Art’s Infancy

Arthur C. Danto

  • The Mind and its Depths by Richard Wollheim
    Harvard, 214 pp, £19.95, March 1993, ISBN 0 674 57611 X
  • Psychoanalysis, Mind and Art: Perspectives on Richard Wollheim edited by Jim Hopkins and Anthony Savile
    Blackwell, 383 pp, £40.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 631 17571 7

I have always thought of Richard Wollheim as embodying the values and interests of a particularly urbane kind of British intellectual, typified by and possibly originating with the members of the Bloomsbury Circle. It encompasses a serious interest in the arts and especially the art of painting; a dedication to some version of socialist politics; a faith in psychoanalysis as therapy and as a theory of the mind; a commitment to articulate an aesthetic philosophy and in some measure to attempt to live by it; a determination to enhance one’s prose with a certain literary surface; and a profound concern for friendship and the life of the heart. Wollheim would surely have fitted easily and naturally into the world of the Woolfs – affable, witty, curious about others, conversational and charming. He has published a novel, A Family Romance, but his philosophical writings are marked by that kind of sudden ‘turn’ which Forster used to such effect in dealing with the dramatic incidents that change his characters’ lives; and he likes to stop, as we say in the States, on a dime, ending his pieces abruptly, implying an abyss of thought beyond the point where his essay leaves off.

Wollheim differs from the intellectuals I have in mind in part because of the specificity and intensity of his interests – not just in painting, but in Poussin and in Ingres; not just in psychoanalysis but in the theories of Melanie Klein – and in the deep originality of his philosophical thought. But he differs from the philosophers with whom it is most natural to group him – with what, roughly, are designated ‘analytical philosophers’ – in his resolution to turn what defines him as an intellectual into philosophy. Indeed, Wollheim has succeeded in this in a philosophical atmosphere in which aesthetics was widely scorned as dreary and marginal, and in which psychoanalysis was felt, by those philosophers who deigned to notice it, to be lacking in scientific credibility, and to lie as far as can be imagined from the kind of philosophy of mind philosophers have tended to find congenial – some kind of structure analogous to a very sophisticated computer. ‘When I try to imagine getting a hearing for [F.H.] Bradley or psychoanalysis or aesthetics rooted in an intimate acquaintance with paintings during the heyday of ordinary-language philosophy in England, I am, shall we say, a bit daunted,’ writes W.H. Hart, once Wollheim’s junior colleague in London, in Psychoanalysis, Mind and Art. Wollheim’s distinctiveness is to treat as philosophical problems the subjects that touch him most deeply as a man, and to compel the admiration of other philosophers who would not touch those subjects with a pole of any length. He writes with the uncompromising clarity of analytical philosophy, heightened by his singular learning, and given bone and muscle by his logical gifts. You may not agree with him but it is never a mystery where he stands or in what he believes.

Beyond this, and what, I think, puts Wollheim in the narrow circle of this century’s creative thinkers, is that his topics are systematically interconnected. ‘His views are exhilarating,’ writes Alexander Nehamas, ‘because they are systematic, and the discovery that a philosopher is systematic, like the discovery that an artist has a style, is a cause for rejoicing: it does credit both to the subject studied and to its student.’ The ‘subject studied’, or in Wollheim’s case, the subjects studied, are in the first instance art and especially painting; he is the author after all of a substantial book called Painting as an Art, which attempts to provide an exhaustive answer to the title’s implied question. In the second instance the subject is the mind. The two subjects are intimately connected, which is what gives rise to Wollheim’s system, because in order to be an art, painting must relate to painters in such a way that certain psychological facts attributed to them must hold true. At the very least there is a causal connection between painting and artistic intention: ‘if we are to give an account of the special way in which painting must be practised so as to be an art,’ Wollheim writes early in Painting as an Art, ‘we need to concentrate on the descriptions under which specific acts of painting are intentional ... Ways of painting pair with kind of intention.’

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