Unreal Nature

June 23, 2018

To Be Initiated into Another Sensibility

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:00 am

… Unless something particular to our confrontations with these pictures drives us to imagine in the more complex way …

This is from the essay ‘The Spectator in the Picture’ by Robert Hopkins found in Richard Wollheim on the Art of Painting: Art as Representation and Expression edited by Rob van Gerwen (2001):

… There is a superficial but nagging problem concerning the value of pictures qua representations. It stems from the fact that every picture fundamentally conveys the same sort of content. For every picture represents some object or objects, in a suitably broad sense of the term; the properties those objects enjoy; and states of affairs of which those objects form constituents.

… Why should this make problematic our appreciating pictures for their content?

… the problem begins with the question whether pictures can represent anything other than scenes, anything in addition to the features of the world listed above. For if they cannot, one might wonder why we should bother looking at the pictures rather than devoting our visual attention to scenes themselves, either the very scenes the pictures represent if they are available, or scenes suitably similar to those represented.

… [This issue] can be sidestepped if pictures are indeed free to convey contents other than the mere representation of scenes. Consider the situation if, in particular, they can represent scenes along with reactions to them on the part of some implicit observer of the world depicted. These reactions might be of thought or of feeling. They must concern the scene, but might also involve broader currents of ideas or affective disposition. Were this possible, appeal to what a picture represents could readily explain the interest of the picture over the corresponding scene.

[line break added] When we confront scenes face-to-face, while we may react to them ourselves, we never confront a representation of some possible set of reactions. Thus looking at pictures offers, as looking at the things depicted would not, the chance to explore how someone else might react, to be initiated into another sensibility.

Wollheim thinks that some pictures contain an internal spectator, an implied viewer of the depicted scene, through whose eyes we are to see it. His account of quite what this involves is both detailed and illuminating of the aesthetic interest of the phenomenon. So, if right, it provides part of a solution to the problem of pictorial value outlined above. Only part, because Wollheim thinks that only a subset of aesthetically valuable pictures contain internal spectators.

Hopkins is skeptical of the need for imagining an ‘internal spectator’:

… Suppose I ask you to imagine what it is like to be crushed by an enormous weight. You might, I suppose, do this by imagining the experiences of some other person meeting that fate and then imaginatively identifying with the sufferings that person undergoes. But it would be far more natural simply to imagine yourself being crushed. And, I suggest, this is because, quite generally, where an imaginative project requires us to imagine certain experiences, attitudes or actions, we normally imagine ourselves in those situations, rather than someone else in them with whom we then identify.

[line break added] My claim is not that we cannot do the latter. I am not promoting some form of the thesis that imagining necessarily concerns oneself. I claim only that doing what I have described is the default option, that which, as a matter of psychological fact, we go in for unless we are coaxed into doing otherwise.

Given this, we should expect this default to hold when we engage with pictures, and in particular with those pictures Wollheim discusses. There too what we naturally imagine, if we imagine anything of this sort at all, is simply ourselves confronting the depicted object. As I have argued, imagining in this way allows us to reap the benefits, in terms of a deepened understanding of the picture, which form Wollheim’s central concern.

[line break added] So why think that we reap those benefits by any means other than those we standardly deploy when imagining experiences, attitudes, etc. quite generally? Unless something particular to our confrontations with these pictures drives us to imagine in the more complex way Wollheim has described, we will just do what we normally do.

The above seems to contradict Hopkins’s earlier statement: “… looking at pictures offers … the chance to explore how someone else might react, to be initiated into another sensibility.”

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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