Because it’s pink

Stephen Mulhall

  • The Objective Eye: Colour, Form and Reality in the Theory of Art by John Hyman
    Chicago, 286 pp, £20.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 226 36553 0

Although this is a work of art theory, its primary concern is not with beauty, or aesthetic value more generally, but rather with the nature of pictorial representation. After all, before we can judge whether a representational painting achieves aesthetic excellence in the way it depicts something, we must first perceive what it depicts. And John Hyman is interested in how depiction is even possible. This question has fascinated philosophers for a long time, but it can very quickly get a grip on any reflective person. However familiar we are with the business of linguistic communication, for example, it doesn’t equip us with any obvious answers when we stand back and ask ourselves how mere marks on paper or sounds in the air can embody and convey meaning. A similar difficulty arises if we ask how a configuration of lines and colours on a plane surface can possibly succeed in depicting a man or a battle, a forest or a god. Indeed, once we are struck by the sheer mysteriousness of pictorial representation, worries about what makes one picture more aesthetically valuable than another may come to seem secondary in comparison.

Philosophers have taken two rather different approaches to the problem. The first declares that a picture represents an object by copying its form and colour. The second, which arose in reaction to the first, and has become increasingly dominant since the Enlightenment, says that a picture represents an object by producing a special kind of experience or response in the mind of a suitably qualified spectator. Do pictures cause us to see the things they represent because they are likenesses of those things, or do we call them likenesses of those things because they cause us to see them?

If we think of depiction as involving three things – the viewer of the picture, the picture itself and the object that the picture depicts – then we could say that the first doctrine gives primary weight to the (mimetic) relation between the picture and what it depicts, whereas the second gives it to the (causal) relation between the picture and those who view it. In this sense, the first doctrine is objectivist, the second subjectivist; what is in dispute is the nature and significance of the viewer’s share in the business of depiction. Versions of the second doctrine hold sway in recent philosophy of art, as well as in art theory and art history. One of the many virtues of Hyman’s book is that it provides a sustained, rigorous and devastating critique of such subjectivism, and a carefully nuanced defence of his own version of objectivism.

Hyman organises his discussion around three themes: colour, form and reality (or, more precisely, realism). The first two are obviously central, since pictures consist of colours distributed on a plane surface; but the third is closely related, since historians and theorists of art have long wished to account for the impression of reality that some pictures appear to convey more forcibly than others. Once again versions of objectivism and subjectivism form the major poles of the discussion. Hyman engages in detail with a complex array of texts and arguments from the full historical sweep of Western cultural reflection on the nature of pictorial art. The discussion moves rapidly, but clearly and sure-footedly, from Plato to Gombrich, from Kepler to Panofsky, from Pliny to Winckelmann; and a major part of its value is that it carefully traces the ways in which philosophical, psychological, physiological and art historical inquiries into various aspects of these questions have interacted over time, with each taking over discoveries, models and assumptions from the others, for both good and ill (rather more ill than good). I will look in detail at some of the central and overlapping strands in Hyman’s argument, so as to convey the particular flavour of his position.

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