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About the Author
Joseph Margolis is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. His most recent book is Moral Philosophy after 9/11 (2004).
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The Arts and the Definition of the HumanToward a Philosophical Anthropology
By Joseph Margolis
Stanford University PressCopyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePerceiving Paintings as Paintings
IN SPEAKING INFORMALLY of "the visual arts" we may be drawn to objects of perfectly valid but unlikely kinds: for instance, those that belong to landscaping, city planning, decor, couture, decoration, and other forms of design. But academic aesthetics still singles out painting and sculpture without prejudice to whatever else may be included, except that painting and sculpture (categories already too protean for much useful generalization) are assumed to collect the principal specimens of what we have in mind when we theorize about the visual arts; where, that is, the addition of architecture or decor is likely to intrude considerations very far removed from what is usually featured in the best-known philosophical disputes, for instance, regarding pictorial representation. Not always of course, as when we resist treating the Van Eyck triptych, The Adoration of the Lamb, as a painting separable from its place near the altar at St. Baaf 's. We often think of easel painting as providing a sense of acceptable examples, though not to disallow Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, Frank Stella's shaped panels,Anselm Kiefer's mixed-media hangings, Chartres' windows, Schwitters's collages, or Mapplethorpe's photographs.
There is no entirely reliable principle of selection here, as if to say we could isolate the decisive philosophical questions about the visual arts if only we kept to the essential specimens. It's more the other way around: interesting questions arise from a motley at hand, and as our sense of what might be worth pursuing comes into focus, the collection of instructive specimens follows suit. Pertinent generalization and pertinent exemplification select one another-"equilibratively"-in every kind of inquiry. There is no privilege there, except for what a clever mind may lead us to ponder. It has no essentializing or exclusionary force. There is, in fact, no preset path of understanding that we expect to find; we find what we are disposed to find among the possible lines of thought our practices support-rather like the unanimes of societal life that Jules Romains once described, as in the gathering of a small crowd around an accident before the body is finally removed and the crowd dispelled.
But when we consider a goodly selection of "canonical" paintings-paintings more often than sculptures-we are bound to admit that the usual global questions tend to be tiresome, where their answers need not be: for instance, "What is a painting?," meaning by that to specify something of its peculiar ontological features and what and why we are interested in the distinctive way a painting "works" as a painting; or "What is it to see a painting as a painting?," meaning by that to specify something of the conditions peculiar to the perceptual achievement of viewing paintings as paintings and what such viewing yields in the way of understanding paintings and the unique skills by which they are thus discerned. Of course, I am already coaxing these blunderbuss questions into complying with what I take to be a productive inquiry.
No sooner do we admit the laxity and prejudice of our usage than we concede that, as distinct from the modern tradition of Western painting and sculpture, much that we now include as art or fine art-the "art" of the medieval church for instance-could not have been easily included, except for a deformation or transformation of what was more likely to be prized in such visual work before the visual image (in the modern sense) displaced the visual presence of the sacred. So the classificatory effort carries in its wake a changeable notion of what is of focal importance in addressing visual art itself. James Elkins, for example, has formulated a strong brief against the privileging of what in the West we think of as the visual arts, reminding us of the very different practices and traditions of non-Western "visual art"; the "popular arts"; "primitive art"; and particularly today, the "non-art" images of science, technology, and new ways of communicating "information," which now provide the bulk of visual images.
That they tend to be discounted as non-art (that is, excluded from the canons of the West) does not justify denying the fact, as Elkins argues persuasively, that "visual expressiveness, eloquence, and complexity are not the proprietary traits of 'high' or 'low' art, and ... that we have reason to consider the history of art as a branch of the history of images, whether those images are nominally in science, art, writing, archaeology, or other disciplines." I can report that as a boy I was completely captivated by the great Olmec head in the foyer of the New York Museum of Natural History: it was only later that I learned that it was placed there because it was once thought that Mesoamerican art belonged outside the pale of the "fine arts," outside the essential core of the arts of "Western civilization." You begin to glimpse here the possibilities of the politics of classifying the very forms of art.
The principal thing about my dull questions is that they are conceptually inseparable from one another; for, in general, there is no way to specify the perceivable features of the world without implicating our perceiving them; and what we take the objective world to be like must be adequated to our ability to discern its features. That is the supreme lesson developed by Kant and deepened by Hegel, if we may allow for perception's being historicized, which sets a conditio sine qua non for all genuinely modern theories of knowledge and reality. Put this way, our questions begin to attract a certain sustainable interest.
Furthermore, if we agree that the paradigm of perception collects what humans can report they perceive-or what, by their own lights, other creatures may be said to perceive though those creatures cannot report the fact-if perception is itself theory laden and subject to historical variation (different saliencies and different forms of habituation), and if (more pointedly) artworks are deliberately contrived artifacts and their perception conformably disciplined (being also artifactual), then it is doubtful that either artworks or their perception can be counted on to yield universal regularities or necessities ranging over the whole of the visual arts-no matter how those arts are defined. Unlikely contingencies-Duchamp's Fountain, notoriously-subvert our best-held universalisms like cut butter: philosophers alert to the lesson go gently to their arch claims. It's worth a small pause to ponder the truth that Kant never considered, either in the first or third Critique, that perception and feeling might change historically. You see how such a worry might have knocked Kant's transcendentalism out of the ballpark at a stroke.
The lesson's clear: we cannot escape the regularities we've learned to discern. But if so, we may as well feature whatever we take to be the strategic or important distinctions regarding whatever things are preeminently included in the West's collection of the great arts of the world.
Others will press in other directions, certainly in accord with new technologies of perceptual experience. But we ourselves can hardly be expected to make provision for what we have not thought about. Nevertheless, we have already made a few worthwhile gains: for one, that generalizations among the visual arts are likely to be more local than universal, skewed by the interests of diverse aficionados; and for another, that the kinds of perception that are relevant to our discourse about the visual arts are bound to be phenomenological rather than empiricist or physiological. Perhaps, in saying this much, we've already moved too far too fast. But nothing need be lost: we've actually made a strategic start. Have patience, please.
Consider, for example, that Brunelleschi and Alberti are said to have been the first to have discovered the vanishing point in linear-perspective drawing: that is, a certain visual illusion constant to eyes trained to view two-dimensional representations of space as having three-dimensional import. In this sense, Brunelleschi began to formulate the elements of socalled natural or universal perspective; if so, then Masaccio and Masolino were the first to apply Brunelleschi's rules in the form of what has been called "horizon line isocephaly" in the frescoes of the Brancacci Chapel (the Santa Maria della Carmine, in Florence): that is, lining up the heads of figures in the same perceived depth to signify a receding distance. The important point to notice, however, in Masaccio's Tribute Money, The Healing of the Lame Man, and The Resurrection of Tabitha (attributed to Masolino), is that the linear alignment tolerates a distinct measure of perceptible deviation controlled by an interpreted grasp of what may be said to be the pictorial and perceptual "intent" of the entire array; so we see that what is perceived is itself informed by (does not risk too great a deviation from-but might) the supposed perspectival rules of the artifactual (the perceived) space of the paintings in question. In any event, to say this much is already to concede that the spontaneous perception of the three-dimensional perspectived space of pre-Renaissance or early Renaissance painting is culturally "penetrated" by the conceptual discoveries of the day: hence, that the "given" in the perception of painting must be phenomenological before it can be restricted (if we wish) to what, on one theory or another, is thought to be "phenomenal" in a "strictly" sensory sense. The idea will haunt our discussion.
I am hinting here at the immensely complex and much-disputed matter of what it is we actually see, and I'm prepared to offer two heuristic caveats against any hasty claims: first, that we must always distinguish what we suppose is "given" to our sensory apparatus and what is "given" phenomenologically as what we are prepared to report we see; and second, that an objective account of that distinction is never more than a construction (one among many possible constructions) that fits the holist life of human agents and, inferentially, the life of creatures that cannot report what it is they see. So there is no single privileged model (neurophysiological, ecological, behavioral, actional, reportorial, realist, representational, presentational) that we can count on a priori to provide the best theoretical framework to be favored; and the contrast between the two senses of "given" privileges nothing: for what is given to our sense organs is always inferentially derived from what is given in the second sense, and what is given in phenomenological reporting is never privileged in any evidentiary or metaphysical sense but cannot segregate the subjective aspects of what we are prepared to report about the seeming objects of our perception. As long as we keep these reservations in mind, it makes very good sense to proceed phenomenologically (in what I take to be Hegel's way rather than Husserl's), which is to say, we must begin with what we cannot resist reporting but are unwilling to take on face value alone in any respect that we find we are bound to favor in speaking of what is "objective." Nevertheless, proceeding thus, we cannot fail to see that the arguments of figures like Richard Wollheim and Arthur Danto depend on a privileged entry into the matter of what we really see. (Think, for instance, of Danto's indiscernibility puzzle.)
The point to bear in mind is that the visual structures of paintings cannot be perceived at all if we disallow the corollary that the perception of such structures is itself an artifact of our own cultural formation, noted as such in our theory of perceiving paintings. It's part of the world of public culture! Anyone who falls back deliberately or innocently (David Marr, for instance) to the physiology of perception has missed the right perceptual boat altogether.
Jan van Eyck's intriguing painting Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife Giovanna Cenami poses, according to Hubert Damisch, the problem of two vanishing points fixed by the ambiguous function of the mirror: the point at which the artist apparently witnesses the marriage (from where he actually stands viewing it) and the point reflected in the mirror (signifying his assigned position in the painting), both points falling within the pictured space of the mirror's circle. This is said to be not unusual in Flemish work of the period; and indeed, Erwin Panofsky counts several other vanishing points in the Arnolfini, which are pictorially acceptable in the composition as a whole. Is there a difference between being "pictorially" and "visually" acceptable here? I think not. Both terms signify perception in the phenomenological sense appropriate to viewing paintings.
Actually, Panofsky counts "four central vanishing points instead of one" in the Arnolfini study (1434) as opposed to the "nearly contemporary and relatively comparable Italian work," Masolino's Death of Saint Ambrose (c. 1430), which is said to be "fairly 'correctly' constructed," that is, constructed in accord with Brunelleschi's rules. Van Eyck, it seems, was not familiar with Brunelleschi's findings. But both Panofsky and Damisch think of perspective in paintings as perspectiva artificialis (rather than merely naturalis-the perspective of natural optics, presumably Brunelleschi's and Alberti's primary concern). Hence, Damisch views perspective as "a model for thought," and Panofsky thinks of perspective as a "symbolic form," more or less a matter of cultural convention (though not merely). Damisch views perspective in his structuralist way, and Panofsky does so as a supporter of Ernst Cassirer's Hegelianized Kantian vision. But both are speaking of the perception of paintings, not of nature. Surely, the "artificial" perspective of a Giotto is spontaneously perceived by someone suitably trained to see paintings; but there is no obvious way (for instance, in accord with anything like Marr's methods) to disjoin sensory perception and thought (involving a theory of Giotto's perspective) by which to defeat the idea that visual perception is "penetrated" by our conceptual understanding of Giotto's space.
* * *
Seen this way, the "rules" of pictorial perspective can hardly fail to be constructed and intentionally adjusted for purposes internal to the artist's interests in rendering pictorial space itself-hence, usually not as "natural" perspective in any obvious sense of the term. Damisch's rambling story of the "Urbino perspectives"-regarding the rendering of the Urbino panel (the "città ideale"): there is no single perspective in the panel-certainly confirms how the development of "scientific" perspective (Brunelleschi's objective) must yield to the construction of "artificial" perspectives ranging from architecture to theater to decoration (as Damisch's summary puts it), as in the pictorial intention of a distinctive perspectival mode, possibly a choice that yields to the artist's own need to invent ever more complicated compositional devices. Damisch notes the perceptual tolerance of "incompatible," even "incommensurable," perspective schemes known to obtain within the pictorial space of the same painting. Certainly, similar complications inform Michel Foucault's perceptive analysis of the baffling perspective of Velázquez's Las Meninas, that is, if pictorial perspective must be viewed in terms of something like Brunelleschi's famous peep-hole machine-an option Foucault nowhere endorses. There has always been a tendency to yield to Alberti's advice to favor a "sensate wisdom" over the "strict" geometry of natural perspective.
But if all this holds, then Rudolf Arnheim's gestalt conception of the "universality of perceptual patterns" is more than a little off the mark. Arnheim has always favored Wolfgang Köhler's notion of a "causal foundation" of perceived visual patterns in the physical structures of the nervous system. But his heuristic schema-I can only call it that-of "centricity and eccentricity" (that is, the centrifugal centering of vectorial forces emanating from an individual physiological center, say, a person, and the admission of other such centers among which the first counts as no more than one) is not really a distinction that could be construed in purely gestalt terms grounded in physical processes, or as segregated somehow (within visual perception) from any influences of an intentional or narrative or historical or interpretive or otherwise culturally informed sort. The gestalt account founders utterly if perspectiva artificialis cannot be effectively governed (pictorially) by or reduced to perspectiva naturalis, or eliminated. Of course, it cannot.
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Table of Contents
Preface ix Prologue: The Definition of the Human 1
1 Perceiving Paintings as Paintings 29
2 "One and Only One Correct Interpretation" 71
3 Toward a Phenomenology of Painting and Literature 97
4 "Seeing-in," "Make-Believe," "Transfiguration": The Perception of Pictorial Representation 123 Epilogue: Beauty, Truth, and the Passing of Transcendental Philosophy 145 Notes 161 Index 179