By DONALD KUSPIT August, 2020
“Speech cuts across vision,” the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes, implying that language murders it, and with that denying that the “perception (aesthesis)” of a visual work of art can be “a serious experience,” one in which the viewer is “really shaken,” as the Indian art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy writes. For Levinas, the visual work of art is what the French semiotician Roland Barthes calls a “readerly text,” which precludes it being what the American filmmaker Stan Brakhage calls the “adventure of perception” of an “eye which does not respond to the name of everything,” an eye that came into being “before the beginning was the word,” an eye capable of “knowledge foreign to language’’—“Vision.” It is an eye capable of the “creative apperception that more than anything else makes the individual feel that life is worth living,” as the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes.
It has become customary to regard every kind of visual art as a linguistic communication, something to be translated into words, on the assumption that the linguistic is “logically prior” to the visual, more particularly that reading is logically prior to seeing. You can see something, but you don’t know what you are seeing unless you can read it. Reading it, it becomes a meaningful communication of knowledge about something apart from it, something that it alludes to or signifies, rather than a number of forms signifying nothing but nonetheless of interest, even engaging in and for themselves, stimulating to the extent they might afford a so-called “aesthetic experience,” “the sensuous appearing in its glory,” as the philosopher Mikel Dufrenne writes. The possibility of this happening, of allowing visual elements their pre-linguistic autonomy—appreciating them in all their nameless sensuous glory—is precluded by regarding them as socially sanctioned signs of something that exists completely apart from and independent of them.
Barthes’ treatment of photography as a language is a good example of the depreciation of the visual as such, all the more so because it assumes that visual art is always representational. “To call photography a language is both true and false,” he writes. “It’s false, in the literal sense, because the photographic image is an analogical reproduction of reality, and as such it includes no discontinuous element that could be called a sign: there is literally no equivalent of a word or a letter in a photograph. But the statement is true insofar as the composition and style of a photo function as a secondary message that tells us about the reality depicted and the photographer himself: this is connotation, which is language. Photographs always connote something different from what they show on the plane of denotation: it is paradoxically through style, and through style alone, that photographs are language.”(1)
The point is that one has to read the photograph rather than see it, that is, experience it holistically as an “adventure in perception,” to refer to Brakhage’s term, or a “creative apperception,” to refer to Winnicott’s term, rather than, with clever Solomonic wisdom, divide it into denotation and connotation, and as such defend against being “really shaken” by it, to refer to Coomaraswamy’s term, and with that to have “a serious experience” of it, a pre-linguistic, unnamable sensuous experience. All the more intriguing because it seems absurd and unpredictable, we fixate on it because we cannot explain it rationally and control it.
Like Barthes, Jean Baudrillard is incapable of sensuously engaging visual art because he regards it as a mode of language, and like all language serving cognition, reducing experience to conceptual clarity, rather than appreciating the visual as a mode of creative apperception, finetuning to its sensuous subtlety--an experiential end in itself rather than as a means to an intellectual end. Like Barthes, Baudrillard prefers the verbal to the visual, reduces the visual to the verbal, trivializing it as a means to a linguistic end, unable to accept the visual as an end in itself, and with that incapable of attuning to let alone enjoying it. Looking at one of Barbara Kruger’s photographs, he writes, with facile assurance, “We seize upon the text—the actual words in—her photographs before we grasp the image—their visual element—in accordance with an old mental tradition of reading.”(2) How old a mental tradition? There is an older one which asserts that we spontaneously grasp—sensuously "prehend,” to use the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s term—before we rationally understand—analytically “comprehend”—the image.(3) That is, we see it before we read it, and to read it is no longer to see it. Regarded as a linguistic communication, it loses sensuous presence, and with that artistic—more particularly aesthetic—credibility. If and when it does, it loses conviction and mana, so to speak--its vitalizing power, however convincing its linguification, its rationalization by mind. Clearly Barthes and Baudrillard lack what used to be called sensibility—sensitivity to the “je ne sais quoi” that in the end makes a work convincing, draws us to it, like a hypnotic magnet.
Not only is it true to say that we see before we read, and that we don’t have to read a visual work of art to see it, but the most aesthetically rewarding visual art offers us nothing to read, and with that eschews rational understanding. Instead it offers us a sensuous epiphany, if we have the sensibility to attune to it. It makes the sensuous as such aesthetically manifest, mediates its immediacy aesthetically. It offers us—makes possible—a sensuous epiphany. An epiphanea is a “manifestation, striking appearance,” that is, an aesthetic appearance—a sense experience spontaneously given aesthetic form in an imaginative act—brought into aesthetic focus through the lens of sensibility. It is then experienced as refined and unusual, and as such sharply distinct from the usual unrefined sensing of everyday life. It is a quickly passing sensing, a sort of Heracleitean stream of raw sensing that we cannot step in twice, rather than epiphanic aesthetic sensing, separating some particular sense experience from the indiscriminate flux and preserving it in aesthetic amber, or imaginatively refining it into a perceptual diamond, so that it glistens with autonomy.
Abstract art continues the age-old tradition of epiphanic aesthetic art—a sort of Delphic art inviting us into the mysteries of sensing. It is implicitly ineffable, however much it speaks in formal riddles. It is not a “literary” art, as its advocate Clement Greenberg noted, that is, it is not a communicative art, but he was blind to what it held incommunicado. For him it was all about “the physical”—“the conscious and unconscious positivism that informs the bourgeois-industrial ethos.”(4) To say this is to preclude its effect on consciousness and perception, that is, consciousness at its most perceptive. Greenberg acknowledges that abstract art has “unconscious effect,” that is, emotional effect, but he has nothing to say about its effect on consciousness--how it changes everyday consciousness into epiphanic consciousness. From Kandinsky through Pollock it has been assumed that the fundamental purpose of abstract art is to represent unconscious feelings, “paint out of the unconscious,” in Pollock’s words, make art out of “inner necessity,” that is, emotional necessity, as Kandinsky wrote. This implies that abstract art is a cathartic art, that it performs a cathartic and with that therapeutic function--rather than an art that is concerned, even determined, to transform consciousness by aesthetic means. Treating consciousness as an end in itself by showing that it has aesthetic potential, it raises consciousness to self-consciousness in a kind of involutional process, indicating that abstract art is not just about consciousness of objective or subjective reality—external or internal necessity, to use Kandinsky’s terms--but is concerned to realize its own imaginative potential. So-called pure abstract art is the means by which it does so. Its expressive use is secondary to its immanent purpose. To read it as expressing or representing feelings is to misconstrue what is basic to it. Freud said catharsis is “the process of reducing or eliminating a complex by recalling it to conscious awareness and allowing it to be expressed,” but so-called process painting is about the process of aestheticizing sensations.
Roger Fry’s distinction between “practical vision” and “aesthetic vision,” and between both and “creative vision,” is essentially psychological, as Fry himself said. As he acknowledged, he didn’t have the conceptual means to explain the difference between the kinds of vision with any depth. For Fry, abstract art—“pure visual art,” as he called it—was the clearest manifestation of “creative vision.” “Impassioned and detached vision,” it is free “from any of the meanings and implications of appearances.”(5) He leaves it at that. I will argue that “detached vision” eschews both the pleasure and reality principles, to allude to Freud’s distinction. It is “impassioned,” that is, determined—determined to renounce the pleasures of sex and power, desire and dominance. It is to follow, in spirit if not in letter, the so-called “Spiritual Exercises”—mental exercises--of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is to become a saint in attitude or principle, if not in name. For Fry, making abstract art is implicitly an ascetic practice, involving the belief that avoiding attachments to worldly objects is aesthetically enlightening and with that spiritually liberating. Like St. Anthony, Fry’s abstract artist is not tempted by appearances, however alluring they may be, but resists them by mortifying the flesh of his art.
In her biography of Fry, Virginia Woolf, his close friend, wrote that for him “the only consolation” for living in a wretched world “lay in art.”(6) The question is, how does art console? Is it simply because it is detached or removed from life? For Fry, that was only the obvious sign of the special experience it mediates. In a 1924 letter to the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, Fry wrote:
I very early became convinced that our emotions before works of art were of many kinds and that we failed as a rule to distinguish the nature of the mixture and I set to work by introspection to discover what the different elements of these compound emotions might be and to try to get at the most constant unchanging and therefore I suppose fundamental emotion. I found that this ‘constant’ had always to do with the contemplation of form….It also seemed to me that the emotions resulting from the contemplation of form were more universal (less particularized and coloured by the individual history), more profound and more significant spiritually than of the emotions that had to do with life….I therefore assume that the contemplation of form is a peculiarly important spiritual exercise. My analysis of form-lines, sequences, rhythms, etc. are merely aids for the uninitiated to attain the contemplation of form—they do not explain.(7)
Fry, as Woolf wrote, was “a great critic, a man of profound sensibility but of exacting honesty, who, when reason could penetrate no further, broke off; but was convinced, and convinced others, that what he saw was there.”(8) Please note that he saw it; he didn’t read it. He didn’t read the “spiritual” into form; he saw it there, and initiated others into seeing.
In the Preface to the catalogue of the second Post-Impressionist Exhibition he organized in 1918, Fry wrote that the French artists he presented “completely subordinated skill…to the direct expression of feeling,” singling out Cézanne as expressing “by pictorial and plastic form certain spiritual experiences; and in conveying these, ostentation of skill is likely to be even more fatal than downright incapacity.”(9) (It is noteworthy that Fry wanted to call Post-Impressionism “Expressionism,” a term not yet in use.) The art of the Post-Impressionist painters, Fry wrote, is of a “markedly Classic Spirit,”(10) that is, it is not “an art of associated ideas” but “records a positive and disinterestedly passionate state of mind…communicates a new and otherwise unattainable experience.”(11) Thus the “impassioned” aspect of “creative vision.” At the end of his Preface, Fry called this experience a “classic concentration of feeling.”(12) He reiterates this thought in his book on Cézanne, calling attention to the “intense concentration” of Cézanne’s last landscapes,(13) the result of “a new impetuosity in the rhythms, a new exaltation in the colour,” “a recrudescence of the impetuous, romantic exuberance” of Cézanne’s youth in “modified” form, with “nothing wanton or wilful about it, nothing of the defiant gesture.”(14)
The emphasis throughout Fry’s discussion of creative vision is on concentrated, intense feeling—feeling intense because it is concentrated. He calls it “spiritual” because it is “impractical”—unavailable in “practical vision.” But it is implicit, subliminally apparent—if in “immature” form”—in “aesthetic vision.” Thus the three types of vision—practical, aesthetic, creative—are in ascending hierarchical relationship. And in ascending psychological relationship: from little or no concentration of feeling in practical vision to the “direct expression of feeling” in aesthetic vision to a “classic concentration of feeling”—the most intense expression of feeling--in creative vision. Representational art—the representation of external objects—involves practical vision; the “direct expression of feeling” in post-impressionist art involves aesthetic vision; and the most consummate post-impressionist art—Cézanne’s late works, offering a “classic concentration of feeling” rather than simply the “romantic expression of feeling” in his early works—involves creative vision.
Thus Fry offers us a sort of primitive psychology of art: art is always about feeling, based on the traditional distinction between romantic art and classical art, art that cathartically expresses feeling or that concentrates it to spiritual—dare one say transcendental, nonworldly if not exactly otherworldly--effect. Even the worldly art that practical vision makes involves feeling, for it represses, even denies feeling, struggles to expunge it, rejects introspection as beside the point of the descriptive or mimetic purpose of art, insists that a prerequisite of making art is the observation of objects, introspection of feelings interferes with it, even precludes it. Truth to appearances is all, the art of practical vision insists, feelings being inherently untruthful, unreliably given, unpredictably appearing and unexpectedly disappearing, peculiarly unrealistic and slippery, in contrast to objects, which have an indisputable, fixed reality, so that their appearances can be clearly rendered and comprehended rather than uncertainly suggested, or “evoked,” like feelings.
I suggest that what the art critic and connoisseur Fry calls the “classic concentration of feeling” in “creative vision” is what the object relational psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls the “incommunicado element” in every self. It is the “core which never communicates with the world of perceived objects, and that…must never be communicated with or influenced by external reality.” It is “isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound.”(15) (Winnicott’s emphasis.) It is in effect “pure,” that is, untouched by the world of perceived objects or external reality, and what pure art—art untouched by the world of perceived objects or external reality--communicates and communicates with by way of pure forms, that is, forms stripped of external meaning, forms no longer representing or signifying or constituting perceived objects but given aesthetic credibility—an aesthetic aura, transformed into an aesthetic manifestation—by what Fry calls “creative vision.” One might say that aestheticized forms symbolize feelings, or at least evokes them, which in effect “communicates” them, as Fry suggests, but it is more accurate to say that they make the incommunicado element in every individual manifest by way of their own incommunicado character. This can be done with “romantic exuberance” or “classical concentration,” not to say calm, to allude to Fry’s account of Cézanne’s development, but the point is that the “rhythms” and “colour” in his paintings become increasingly “pure,” that is, lose their descriptive purpose, their use to represent perceived objects. (Noteworthily Mont St. Victoire, slowly but surely transformed by Cézanne into a non-object, which is why his paintings of it have come to be seen as more non-objective than objective, ambiguously on the boundary between non-representational and representational art. It is why Zola regarded them as failures insofar as they claimed to be realistic and Picasso admired them for their anxiety insofar as they seemed incoherent or unintelligible, not to say absurd. Neither recognized that the mountain became a symbol of the breast for Cézanne—an unconscious dream of Magna Mater.)
Any suggestion that forms are fraught with or evoke feeling—that they are inherently alive with feeling--is a deceptive afterthought that links them to external objects, which are always experienced with feeling, are infused with and inseparable from feeling, informed by some good or bad feeling from the beginning of life, as psychoanalysts from Melanie Klein to Otto Kernberg have shown. Pure aesthetic forms only superficially have to do with feeling—they are not manifestations of feeling. Rather, they give numinous credibility—uncanny presence--to the isolate core of the self. They may be erroneously read as cryptic communications from it, but the core of the self is profoundly silent, as though to confirm its isolation. Or, at the least, it is speechless, for it has nothing to say to the external world. Purely aesthetic art makes no social difference, for it is inherently asocial, unlike representational art, which speaks the everyday language of society.
I am arguing that non-objective art is not a cryptic communication from the spiritual beyond, but a manifestation of the core of the self, which can only be experienced and known in an aesthetic vision, for it is fundamentally aesthetic, that is, gloriously sensuous, to allude to Dufrenne once again. What is articulated by pure art at its aesthetic best is pure sensation, inarticulate—ineffable--by nature. It is fundamental to being, and as such insistently present, however unacknowledged, naively taken for granted. It is uncompromised by everyday meaning, which gives it superficial credibility, but a phenomenon in itself, naively taken for granted in routine perception of objects, but in no need of objects to announce itself, confirm its existence, “realize” it. As long as we are alive, as long as we have functioning bodies, our sensations are constant and fluid--a steady stream of spontaneously given and changing sensations, in no need of objects to be convincing, to make us conscious of them. We are usually unconscious of our sensations, become conscious of them—forced to take them seriously, differentiate them, connect them to their bodily source (e.g., eye, ear, nose, tongue)—when we are having perceptual problems: when objects seem difficult to cognize we blame our sensations of them—rather than our minds. But the sensations are what they are, be they pleasurable or painful, whether they make sense of objects or not. We are grounded in sensation, whatever their quality, and whatever objects they ground.
Perception of an object is not their innate purpose: affirmation and confirmation of our aliveness is. I suggest that at its aesthetic best—"purest”--art affords—makes possible--an experience of what phenomenologists call “lived sensuousness”—sensuousness experienced as an end in itself and enjoyed for itself. It is of existential and therapeutic value, for lived sensuousness is the antidote to terrifying Angst, the profound anxiety that threatens us with the catastrophe of “imminent death” as the psychoanalyst Rollo May writes. The lived sensuousness that pure art promises reminds us that the self at its core—at its most subjective--is sensuous, and as such profoundly and insistently alive, and perhaps isolate and non-communicating to stay alive, to remain uncontaminated by the death in the objectively given world—in society. If that is so, then one can say that, after all, non-objective art is about subjective feelings, as Fry says, inescapable feelings about the life and death of the self, rather than a way of escaping from them into what he calls “cosmic emotion.”
Why should art that is concerned to communicate the incommunicado core of the self arise in modern times? Abstract art is a spiritual art, as Kandinsky declared, that is a religious art. Religious art has always been more abstract than realistic—inherently abstract however realistic its details may be. “Make no mistake, abstract art is a form of mysticism,” the abstract painter Robert Motherwell declared.(16) Explaining the psychology of mysticism, Winnicott writes that the mystic withdraws into a “personal world of sophisticated introjects” in response to “environmental failure.”(17) It is in effect the incommunicado core of the self, for the sophisticated introjects never communicate with the world of perceived objects, but exist in a world of their own—exist abstractly rather than materially. The crucial point is that they are a response to environmental failure—social failure. Society always fails the self, is never a “good enough environment,” as Winnicott says, never nourishes and supports us enough, never adequately “facilitates” our growth, to use Winnicott’s word, and with that our creativity. It forces us to defensively “falsify” ourselves, as he says, that is, live in “bad faith,” as the existential philosophers say. The environment—the world—always fails us is the message of religion; one can only be saved from it by renouncing it—which is the message of abstract art, art cleansed of all worldly dross, ascetic art offering us aesthetic salvation, as sacred art has always done, as its unworldly aura, a precipitate of its aesthetic mastery of form, indicates. The heaven of pure art is a safe place, far from the hellish world, with its profane art.
The Ghent Altarpiece makes aesthetic sense; if the figures in it didn’t have the auratic resonance of pure art, it would be just another social gathering. Juan Sánchez Cotán’s still lives—his so-called bodegones—are perhaps the exemplary example of a mystical realism, that is, for the objects have a formal presence that undermines their material givenness, confirming they are sacred offerings on an altar to God. Every environment, every society, sooner or later fails one, for it sooner or later profanes every human being in it, which is why sacred art—pure art that neutralizes the everydayness of the objects it may represent by emphasizing their form, so that it becomes “sensational,” and the objects seem peculiarly immaterial rather than material—has been made in every society because every society sooner or later stunts our growth and inhibits our creativity. One might say that pure art is aesthetic compensation for suffering at the hands of a merciless society, or a kind of artistic manna in the desert of the world.
I suggest that pure abstract art consoles us by triggering withdrawal from the social environment when it becomes so bad—which it can be in a hundred insidious ways (“impinge” upon us endlessly, as Winnicott says)—that life no longer seems worth living, purposeless. It is when what Breton called “miserabilism” becomes endemic and the “marvelous” seems preposterous. I suggest that what Fry calls “detachment” is a defensive response to the depressing reality of the world, rather than simply a means to a contemplative end. I suggest that his forms—the lines, sequences, and rhythms he singles out—are in effect sophisticated introjects when they are creatively transformed into “sensational” aesthetic objects. They function to alleviate psychic pain, even physical pain, by consoling us for suffering, for the indifference that is rampant, as the sociologist and aesthetician Theodor Adorno argued, and the barbarism that is rampant, as the social historian Eric Hobsbawm notes.
When Winnicott calls “the abstract picture…a cul-de-sac communication,”(18) he is saying that it performs what phenomenologists call an “epoché” on the realistic picture, that is, “withholds assent” to it, and with that reality as ordinarily perceived. This puts it in a state of incommunicado, and with that makes it abstract, that is, makes us see it as a formal composition. It rescues us—becomes a refuge from—a visually bad environment, and with that an emotionally bad environment. And if it is what Winnicott calls a “good enough environment,” it can makes it possible for us to feel good enough—even experience Fry’s “cosmic emotion,” the best of all emotions, because it is beyond good and evil, takes us out of the wretched world, sick and sickening society, and because it is fraught with wonder rather than anxiety, elating rather than depressing. It is a lot to expect from pure abstract art—from an assemblage of forms that make an aesthetic point—but it is more than one can expect from impure realistic art, at least according to Fry. Pure abstract art is certainly more consoling than impure realistic art, that is, art that pictures the impure world, impure society, impure human beings, rather than pure forms. Pure abstract art can give one the courage to be good to oneself--true to oneself--despite betraying oneself to survive in a bad world. At the least, it allows one to absent oneself from the world when it is too much with one, as the poet William Wordsworth said it often is, and aesthetically refine one’s sensations, which means to render them blind to the world they perceive, triumphantly indifferent to its ugliness and brutality, or at least emotionally sidestep them. At its most aesthetically efficient, the abstract work of art becomes a hortus conclusus the external world cannot enter, an aesthetic paradise in which there can be no fall from grace, and expulsion into the sinful world. WM
(1)Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 353
(2)Jean Baudrillard, “Barbara Kruger,” exhibition catalogue (New York: Mary Boone Gallery, 1987), n.p.
(3)Distinguishing between everyday practical perception and sensuous aesthetic vision, Whitehead writes: “We look and see a colored shape in front of us, and we say,--there is a chair. But what we have seen is the mere colored shape. Perhaps an artist might not have jumped to the notion of a chair. He might have stopped at the contemplation of a beautiful color and a beautiful shape.” Whitehead adds that it requires “training” and “labor” to keep “to the contemplation of color, shape and position,” while none at all to “act immediately on the hypothesis of a chair” and sit on it. Alfred North Whitehead, “Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect,” An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 533-534
(4)Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 120
(5)Roger Fry, “The Artist’s Vision,” Vision and Design (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 51
(6)Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (New York: Harvest Books, 1976), 254
(13)Roger Fry, Cézanne (New York: Noonday Press, 1958), 79
(15)D. W. Winnicott, “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites,” The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965), 187
(16)Stephanie Terenzio, ed., The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 86
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author