qualities accessible to vision. Once we cease directly to link the aesthetic character of the work to that of its object, these need not even be positive qualities, as encountered face to face. We can allow that painting can succeed by virtue of capturing the repulsive and visually disturbing, as well as the erotic, the visually intoxicating and the sublime.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. Pure content. 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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