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.’

There is, to be sure, nothing special about painting in this, for in so far as it is an action, the intentions and, with the intentions, the beliefs and attitudes of the agent come immediately into play. And the intention-belief model of human action is by no means original to Wollheim: it is by and large a philosophical commonplace. What makes it interesting in his case is the fact that belief and intention are today regarded by a good many philosophers as belonging to a superannuated and largely discredited theory of the mind, somewhat dismissively referred to as ‘Folk Psychology’, which is destined to be eliminated and replaced by explanations that draw solely on the resources of an advanced neurophysiology. What gives point to Wollheim’s use of the intention-belief model is an implicit argument to the effect that if these twin concepts are eliminated, painting becomes unintelligible: paintings lapse into mere pigmented expanses, and the entire complex of meanings to which Wollheim devotes such minute attention, analytically and critically, has no application and no explanation.

This directly shows the limitations of philosophies of mind that address their subject merely as a metaphysical exercise concerning mind and brain, without reference to the wider range of endeavour – painting is a good example – in which human beings engage and which cannot be accounted for if the mind evaporates under scrutiny into brain, unless our representation of the brain is sufficiently rich to incorporate all we require in order to account for the meaning of works of art. ‘Richard is a common-sense philosopher,’ the architect Phillip Johnson once said to me in praise of his friend. This somewhat surprised me, for Wollheim never impressed me as especially commonsensical. But he does require what one might call a common-sense philosophy of mind, i.e. one which comes under a heading of Folk Psychology and, more important even than that, one with which psychoanalysis is continuous. His system takes us from painting to the categories of folk psychology, and from these to the categories of psychoanalytic theory.

As a critic, Wollheim, it must be said, finds meanings in paintings it is unlikely he would have hit upon without benefit of the largely psychoanalytic philosophy he developed in his William James lectures of 1982, published as The Thread of Life, and elsewhere. There may seem to be an initial danger of circularity, in that those meanings would be invisible to someone not privy to the psychology enlisted to explain them. My sense, however, is that there is almost certainly enough independent evidence for the psychology: it’s not as though it is only in the painting that we find the relevant support. But part of Wollheim’s passion for paintings is intellectual, in that he sees in them disclosures of truths concerning a universal human nature which are almost philosophical in their scope: ‘All art, or at any rate all great art, presupposes a universal human nature in which artist and audience share.’ So painting or, to follow him, great painting at any rate, is a window into the mind, not just of the artist, but of what artists and viewers share in virtue of their common humanity. But that means a philosophy of mind must itself be universal in order to do justice to what painting – in what Hegel would call ‘its highest vocation’ – discloses about us all. Wollheim’s aesthetics is far from the kind of cultural pluralism which attempts to dissolve a universal human nature along fault-lines of gender, race, culture and class.

There is an amusing passage in Painting as an Art in which Wollheim describes the way in which he looks at painting as ‘massively time-consuming and deeply rewarding’. He ‘came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same time or more to spend looking at it, that the painting could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was.’ He, or alternatively the painting, was looked upon with suspicion by passers-by unacquainted with this methodology. The wonderful essays that compose the psychological part of The Mind and its Depths – I was some-what less gripped by many of the essays on painting collected here, which amplify, sometimes rather aridly, points made in Painting as an Art – help make perspicuous Wollheim’s larger claims about what paintings reveal to his protracted perception. There is, for example, in Painting as an Art, an altogether compelling discussion of Willem de Kooning’s paintings in which he attempts to account for the way they look – for their ‘undigested sumptuousness’. This is a result of the way the artist incorporates into the works, I take it metaphorically, certain ‘sensations’ such as the sensations we have of moving our bodies, but ‘experienced in a heavily regressive mode’. They are experienced, one might say, as an infant experiences its body’s movements. And Wollheim clarifies this in the following remarkable passage:

The sensations that de Kooning cultivates are, in more ways than one, the most fundamental in our repertoire. They are those sensations which gave us out first access to the external world, and they also, as they repeat themselves, bind us for ever to the elementary forms of pleasure into which they initiated us. Both in the grounding of human knowledge and in the formation of human desire, they prove basic. De Kooning, then, crams his pictures with infantile experiences of sucking, touching, biting, excreting, retaining, smearing, sniffing, swallowing, gurgling, stroking, wetting.

It is just such primitive, inchoate, visceral sensations as these, in a passage which brilliantly transcribes the phenomenology of infantile sexuality, that Wollheim seems to have in view when he writes of the ‘depths’ of the mind. The words ‘elementary’, ‘basic’, ‘first’ figure prominently and the claim itself is expanded on in the essay with which the present collection begins, ‘The Sheep and the Ceremony’, which is an effort in the end to reassert the demands of the body that Wollheim sees ‘the ideals of humanity, the ethical’ as seeking to stifle. This is essentially an idea of Freud’s, as Wollheim reads him, for whom the ego is ‘first and foremost a bodily ego’. Freud had in mind

the way in which the most basic mental acts in the infant’s repertoire – acceptance, denial, interrogation, or their primitive precursors – are entertained under crude corporeal phantasies of ingestion, expulsion, penetration. Milk flooding the infant’s mouth, teeth upon the nipple, vision clouded by tears, retention of the faeces, screaming, urinating, vomiting – all these offer prototypes of action and passion to which elementary, and then less elementary, processes of mind are assimilated, and the interest the mind pays on these generous loans is that, as the relevant part of the body – mouth, anus, urethra, eye – becomes eroticised ... so the mental process itself incurs the same hostility as the instinctual impulses against which it was initially recruited.

Think what one will of Wollheim’s take on de Kooning, the treatment of the latter’s art as an immediate metaphorical representation of what might be called the bodily given – the body as it is given to each of us at the most vulnerable moment of our existence – is scarcely typical of art-critical interpretations of this or any artist (though it may explain why de Kooning’s work done in deep senility may still have a kind of artistic credibility). Art criticism will typically look instead to art history for the determinants of his Abstract Expressionist style. More important than that, it is the rare student of what is termed genetic epistemology who will strike upstream, as it were, and regress to the bodily upheavals of infantile life for the ‘grounding of human knowledge and ... the formation of human desire’. And yet the implication is that the intention-belief model of human action is grafted onto what we come into the world with and as, and upon which our very survival depends: you cannot teach a baby to suck. And so a piece of art criticism sends us back to a piece of moral psychology, and that in turns opens up the space for the whole edifice of Kleinian hermeneutics, with the famous dynamism of what the child receives as the Good Breast and what it impugns as the Bad Breast. Nobody else, I think it fair to say, not even those who accept psychoanalysis as a guide to understanding art, practises art criticism this way. And nobody else practises philosophy this way.

Whether it is the right way to do either art criticism or the philosophy of art – or of mind – I think nobody knows how to say. What can be said is that Wollheim gives a powerful picture of the connection between mind and art based on what must be his own experience in Kleinian analysis and his own way of looking at art. He gives a no less powerful account of what an ethic might took like which did not begin in repression and denial, and a highly ambitious programme for tracing the components of Folk Psychology back to their visceral beginnings in the phenomenology of infantile movement and feeling. One of the most interesting and ingenious aspects of The Mind and its Depths – or perhaps one of the places where the relentless will-to-system is perceived at work – is the pressure Wollheim puts on certain moral philosophers he admires to force a point of connection between their preoccupations and his own. Mill, who can hardly have had an image of the way the infant mind operates, is found to have entertained a three-tiered system of Utilitarianism, at the bottom tier of which (‘preliminary Utilitarianism’) is found ‘whatever is necessary for people either to form, or having formed, to maintain, conceptions of their own happiness or ... envisagements of other people’s happiness’. It is not spelt out by Wollheim, but from this point on the inflow of warm milk cannot be very distant. And a place is found equally in the least likely of philosophers, the British Idealist on whom Wollheim wrote his first book, for a psychology, indeed a developmental psychology for what he confidently describes as the Bradleian-Kleinian form of inquiry. ‘Morality begins only when an interior dialogue breaks out, a dialogue which, on the Bradleian account, engages just the good self and the bad self, and which in Kleinian theory pulls in the more numerous and ethically more ambiguous figures of the inner world.’ And before we quite know what is happening, Bradley’s Ethical Studies are ‘underpinned’ (Wollheim’s word) by the introjection of the breast and the like (if there is the like). ‘In other words, by making just one assumption Kleinian theory strings together into a single perspicuous story events that Bradleian moral psychology also insists, without indicating how, must be connected.’

I hardly command the wherewithal to criticise Wollheim’s core philosophy, which rests after all on empirical issues in psychoanalytic theory, though anyone who has reservations about the latter’s claim to scientific credibility can hardly do better than read ‘Desire, Belief and Professor Grünbaum’s Freud’, an essay printed here for the first time. Wollheim makes it clear that Professor Grünbaum’s Freud is not Professor Wollheim’s Freud, and quite possibly not Professor Freud’s Freud. And he fills in some of the internal mechanism left out of Grünbaum’s account, the absence of which makes Freudian theory susceptible to Grünbaum’s critique, and leaves it quite without interest.

Rather, I shall make one or two critical observations on a few matters which, so far as I can see, none of the sympathetic essays in Psychoanalysis, Mind and Art touch. The first is the question ‘why does art have a history?’ – the crucial question Wollheim himself attributed to Ernst Gombrich in a review of Gombrich’s work. It is well and good to see certain parallels between Venetian painting and that of de Kooning, but it is plain that the latter could not have painted as he did had he lived in Venice in the Cinquecento, at the time of Veronese – himself of course a very fleshly artist. De Kooning brilliantly observed that flesh was the reason oil painting was invented, but there are historical differences in how it is painted that cannot be merely referred to intentions, for the intentions themselves are historical. Every explanation in Wollheim seems to send us back to the same developmental psychology, which may indeed be universal, true in every age and place, but for just that reason it is of no avail in distinguishing age from age of place from place. No room is left for the incursion of history into the forms of beliefs and intentions and hence the explanations of paintings. Wölfflin is often quoted to the effect that not everything in art is possible at every time, but the question remains of why this is so, if the human material is everywhere and always the same.

A second question concerns the nature of what Wollheim calls ‘projection’, which he talks about in Painting as an Art and again here, and which is discussed by some of his commentators in Psychoanalysis, Mind and Art as well. It concerns the familiar fact that we attribute certain psychological or emotional properties to works of art, such as their being sad. This, he argues, is a matter of projecting certain inner states. ‘A person is sad; his sadness causes him anxiety; as a result of this anxiety he projects his sadness onto, more generally, the external world; and now, along with no longer believing that he is sad, perhaps no longer being sad, he begins to experience the external world as of a piece with his sadness.’ Why project this sadness onto the painting rather than the floor? And why onto those paintings that everyone would suppose were sad in the first instance, and never, say, on a drawing of Mickey Mouse kissing Minnie? And when I find a painting sad do I forthwith stop feeling sad? This seems implausible, or even wrong. Wollheim enlists a concept of ‘correspondences’, which seems to me possible, but only because the outer term of the correspondence – the painting, the landscape – already possesses that in virtue of which the correspondence gets set up. But then we need go no further grounding the sadness, say, in those features. It is manifestly cleat that Wollheim wants to attach what he rightly calls ‘expressive perception’, to his Kleinian model, which will involve ‘the emotion as being expelled from the body and then spread or smeared across some part of the world’. Is this going to work for all cases of emotional perception? I don’t find his account especially convincing.

Finally, interesting and ramified as Wollheim’s theory of painting is, as a philosophy of art it is too narrow. It is very little help for a lot of visual art that is not painting or sculpture of the traditional kind. Alexander Nehamas brings this out in an extended discussion of Duchamp’s Etant Données, and there is a vast body of contemporary artistic expression which seems beyond the range of many of Wollheim’s distinctions. This diminishes a philosophy of art which means to be universal, by closing its author to historical developments beyond what the philosophy covers. I am, for example, far from persuaded that Wollheim’s doctrine of ‘seeing in’ will carry us very far in what is required to appreciate, say, the sculpture of Eva Hesse. It is too closely tethered to the kind of representational art he loves, and which his analyses tend best to fit. And that may be a price you pay for tethering your philosophy too closely to extra-philosophical preoccupations and fixations. A small price, perhaps, when set alongside the barrenness of so much of professional philosophy today. In Wollheim we encounter not just a system of highly original thought, but a highly original mind and a highly original man.