In a Forest of Two-Dimensional Bears

Arthur C. Danto

  • Perspective as Symbolic Form by Erwin Panofsky, translated by Christoper Wood
    Zone, 196 pp, £20.50, January 1992, ISBN 0 942299 52 3
  • The Language of Art History edited by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell
    Cambridge, 245 pp, £32.50, December 1991, ISBN 0 521 35384 X

Kant’s characteristic philosophical strategy – ingenious, original, and by his own assessment, revolutionary – consisted in transferring to the mind, as among its organising principles, a great many of the features heretofore ascribed to the objective order of the world. Causality, for example, rather than some bonding agency, linking event with event under the laws of nature, was instead a defining structure of the way we organise experience: it would not be experience were it not causally ordered. And space, rather than some vast container in which the furniture of the universe is stowed, is instead a form of perception – an innate a priori scheme through which bodies present themselves to the senses as coordinated. The laws of this mode of organisation arc given by geometry, which Kant had no grounds for believing other than Euclidian; and indeed, well after the advent of non-Euclidian geometries, it was still widely maintained that Euclid’s defines the structure of spatial experience for minds such as ours. Kant was interested in human nature only in the most universal terms, and it was his assumption that our spatial intuitions must be largely invariant inasmuch as we are all built the same. The organising principles of the form-giving mind must be the same from period to period of history, and culturally all of a piece.

There is very little if any discussion of pictorial space in Kant’s writing, as there is very little discussion in his aesthetic writings of art as such, since his main concern was with the judgment of beauty, whatever its occasion. My sense is that the beauty of a picture would, in his view, be derivative from the beauty of the subject of the picture, so a beautiful picture of a woman would ipso facto be a picture of a beautiful woman. Thus the picture would be treated as a pure transparency, with no features of its own, and the organisation of pictorial space would simply be continuous with the organisation of objects in ordinary space. The picture, in effect, would be like a window through which we see the world much as we would see it were we standing outside. And indeed, this specified pretty much the agenda of the pictorial artist, whose task consisted in creating what the psychologist Julian Hochberg calls a ‘surrogate’: ‘To prepare a surface that reflects to the observer’s eye the same proximal stimulus pattern as does the real scene.’ The picture may thus be construed as a section through the visual pyramid, and if, with Leonardo, we imagine this as a pane of glass, the artistic success consists in marking the glass’s surface in such a way that there is no perceptual difference to be registered between what we sec on it and what we would have seen through it antecedent to its being so marked: the skill of the artist consists in disguising itself. When the skill is maximal, there is accordingly no distinction to be identified in perception between looking at a picture and looking at what it is a picture of.

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