Tainting after Art?: Comments on Wollheim – Flint Schier

[…] Wollheim opens up a truism that we have not fully appreciated: the fact that a painter, as he paints, must face his canvas. The reason for this, according to Wollheim, is not only that a painter must, like any craftsman, see what he is doing, though of course he must. The painter’s posture has a deeper significance. As Wollheim puts it, the painter doesn’t merely paint with the eyes, he paints for the eyes. What does this mean? […]

On Wollheim’s view, the artist must look at his canvas in order to see whether it is producing the sort of experience he wants it to – for his aim is precisely to produce a certain sort of experience.

There are, I think, two points here. First, unlike a plumber fitting pipes, a painter’s prime concern is with making his work a focus of attention, and with seeing to it that the experience of attending to the work will be an intrinsically worthwhile one. This is one part of what it means to say that the painter paints for the eve.

But there is a second point, though it is concealed by an ambiguity. When Wollheim says the artist is a spectator of her own work, he could just mean that she asks herself whether she finds looking at her product delightful or interesting. But I think Wollheim has something deeper in mind, and that is that the artist wants to know whether her product would evoke a valuable experience in anyone else. And to find out whether this is so, the artist, as she works, must detach herself from her own viewpoint and assume the role of the sort of person she hopes will come before her work. Having occupied this new point of view, she proceeds to look at her work from this fresh perspective, and to ask whether it continues to hold her interest now that she is ‘centrally imagining’ her work from the perspective of the sort of person she hopes to reach.

Two points are worth making about this imaginative project. First, it is not necessarily aimed at pandering to established tastes and prejudices. The artist need not imagine a typical, or normal, or academic audience: she may imagine the sort of audience she hopes will be created by her work. She may hope that her work will invent its own community, as the greatest work does: creating new bonds and standards for a new community of taste. Still, she must imagine this new community, and imagine how her work will strike it.

The second point is related to the first, and that is that this process of imaginatively projecting herself into her audience is not a matter of rule-following or adherence to canons, but an alternative to convention mongering. If she merely wished to assure herself that her work met certain standards of genre or whatever, she would merely have to check the standards, she would not have to consult her imagined spectator. This is not to say that rules of form, genre expectations, and so on do not play a role in the creation of art. Of course they do. But the artist is not content with knowing that her work adheres to the rules. She must ask how her adherence to those rules would strike the sort of person she wants her work to touch. And this question, once again, can only be answered by imagining her work from the viewpoint of her desired audience.

I imagine someone might object to Wollheim’s point in the following way: surely it is not necessary that the artist face his canvas; if developments in modern art have taught us anything, they have taught us to be very circumspect in making claims about the necessary nature of any artistic enterprise, since so much that had been thought necessary to art has been shown to be, in fact, dispensable. Surely it is quite possible to create a painting without looking at it. The artist could just throw paint over his shoulder.

Of course, the painter could indeed just throw paint over his shoulder. But why should anyone give a damn about what he has done? If he cares no more for what he’s doing than simply to toss paint, why should we care about the result? Someone might say: perhaps she is very interested in the results of paint-tossing. Yes, he may be. However, can we be interested … I don’t think we can be, not in the way art ordinarily engages our interest, even when it’s bad: because the artist in failing to face his canvas has failed to face his audience. He has necessarily failed to exercise the moral imagination needed to contour his work to the experience of his audience. In failing to exhibit care and control of his work, he has failed to show concern for his audience.

If the foregoing has anything in it, then Wollheim’s account of the specta-tor-in-the-artist intimates one way in which the creation of art, however formal or abstract, is necessarily a morally serious enterprise, requiring the operation in the artist of the moral imagination, which for her consists of taking the viewpoint of others on her project, experiencing it from that perspective, and assessing it from a detached vantage point. Thus we find a capacity that is both a condition for art and a (necessary if insufficient) condition for morality, friendship, intimacy and any serious personal rapport.

I believe we have hit upon something that distinguishes mature art or art per se, from the dreamwork of children, phantasists, and dabblers who work simply to please themselves without imagining how their work would look from the perspective of a suitably disinterested, informed, sophisticated and imaginative spectator. True art requires a grasp of the full reality of other perspectives on one’s own work: one way in which art constitutes a ‘path back to reality’.

Just as each partner in a friendship, for example, must open her imagination to the viewpoint of the other, so there is a necessary reciprocity in our relation to a work of art. Just as the artist must assume the role of his spectator, so the spectator is obliged to envisage the viewpoint of the artist, in order to ask what the work means from this point of view. This process Wollheim has called criticism as ‘retrieval’. I want to draw attention to it as the necessary complement to the artist-as-spectator. A reciprocal bond of intimacy is established, between work and viewer, when each side acknowledges fully the importance of the other’s viewpoint.

One might begin to detect a whiff of paradox in this account: if the artist is to take the audience’s view, and the audience is to take the artist’s view, then surely the artist need only take his own point of view, since that will be the proper point of view of his audience. The circuit through ‘imagining the audience’ will prove otiose. (A symmetrical argument would show that the audience needn’t bother with imagining the artist’s perspective.)

This paradox is unreal: for the audience’s viewpoint incorporates, but is not exhausted by, its attempt to imagine the artist’s meaning – and, indeed, one question the artist uses herself is how, given this sort of public, she can make available to it her viewpoint and establish a community with it.

That the relationship a viewer strikes up with a painting is like taking a person seriously, or is a mode of taking a person (the-artist-in-the-work) seriously, is a fact not easily perceived from the wilder shores of post-modern thought, where any arbitrary object – a pile of bricks, say – can be an artwork, if the art grandees deem it so, and where the question of the artist’s purpose in creating a work is regarded with, at best, amused tolerance: the sort of thing the New Criticism should have helped us to get over. But if we ‘stop making sense’ of persons and artworks, we stop seeing them as persons and artworks.

One of the questions people frequently raise is: does it matter whether something is art? Who cares? Perhaps nothing is art, perhaps everything is. So what? For Wollheim it matters, as the title of his book, Painting as an Art, shows; and I believe his remarks on the roles of artist and spectator help to explain why this is so. For if I’m right, treating a canvas as a work of art necessarily involves being prepared to take it seriously, and that means being ready to engage seriously with the actual – actual, not phantasized – point of view of its creator. And this is a mode of taking a person seriously, being ready to shape your viewpoint to his.

Let me spell out a little what this means by trying to relate it to three curious facts about our relationship to works of art: (1) we can respond to a huge variety of styles with apparently conflicting aims and commitments: classical, baroque, mannerist, cubist, abstract expressionist and so on; (2) we can take seriously art which expresses an alien ideology, for example, religious art in a secular era; and (3) many important artistic projects, like cubism or pointillism, don’t seem to have any objectively comprehensible rationale, leaving them open to ignorant mockery . . .

I believe all of these facts point to the conclusion that the value of art is, largely, agent-relative and not agent-neutral. That is, what gives value to the wide assortment of artistic projects is that some community of artists in fact genuinely cared about them and tried to make others care too. But there is no earthly, objective, impartial reason why these projects should be taken seriously for themselves. Therefore, to appreciate them, we must step into the perspective of the artists who took them seriously, for so long as we retain our perspective, or take a purely impersonal perspective, these projects will appear to have no value.

Take for example what Greenberg says about cubism. Roughly, on his view the cubists were trying to find a way of creating canvases that both created an illusion of spatial depth and fully acknowledged the integrity of the picture-plane. From a cosmic point of view, or even from an impartial human point of view, it is very hard to see why what they were doing, if Greenberg is right, matters. I think it may be this feeling that has moved some writers to hallucinate a more objectively appealing enterprise as the basis of cubism. For example, it has been suggested – crazily I believe – that we should see them as engaged in work on the nature of the sign. What I think is that we should probably see them as Greenberg does: as engaged in an enterprise that we can make sense of only by the use of imaginative Verstehen. Viewed from within their perspective, we find interest in their project; viewed externally, we find no interest in it.

It might be thought that my position has drastically relativist consequences, for surely if we take the point of view of any artist, we’ll find his work interesting, only provided he did. But this is not so, and for two reasons. First, some projects may be such that we cannot enter into them; they repel imaginative projection. But second, often even though we can enter into the viewpoint of the artist, we still do not find worth in what he has done. This is because when we enter into his viewpoint, we must take some of our own values and interests with us. We do not wholly abandon our own viewpoint. This is a delicate matter, of course, but I think it’s important to remember that we must retain certain basic features of our own nature when we enter into the viewpoint of another. So there are bound to be projects we just can’t see the point of. Nor is the question simply whether a project has a point or has no point: it is also a question of ranking. We may see some point in a project but not enough to make it seem worth much effort.

Our friend’s projects became important for us because they are our friend’s projects. One of the most important forms of agent-relative value is the value we attach to the well-being of those who are our friends. This is a value that greatly exceeds the value that would be attached to their well-being and fulfilment from an impersonal point of view. Likewise, I am claiming that we must form a personal relation with a work as a necessary part of understanding it. We become interested in Picasso’s project because that’s Picasso’s project. The interest it has for us, as a result of our entering the artist’s point of view, is much greater than the interest it would have from a merely impartial viewpoint. Understanding this artwork, and forming a personal relationship to it, are inextricable parts of the same enterprise.

I believe what clinches this point is the fact that we can appreciate such diverse painters as Bellini and Picasso. If what Picasso and Braque were doing was, from an objective point of view, the right thing for painters to do, then what Bellini does – making us forget the wall of the church on which he has deposited his paintings of a virgin and child – would be wrong. Of course, if you were an historicist, you could save things by saying: what each was doing was right for that moment in the history of painting. You could thus restore some semblance of objectivity. But then you would have difficulty in explaining how we can appreciate such diverse painters in our own time as Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Frank Stella and Jules Olitski. Surely they can’t all be doing the one sort of thing that a painter should be doing now! The solution is, I believe, to give up the notion of artistic value as being impartial or impersonal. The key feature of an impersonal value is that it must, once acknowledged, engage the will of anybody. But artistic projects aren’t like this: one can see their point without feeling obliged to take the project on as one’s own.

Acknowledging someone as a person, or an object as an artwork, involves a willingness to take up toward them the sort of attitude Peter Strawson has called ‘reactive’: praise, blame, outrage, anger, admiration, love, hate and so on. By contrast, to treat someone ‘non-judgmentally 1 , or to see an object without feeling ready to respond to it with any reactive attitude, is to strip it of its humanity or arthood. The early critics of Manet . . . who were infuriated by his work at least showed that they still knew how to live with the full-blown concept of art or, what is the same thing in the material mode, how to live with art. By contrast, those for whom it is a possibility that a plastic cup or a pile of bricks can be an artwork, simply because of the way they are framed and received, show that they no longer know what they’re talking about. They are like the positivist and emotivist philosophers of the first half of this century who thought that calling an act or problem ‘moral’ was just a way of trying to confer honorific significance on it. But what significance? Surely calling something ‘moral’, or ‘art’, can only be a way of drawing attention to its significance if it is a way of suggesting a reason for a certain sort of concern. If labelling something ‘moral’ or ‘art’ were simply an ejaculation, it couldn’t perform the function the emotivists claim for it.

In fact, I think it makes no sense to claim that a pile of bricks could be a work of art. For it is intrinsic to the very concept of art that it has a certain role in our lives, and that applying ‘art’ to X carries with it certain commitments. In particular, it seems to me internal to the notion of ‘art’ that in applying it to something, we are offering a reason for a certain sort of interest in, and concern with, that thing. What sort of concern this is is what I’ve been trying to find my way around in this paper. If we pretend that we can apply ‘art 1 to an object without incurring these commitments, we are simply suffering from a kind of transcendental illusion. No one could seriously think that reasons could be offered for bestowing on a plastic cup the kind of concern that. . . eighteenth-century connoisseurs and virtuosi bestowed on painting. It’s just not conceivable that this kind of world could grow up around plastic cups, piles of bricks, urinals and so forth. Therefore, anyone who applies ‘art’ to such an object must have ripped the notion of art out of the context of commitments and concerns which alone gives it sense. Such a claim is, in quite the most literal possible sense, nonsense. […]

Flint Schier ,1986.

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