#20. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe interviews Todd Cronan

Henri Matisse, 'Studio Under the Eaves', c.1903

Henri Matisse, ‘Studio Under the Eaves’, c.1903

This article was first published online by Bomb Magazine on 5th May 2015, and is re-published here with their kind permission. http://bombmagazine.org/article/044448/todd-cronan

[Editor’s note: we have already linked to this article and commented on it on this site, but thought it of sufficient interest to merit republishing here, where we can comment upon it directly. With many thanks to the author and Bomb editors.]

“Here are some marks, what do they mean?”

I don’t write book reviews very often, and I think it may be the case that the only other comparable in length to my review of Todd Cronan’s Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism may have been on Derrida’s Truth in Painting, back in the seventies. I think this is a very important work, for artists as well as art theorists, and I hope it will be widely and carefully read. Cronan is an associate professor of art history at Emory University, and in addition to Against Affective Formalism, he’s written a book about Matisse for Phaidon, and articles on Brecht, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Santayana, Georg Simmel, Paul Scheerbart, Paul Valéry, and Richard Neutra. Brecht and Valéry are especially important to what he has to say, i.e., the political as well as the poetic are simultaneously of concern.

Cronan’s book, in my view, is most important for what he says about Matisse, but its argument also goes far beyond the specifics discussing that particular artist might involve. Cronan has revived the idea of intention, in response—at least in part—to what he shows to be a final, or at least extreme, eruption of what a determined anti-intentionalism can cause. He shows that this has led the most well-known followers of Deleuze—and Deleuze himself, at least in respect to what he has to say directly about art—to see movement and other qualities in Matisse and others to be neither more nor less than an opportunity for missing the point altogether. Philosophers are notorious for skimping on description in order to use what they’ve got to get to what they really care about as quickly as possible, Hegel’s impatience with Kant’s “ratiocination” about the sublime being a notorious example, and T.J. Clark’s lovely description of two paintings by Poussin a monumental and convincing argument against being too eager to take refuge in generalities rather than seeking to fully grasp specifics. This has caused a fuss amongst the eminent about which those who care may have more to say. I am more excited by how, as an alternative to leaving the work as soon as possible, Cronan gives us a thorough treatment of Matisse’s context, large as well as local, and the best approach to what Matisse gets painting to do that I have read. Also, it’s by far the best treatment of what difficult art might involve that I’ve seen his generation produce. This is an approach to art—especially but not only to painting—that includes how the work acts in the world. This is how and why it involves Brecht and the political, and questions that follow from, and accompany, those sorts of questions are among the ones that we thought we might pursue here.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe: Against Affective Formalism makes a case for taking artists’ intentions into account, not in the sense of a simple (actually unattainable) transcription of literal intention, but rather in the sense that works mean something, and are not raw—or at best only partially cooked—material whose meaning is to be found not in the work but in an account of their affect on a sensitive viewer who is interested in chaos à la Deleuze nowadays and sensation too generalized in the past and from the start.

I think you have shown that one difficulty with Matisse’s reception has been a reluctance to grant painting the ability to be complex. The idea that one could make great art by setting off only a very general sense of rhythm, for example, seems to have satisfied generations of art historians and critics. You show that, on the contrary, there’s nothing general about Matisse’s work, and that the opposite is closer to the truth: he was after an almost impossibly precise relationship between the work and its viewer. His work, as you explain in exact detail, involves one in a relationship to how an image is working that takes into account, one may even say develops from, a concern with what to do with feeling. How a painting is a space in which forces come together is, for example, part of the question of how to be sincere when one has models of sincerity that would by definition be hard to overcome but which equally could hardly be any use, being repetitions of something from elsewhere and another time. I discuss it in the review and with it your emphasis on his interest in Bergson’s “pure memories.” Those which leave the body—you may remember learning something, after that what you learned is never a thought alone and unrepeatable like that one. That said, do you think it fair to say that contemporary criticism has generally failed to deal with Matisse because, at least in part, it doesn’t want painting to do what he shows it can do to begin with?

Todd Cronan: The book is certainly an effort to redirect attention back to the question of intentionality in art. To say that intentionality in the humanities has been an object of contempt for the past forty years or so would not get it quite right; it’s more like a set of endless victory laps by anti-intentionalists who rarely bother rehearsing the so-called “intentional fallacy”—the one made famous by Wimsatt and Beardsley but actually canonized by French thinkers like Blanchot, Barthes, and Derrida. After many talks I’ve given on the subject, there’s this astonishing way in which eyes and minds glaze over at the sound of the word (something like, “You know Todd, intentionality was finished by my advisors and their advisors, so why are you talking about it, didn’t you hear it died long, long ago?”). But my point is simple, and as you say, it establishes the difference between objects and artworks. Art historians, for instance, don’t deal with “objects,” they deal with artworks—objects that bear intent. I’m largely uninterested in the question of intent as it is conceived by those who require the straw-man version of it: documents, biography, letters, discursive claims about what one means, various smoking guns. All we need, from my perspective, is to recognize how deep the feeling is when we respond to things that we take to be intended (we may, of course, be wrong in that assumption) and our response to things that are not. In terms of what painting can or cannot do, I think Matisse follows Mallarmé’s vision of the difference between description and suggestion. Description is a matter of illustrative detail, and, for Mallarmé, it was identified with the randomness of the newspaper and the empty chatter of journalism, whose words have been drained of their inner meaning. By contrast, suggestion is a highly complex phenomenon that suspends the word between “openness” and “closure”; it is a challenge to the reader to engage in an especially active and attentive way. The kind of experiential encounter Mallarmé and Matisse imagined is one where there is a high degree of openness to the work, but one that is nonetheless highly controlled by the artist. Writing about his infinite “book,” Mallarmé hoped the reader would “take it up from here or there,” and that in “participating” in this way “the book is almost remade by them.” Almost, because, as he writes in the next sentence: “The folds of the book … invite one to open or close the page, according to the master.” (Barbara Johnson removed the last phrase from her translation of Divagations, a clear example of her point about the reader as producer.) Matisse, like Mallarmé, thought of suggestion as the most powerful technique to communicate his intent; powerful because it made the audience feel like they were crucially involved in the process of making meaning (even if they really were not, or not in the way we think of viewers as creators today). There’s a way in which critics have since at least the 1820s resisted a notion of complexity in art. Many contemporary critics (they are not alone) prefer systems, rules, procedures, and theories that allow them—that require them—not to respond to what they see. Rules and theories are ways not to see what’s there in front of you, that’s the appeal of them, they allow you to bypass the problem of expressive communication by fixing the terms of the exchange between artist, medium, and viewer.

JGR: Following from that then, in an exchange with another scholar you have talked about intention requiring that one “risk(s) the public and corrigible claim to understanding what was said.” Could you elaborate on what corrigibility involves? Somewhere in my request is Kant’s dictum that the work of art can’t be beautiful because it’s made by a human, and is therefore determined. This could return one to how weird it is that people with PhDs would think paintings were devoted to the provision of a negative and incoherent image without entertaining the thought that, even or especially if that were true, “intended chaos” is to an extent an oxymoron. But my question has to do with what corrigibility involves in the absence of propositions, which works of art can’t make. I am wondering whether the corrigible and the recognizable are the same thing here, and whether it has to do with noticing what painting is doing by setting its own terms in motion, rather than with recognizing a premise and argument: recognizing fusion of the sort you describe would, perhaps, be the sort of corrigibility that you describe in the response noted here could be publicly asserted and would seem close to what we usually mean by “interpretation” without being that.

TC: This is the tricky part, but it’s key. If intentional analysis is not about digging up what an artist said they were doing when they made a work, then how can one talk about correctness or incorrectness at all? I think there are two major modes of failure in the humanities: affective analysis and factual analysis. My book is about the former but my critique should hold for both. The job of the humanities as I see it—this is the bare minimum, but it’s a lot—is to try and understand what someone meant by something. That’s it. Here are some marks, what do they mean? Not what do they mean for me (which is not meaning at all) or what did they mean for their audience—or any audiences—or how does that meaning change over time—those are all fact-based approaches, and they are designed to preserve one’s immunity from dispute. Or rather, disputes become a matter of sorting out sets of data (how did an audience actually respond to a work of art, for instance), data that by its nature seeks to bypass the murky waters of figuring out what someone meant (there is no data for that). There are, of course, debates about facts, but they are at least potentially resolvable in the way interpretative analyses are not.

Against this view of things, I’m interested in interpretation. An interpretation requires one to go out on a limb to say, “This is what I think this means.” But as we all know, interpretations are highly contestable. There’s no getting to the bottom of intent in the way there is with a set of facts (however difficult that might be). Because intent is not like a set of facts to be discovered, it’s a matter of making claims—claims ideally based on long-term experience, but still fragile—about what one thinks someone meant. Once that interpretation is made, it goes out into the world and renders itself available for judgments. Affective analysis avoids the whole question of right or wrong, compelling or unpersuasive, so as to avoid the possibility of exposure to the other (it’s another in the endless sequence of reinventions of skepticism). So even though interpretations are corrigible—they can be right or wrong—they are not corrigible in the way a set of facts can be. I should say I don’t for a minute think that works of art are objects available for some kind of interpretative reduction, or for the extraction of some message which is delivered to a decoding reader. I don’t believe in any of that. Works of art are received largely at the level of feeling—which should be clearly distinguished from affect—feelings which are publicly transmittable through language to others.

JGR: On the question of risk as such, I have questions that go in two directions. The first is about painting. There, I wonder if the idea that painting risks only being good painting rings a bell with you. I think of it as the Brice Marden problem, I think it goes to the question of painting having to do something, which in turn raises the question of intentions that are specific rather than general. If one thinks of painting as an instrument rather than a medium, one may say that Matisse found within what it is something that it could do, and that was not to repeat an idea and image of what was known to be good. To turn this into something perhaps more like a question, the other direction in which asking about risk leads me is this. I think we live in a risk-averse art world in some crucial and problematic respects. Conceptual art, for example, at least risks doing nothing with preexisting ideas. I have suggested (in Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime and elsewhere) that the correct term for art that is just a proliferation of discursive propositions is the “banal sublime,” in that it is limitless and full but without any change. Political art, on the other hand, seems immune to criticism, and therefore risk, in the same way that religious art is. It is automatically good because one agrees with it. This means that aesthetic questions are automatically secondary if not irrelevant from the start, and perhaps there is a prescriptive assumption that repeating what has already been said is itself a holy act. In your note about Eisenstein, Brecht, and Hollywood you bring up the idea of “teaching the teachers.” That very thought involved some risk, you could get it wrong and set off the transmission of political error. No one could take that thought seriously now, surely, and I wonder if you have any thoughts about what overtly political art may be said to risk. There are I think some exceptions, Kara Walker’s use of sugar in her sculpture in Brooklyn recently is one because the pervasive smell of sweetness could have misfired, but other than that I wonder if you have any thoughts about what painting on the one hand and overtly political art on the other may be risking.

TC: In 1890 Maurice Denis reminded his readers that “a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” And there’s a way of making autonomous but non-binding art that can fulfill that vision without any risk (I take it this is the Marden problem you’re getting at). What could be easier really, than making “good” painting that is about itself? It’s absolutely the case that some form of politics or belief about the world, what T. J. Clark calls “truth,” motivated most of the great art I can think of. Without it, it seems many artists feel lost, or without a properly binding set of problems. That said, we don’t have to take that truth to be binding (think of Yeats’s attitude toward ghosts, Dante’s toward Christianity). What makes a problem properly binding is obviously an enormously complicated question, but it might have to do with having a good sense as to what the world really looks like. So “good” painting and “good” politics (self-congratulatory anti-racism, celebrating diversities) seem a perfect match. Both seem misguided and both meet on the grounds of what you call risk aversion. The humanities today are virtually defined by an emphatic commitment to not making claims about anything that could rise to the level of dispute (that is, non-factual dispute).

I love the idea of the banal sublime, that seems about right (open, ambitious, free from intent). I also agree with your sense of the dangers of political art, but it’s something I think we’re both committed to working out. My friend Walter Benn Michaels aims to describe what he calls a “class aesthetic,” and while he makes his case around artists who seek autonomous forms of perfection (not a bad idea for an artist to pursue), I’m also interested in the kind of politics that flow from artists whose works are in some straightforward sense Marxist. Their being Marxist is not to the point, but rather that the forms of autonomy they seek suggest ways in which what they are not showing (struggling workers, oppressed peoples) is nonetheless gestured toward in a structural way. And by structure I mean capitalist modes of exploitation, which are not only inaccessible through identity (empathy in Brecht’s terms), but are purposefully obscured by identity terms. Brecht’s genius, something he learned from the Russian Constructivists, was to recognize the changing nature of exploitation and to find the most precise tools to express it. Now the right tools are not the tools that the humanities care to provide. The humanities have been for a long time the place where capital finds new ways to dissemble itself. Identity politics and affect politics (they’re the same in some not too complicated sense) are the current tools of dissembling. Brecht got this incredibly right in Round Heads and Pointed Heads when he showed how the exploiters dream of ways to keep people from talking about class. They need no longer dream because we in the humanities do the dreaming for them. The name of the game, as I see it, is to find a way to talk about art and politics that doesn’t fall into either the propaganda trap or the Adornian “mimetic exacerbation” trap (show the world back to itself in some intensified way so as to make that world—the one inhabited by the beholder—visible). What is October if not a set of variations played on the idea of critically “staged” encounters between the centered subject and its putative conditions of production (as though the staging isn’t itself the hallmark of the lamented centered subject)? Further, the process of staging is thought to generate “new,” less hierarchic structures of meaning, what Devin Fore calls a “new visual logics.” But what if neither the subject nor hierarchy is really the problem, and something more like an instance of the problem? How could this be? Because the problem is precisely the replacement of exploitive categories with dominative or recognitive ones based on seeing and being seen. Propaganda is at least coherent, if limited. The Adornian claim—it is canonized at this point—suffers from confusion about the nature of autonomy. I think what Michaels shows, or at least outlines, is a way out of the bind of propaganda and mimesis. The perfect work of art, the autonomous one, passes through the logic of identity (more broadly, the logic of what Poe calls “the affairs of the world”) and by doing so points beyond itself to the kinds of structures that make exploitation possible (which is not a matter of identities) and to maybe the promise of something better than the way we live now, or at least a world with vastly more time to engage and make art than we currently have.

JGR: I think that what you have said about Brecht and acting, in the book and elsewhere, is very important for painting’s perhaps most difficult problem. The painting and the actor take over the space of the viewer with whom each shares it first of all by how it, or she or he, is there. In both cases the meeting is between two subjectivities, the actor and the painting is felt to be communicating and, actually, it is the audience which is mute. It may here be worth noting the phenomenological truism that from side to side and up and down is quantifiable, but depth is always perceptual and, in that, speculative. How far one is from the space that is what one sees when one sees the painting is about close and far, not feet and inches. The same is even truer of the distances between things within the image, including marks. The work’s physical presence not only signifies but is the basis of subsequent signification as the viewer continues to be engaged by it. I wonder how this works now. Obviously one can’t do straightforward Brechtian acting without invoking an academy, or paint in a way that’s directly reminiscent of Matisse for the same reason. At the same time, I should think that a self-conscious theater is a resource we should like to continue to have, and perhaps, too, we should be rash to think we can do without an art that can perform the “hesitant nearing” that Heidegger said characterized what happens in a Matisse—the absence of which from contemporary painting is perhaps in part a consequence of painting not doing what it can do, by which I mean, of painters doing no more than what they know to be good, of art historians and others wanting painting only to be, if not historically dead, then certainly only surviving as a conversation piece that makes a good starting point, because one may talk about the eroding of semantic clarity by an image, for conversing about the collapse of meaning. This is why I wonder whether you think there is any usefulness in turning to the thought that both painting and acting are as much like instruments as they are like mediums? As mediums, one is free to fantasize about them being historically redundant—the dead hand of Rodchenko governs much of contemporary art theory—but as acts they elude such simplicity. For example, the ultra not-Rodchenko artist is in my opinion Frank Stella, who has never made a work that didn’t produce pictorial space while being insistent about its objecthood and, in that, about the latter’s limits both perceptually and historically. And it’s Matisse’s precedent—more than anyone else’s—that explains how he does it. I think Stella plays Matisse like a jazz musician redoing a standard—one could take what you say about Matisse and the frame and apply it directly to how Stella makes the work melt into the room, for example. That is why I wonder whether you agree that, if we start with painting rather than with presumptions about its inability to do anything, we might generate more interesting discussions about what’s going on in painting now.

And I’ll accompany that with an anecdote about the political. I think it another thing that links the way that actors and paintings sharing space might be discussed, but it can’t be if painting is shorn of intention. I note that how things are a being, another subjectivity, is always a political question. I recall a Danish woman at an environmental conference telling a reporter that she knew there were right-wing nutters there, she could tell by the way they stood.

TC: I gather that the way they stood told her something about the way they were thinking. Intention has a way of making itself known whether we like it or not. This is why, as Stanley Cavell brilliantly shows, we seek out new and unprecedented ways of making ourselves unknown, what traditionally was called skepticism. I like all of what you say about Matisse and Stella, and I think it makes a lot of sense. And, of course, I agree that this now-tired but seemingly compelling story about the “end of” XYZ (fill in your no longer adequately “contemporary” medium) is a dead end. Again, it’s a story about not making oneself open to another by virtue of a set of category claims, or theories to which one can appeal. As you say, it’s a story told by some Russians in the 1920s—I would nominate Gan and Tarabukin, not Rodchenko as its author (which is to say, October got him dead wrong). Also Greenberg in the 1960s and October since the late ’70s, and the story is designed to give some folks elite access to a seemingly obvious set of facts about history as a way to inoculate themselves from the risks of judgment about particular acts of intended meaning. In addition to the long history of theatrical melodramas about “not being able to really know another,” humans also seem to want to make themselves known in a variety of manners, painting being a particularly powerful one, not least in its responsiveness and resistances to the hand and mind. I think the distinction you make—between pictorial space and object space, one Michael Fried centrally describes in his early criticism—is, of course, key because the “instrumentality” you mention has to do with effects that emerge beyond the blunt facticity of the medium. Like Marden’s “good” painting, which you mentioned earlier, what could be easier—all the facts seem to bear this out—than properly acknowledging the materiality of one’s medium. Indexing oneself and one’s setting is about as difficult to achieve as spelling your name right. Materiality, by the way, is a word that should be shelved for the foreseeable future; it’s the word we use to heap praise onto whatever we like—and scorn on those who don’t properly “acknowledge” it—without of course making an actual judgment about the work’s value. Judgment involves something more than fulfilling a set of political, social, historical demands; it is something more akin to fully acknowledging someone else’s humanity, which might entail trying to understand what they mean.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, a BOMB contributing editor, is a painter who also writes about art and related topics, at times working collaboratively on both with Rebecca Norton as Awkward x 2. His essays and books include Beyond Piety (1995)—which contains essays first published in BOMB—and Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (1999). He is currently working on a book about how indetermination is what we called the sublime in the eighteenth century. Gilbert-Rolfe was given the CAA’s Mather Award in 1998 primarily for his “Blankness as a Signifier,” and is a professor in the Graduate Art program at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California.


  1. Alan Gouk has responded:

    Quoting from Taruskin on Schumann, Vol.3:
    “The beholder, in other words, must add something, once again confirming Schiller’s marvellous insight that art’s hold on our imaginations comes not (or not only) from what the composer puts in, but from what we ourselves are forced to contribute, before we can take anything out. It follows from this that our perception of an artwork is never entirely objective. That much is a truism. But what follows is the less common admission that it is never entirely subjective either. Artistic engagement, and whatever knowledge (or self-knowledge) may emerge from it, is therefore the product of an interaction between the object submitted to the public gaze and the subjects who do the gazing. Neither can ever be excluded. Or so Schiller and Schumann (and every other romantic artist) insist…
    Far from a truism, this has always been a hotly debated issue, for its implications are vast and potentially very disquieting… perhaps the intentionally incomplete statements with which romantic artists insist on tantalising us do not really differ in kind from other statements, including those that purport to be entirely complete and unproblematical. Perhaps completeness of utterance is only a disguise worn by partiality… That would make romantic artists the greatest realists of all”. Vol.3 page 315-6 Oxford History of Western Music.


  2. There is a view that “content” is something that is “put in” to a work of art, that it is somehow contained within it, the result of decisions made, actions taken by the artist, to be elucidated by critical analysis. This is wrong. The artist does not “put in” content, at whatever level this model envisages. The artist is blind to the content created by his own work, and cannot create or control “content” on purpose, any more than one can be profound on purpose. “Plastic purpose” may create form or forms, but this does not coincide with or constitute content.
    “Content” is an expression of the qualitative character of the artist’s unconscious achievement, whether or not he or she cultivates a posture of detachment or impersonality. It is, if you will pardon the expression, “given off” by the creative imagination, which flows firstly from emotion to “concept”, to making, although the “concept” may be the point of arrival rather than the origin.
    The notion is that if you put in more particularities, more specific “forms” you create more content. This idea would support much bad art of the hard-won image variety. On this argument Frank Brangwyn (remember him) is better than his model, Gauguin, because he particularises his nudes with form creating Rubensian licks (or Jordaens more like), whereas Gauguin has a clear conception of the degree of modelling that is requisite in the context of a decoratively unified picture, as he had invented it.
    Cerebral compulsiveness, formalisms, systems, algorithms (in the latest jargon) may create structures, but they do not of themselves create “content”.
    In Rembrandt’s Joseph blessing the Sons of Jacob, for instance, it is not the knocking together of heads, the gnarled hands or the richly described headdresses that create the content. It is “our response to the qualitative character, as made apprehendable by” all this form that creates the “content”, and this is the feeling engendered by our awareness of the dramatic power and humanity of one of the greatest pictorial imaginations.

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  3. My position on “content”, which, without overtly stating it, Alan is challenging in his comment, may depend upon a slightly different definition of that word. Nevertheless, I would robustly defend the idea that content is far more accessible to conscious input that Alan is suggesting. He is in the realms of Pollock’s “I am Nature” here, to which, I am sure Alan knows very well, Hofmann responded with something along the lines of “Then you are doomed to repeat yourself”. The idea that Matisse was “blind to the content created by his own work” contradicts in part not only the idea of intentionality put forward in the above discussion, as I read it, and refutes the notion that Matisse changed and reconfigured his art to re-approach and redefine what it was/is that painting could do, anew; but also aligns Alan with Jock Ireland and Sam Cornish in their insistence upon a reading of the sensibility of the artist (which is indeed – most of the time – unconscious, though even that is mutable) having to be woven into any appraisal of content; indeed, perhaps even to supplant it. Of course, we are all a little bit right here, the nature of things being so complex and subtle; and no doubt sensibility must in any full reckoning of an artist’s oeuvre be taken into account (by art historians at a later date?), but it is clear to me that the content of an artist’s work can and must be subject to change by conscious effort on the part of the artist, perhaps as a direct result of an assessment of his or her individual works by themselves and by others, and that the development and improvement of content (which at the moment is, I think, close to the idea of a re-complexification of modernist thinking, or perhaps its abandonment) is of the very essence of intentionality. Otherwise, we are on Slippery Slope no.1, down the track to complacency on the part of the artist, a reciprocating and supportive all-in subjective interpretation on the part of the viewer, and an amiable, incorrigible and critically impotent discourse on the art’s shallow affects and semiotics, etc… and let’s not go there. Indeed, as I think the JGR/TC exchange suggests, it’s on the brink of a very steep incline down to the extremes of indulgent and ignorant interpretation by the viewer which renders all and any intentionality on the part of the artist futile and meaningless. Bring on the minimalism (with a small “m”) and the conceptual painting…

    Which leads us directly to Slippery Slope No.2: “objectivity”. Of course it is indeed a truism that “our perception of an artwork is never entirely objective.” To use my favourite expression of the moment – so what! We can but try, and indeed, we should. What use, other than as an exercise in connoisseurship or historical scholarship (which may have their place, but this isn’t it), is the rest?

    Maybe there is a little bit of a difference between painting and sculpture here, as much as a difference between Alan and me. Alan has elsewhere criticised my definition of real abstract art (compared with the processes in abstraction) as starting with nothing. He insists that no artist starts with nothing, and that, at the very least, one starts with “muscle-memory” of what one has done before. I think in the long term that’s debateable (a “very general sense of rhythm”?; doomed to repetition?), but you can’t apply it to making abstract steel sculpture anyway. All artists can radically transform the content of their work by all sorts of actions, both conscious and unconscious (look what Caro did in 1959), and that by such actions can perhaps disclose their own sensibility to themselves and others; and maybe develop it too.

    Where Alan and I might converge again is in “the feeling engendered by our awareness of the dramatic power and humanity” when communing with the consciousness of another, through their art. What a great thing. This is a brilliant exchange between JGR and TC which addresses such key questions about art. I’ve ordered the book.


    1. “Their insistence upon a reading of the sensibility of the artist…….having to be woven into any appraisal of content” says Robin, as if “the sensibility of the artist” is somehow insolable or separable from the overt form and substance of what they achieve—just as Robin in another context tried to separate out my “handling” as a kind of disguise behind which lay a “tired” format . Sensibility, handling, what you will, are the unique personal signature of an artist without which there would be no “form” and no art, in a genuine artist ,that is.
      Consider the exchanges of influence between Pissarro and Cezanne at Pontoise, for instance, where, as they both testified, through all the palette knifing and form defining brush slapping, they retained what was unique in themselves, and it is that “sensibility” or “temperament” as they called it which we now read as constituting the content and quality of their art.
      Robin is fond of quoting from my communications with him only those bits that suit his purposes. On muscle memory I also said, “and though one may try to go beyond it, character will out, unless consciously repressed, which is not a good thing to do”. I went on to say “the steel sculptor also begins by ordering up lengths of scrap steel or new steel, and this already sets limits on what is imaginable” (especially as one is no longer allowed to roam the steel yards in search of juicy bits, I meant to add).
      Robin doesn’t seem to realise that his current preoccupations both as sculptor and painter are entirely consistent with the values of his modernist precursors, despite his touting of himself as some kind of Moses of the “new”, and why these values need to be “abandoned” is a mystery to me!.


      1. So all I need do then is order in my pre-formed and immutable lengths of steel, apply to it my unconscious and inflexible sensibility, and Bob’s your uncle – or in this case, Tony Caro’s your uncle. Such limits on content I very consciously and deliberately reject, absolutely. Sounds to me like you’re the one who wants things set in stone, Moses-like.

        Speaking of Cezanne and Pissarro, did you ever notice, despite them being such strong characters, how the content of their work changed completely over the course of their careers…


      2. You can analyse the formal qualities of Cezanne’s landscapes until you are blue in the face and this will,never in itself touch their “content”. The only way I can describe it is that it is like a smell that exudes from the painting (I hear you chortle). You can smell the supple eloquence of the infinitely varied paint fabric, you can smell the turpentine, you can smell the pine trees as marinated in the artist’s defining touch, and all that flows together to create a unique sensation, which, though it is not the same as “ma petite sensation”, none the less is in some in definable way caused by it.
        There is also an encapsulation of a moment in time, a condensation of a nexus in pictorial culture , time speaking across time to you now, here now. Grasping the form, perhaps never fully, comes later and is only half the story.
        Or take Poussin’s The Massacre of the Innocents in the Petit Palais. It is not just the tableau sequence of almost cinematic “configurations” with which the drama is enacted, but the contrast between the violence depicted, the trampling on the infant torsos, and the extreme refinement and delicacy of the delineation of the infant bodies, and the almost colourless rendering of their chubby cherubic little frames, (an effect which Picasso tried to emulate in Guernica). Again we imbibe the “content” of this picture immediately if subliminally, and also slowly. The more we go over the narrative sequence of poses, the restrained manner with which the expressions of fear and pain and aggression are “handled”, the more complex and contradictory the “content” becomes. Formal considerations alone will not get us there.
        I used to hold closer to the objectivity school of thought, that form creating intention was palpably transmissible as communicated content, and part of me wishes that this model could be proven. But I am aware from the examples given above that there is something more, something which overrides intent, and has the power to communicate above and beyond the artist’s hopes and wishes.
        As Picasso said, and Heron echoed, ” It is not what the artist intends , but what he (or she ) is, that counts.
        The work and development of a great artist is a constant giving —a giving of life back to life, or as D H Lawrence put it –“to touch and transmit the life of the universe”. Without that giving, that generosity of spirit, art is addled.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You tantalise us with your romantic and incomplete statements. I agree with all of it, though it is not the whole story, and at the moment it’s the least useful part. And I’ve constantly argued against a formalist approach, as I hope you know.


    1. Thanks for the link, Jock. Reading that book review makes me feel severely intellectually challenged, and I suspect my reading of the present article to be rather simplistic, but hey ho… never one to be daunted by my own foolishness, I press on…

      Don’t let’s confuse the very interesting business of “intentionality” being discussed here with the “over-determination” or absence of spontaneity to be found in much so-called abstract art, especially that of a wholly geometric or systematic nature. There is really no good abstract art around that doesn’t do spontaneity in spades; nor any that doesn’t go out of its way to avoid an over-determination of its content (as outcome). Abstract art has to find its own ways – perhaps new ways – to live and breathe and open itself out, and pre-determined or over-determined or conceptualised painting and sculpture is just not going to cut it.

      But the latter is very, very different from an ongoing and developing intentionality which feeds the work and feeds the spontaneity of action, and which changes and develops the content, and which allows the spontaneity to come and go as required by that content – but is not dictated to by it. Indulgent, impulsive and all-consuming spontaneity, without the control of intentionality, has been the bane of much “lyrical” and romantic formalist abstraction, and is just as irresponsible a methodology as pre-programming. But taking conscious responsibility for the development of content is a way that, over time, the artist can come to control meaningfulness… possibly…


      1. Robin,

        Care to elaborate by what measure you evaluate spontaneity in a work of art? What of abstract paintings (I’m thinking of late 40s de Kooning) which are at pains to produce the look of spontaneity, but are anything but? And what of “spontaneity”, how can you account for humor or irony? Surely this is where some knowledge of artistic intent is critical.


      2. The clever answer would be “spadefuls”, but I’ll forgo that…

        A sense of freedom and something discovered and acted upon ‘in the moment’, a lack of prescription – are those measures? The thing is, there is no direct correlation between the spontaneous acts of an artist and the ‘spontaneous-looking’ outcome of the work. So it’s not really an exact science. What you put in doesn’t necessarily come out. The rest – irony, cod spontaneity etc, – not sure I can account for.


      3. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it Robin, but your answer seems to invalidate spontaneity as criterion for good abstraction as you’ve (correctly, in my mind) explained that even the premeditated illusion of spontaneity (its antithesis) wouldn’t be fake. Isn’t then the probing of a work of art for signs of spontaneity a fruitless endeavor?

        I certainly agree that “systems based” art mostly leads to dreadfully boring predetermined outcomes, and that they should be avoided at all costs. But perhaps its better to speak of “improvisation” or better yet “room for improvisation” within the structure of a composition, rather than spontaneity? This would allow for intentionality -the desire to achieve a particular aim- on the part of the artist, as well freedom within the structure to move about, revisit and revise.

        But we should always beware that works which exhibit the signs of free improvisation, may be the result of its exact opposite. And surely so much of the neo-neo-geometric abstraction clogging up all that bandwidth is the result of pure spontaneity. All this leads me back to wondering whether singling out any salient feature of a work of art is at all useful a priori in its critical evaluation.


  4. Perhaps I will be in the minority, but I did not find this exchange to be particularly enlightening. I think it suffers from the curse of much contemporary writing (art and non-art alike) in that it uses a significant amount of words, and some jarringly complex sentences, to make points that seem rather simple. Should a sensitive viewer (or listener or reader) bear in mind that the object of their perception did not magically appear out of thin air fully-formed for their appreciation? Of course.

    A human mind with its attendant hopes, fears, meanings and intentions is always at work behind the external appearances of art. Should we also keep in mind the context of a work’s creation? Whenever possible, surely, but we mustn’t be limited by that knowledge. Knowing the sonic landscape of mid-sixties England or America will undoubtedly enhance our appreciation of The Beatles musical achievement, sometimes in remarkable ways, but it won’t make Revolver sound any different.

    The problem, as I see it, is that the shape of the question determines the form of the answer. To ask about the meaning of a work of art is to necessarily move one way from the experience of the work (in which its “meaning” is embedded) and down a path of discursiveness that always travels a great distance but never seems to lead anywhere. It seems to me that a more productive route is to evaluate the quality of the experience itself and the work’s central capacity to provoke it (shades of Beardsley) while keeping in mind that the relative goodness or badness of an artwork is a dynamic relationship between a variety of factors only one of which is artistic intent.


    1. Yes, another interesting article!
      I had to seek out the ‘intentional fallacy’ though, as first time of reading I wondered what an earth could have replaced something so fundamental as ‘intentionality’? However, not knowing is always a spur, much of what is firing up debate around here seems to point to How we look more than What we are looking at.

      A bipolar debate swings from the contextual (the text is all) to the ‘formal’ (what you see is what you get) the various inadequacies of either of these methods deemed to demonstrate the shortcomings of the artwork, such as the failure of ‘modernism’ so called etc…Binary oppositions may be the motor of internet forum and pointless J Jones comment sections but are rarely enlightening.

      Both approaches put the cart – theory before the horse – artwork.
      One of the problems of the ‘contemporary’ is the unbalanced focus upon the cart (theory as practice, ugh…) Some sources of this canker, aptly multifarious; demise of studio teaching, urge to quantify, poor criticism, art schools written ‘unit’s etc…are familiar to all. They have along with varieties of post/structuralist theory as the article suggests become embedded, received wisdom.
      Despite professing to support ‘practice’ (making art!) the theoretical takeover has instead turned much art into illustration of sanctioned text.
      In search of better phenomenological insight I certainly find myself in ‘formal’ revolt, yet this of course has it’s own problems; the Greenbergian ‘illegitimate content’ for one. By which I take to mean an artist’s ‘intentions’ I’m thinking of Newman in this case.

      Either approach is of its own inadequate and I can only hope we work toward a far more comprehensive dare I say ‘Holistic’ approach. Perhaps we may find support for this in Latour, I hope I understood it of course! He is definitely a more lucid speaker than writer, but an anthropological approach seems ideal; take everything into account, giving an equal weighting to all elements and opening up discourse between specialisms rather than a constant Cartesian ping-pong as each faction attempts to shoehorn phenomena into it’s own dogma.

      Perhaps the beginnings of this can be seen in the inspiring open discourse evident here and in the Brancaster Chronicle series, but not necessarily the ideal, as certainly I alighted upon it reactively – fed up with too many inept objects shored up with barely read (often barely readable tomes) basically ‘sculpture’ as illustration. The focus on the artwork in front and the maintenance of a disciplined openness is to be admired. Ultimately thrashing out what is ‘convincing’ from shared experiences of the work prompted by the artists intention is all we have, sharing in someones vision is life affirming wouldn’t we have to agree “what a great thing”?
      Almost a definition of being human and far from corny.

      Where a purely ‘formal’ approach is undone is in regard to the ‘non-abstract’ the ‘intentionally’ narrative of course, but also the divisive much debated ‘Abstract’ margins, symbolic, geometric etc… A better approach must surely embrace the artists intentions, historicity, context past and present etc… within our own phenomenological ‘intentionality’ – that which makes it an object for us.
      Unfortunately the tendency to dismiss entirely that which has gone before, part of the redefinition of each generation, doesn’t help nor does the ghost of Descartes or Scepticism misunderstood as nihilism.

      An interesting model exists within the science of perception and cognition: Stage 1: optical processing (eye) Stage 2: primitive processing of line, edge, shape (visual cortex) then form analysis (visual cortex) Stage 3: processing of associations with existing knowledge (cerebral cortex) – there is feedback between all the Brain stages which in turn determines the next motion of the eye.
      That cerebral cortex at Stage 3 is a troublesome beast.

      Far from being hackneyed the analogy between abstract art and music is apposite.
      Even in my own limited musical experience the parallels between building an abstract sculpture, drawing and a free musical improvisation are striking, a little easier for Alan Davie and Tony Oxley! Starting from nought, building/destroying with constant folding back in of information with each action.
      Yet, generally it’s still a struggle to accept similar process in visual art forms because of weight of associative baggage. Returning to the eye model, our visual senses are trained to find association with existing objects, but music appears be processed more immediately. Visually we have to unlearn the associations. Hence it’s hard work openness, much easier to say I don’t get it etc…

      Difference between artworks and mere objects? My money (precious little) is on Heidegger: “art is the bringing into the work of truth and truth is the un-concealment of Being” as I hope I understand it; not merely a tool functioning unregarded in service of a mundane task, but a deliberate attempt to open up, establish, state our Being, quite an intention.

      Truth of Being indeed, but hands up who has set out to the studio searching for falsehood?
      Of course, that one cannot get at it as easily as 2 + 2 doesn’t mean we should give up and just piss about in a papier-mâché Star Wars outfit. I suppose that could be taking a stand on your own being, just not for me.
      Heidegger has much to offer on art, although he brings out post-war academe and the PC era in hives because of his poor political choices (ok if it helps get you to the moon or a better submarine though) he is the only philosopher I’ve read to seriously engage with sculpture, via Chillida amongst others.

      “Whereof one cannot speak, there of one must be silent” wasn’t actually much use to Ludwig’s own ‘ being in the world’ he had to go off gardening with monks and even he had to get grubby building a ‘thing’ too.


    2. Alan, not sure we disagree much here. But I hope it didn’t seem like I was making the case that context is meaning. I would go so far as to say that knowing the whole context behind what was happening around Revolver would produce more harm than good. First, because only certain aspects of context could be relevant. And, more important, I don’t think their intent was to be meaningful within a certain place/moment in time. Above all, I don’t want to separate experience and meaning. But I do think there’s a difference between _all_ my experience (which is limitless) and the ones I think appropriate (even if I end up wrong). I’m not raising any issue of quality here, just what we do in looking at works of art, good and bad ones equally. So intent and quality are unrelated. If I try and write the great American novel, my intent will be one thing, the result a zero. Quality comes in when we consider 1) the value or significance of the intent and 2) the ability to realize it. Finally, Matisse was deeply committed to the idea that one’s full intent appears in the process of making (what I think you’re saying about improv, although Matisse was too dedicated to his concept for that). The artist goes in with a “conception” and you come out with that concept altered by the material labor of making. But that’s just how all intent works, at least most of the time.


      1. Hi Todd, I did not think you were suggesting that context is meaning, and in fact I understood you to be making the case that knowledge of certain kinds of historical facts are unnecessary in light of interpretive judgements about meaning that proceed not from affect as you say, but rather from feelings about perceived purposefulness. I’m only too aware that this could easily slide into a digression about my second favorite topic (The Beatles) but I would argue -and I’m not sure you would disagree- that certain contexts are integral to meaning. I don’t think a full understanding of the meanings behind “Tomorrow Never Knows” is possible without at least cursory knowledge of 1960s acid culture. I also wonder if our ability to judge the veracity of Lennon’s aural evocation of a psychedelic voyage is be at best fragmentary if, for example, we haven’t had one ourselves.

        As you say, I don’t think we’re really in disagreement -I am no subjectivist- and I would further add that excessive emphasis on affective analysis is more than just a way to “avoid the whole question of right or wrong, compelling or unpersuasive” but more basically questions of good and bad, major and minor, significant and slight. Its true that you don’t explicitly raise the issue of qualitative judgement in the exchange with Gilbert-Rolfe, but the text is peppered with implications about what constitutes good and “good” painting -particularly in some of Gilbert-Rolfe’s statements. Thus, I don’t think we can ever really extract aesthetic judgement from the core, and primary, experience of art. After all, who would care to uncover meaning and suggestion in “The Piano Lesson” or authenticity to experience in “Tomorrow Never Knows” if they were no good to begin with?


  5. “The job of the humanities, as I see it, …is to try and understand what someone meant by something. That’s it. Here are some marks. What do they mean?” (TC)

    In 1953 Derek Bentley was hanged for his role in the fatal shooting of a policeman, Sidney Miles, in West Croydon. Bentley had been involved in a warehouse robbery with his associate Christopher Craig during which the incident occurred. Craig fired the shot, but, immediately before he pulled the trigger, Bentley was claimed to have said, ‘Let him have it, Chris’. Bentley’s life depended on what the jury thought he meant. They decided he meant ‘Go ahead, shoot’. They didn’t think he meant, ‘Give him the gun’.

    Had he been less ambiguous they would not have had to deal with that particular problem. ‘Go ahead, shoot’ or ‘Give him the gun’ would not be open to interpretation. Bentley’s intentions would have been clear and perhaps therefore of no interest to the humanities. But he said ‘Let him have it’.

    Yet ‘Let him have it’ is a better phrase, more poetic and literary. Indeed it is an ‘expression’, sounding like a quote from an American B movie. Given the anxieties about crime and gangsterism in fifties Britain, it conjured up all the wrong associations for the unfortunate Bentley, which led the jury to conclude his words were backed by a malevolent intent.

    Approaching art in the way the jury approached ‘Let him have it’ is an attractive idea. Supplying material not for consumption but interpretation by a sensitive audience seems a worthy cultural model. Matisse is an exemplary, ‘Let him have it’ painter, suggesting rather than finalising his expressive rendering of the world, but leaving it open to interpretation. He can move things around, rearrange them, wipe them out, put them back, even change the dominant hue in a picture already sold. His paintings are full of evidence of his choices, but also what his alternatives were, allowing the viewer to trace the painter’s studio adjustments and marvel at his decisions.

    But what about painters who leave less room for negotiation or interpretation, who use closed systems? I’m thinking of the constructivist tradition, sometimes referred to as ‘boring’, but perhaps Stella is a better example. Matisse, in an unfinished painting, could see opportunities to add or subtract in order to advance expressive intentions. But Stella couldn’t see his paintings till they were complete. At that point he wouldn’t have been able to do much about finessing their meaning. If Matisse says ‘Let him have it’, Stella shouts ‘Go ahead, shoot.’ He shuts himself and the viewer out of the process by which the paintings are made, but still gets results that can be impressive and act pictorially in the world.

    In front of work that is as intentionally abstract as Stella (or constructivism) the viewer may feel at a bit of a loss. With so little to go on, so few things to see as something else, so little chance to wander between interpretations, it would be understandable if one were drawn toward theories that are for rather than against affective formalism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I rather thought the notion of intentionality as discussed here might be more analogous to how best to perpetrate a life of crime, rather than what was or was not intended to happen on the occasion of one particular heist.

      However, when it comes to a critique of Frank Stella, I’m happy to let him have it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You can’t hear me chortle, Alan.

    I wake up in the morning. It’s raining out. It’s cold. I turn on the radio. The weatherman assures me everything’s OK. I turn on the computer. Computers are supposed to make Life simple and easy. I think I know something about something. I go to Abcrit (or Brancaster) and read ALL this! Well—un-Romantically, un-sentimentally, very “objectively”—thank you.


  7. One way an artwork might “unintentionally” acquire content and meaning is through its being the attempted solution to a complex set of problems.

    If you watch me play a game of chess, then the way I decide to move and tackle the various problems will tell you something about my person, and by association/extrapolation, something about humanity in general and something (perhaps not much) about “Being” or “the way things are”. This is possible because you know the rules of chess and the aim of the game. If you do not know the rules, or if I start to move my pieces arbitrarily, then my play will have no meaning for you.
    For painting (or any artistic activity) this would mean that the attempted solution of formal problems could on its own lend human content and meaning to the work (and form and colour of course are much more emotionally potent than moves on a chessboard), as long as it is known which problems are being solved.

    This would be where artistic tradition comes in. If, when looking at a painting, we can assume that the artist is working within a particular tradition and thus attempting to satisfy conventional requirements (for painting that might be an adequate relationship between surface and depth, some kind of colour harmony, balance, clarity etc.) then the decisions visible in the painting (conscious or unconscious) will tell us something of human interest. By attempting to solve the problems imposed by tradition, the artist imbues his or her work with content and meaning – not as a direct, conscious intention but as a byproduct of decision making and problem solving.

    This wouldn´t mean that painting has to conform to a whole rulebook of traditional requirements. Failure might be just as meaningful as success. Departure from some conventions (the move from figuration to abstraction would be a good example) could become an extremely fruitful development inside the tradition. Departures from others (Fontana´s violation of the surface?) might look more like dead ends.
    Important would be the sincere attempt to fulfill at least some recognizable requirements (and so “unconceal Being”). Ignoring all of them would lead to meaninglessness (at least in the sense discussed here) or to purely conceptual art that has to be explained.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Todd Cronan’s book seems to me a very thoughtful treatise on the “…psychically fraught, inherently conflictual and ambivalent…” (Blake Stimson on Nonsite) nature of creating art of any purpose and intent. This passage, from the end of the chapter on “Matisse and Mimesis”, exemplifies such complications:

    “As all of Matisse’s paired, layered, and sequential pictures suggest, to express oneself to another does not involve a theory or system of representation, but rather a series of preliminary, investigative, and contingent approaches. How could it be otherwise? If expressing oneself to another were terminally mediated, then we would be locked in our affected bodies. Then again, if it were direct, if bodies or selves could communicate without need of representational mediation, would there be anything to say? At its best, Matisse’s expressionism foreclosed either a skeptical withdrawal from other minds or a possessive mastery over them. Although Matisse was tempted to seek alternatives to representation, his work is better seen as a profound reflection on the limits and powers of expression as a mode of understanding. What his work reveals is something about the nature of expression more generally: that to express oneself to another requires an acknowledgement of the other’s difference; this difference both threatens isolation and makes every connection like an unrepeatable gift. To refuse the gift, to retreat into a solipsistic space of pure representation, or to take it for granted, to circumvent representation and seek to transmit effects directly through paint and surface, would involve a denial of the other and oneself.”

    Good stuff. Some of the philosophy in this book is beyond the scope of my understanding, but I did enjoy the close reading of some of Matisse’s (not often seen) early paintings, even as I thought a little too much of a “theory or system” of a psychological nature was made from the reading of differing treatments of “paired” works.

    I would perhaps like to know more about what Mr. Cronan thinks of the nature of “representation” (in the way that he links it strongly to intention) in non-representational work; i.e. in relation to abstract painting and sculpture.


    1. Robin — Thanks (for all of this). By representation, I am relying on its philosophical significance (for good or ill) and not in the least in its relation to figuration. All I am getting at is the sense in which abstract artists, as much as Matisse or Caravaggio, accept the frame as the limit of the work. Representation, and all the conventions that go with art making, signals a difference between art and life. In that sense I don’t see a difference between Giotto and Louis.


      1. In what sense a frame as a limit? A frame in frame as an illusion of a window on an illusory world – Messina? A literal frame as an extension of canvas – Hodgkin? A shaped canvas in a stripy Stella. A frame spatially extended in Bontecou or the perimeter of assembled collage elements in a Bunker? Is it a frame of reference for abstraction where the phenomena corralled upon the canvas can be studied like in physics? A time frame? Is a gallery a frame, seems so, a frame of reference for art.
        Is it even an issue at all in sculpture? I’m not sure a plinth and a frame are analogous.
        Frames maybe now no more than a convention we can choose to employ.
        At root physically it must have more to do with the history human dwelling in orthogonal spaces.


  9. Yes, that’s right. For Caro and others it would be a matter of establishing conventions, as though for the first time. Kandutsch, I think, put this well in his discussion of “doorness” in Deep Body Blue.


  10. One thing that abstract (or even figurative) painting can “represent” in an everyday sense of the word is duality.
    Painting´s own material/immaterial (surface/pictorial space) duality makes it an ideal medium for representing the perceived dualities of human existence such as mind and matter, subject and object, you and I, life and death.
    And painting can get a lot further than philosophy or science in reconciling them. I think this might partly explain the intense and uplifting experience provided by paintings such as Titian´s Diana and Actaeon or Callisto, or de Kooning´s mid-seventies landscapes. (See Emyr Williams on “Closeness”.)


    1. Hi Richard,
      I’m glad you picked up on the use of ‘intentionality’ too. I wondered what that ‘fallacy’ could be.
      However, I also think one of the central qualities of proficient art-making (or sport for that matter) is in fact it’s ’embodied’ nature rather than old school duality.

      My initial misgivings over the use of ‘intentionality’ are because of it’s philosophical place as a component of phenomenology – Brentano or Searle’s intentional content within cognition, for example.

      Somewhat different from what an author sets out to do with text – their ‘intentions’ which seems closer to a conscious program – a premeditated path. Literary criticism can then compare the author’s declared program with the text as read after the fact. Perhaps Schwitters ‘Ursonate’ utterances maybe as close to an ‘abstract’ painting we can get with the text analogy?

      How useful are literary critical practices in dealing with abstract visual phenomena at all?

      The artist acts and produces a thing, be it evidence of action employed in re-presenting other things or the evidence of the actions in themselves, we still have to make sense of them in the same way with the background familiarity and or skilled practices we have.

      The ‘background’ in our culture allows comprehension of the figurative, but leaves the abstract largely baffling to ‘most’ people, to see further into the figurative beyond the obvious body parts etc… takes skilled practices and so with making sense of the abstract, the skilled practices for which have not made it into the background familiarity at the same level – yet. Equally we don’t ‘get’ Stupa’s or Aboriginal art ‘content’ much beyond sense data unless we learn.

      Is the art/life issue just a hangover from pictures of familiar things most people recognise (if not understand) versus artworks not re-presenting familiar things or being offered a familiar object out of context – found object as art or a social event? Shock of the new.

      It’s seems easier to maintain a subject/object problem between a viewer and an illusion of a thing in an illusory pictorial space, but far less so with an ‘abstraction’ which appears more readily as an immediate sensational phenomena and as a ‘thing’ physically in the viewers space.

      I can’t see why there is an art/life rift here?
      There certainly isn’t one as an artist making the work, absorbed in skilful coping in the studio, art is life – doing.
      Jackson ‘in his painting’ – ask any improvising musician. When did you last have to ‘think’ how to draw a circle?

      If I were to now start ‘thinking’ between ‘mind’ and ‘handling’ the ‘matter’ of my saw I will no doubt cut myself.


      1. Hi Andrew,
        Thank you for your comments.
        I think we´re probably in more or less the same place, but it´s a place where language starts to run out of breath, so it´s difficult to agree or disagree.

        “Duality” may or may not have had its day as a philosophical concept but I think that something that might be conveyed by the word is still a fundamental and mysterious aspect of our everyday existence.
        Painting can mirror this with its own thing/image, surface/pictorial space dualities, whether it is abstract or figurative. Abstraction has the advantage here, because there are no figurative elements for the eye to “hang up” on, making it easier to wander between surface and pictorial space.
        I don´t think this is all or even the most important thing that painting can do, but it might contribute to the profoundly human content of certain artworks.

        I agree that there´s a conceptual part to stupas and aboriginal art that we don´t get. What quite possibly communicates even to the uninitiated is the pre-conceptual, abstract part.
        I wouldn´t dismiss this as just sense data. It´s the part that makes it art rather than illustration, science or propaganda.
        Is this something we can learn? There´s certainly a sense in which learning to paint is learning to see. But for me, this would be a different kind of learning to that involved in getting to know more about aborigine culture.

        As to the practice, I completely agree. It´s no good thinking consciously about what you´re doing while painting. For me, intention comes in with the internalisation of certain conventions (maybe that´s a part of what “learning to see” is about) and with the artistic integrity to keep on going until that utterly mysterious thing, the birth of a picture, has recognisably taken place.


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