Painting, aesthetics of

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

6. Seeing-in and related phenomena

Illusionism is an accurate account of our experience of only a few pictures. Can an account which fits all pictorial representation fare better as the basis for an aesthetic of painting? Such an account would have to begin by recognizing the fact illusionism overlooks, namely that we are aware of both the representational and configurational aspects of pictures. As noted above (see §2), we experience the latter as organized around the thought of the former.

‘Schematic as this is, it already provides some help. By acknowledging the role of the configuration, we distance our experience of the picture from that of the represented object. We are thus able to explain at least how it is possible for the two to differ aesthetically. More than this, by stressing that we are aware of both aspects of the painting, we make room for the idea that it has a beauty which amounts neither to that of what is represented, nor to that of the marks considered merely as such, but to the way the one emerges from the other. This does indeed seem to be the case for many paintings – consider Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan again. This beauty is both important to painting and distinctively pictorial. For, while other art forms too can exhibit a beauty constituted by how what they represent emerges from the means by which it is so, only painting achieves this in the special experience by which pictorial content is grasped.

‘However, one lesson we took from discussing Lessing is that there must be more to pictorial art than beauty. When a painting is not beautiful, or when its beauty is only a part, perhaps a small part, of its aesthetic interest, what else is involved? We cannot here appeal, in the style of Aristotle, to the imitation itself, not even if we understand that as essentially involving our two-sided experience, seeing-in. For every picture sustains that experience, even those of no value. Moreover, we have no account of why that experience should, in itself, be of aesthetic significance. What, then, can we say?

‘We need to adopt a new strategy. Rather than searching for values found only in painting, or resorting to values found in exactly the same form elsewhere, we should try to understand painting as embodying more general values in a distinctive way. That distinctiveness is to stem from the way those values present themselves in pictorial experience. Seeing-in is thus not merely the means by which we grasp the representational content of a picture: it is also the conduit along which all pictorial value passes, and which gives the values thus accessed a distinctively pictorial shape. Seeing-in is not, now we have definitively rejected illusionism, face-to-face visual experience differently caused. But it is importantly related to ordinary vision. And it is so in such a way that what is aesthetically available in seeing-in is significantly linked to what is available in face-to-face visual contact with the world.

‘Thus, suppose that seeing things in the flesh not only presents us with certain individuals and their properties, but can also, on occasion, embody an affective response to those things. The skyscraper looks not merely grey and towering, but threatening, hostile. Perhaps seeing-in can similarly incorporate the affective, as when a De Chirico does not merely show strange buildings and alleys with long shadows, but captures a certain affective response to them, of poignant melancholy. If so, seeing-in offers not just a distinctively pictorial way to represent things, but the chance to represent them along with an affective response they merit. The response need not be one we would standardly have to such objects, and might even be one which, in real contact, no such object would ever elicit from us. Painting, then, seems to offer us the chance to explore how another might see the world and feel about it. It promises to initiate us into another sensibility.

‘This is something literature can do also, of course. What is distinctive about painting is that it does this in a specially visual form. It exploits the intermingling of percept and affect in everyday experience; and the way in which seeing-in is able to preserve such structural features of ordinary vision within what is, phenomenally, a quite different experience. It thereby allows the artist to speak to us by means, not of words and the images they can convey, but manipulated complexes of seeing and feeling.

This is, at most, only the start of an answer to our question. To flesh out our argument we would need to understand more about seeing-in, and in particular how it is able to deploy the resources of seeing face-to-face. We would need to understand those resources themselves far better, for instance, describing properly the role in ordinary vision of feeling. We would then need to spell out the significance provided by the possibility, in painting, of the artist’s controlling our response, and the hold thus created for the notion of communication. We would need to explain how such control manifested itself in our experience. And we would need to expand our sense of the phenomena this structure allows for – is the above unique, or the model for a whole range of distinctively visual forms of more general artistic values which painting can offer? Having done all this, we would need to fit the values thus described into a plausible account of the tradition of painting, in something like Greenberg’s sense of an historically extended, practically embodied, discussion between practitioners of the art (see §3).

‘We cannot do these things here. Although he does not frame them this way, the most serious attempt to tackle these questions is to be found in the work of Richard Wollheim (1987). The interested reader is directed there. Instead we may end by returning to just one of many matters outstanding, the question of abstract art. For the above programme for constructing a pictorial aesthetic may seem already, even in this inchoate state, to ignore abstraction. For if pictorial values are distinctive through their involvement with seeing-in, and seeing-in is the experience by which pictorial content is grasped, what are we to say of those pictures which, prima facie, have no such content? Wollheim has an answer. We do see things in abstract paintings. It is just that those things are highly schematic – not flutes, doges, and dancers, but, for example, triangles intersecting with rectangles, simple shapes arranged in various planes. Perhaps this is not true of all abstract painting, but it is true of by far the greater part of it. Even Greenberg himself seems to concede as much. For it is hard to know what else to make of his acknowledgement that most abstract painting is not completely ‘flat’. This tactic allows us at least to hope to treat most abstract painting as exploring the very same, perhaps multiple, values as the rest of the tradition. And if some pictures remain thereby excluded – Wollheim cites early Mondrian and Barnett Newman at his most distinctive – then perhaps that is a price that the aesthetic, once properly developed, can afford to pay.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. Seeing-in and related phenomena. 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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