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Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism

I am enormously grateful to the respondents for their sensitive reflections and criticisms of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). The respondents touch on many aspects of the book, Cooper and Florman focus on the introduction, Oeler, Stimson and Clune consider the book as a whole. In my discussion at the end I address what I take to be the salient features of the responses as well as reiterating some of the major points of my argument against certain contemporary claims in the humanities largely around issues of anti-hierarchy, the establishment of so-called “surefire” effects, formalism, neoliberalism, critique of the subject, and the relation of art and nature. I also put forward alternatives to the current orthodoxies of the humanities.


Harry Cooper:

Mother to 10-year-old son: “I applaud you.” Answer: “Then why aren’t you clapping?” (True story.)

I applaud Todd Cronan for stepping back to take a broad look at what he calls October aesthetics, which he regards as deeply conflicted at best and self-contradictory at worst. “At the center of October aesthetics … is the lapsed enlightenment claim to see, to experience, to consciously grasp reality as it really is: representation. Which is another way of saying it wants to deny the reality of representation at the moment it declares representation’s ubiquity.” (19) In other words (I think), October holds that what we think is reality is really just representation, and thus not as full-blooded or full-bodied, not as real, as we had imagined. And with this implicit just or merely, Cronan detects a hidden nostalgia in October for things as they really are, a wish to “let be be the finale of seem” as Wallace Stevens put it. This in turn connects back to his admirably clear opening paragraph, where he traces “modernism’s dissatisfactions with representation” to Descartes’ view that “the self is terminally separated from the world by a screen of images.” (1) October, Cronan argues, like several of its artist-heroes, is at a deep level unhappy with this particular Cartesian heritage (which is one aspect of his dualism). And so, despite October’s celebration of the idea that everything is a play of representations, and despite all the talk of semiotics in the work of Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois (who seem to signify October for Cronan), “neither one of them is much interested in the operation of the sign …. [except] insofar as … signs are disrupted by what Krauss calls their bodily ‘preconditions.’” (19)

The burden of Cronan’s book, judging from his introduction, is to show how Matisse and Bergson navigate this very dissatisfaction (which October also has, but less consciously). Their work can help us see, Cronan promises, “how representation, far from interposing a wedge between us and the world, can bring us closer to it.” (22) Not having read the rest of the book, I cannot judge the delivery of this promise, but I can judge his arguments about Bois and Krauss, who get detailed treatment in the introduction.

To start with, let’s correct Cronan’s jaw-dropping assertion that neither one of them is very interested in the functioning of signs. All one has to do is consult their brilliant writings on collage and synthetic cubism (which Cronan does not mention) to see otherwise. This correction immediately throws his allegation about October’s crypto-nostalgia for unmediated experience into some question. But to be fair, Cronan’s book is about Matisse not Picasso, and it is true that Bois has little interest in Matisse as a maker or manipulator of signs. (I will not discuss Krauss here for the sake of space, but also because I think she is a more complicated case, and indeed I have often found myself, like Cronan, puzzling over slippages and tensions in her work.)

Here we run into to a problem with Cronan’s whole approach: perhaps because he has deep philosophical interests himself, Cronan treats Bois as a philosopher with a coherent approach to art, just as he sees October itself as a kind of philosophical school, which is even more far-fetched. In fact, as Bois makes clear in “Resisting Blackmail,” the introduction to his Painting as Model, his approach is to use whatever theoretical approach or tools seem best suited to the artwork or artist at hand. When it comes to Picasso, the tools are semiological. When it comes to Matisse (or Newman), the tools are indeed, at least in part, the phenomenological ones that Cronan associates with the modernist flight from representation into bodily experience and affective states. And so, with the caveat that Cronan is dealing with Bois on Matisse, not Bois tout court, we can continue.

Of course, there is more than one Matisse, and more than one Bois on Matisse. Of the two major essays, Cronan omits the first one (“Matisse and Arche-Drawing”), with its Derridean-deconstructionist argument, and jumps ahead to “On Matisse: The Blinding.” (I have no problem with a tight focus, as long as the tightness is acknowledged). Cronan’s beef here is not with Bois’s specific claims themselves, but with the nature of the claims, which for Cronan simply do not amount to “an interpretation of what a work might mean.” (3) Why not? Because at the heart of Bois’s argument are assertions about how specific works by Matisse affect vision, destabilizing our accustomed ways of organizing the visual field and so showing us that these ways are not natural but constructed, that there are other ways of seeing.

Cronan’s problem with this is that he cannot imagine any way of arguing with Bois’s account other than disputing that Matisse’s works do indeed have those effects on one’s eyes. In other words, he cannot see the argument escaping from an “is so/is not” spat at the level of sensation to get to the level of meaning or intention. He concludes, “Without an appeal to…what the artist might have meant by the marks he or she made…one cannot differentiate between relevant and irrelevant sensations before a work of art.”

It is here that I would like to raise my hand. In fact, Bois’s work on Matisse is suffused with the idea that the artist had a coherent, unitary project (however much he might have been conscious of it, and however much he might have abandoned it at some moments). And why shouldn’t Bois be able to go there? I simply do not see how making assertions about how Matisse’s works affect him disqualifies Bois, or anyone who reports his or her sensory experiences in front of artworks, from having at the same time (or before, or after) interpretations of their meaning and/or intention. Indeed, without having and thinking about such experiences, I have a hard time seeing how I, at least, could evolve interpretations at all. (Full disclosure: I am a Bois student, dare I say disciple.)

That is really all I wanted to say. Maybe it just amounts to a radical difference between me and Cronan in how we approach art and what we ask from it. Among other things, Cronan seems to be looking for a kind of guide to right action. He complains that the October approach “cannot help us to make better decisions” (18), “could [not] matter to what we do” (19), and gives no hint about “what consequences could follow” (21). Whereas I am look for an experience that is, at least at times, ravishing. And so when Cronan gives us a glimpse of what kinds of things he will be attending to in Matisse—strategies of framing, depictions of the artist at work, and structural arrangements that thematize representational limits (2)—it all sounds quite plausible to me, and I can even imagine which works will figure prominently in his argument, but it also sounds rather cold. It may bring us closer to the world, as Cronan promises, but I don’t think it will bring me closer to Matisse, not my Matisse anyway.


Lisa Florman:

This characterization of Against Affective Formalism, from Michael Fried’s blurb for the back cover, seems just about right to me:

Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. First, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary aesthetics: whether or not a beholder’s experience of a work can properly be understood as affective rather than cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of writings by Henri Bergson, whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse, showing that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position he never succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitive viewpoints in the theory and practice of Matisse.

I want to begin my own comments about Against Affective Formalism by saying how much I admire two of those three books (the second and third in Fried’s accounting). They are original and persuasive, and I learned a great deal in reading them. Chapters three and four especially, “The Influence of Others” and “Matisse and Mimesis,” which are the ones that together track “the interplay between the affective and cognitive viewpoints in the theory and practice of Matisse,” are to my mind tours de force: significant contributions to our understanding of the artist that ought, by all rights, to have a real impact on the field. I am, however, rather less enthusiastic about the first of the books-within-the-book. I found myself disagreeing with it repeatedly, at times with no small measure of exasperation. And because it is the one that dominates Cronan’s Introduction, it will necessarily negatively shape much of what I have to say below. (They don’t call this “The Tank” for nothing.)

Cronan spends much of the Introduction diagnosing and then tracing a genealogy of contemporary interest in affective formalism. The project is sound; the problem is that, having ostensibly uncovered the logic undergirding the phenomenon, he repeatedly projects it onto accounts where it isn’t actually in play. For example, on p. 3, he takes to task Yve-Alain Bois’s essay, “On Matisse: The Blinding,” for overemphasizing the affective dimension of Matisse’s work (“Bois’s mistake is to orient his accounts around these affective moments—perceptual contradictions tied to bodily effects”) because, Cronan believes, “an assertion about the viewer’s perceptual response is something wholly different from an interpretation of what a work might mean.” In the next breath he adds that the “presumed value of adhering to perceptual responses is that it avoids any unverifiable assertion about the artist’s intentions to produce these responses.” The flow of the paragraph insinuates that Bois had been wholly unconcerned with either interpretation or artistic intention—when in fact he had martialed a great deal of evidence (much of it culled from Matisse’s writings) in order to show that the artist was deliberately aiming at the particular perceptual and psychic effects in question. The specific phrases that Cronan cites as most “mistaken” are ones that come, moreover, from Bois’s discussion of key paintings within the artist’s oeuvre (Le Bonheur de vivre and Music), which Bois presents as bound up with castration anxiety and related to Matisse’s competition with other artists, Picasso chief among them. Cronan may not like Bois’s interpretation—though I myself am struck by how close it seems to some of his own observations in chapter three concerning Matisse and personnalité—yet, I would argue, it is still undeniably an interpretation of the work. Cronan’s willful misreading of Bois is all the more irritating in that it comes in the midst of his impassioned defense of authorial intention. Evidently art historians don’t count for him among the ranks of authors whose intended meaning he regards as sacrosanct.

I take it that one of Cronan’s aims in Against Affective Formalism is to undo or replace the overly simplistic, nondialectical oppositions around which contemporary arguments about “affect” have frequently been constructed. Certainly the dialectic of specularity and mimesis that he sees operating within Matisse’s oeuvre, and which he outlines in chapter four, answers well to such an ambition. Yet in the Introduction Cronan repeatedly falls into the very dichotomies that he’s purportedly denouncing. Consider his critique of Roland Barthes’s influential essay, “The Death of the Author.” Cronan merely reverses Barthes’s priorities—this time sacrificing the reader in the name of the Author-God—without ever attempting to think outside the either/or opposition on which Barthes’s essay had been based. Consequently we are warned that, “if the work is seen as requiring the beholder’s response to give it meaning, then none of those responses can have any more purchase than another” (17). This is typical of the slippery-slope argumentation from which the Introduction gains its momentum. The viewer has to be denied any role whatsoever, on the assumption that her “response” is wholly extraneous to the work and therefore an imposition on its “inherent” meaning.1 Cronan never seriously entertains a scenario in which an artist might seek to engage his audience through open-ended participation or where the viewer is actually attentive to the work, approaching it with that state of mind that Aloïs Riegl referred to as Aufmerksamkeit—a state that confounds any simple distinction between active and passive (or, for that matter, subjectivity and objectivity) in that it involves a conscious relinquishing of one’s idiosyncratic or merely personal concerns.

I want to be clear: like Cronan, I am suspicious of claims about purely affective responses to works of art, and I fail to understand what the art historical or aesthetic significance of those responses might be, even were they to exist. But I cannot believe that many art historians are actually interested in the merely affective or physiological—neither Rosalind Krauss nor Yve-Alain Bois are, despite Cronan’s claims to the contrary—and I vehemently object to his suggestion that the answer to this rumored interest is to insist on the work’s total independence from the viewer’s experience of it. A far more nuanced (and, in my opinion, congenial) treatment of these issues is to be found in Michael Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention, a book that deserves a much wider and deeper reading than it has so far occasioned.2 As Baxandall makes clear in his own Introduction, the viewer is not so easily removed from the equation. Where Cronan regards the artist’s intention as primary—indeed, as being both efficient and final cause of any painting or sculpture—Baxandall points out that, from a practical perspective, our experience of the work necessarily has priority. Whatever else we art historians may imagine it is we’re doing, in reality “we explain, first, thoughts we have had about the picture, and only secondarily the picture.”3 Artistic intention plays a role too, of course, but it is in some sense tertiary: “Awareness that the picture’s having an effect on us is the product of human action seems to lie deep in our thinking and talking about pictures and what we are doing when we attempt a historical explanation of a picture is to try developing this kind of thought.”4 Because “authorial intention” is almost always Nachträglich, hypothetically reconstructed after the fact by art-historically minded viewers, the work’s meaning is arguably dependent on their efforts. To claim that our experience of a work is completely irrelevant to its meaning is as wrong-headed, in my opinion, as is claiming the utter autonomy of its affective dimension from cognitive thought. Were there really paintings answering to either of those descriptions, I’m doubtful we would be able to recognize them as paintings—and even less certain why we would take any interest in them at all.


Karla Oeler: From Against Affective Formalism to The Forms of the Affects

The first part of Todd Cronan’s title, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism forms a loose chiasmus with The Forms of the Affects by Eugenie Brinkema, published eleven months later.1 These polemical titles announce dissatisfaction with affect theory, at least in some of its manifestations. The books reexamine intellectual histories of affect and recuperate close analysis as a corrective to a “turn” that, they argue, has failed to say anything substantive about paintings or texts. Cronan, focusing on Matisse and his critics, defines “affective formalism” as “the belief that color and line produce bodily responses that function and mean independent of the artist’s agency” (27). He objects to this “belief” because if the meaning of a work hinges solely on its bodily effects on a particular beholder, “then the question of disagreement becomes impossible, for no experience, no affect can ever be right or wrong.  To imagine a world where what matters is ‘what happens’ to us is also to imagine a world where bodies differ but never disagree because there is nothing to disagree about” (64). Brinkema writes that “the approach to writing theory that emphasizes the personal experience of the theorist” is “complicit with the explicit marketing of feeling from the commercial side of film production. One suspects, from these furiously recorded diaries, that the theoretical qualification for such work is to be a better consumer of feelings; if affect does not need to be interpreted, just recorded, then the most affected theorist wins” (32). These diagnoses converge around the desire to recuperate interpretation. For Cronan, describing what happens to oneself, affectively, before a work of art, “is not an interpretation so the reader is forced to accept the terms of the argument as facts of the matter” (97). Brinkema describes her approach as “an attempt to seize the passions of affect studies for textual interpretation and close reading” (xvi).

Galvanizing in their parallel criticisms and calls for a return to interpretive analysis, in their divergence these books generate potent questions. Their titles declare their difference:  Cronan pushes “against affective formalism;” Brinkema pushes through it, claiming critics have not gone far enough in “formalizing affect” and “affectivizing form.” Pushing through, Brinkema pushes beyond Deleuze:  “my argument goes a step further and also loses for affects the body and bodies” (25).  Pushing against, Cronan backtracks through Henri Bergson and Paul Valéry, arriving at Deleuze from another side.  The final sentence of his book:  “It is ‘viscera’ all the way down.”

Cronan and Brinkema’s choices of key terms drive these differences:  for Cronan, it’s “intention” that demands attentive analysis; for Brinkema, it is “textual form…that commands a reading” (4). For Cronan, solving the solipsistic impasse of affective formalism requires treating the beholder’s affective response to a work of art as “irrelevant except insofar as those affects are taken to be intended by the artist.” Brinkema, however, identifies intentionality as the problem—just not authorial intentionality, the “fallacy” of which William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley made famous. Instead, she focuses on Husserlian intentionality, which “assumes that spectator or theorist (it matters little which) is noetic (the experiencing) and that affect is noematic (that which is experienced)” (33). For Brinkema, this means assuming “that emotional jolts are definitionally, necessarily, and essentially intentional in aim, direction, and effect.  They always land, without fail…in the lap of the awaiting critic” (34). Brinkema understands this “expanded” sense of the “intentional fallacy” as grounding film theory’s surrender to the “affective fallacy”: “When all is said and done:  this affective stuff, it tolls for me” (32); in her analysis, the two fallacies work together. For Cronan, it’s one or the other: “If the work does not mean what the author intends it to mean, there is no alternative available but that the reader is the one who creates meaning” (247).

The chiastic structure suggested by the titles thus extends to the arguments: the books, which share reservations about affect theory and arrive at similar solutions (more attention to form and text, less to one’s own feelings), do so via seemingly opposite claims. To understand how, or why, this is possible requires consideration of their key terms—“intention” for Cronan, “text” and “form” for Brinkema—and their selection of, and approach to, their primary examples.

Cronan first defines his “appeal to artistic intention” negatively: it “is not an appeal to artistic psychology” (12) and not evaluative (it does not concern whether the artist succeeds in communicating intended meaning). He writes, “intentional analysis is not a matter of finally or ultimately knowing, recovering, or extracting what an artist meant when he or she made a work of art—an impossible task—but it is to say that an artist meant something by his or her work, and that is what the art historian aims to understand by whatever means available” (14). Is the “expanded” intentionality that Brinkema rejects capacious enough to include Cronan’s definition of the term so that, if we follow Brinkema’s argument, we dismiss the foundation of Cronan’s? I.e. is Cronan’s “intentionality” that which is experienced, noematic; while the intentional analyst alone is noetic? No. The terms are too static to capture an “artistic intentionality” that Cronan shrewdly takes care to establish not as an identifiable thing, but as driving a durational, dynamic act. In aiming to understand what the artist meant, the art historian aims at a moving, unhittable, target.  This target has to do with the making, consciously or unconsciously, of formal choices: “No matter how the self is described—humanist or posthumanist, singular or multiple, integral or institutional, centered or decentered, whole or fragmented—the problem of agency remains.  Even if the idea of the self is a fiction (which I largely assume here), we are still called upon to act and make choices” (16).

How, then, is intentionality different, or all that different, from textuality? Cronan’s insistence on intentionality as processual structures his selection and analysis of Matisse’s paintings and writings, and those of his contemporaries and friends. Cronan focuses on works produced in sequences around a similar problem or set of objects—the 1901 standing figure sequence, the 1903 costume sequence, and works made between 1895 and 1917, where Matisse “explored the tension between two modes of representation:  first, a declarative form of realism, where objects are situated close to the beholder…and yet maintain their separate identities” and, second, a “phenomenological” approach where “Matisse figures space as something that involves the beholder, as the picture surface suggestively runs up to and under the viewer’s feet” (175). Seeking to understand Matisse’s intentionality—that he meant something—calls forth this revealing kind of close analysis and historicism, but Cronan does not insist on a particular method: “Any method that aims to understand what the artist meant, and not what happened to a work in its…reception, or what happens to the viewer regardless of what the artist might have meant, is intentionalist” (14).

Brinkema’s textual approach is historical in a different way. Her discovery of the tear-that-is-not-a-tear in the corner of Marion Crane’s dead eye in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) takes us through a short history of teardrops in Western thought. Similarly, she passes through the intellectual history of mourning and melancholia to arrive at the form of undialectical grief in the line, light, and duration of a Haneke tableau; and through the philosophical tradition that sees disgust as the negation of the aesthetic to explain why the missing stench of Laura Dern’s vomit in Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990) is “worse than the worst.” Her emphasis on textuality means she unapologetically uses the word “text” when talking about motion pictures. Liberated by textuality from bothering with what Hitchcock may have meant by a “plica” that could be mistaken for a tear, Brinkema, unlike D.A. Miller, never wonders whether she’s reading “too closely.”2 That would involve the gravitational pull of intentionality. But if intentionality, what the author meant, remains always, to some extent, irrecoverable (including by the author him or herself after, even during, the making, as Cronan allows), then how do we distinguish from intentional analysis Brinkema’s compelling reading for affective meanings (or abrogations of meaning) that are realized in and through form—apart from her claim that it’s not that kind of analysis?

Intensely authored (typographical teardrops, profusion of exotic words, multilingualism, etc.) and heartily meant (see, for instance, the Acknowledgments), The Forms of the Affects, as text, betrays its own intentionality (Brinkema meant something and it’s bound up in the rare style of her own text). It is such intentionality that Against Affective Formalism at once boldly—and qualifiedly, if it is possible to combine the two adverbs—acknowledges. Read together, these two books, framed by converging critiques and calls for the reconsideration of unfashionable concepts—intentionality, close reading—suggest there is no close reading without intention (including the critic’s intention), and that a powerful way of approaching intention is through close reading.


1. Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
2. See D. A. Miller, “Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures,” Critical Inquiry 37:1 (Autumn 2010): 106-30.


Blake Stimson: For enlightenment

All art produces an account of the subject and modernism’s version of that subject was always bourgeois in at least two strong senses: it dreamt of a fluid self, of “the pure and simple absence of frame” (1) that allowed it the freedom of self-negation, and it dreamt of fully defined and fully autonomous self-possession, of an absolutely framed or bounded self independent of attachments or responsibilities to others. The first of these was drawn downward and outward to the swampy horizontal release of the church-and-state-dissolving equivalence of the commodity form while the second primped and pulled itself inward and upward to the vertical, phallogocentric, church-and-state-supplanting narcissistic high of the self-made man. One worked what the market would bear during business hours to proliferate, level, and exchange meaning while the other operated after hours and behind closed doors to shore up, lay claim to, and capitalize on that leveled meaning as his or her own.

These are not mutually exclusive impulses, as attested to by Todd Cronan’s rich account of Bergson’s “dualistic picture of intuition and intellect, memory and matter” (69) and Matisse’s “dual personality” (214) or “dual fantasy” of “total affective merger,” on the one hand, and “an equally strong desire for separation or detachment, as though art were a way to seal himself off from others and the world,” on the other (165). Instead, these two sides have routinely joined forces to produce a subject that is “psychically fraught, inherently conflictual and ambivalent, suggestive at once of possessive mastery and traumatic openness.” (167) This split subject is Cronan’s counter-ideal and its manic equivocation is the locus of energy from which he launches the charge given by his book’s title “Against Affective Formalism.” The formalism in his sights suffers from a romantic overinvestment in the fluid, beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder self and a corresponding underinvestment in the realist and authorial bounded self causing the fraught, conflictual and ambivalent “structural unconscious” (13) of the modernist subject to collapse into a one-sided epistemic complacency and powerlessness. Once “the viewer replaces the artist as the origin of meaning” and any perspective is equally valid to any other, Cronan argues, “the possibility of meaning itself is put in doubt.” (15)

The great modern promise that arose from asserting the governing role of intention, and thus conflict between author and reader, self and world, is that each side is forced to flip roles and express itself to the other rather than simply accepting either the premodern premise that beauty and truth are given by God or the postmodern conceit that they are a function of the situated perspective of the beholder. The split itself gave rise to the tenuous and provisional event of representation in its modern sense, of trying to communicate what something means for oneself to another, an event that “both threatens isolation and makes every connection like an unrepeatable gift.” (220) The modernist subject caught in and enriched by this fraught nexus long served as the figure of alienation and genius, of artistic ideals like self-expression and épater le bourgeois, and of spaces of possibility like the garret and the café, even if its conflicted, expressive role has long been tragically and insidiously reduced to a cliché. Cronan’s efforts to recover this old ideal rings true for a significant spectrum of human experience that we no longer grant cultural recognition, and, without question, it is a powerful rejoinder to postmodernism’s unrelenting afterlife as neoliberal/neoconservative marginalization, destabilization and relativization of material, embodied life under the epigone of the sign.

Historically, we might trace the birth of this modern subject back at least as far as Thomas Hobbes and the early years of contract theory when what it got most right was the human sense of fear and isolation and corresponding desire to have that sense recognized socially, culturally, and politically rather than diffused into myth. However, its real moment of material emergence is best associated not with Hobbes’s account of a political subject that was to realize its needs globally by splitting itself into two bodies—that of the Leviathan and its subject—but instead with Adam Smith’s economic model of society and the rise of the proletarian subject that realized its needs locally by exchanging labor for a wage and thereby splitting itself into two value forms, that which is usable and that which is exchangeable. This was the fully formed and institutionalized subject of what has been called “possessive individualism.”1

A useful passage for understanding this development comes from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which lays out the basis of the new subject in existential terms:

I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavor to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavoring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the person judged of.

This is the ground of moral sentiment or “fellow feeling” and ethical behavior is derived from one-to-one self/other (or self/self) relations rendering it situational (“like an unrepeatable gift”) rather than institutional regardless of whether it is a political contract or an economic sale thereby dissolving any appeal to a pre-given law such as that given by God’s will or Kant’s categorical imperative. As Smith puts his version of the ethico-intentionalist imperative, “This is the only looking glass by which we can…scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct.”3 We can only speak of self-possessed intention, Smith suggests, just as anti-intentionalism can only speak of self-negating otherness; in neither case can we speak of shared nature or mutually-derived law or principle.

Cronan’s subscription to Bergson’s axiom “to act freely is to recover possession of oneself” (10) and Matisse’s urge to present his intentions to “the world in exchange” (159) assumes an ethical mandate to possess and assert one’s authorial intention as a chip played in the marketplace of other such intentions. This presumes a world in which isolated beings enter into exchange relations with one another (regardless of whether they do so in a self-empowering way as intentionalist authors or self-disempowering manner as anti-intentionalist readers) rather than rising to the higher, abstract level of being long summoned in the names of God, enlightenment, and art and realized however tragically, inadequately, and transiently, in the contractual documents of democratic, anarchist, socialist, and communist political institutions and the discursive rules and mandates of science, journalism and the larger public sphere of reason. In such an exchange-based model of society, regardless of whether the actor is fluid and anti-intentional or bounded and intentional, all social relations are rendered ad hoc, anti-institutional, and threatened by isolation in such a way that any meaningful human connection is merely an unrepeatable gift that never amounts to a social or political advance. As a result, we are left with no means to experience ourselves in and through the lives of others and thus sacrifice the basic moral precept of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you for the basic market precept of doing unto others as they consent to.4

The problem with the turn to the lived, empirical reality of culture as exchange between author and reader, subject and object, regardless of whether it does so from the side of self-possession or that of self-negation is that its secularizing, individualizing impulse overreaches by hollowing out access to the ideals that Kant, Hegel, Marx and latter-day contract theory generally sought to reimagine in transformative humanist terms. This is what universalist concepts like “sensus communis,” “Geist,” and “species being” meant all along: the nexus of nature and abstract social imagining or the political notion of society as precondition for becoming human that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, their theorists and their heirs, have convinced us does not exist.5 Intention was the ground of the great Enlightenment maxim about having the courage “to make public use of one’s reason at every point,” of course, but it can also never escape its origins as the Ur-form of primitive accumulation, as the private claim “This is my property” rather than the public “This is my idea” or “This is my feeling.”

There is another version of the great modernist subject that might also be worth bearing in mind, one associated less with Matisse and Bergson and more with, say, Pissarro and Marx, one that is no less vexed, no less fraught with an internally conflicted “structural unconscious,” and no less fully bourgeois. The difference heralded by this other modernism comes down to its way with contradiction or duality. The subject conjured by modern intentionalists such as Matisse and Bergson and postmodern anti-intentionalists ranging from Valéry to Barthes to most contemporary theory and art holds firm to an all-or-nothing duality—either the “psychically fraught, inherently conflictual and ambivalent, suggestive at once of possessive mastery and traumatic openness” contradiction is preserved and exercised in the competitive act of exchange or it is leveled by the abstract equivalence of the same market process. The other subject of modernism, by contrast, seeks neither to preserve that contradiction in individual self-possession, nor to obviate it in individual self-negation, but instead to resolve it in the Aufhebung of collective social form.

All three of these subjects are freighted with a shared history of possibility and suffering, of course. This is not quite to say with an old adage that capitalism launches new models of subjectivity “the same way the automobile industry launches a new line of cars,” but it is close.6 Where one bears the encumbrance of liberalism’s primitive accumulation and another carries the cost of neoliberalism’s creative destruction, the third is marked by the debt of what one mainstream anarchist political philosopher has denounced as “seeing like a state.”7 The question for a critical history of art and philosophy, even one that hews to one or the other of the old manifesto forms “For…” or “Against…,” is best not framed narrowly in terms of right or wrong—certainly each of these three subjects gets something right about both freedom and subjugation, autonomy and heteronomy—but instead in terms of what is most needed for the world we find ourselves in today. Neoliberalism, it would seem, has succeeded in convincing us that we are self-negating subjects who are all affect or calculation and no reason, all interest or disinterest and no franchise, all will or dependency and no interrelation. In this context it may be that the “dual fantasy” we need is not that which oscillates endlessly between self-negating neoliberal merger and self-aggrandizing liberal autonomy but instead that which sublates the two sides of the old bourgeois subject—that of the personal I and the interpersonal we, that of individual intention presenting itself to another in an act of exchange, and that of collective intention reaching to recognize that exchange as itself a more fully realized form of subjecthood. The aim of such a process is an old one: the higher form of autonomy long promised but only rarely and fleetingly achieved in the public life once called enlightenment and its fledgling heirs, democracy, anarchism, socialism, and communism.8


1. For the original formulation see C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). For a critical elaboration of Macpherson’s thesis that gets closer to the split, equivocal subject highlighted here, see Étienne Balibar, Identity and Difference: John Locke and the Invention of Consciousness (London: Verso, 2013).
2. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1984), 113.
3. Ibid., 112, emphasis added.
4. For one formulation of this thinking see Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 386: “The golden rule is a good standard which can perhaps even be improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.”
5. This and the prior paragraph are liberally adapted from my review of David Morgan, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012) published in Critical Research on Religion 2:2 (2014): 215-18.
6. “The development of productive forces in industrialized societies (it is true both for capitalism and bureaucratic socialism) involves an increasing liberation of the energy of desire. The capitalist system does not function simply by putting a flux of slaves to work. It depends on modelling individuals according to its preferences and, for this purpose, to propose and impose models of desire: it puts models of childhood, fatherhood, motherhood, and love in circulation. It launches these models the same way the automobile industry launches a new line of cars. The important thing is that these models always remain compatible with the axiomatic of capital: the object of love should always be an exclusive object participating in the system of private ownership. The fundamental equation is: enjoyment = possession. Individuals are modelled to adapt, like a cog, to the capitalist machine. At the heart of their desire and in the exercise of their pleasure, they have to find private ownership….To conjure up the dangers of class struggle, capitalism has tried hard to introduce a bourgeois owner into the heart of each worker. It is the prerequisite of his integration. Traditional models that attached the worker to his job, to his quarter, to his moral values, indeed to his religion (even if it be socialism) have all collapsed.” Félix Guattari, Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977 (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2009), 237.
7. James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).
8. This is just to invoke the common distinction between negative and positive liberty or freedom from constraints, on the one hand, and freedom born of enfranchisement, on the other, and cast it in individual and social terms. One is tied to the tradition of possessive individualism and is inextricable from competitive market relations:
What makes a man human is his freedom from other men. Man’s essence is freedom. Freedom is proprietorship of one’s own person and capacities. (Macpherson, Possessive Individualism, 142.)
The other is tied to the promise of a social contract and political and economic transparency that allows and enables effective rather than illusory participation in the mechanisms of power:
Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves—two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. (Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, Progress Publishers, 1947.)


Michael W. Clune: Intention and Effect

Todd Cronan’s masterful history of affective modernism demonstrates surprising continuities between modernism and postmodernism. He effectively challenges Bois and company’s auto-parodic interpretations of Matisse’s painting as a species of oil-based thug, “blinding,” “punching,” and otherwise molesting the unwary museum goer. Cronan replaces this kind of analysis with a brilliantly original reading of Matisse’s career in terms of an oscillation between absorptive and autonomous form, which he interprets in terms of a rigorous exploration of the nature of expression. In addition to mounting these, to my mind largely persuasive, historical and interpretative arguments, Cronan also advances a theoretical argument regarding the relation of intention, meaning, and experience in art reception. And here my questions arise.

Cronan argues that in appreciating an artwork, the viewer is oriented to the painter’s intention, rather than to his or her own experience. He proceeds by identifying some of the kinds of things we are apt to say about artworks, and showing how we could not say such things if we weren’t—consciously or unconsciously—committed to intentionalism.

For instance, if the audience’s experience is all that matters, then there will be no principled way of selecting experiences everyone will agree are relevant to the work—such as the experience of the color of paint– from experiences that are clearly irrelevant—such as the hunger I happen to feel. In addition, the fact that we believe that artworks can “fail to come off,” requires acknowledging a gap between our experience and the artist’s intention (37).

Cronan’s arguments derive from a more fundamental argument about the difference between our experience of artifacts, like artworks or poems, and our “experience in general” (37). Our experience in general lacks form. Our experience of artifacts is given form by our awareness of the intention of an artist to create form.

But is this belief justified? Is our experience of artworks fundamentally different from other kinds of experience with respect to form? Does our experience of the world lack form?

Consider John Dewey’s distinction, in Art as Experience, between experience, and “an experience.” A quick example will clarify the distinction. Imagine that I’m sitting by my window waiting for a phone call. I twiddle my thumbs, look at the grass, my dog walks up and wags her tail, I itch my nose. Here my experience is indeed a formless jumble. I have access to no principle that would make the itchiness of my nose less central than the color of the grass.

But imagine that I go for a walk in the forest on an overcast day. Suddenly I round a curve, the sky clears, and between two large oaks I see a field, shining in the sun. My breath catches at the beauty of the scene. My nose also itches a little.

My guess is that most of us would agree that the latter experience does indeed have an immanent form, (by which I simply mean a form independent of my imposition of narrative shape in the process of writing). I would also guess that most of us would have no trouble saying that the itchiness of my nose was less central to the experience than the color of the field. In other words, certain of our experiences just seem to us to have a natural beginning, middle, and end, a peak of intensity, a center and periphery, and a set of characteristic emotions. This is the kind of experience that Dewey refers to when he speaks of an experience that seems to precipitate from the formless flow of experience in general.

The possibility, indeed the ubiquity, of experiences of form in the world is also, of course, what Kant defends in the Critique of Judgment. Cronan is quite wrong to suggest that Kant requires reference to the artist’s intention in order to “differentiate between relevant and irrelevant sensations before a work” (4). In fact Kant, who indifferently uses natural and unnatural things as examples of aesthetic objects, claims that we make this distinction on the basis of “disinterest.”

Here’s how it works. Imagine that I am so impressed by the beauty of the view of the field between the oaks, that I tell my friend about it, and take her there. Now, pretend that I’m something of an oak freak. I’ve long loved the tree, with an obsessive and inexplicable love, perhaps darkly sourced in certain amorous events of my youth. In deciding that my friend might enjoy this sight, I bracket my own love of oaks.

This love was certainly activated by the sight of the field; it was part of my experience. But I have no trouble editing it out of my experience as irrelevant when reflecting on the beauty of the scene as it might be available for another. And as Kant writes, this scene can indeed fail to “come off” for my friend. She might well say, “I just don’t think it’s that beautiful.” In that case we would indeed find ourselves disagreeing in our judgment of the experience of a natural scene, just as Cronan thinks we can’t.

And yet if Kant’s work suggests that the experience of form does not distinguish our experience of paintings from our experience of landscapes, this is not because intention is absent in both occasions. In fact, intention grounds the experience of form for Kant, just as it does for Cronan. How can this be?

In perhaps the strangest and most-debated argumentative line of the Critique, Kant claims that we experience a beautiful landscape in terms of “purposiveness without purpose.” In order, Kant suggests, to perceive the form of the landscape, we gaze at it “as if” it were designed to produce a feeling of pleasure in us.

We see a landscape, and we feel it to be beautiful. Look! we cry. Look at the way that fringe of bushes in the distance gives the field a pleasingly oval shape! We know, even if we are creationists, that no artist has specifically designed this scene to create pleasure in we who gaze at it from this specific spot. And yet in order to perceive the relation of parts to whole, in order to grasp the form that stands in causal relation to our feeling of pleasure, we proceed as if we indeed thought there was such an animating intention behind the scene.

If Kant is right, orientation to intention does not distinguish our experience of artifacts from our experience of the world. There are good reasons to believe he is right about this. After all, humans—and many animals—have an instinctive tendency to perceive the world in terms of intention. When on a windy night my dog barks at a branch scraping the window, she does so because she interpreted the branch as disturbed by an intruder. Nothing is more natural than to approach the natural world as an intentionalist.

If Kant is right about the imbrication of intention and form, then this suggests a solution to a problem Cronan struggles with. Cronan declares he can make claims about Matisse’s intention simply by examining the works, without bothering too closely with the artist’s biography. In other words, he asserts he can describe the work in terms of intention while bracketing claims about the nature or origin of that intention. And while sometimes he does in fact refer to Matisse’s own description of his intentions as evidence, he also admits that Matisse produced contradictory descriptions. Cronan’s intentional readings rely primarily on the form of the works.

The capacity to see shape as organized by intention is a capacity that human make use of even in exploring aspects of the world which we believe were not designed. Cronan admits that no method will enable him to say “this painting was designed to produce this effect,” instead of “this painting seems designed to produce this effect.” Cronan’s book lists various reasons for the elusiveness of intention. It’s impossible to know for sure what goes on in anyone’s mind. Sometimes painters don’t understand what they’ve been trying to do until after it’s done. But in fact, the reason why Cronan can produce intentional descriptions of artworks without a robust account of intention has little to do with these factors. To describe form just is to describe intention, and this description operates independantly of reference to any actual intention.

Cronan, and criticism in general, is properly concerned with what seems designed. Lawyers and detectives are properly concerned with what actually has been designed. The methods, values, and assumptions of the former are different than those of the latter. They are different kinds of projects. I think the difference in values probably grounds this difference. In art, we are interested in form, and in the effects that form creates. The fact that the perception of form is predicated on a kind of intentional stance, doesn’t mean that we are really interested in intention. Conversely, the fact that detectives want to establish motive beyond a reasonable doubt may well lead them to scrutinize certain surfaces trying to discern form. But we shouldn’t imagine that they are really interested in form.

Now, there are certain types of reception that do serve to strongly distinguish our experience of artifacts from our experience of the world. As Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp argue in “Against Theory,” I will approach a sentence I believe to be written by a person quite differently from a superficially similar series of letter-like markings left on the sand by the waves. If by “meaning” we mean symbolic meaning, then we will look for it in the former case and not in the latter.

Cronan could have simplified things for himself theoretically had he restricted his interpretation of paintings to semantic or symbolic meaning, though his criticism would have been significantly impoverished. In keeping with our general sense of what art is for, Cronan on several occasions refers to “effects,” by which I take him to mean certain experiences existing in causal relation to certain forms. He distinguishes between intentional effects and unintentional effects. He thinks that certain shapes and colors in a Matisse seem designed to produce a given experience.

Whether or not such a design actually existed in Matisse’s mind is irrelevant to the operation of the assumption of design. Nor, if Cronan convinces me  (as he does) that this combination of shape and color in Matisse seems designed to produce a given effect, will he be engaged in an essentially different project from the one in which I engage when trying to convince my friend of the beauty of the field seen through the oaks.

Yet if orientation to intention often characterizes our aesthetic experience of both natural and artificial objects, both Cronan and critics like Bois identify a mode of aesthetic experience not oriented to intention. For Artaud, Bois or Deleuze, in slightly different though analogous ways, this is the experience of being ejected from what phenomenologists call the ‘world,’ and confronted with raw, unformed sensation. For Cronan, the ghost of a different kind of intentionless experience appears when he discusses the role of absorption in Matisse. His use of this concept draws on Michael Fried’s epochal account, so I will conclude with a question about the relation between two ‘as if’s, Fried’s and Kant’s.

Kant argues that in experiencing the beauty of form we act as if the form were designed to give us the feeling of pleasure, even while we know that such an intention is either absent or inaccessible.

Fried argues that in experiencing absorption, we act as if the painting were not the result of an intention to affect us, even though we know that it was.

I suggest that these as-if’s don’t cancel each other out, but describe a spiral, through which we might descend to deepen our understanding of the paradoxical relation of intention, effect, and form in art.


October Aesthetics: Is there such a thing and what does it look like?

Several of the responses remark on what I call (in passing) in the introduction to Against Affective FormalismOctober aesthetics.” I want to directly address this now and state my problem with it. October aesthetics is a set of variations on an encounter between a putative normative subject (ocular, idealist, male, centered) and its material conditions of production. The mastery of the normative self is predicated on a denial of the facticity of the body. And when the normative self is forced to confront its bodily conditions the result is traumatic. Simply put, the critical aspect of the October project is dedicated to a critique of the subject. On its positive side, the critique is thought to generate a set of alternative qualities, the production of “new,” non-hieratic modes of experience that emerge in and through the traumatic encounter. The normative vision of the self is sustained by a belief in the naturalness and transparency of the signs of everyday communication. A central aspect of the October critique narrates the way in which artists come to recognize and thematize for viewers the arbitrariness of the signs once taken for natural. This is why I describe October as producing a series of enlightenment stories (the traumatic coming to know the arbitrariness of the sign).

In my introduction I show how a basic premise of the October position—the primacy of representation—fails to be taken seriously by the majority of the authors associated with the journal. The normative subject is defined by his failure to properly acknowledge the arbitrary nature of signification. By taking their signs for transparent, the classical subject naturalizes the hierarchical nature of the bourgeois mode of perception. But as I show, and as Harry Cooper observes, if “reality is really just representation” then the question becomes what possible force could the notion of natural or arbitrary signs carry? How can one even provisionally stand outside or next to, or suspend representation in order to point a finger at it? If representation and media shape our lives in some fundamental way then from where and to where does the various showing, staging, thematizing, foregrounding, doubling, representing (of representation) proceed? Most accounts produced by October pivot on the traumatic moment of representing representation to a (duped) subject who imagines their signs to be natural (this trauma can occur to the formerly duped artist as well). My sense is that despite all rejections of the “classical subject of representation,” that subject—the one who stages representation for the beguiled self—is smuggled in all the same (a bad faith commitment to enlightenment). That’s the self-contradictory set of commitments Cooper mentions (and I gather he’s largely ok with this part of my critique).1

But the more central problem with October and the authors related to it is the following: What if the subject and the hierarchy built into the bourgeois mode of perception (if something like that exists; I remain unpersuaded) are really not the problems that define modernity or postmodernity or anything much? What if the critique of the subject and critique of hierarchies are instances of the problem to be solved? How could this be? Because, as I have argued elsewhere, the real problem is the replacement of exploitive categories with questions about hierarchy and recognition, exclusion and domination, categories based on seeing and being seen. The problem, as I see it, is the continual and ongoing transformation of exploitive categories into dominative ones. This is the defining feature of neoliberalism in the humanities, and there is nothing about the October position that suggests that anti-hierarchy is anything but a progressive position (the fact that semiotics and Bataille have been replaced by the precariat and Deleuze changes nothing).2

Cooper thinks I make October seem like a system, which it’s not. And that I’m too selective, to which I say: maybe and, more importantly, it doesn’t matter. I say maybe because I discuss an array of texts by Krauss and Bois (including their accounts of cubism and abstract expressionism). And it doesn’t matter because my point is that there is an identity principle at play across a range of October works.

Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.

I should mention, at least in passing that Bois’s and Krauss’s account of cubism is in no way free of the argument sketched out above. Krauss’s notion of “carnality” at play in Picasso’s work matches up squarely with the bodily “preconditions” of representation I analyze in her discussion of Duchamp. Something very similar goes for Bois. For him Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning signals the “collapse…of the empirical and vertical space of vision, controlled by our own erect position on the ground, into the semiological and possibly horizontal space of reading [TC: those bodily preconditions].” Like Krauss, Bois is tracking the shift from iconic to symbolic signs in Picasso’s cubism, a shift Krauss describes as the inscription of “carnality” into “language.”

The Surefire or The Intent to Not Have One

Part of the point of my introduction is to say that October’s postmodernism distorts the picture of modernism (something similar could be said of their account of contemporary art but I will leave that aside). Here’s where my critics come in: Cooper, exactly like Florman, sees Bois as an intentionalist. This is news to me, and it may be for Bois as well. On some level of course, he is, and on a far more important level, he’s not. The issue for me is that Bois’s account of intent, insofar as he has one, is centrally concerned with what he calls “surefire” effects. Above all, I consider Bois’s account of visual oscillation, which is said to occur when viewing certain works by Matisse (the exact same holds for his account of Newman after 1950, Mondrian’s late work, and a range of other artists). The surefire is designed to displace intentionality on two levels: to displace the artist’s intent onto the lines and colors that produce effects independently of the artist’s desire to do so, and the beholder’s intent insofar as the viewer is a passive receiver of the work (I consider the basic subject-object set-up of Bois’s accounts—alongside a range of authors indebted to him—at the conclusion to chapter 1). When an artist appeals to effects that function independently of their intent, they are seeking ways to avoid communicating to another; they are attempting to avoid the whole communicative situation, which is defined by the possibility of misunderstanding and failure. Surefire effects exempt the artist from the possibility of failure—a dream that runs deep in the human condition, but it is also the one that I think artists like Matisse and philosophers like Bergson refuse. Matisse is an artist who fully accepts the difficulties, which might feel insurmountable, of the communicative situation. As I see it, Matisse’s aim from beginning to end is to express himself to others in a situation that seems defined by the near impossibility of that communication being full, of being fully felt by viewers. Skepticism is the constant threat of Matisse’s expressive project; skepticism is the cure or the lure for the problem of making oneself known to another.

Readers familiar with my work will notice here my debt to Michael Fried on the surefire. This is from a discussion between Fried and Benjamin Buchloh in 1986: “What bothered me about [minimalist work] was not that it was keyed in some sense to the body but that its relation to the body was surefire. Those things were machines for producing surefire effect [TC: My first chapter is called “Painting as Affect Machine”]. And my aesthetic to this day is against an art of surefire effect. When a work seems surefire it is essentially uninteresting.” Fried does not go on explain why he finds it uninteresting—and I’m not invested here in the qualitative claim—but part of my aim in the book is to say exactly why the surefire, the collapse of the work’s meaning into its effect on you, is a widespread mistake in art history.

Another way to get at this problem is to look at the language Cooper provides to describe differences in effect: “I simply do not see how making assertions about how Matisse’s works affect him disqualifies Bois, or anyone who reports his or her sensory experiences in front of artworks, from having at the same time (or before, or after) interpretations of their meaning and/or intention.” Cooper’s wording is complex here. Bois’s affects could be part of the work’s meaning (“at the same time”) or separable from it (“before” or “after”). Everything is at stake in that spatial/temporal distinction. My point is this: A sensory experience is “disqualified” if it’s not made in light of what you think the work means (however provisional that might be). A sensory experience is qualified (but it still might be wrong) if you think it has something to do with what the work means. That’s the difference between an affect that belongs to you (disqualified) and an intended effect—yours, it is happening to you, but an experience the artist could have meant you to have (see here the section on “intended versus actual effects” in chapter 1).

Of course I agree that interpretations “evolve” out of experience, they evolve from a kind of initial scanning or first glance oriented toward feeling ourselves into what we think the artist was trying to say (I specifically bring phenomenology and psychology to bear on what I think he was trying to express; it has nothing to do with discursive or semantic content).3 As for ravishment, all I can say is I hope Cooper will read the chapters on Matisse and tell me if finds them or himself cold. Let your mind and gut decide whether I have the best terms to understand the work. Then again, I’m ravished by things all the time, but I don’t think all my ravishments belong in book about an artist—the book is about Matisse, not me.

I am of course highly flattered by Florman’s admiring comments on the book. But you will see why I can’t quite take those compliments to heart. (This is my problem, not Florman’s.) Like many authors, I don’t think one can extract parts from the whole. That is to say, the interpretive work that is the focus of the book only makes sense if one understands the framework within which Matisse’s art, Bergson’s philosophy, and Valéry’s writings have been understood. For all of them, their work is unrecognizable outside of a context in which affect matters. Part of the point is to show how Matisse and others worked through affect in such a way that the meaning of their works is fully bound up with the refusal of affect. Which is also to say that art historians like Bois provide an account of Matisse’s practice which is important precisely insofar as its clarifies the terms by which the artist came to know exactly what he was not doing. (Do I need to say, to underscore, how much I admire Bois’s work; the attention I lavish on it should be a clear indication of how serious I think it is.)

I’m of course immensely flattered and not at all surprised that Florman finds the genealogical project sound and I’m also not surprised (but less flattered) that she imagines Bois as free of my charges. Like Cooper, Florman thinks Bois is fully invested in the same problems I’m investigating: interpretation and intention. Again, this is hard to swallow. Even the most cursory glance at Bois’s writings indicates the depth of his aversion to intentional analysis. From Kelly’s affirmed “appetite for non-intentional marks,” marks that (so Bois recalls of Kelly) “force the viewer not to enter into the sensibility…into the pictorial intention,” to the standard vision of Duchamp’s rejection of the “virtual space that refers to the creative intention of the artist,” to the “canceled” “identity of the self” that Bois thematizes in numerous essays. When Bois cites Matisse or any artist, the point of those citations is frequently to support his claims about the limits of intentionality in art. Of course there is a way in which that project—the intent to not have one—could itself be an intentionalist project. There is another sense in which it is not at all. Bois shapes the record to fit his postmodern vision of things. That kind of editing is not really at issue for me; rather, it’s that the accounts of “perceptual and psychic effects” he’s interested in, whether he thinks they are intended or not, are claimed to be facts about perceptual response without appeal to intent. Or, if there is an appeal to intent, it is the intent to neutralize intent (through surefire effects, through the grid).

What follows from October’s affirmation of the surefire is the concerted effort to avoid disagreement. How can one evaluate the surefire? If one reports that one’s eyes are violently oscillating in front of Matisse’s “walls of paint,” how could I responsibly reject or accept the claim? I could just say “no,” but that’s not a disagreement. Or I could consult an ophthalmologist and consider the results.4 As I argue, for Bois, what happens to the viewer gets conflated with what the works means, and what the work thus “means”—the results of figure/ground patterns—is immune to failure. Here a set of putative facts about one’s response is granted the status of an interpretation. And what it means cannot be evaluated except insofar as it causes these literal effects.

Florman took up this point about “object intentionality,” and it bears consideration here. Here is Florman (from an email exchange):

It seems to me that Krauss and Bois are more or less ventriloquizing a position roughly analogous to the artist’s (or the work’s). I take that to be the case with Yve-Alain’s discussion of the oscillation between focus and movement in Matisse’s work. And I don’t personally see why I couldn’t argue with his claim. I think we have arguments of that sort all the time—me saying that, no, in fact my eye “naturally” comes to rest on this or that figure rather than being pulled off in multiple other directions. It’s clearly difficult to adjudicate such matters, but I think we do that too (each of us comparing our experience of the work with what someone else has articulated, and deciding whether or not it gibes with our own). Presumably part of what “evidence” we evince in these moments is how the compositional elements are arranged, which moves us back in the direction of what we might call “intent.”

What Florman describes here is basic to any (good) account of what an artwork means. And one could certainly attempt to adjudicate these kinds of experiences in light of how the work is put together. But how does this relate to Bois’s account? Think about the difference between saying the “pendulum at the core of our vision…is caused…to oscillate” and saying my eye comes to rest here and then there. (Recall that Alastair Wright wrote a book about Matisse largely centered on this issue of “retinal trouble.”) What’s the difference? Florman (and I) might try to get someone to see how a work is organized around sets of pictorial oppositions or formal configurations, this recognition just is what an intentional analysis looks like (or could look like); we are implicitly or explicitly saying these are the features the artist wanted us to recognize for their significance. Of course we could be wrong about those features as they may be insignificant or meaningless. Nothing about Florman’s description (or mine) suggests an account of bodily happenings or causal events. Coming to know what a work looks like is an ongoing process, one that could never be satisfied with a description of its actual, as opposed to intended, effects.

A more commonplace misunderstanding occurs when Florman accuses me of false dichotomies. Florman quotes me saying “if the work is seen as requiring the beholder’s response to give it meaning, then none of those responses can have any more purchase than another.” To which she says “This is typical of the slippery-slope argumentation from which the Introduction gains its momentum. The viewer has to be denied any role whatsoever, on the assumption that her ‘response’ is wholly extraneous to the work and therefore an imposition on its ‘inherent’ meaning.” Florman vehemently rejects any account that “insists on the work’s total independence from the viewer’s experience of it.” As do I. Florman is entirely correct to say that understanding a work of art involves a complicated dance of active and passive responsiveness, a dance that ideally takes place over long periods of time. But I also argue that the only responses that could matter are the ones that could have been intended by the artist (otherwise they are logically “mine”). I assent to Greenberg’s notion (following Goethe) that “Feeling is All,” or Michael Fried’s notion in “Art and Objecthood” that “the rightness or relevance of one’s conviction [about a work]…begins and ends in one’s experience of the work itself” (158-59) because they both assume that the experiences they are having are the ones they are supposed to have, not just theirs.

I address Florman’s point about response head on later in the book. Here it is:

The question at stake is not whether the beholder’s experience before the work counts, but rather how it counts. On one account, the beholder’s experience is taken as the source of meaning irrespective of the artist’s intention. On the other account, an experience is relevant only insofar as it is directed at, and by, the effort to understand or to feel what the artist wanted the beholder to feel (even if the artist had no way to articulate or know that intention in advance of creating the work or even after). As I have been arguing, if one chooses the latter option, one can disagree about the meaning of a work; if one chooses the former, difference is logically dissociated from disagreement. Of course most writing in the humanities tends to skirt the distinction.

I confess to being lost when Florman sees me trying to evade works or accounts that “seek to engage his audience through open-ended participation or where the viewer is actually attentive to the work.” It wholly depends on what one means by “open-ended” and “attentive.” I have made this point a few times recently in my discussion of Mallarmé’s vision of suggestion and participation.5

One of the names that frequently come up in discussions of my book is Michael Baxandall and his Patterns of Intention.6 A full address of the differences between Baxandall and myself on intention is impossible here. But consider how Florman laments my putatively artificial dichotomies and then proceeds to offer the following staging of the artistic encounter from response, to work, to artist. According to Florman we discover that “‘authorial intention’ is almost always Nachträglich.” From my perspective, no such parsing of experience occurs except in a lab. Bringing up Baxandall in this light begins to make more sense if we take him at his word that “your feeling about [a work of art] has quite the same status as mine.” He’s required to say that by the terms generated by his skepticism, just as he is required to say at the end of Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy that “The point… here… is not to interpret individual works, but to remind us of the eventual impalpability of the Quattrocento cognitive style….It is proper to end this chapter on a faltering note.” It is the consistency of Baxandall’s skepticism—the ultimate “impalpability” of Quattrocentro art for our eyes (the point about inaccessibility to our sensoria will be made about most of the art he considers)—that makes him something like required reading today but maybe not for the reasons Florman raises. But if Florman’s basic concern is that I’m committed to the idea that “our experience of a work is completely irrelevant to its meaning,” I can allay that fear and insist again that our experience matters if it is meant to matter.

Against Formalism

Florman raises in passing the problem of formalism, what she describes as “attention to the work,” and this account of attention, or surface analysis, that emerges with Oeler’s remarks. Unlike Florman, I can see at once where Brinkema and I diverge, and it’s at the moment Oeler observes the difference between my emphasis on intention and Brinkema’s on form. How could one “read,” much less “closely,” “textual form” without an appeal to intent? Here is where Brinkema and Florman cross paths. What is a text? Where is the form? What is a work? These seem obvious, or self-evident, but they’re not. As Derrida famously put it, there is nothing outside the text, because there’s nothing inside the text. Without a sense as to what might be relevant or irrelevant anything is up for inclusion in textual analysis (the paper’s weight, the font, a library stamp, the hollow of a sculpture, the back of a painting, a faded or damaged painting, the wall next to the work). Unless one has a principle of exclusion—what I would call, a sense of intent (which of course might be misguided or mistaken)—then there’s no principle of inclusion either. So I would not, or not fully, characterize what I am doing as providing “more attention to form and text, less to one’s own feelings.” No form, no work, without intent. Without presumption of intent we would have no working sense of what is in and out of the work, what matters what doesn’t. The object of regard is always the work and its form—the latter defined by the features intended by the artist (whatever they may be).

Oeler cites a fascinating example in her description of Brinkema’s account of the “tear-that-is-not-a-tear” in Psycho. What this moment in the film inaugurates for Brinkema is a “short history of teardrops in Western thought.” We might also see this as a formalist moment. Anything can trigger a regress into the history of anything because there’s no reason not to—unless of course the artist may not have meant it to be relevant (even if unconsciously). Everything in the world has a causal, historical, social history to it, but in a work of art, not all of it counts, that’s what’s at stake in calling something an artwork rather than an object. So I can’t quite see what “close” or “distant” reading might look like, other than self-defined terms of praise and distain. Close to what? The filmic details? Which ones? And why go close or far?

In other words, Brinkema’s formalism provides the conditions for her affect theory (even or especially if she rejects the latter). The only details that could matter—outside of an intentional context—are the ones that are hers. Brinkema would of course refuse this claim, but the challenge is to see how or why she could or would. What’s not part of the form, what’s unavailable for textual analysis? Is the chair one might be sitting in part of the work’s form? Why not? What about the popcorn on the floor of the theater?

Oeler comes to the crucial question when she asks “if intentionality, what the author meant, remains always…irrecoverable” then “how do we distinguish Brinkema’s compelling reading for affective meanings, or abrogations of meaning, realized in and through form, from intentional analysis.” A lot, maybe everything, hinges on the word “compelling” here. What makes it compelling as a reading of the work and not just Brinkema’s affects. This is the kind of question Florman raises about Bois. Florman wants to say “forget what Bois says against intent and focus on the result” (I’m paraphrasing), while Oeler wants to say the same for Brinkema’s results. The problem is that the results in both instances are logically incoherent, which necessarily modifies the nature of the result. They are incoherent because they are random (if you don’t think the tears, vomit, or Hanekean tableaux are intended, then why focus on them rather than anything else). Of course neither Bois nor Brinkema think they are random. Why? Because they are intentionalist, but in bad faith (which is precisely what Oeler suggests, but she not press the matter). The bad faith is the effort to avoid evaluation but still sound serious or disciplined or focused, to insist that we’re not simply reading affective expressions. What else is the appeal to catch-alls like text, object, sound, matter, materiality and form? The latter terms are the canonical ones of the humanities today and they are the ones designed to inoculate their users against criticism, evaluation, judgment, assent or dissent. They are the terms of the neoliberal academy.

Representational Politics

Although politics is not an explicit concern of Against Affective Formalism, I am grateful to Blake Stimson for drawing me out on the implicit politics of my argument, where there is a great deal of common ground between us. Stimson puts the matter clearly when he says that what really matters, even in art history, is an account most suited to understanding “the world we find ourselves in today.” I follow Brecht that serious art (or art history) “sets itself the goal of an exact picture of the world” and that the “purpose [of art or art history] is to create images informative of the world.” My minor dispute with Stimson lies with his description of the world we are in, and since our descriptions of reality modestly differ, so do our politics.

Stimson presents three modes or models of bourgeois artistic practice and finds flaws and possibilities in each. The first half of Stimson’s analysis rests on an analogy between Adam Smith’s vision of the conflicted subject and my account of Matisse and Bergson’s conflicted artistic and philosophical projects. According to Stimson, my history rests on what he construes as the fundamentally individuated—property driven—grounds of contractual exchange. By contrast, we’re told, effective politics requires a sense of something beyond this contract-based model, it requires assent to a “pre-given law” upon or around which exchange can and should occur and which points beyond the exchange economy itself. Despite all my disagreements with anti-intentionalists, Stimson sees my intentionalism and the anti-intentionalism to which I am opposed as beholden to a shared vision of the self, one predicated on self-possession or self-negation and on a denial of a “shared nature or mutually-derived law or principle.” As the last phrases make clear, Stimson is a foundationalist (this, strangely enough, is what he means by being “for the Enlightenment”).

Given that Stimson stakes much of his critique on the oscillation I describe at the core of Matisse’s and Bergson’s projects—which he describes as a vision that “oscillates endlessly between self-negating neoliberal merger and self-aggrandizing liberal autonomy”—it’s important to see how this misconstrues my aims. As I say (page 8 of the introduction), the “challenge of this book…is twofold: first, to show the contradictions and oscillations between two modes of presentation…and second, to show how these representational concerns also constituted a refusal of the terms of literalism and affect.” Stimson repeatedly describes my aim as an account of the oscillation between representation and affect, which misses the point about the internal dynamics of representation (between what I call, following Borch-Jacobsen, specularity and mimesis). It is Bergson’s and Matisse’s commitment to representation and problems internal to it that constitutes a critique of what Stimson describes as neoliberal dreams of merger (I call it a libertarian fantasy). And while I do argue that Bergson and Matisse were attracted by affective modes of thought and practice, it is far more helpful to see their efforts as directed against some of their own (weakest) impulses. This mistake leads Stimson to read one half of the representational dialectic, specularity, as definitive of Bergson’s and Matisse’s vision of “liberal autonomy.” To simplify matters, I would say that Stimson’s reduction of the representational problem to the specular pole—which has more than a little in common with an economics of speculation—renders Stimson’s critical analogy between Bergson and Matisse, on one hand, and Hobbes and Adam Smith, on the other, beside the point. The central term of my account of Matisse (chapter four) rests on the mimetic side of the polarity, it is the missing term for most accounts of modernism, but it is also the crucial one (for reasons I can’t fully elaborate here except to say that mimesis in Lacoue-Labarthe’s sense resists the terms of idealism on one side and literalism on the other).

Stimson asserts that I presume “a world in which isolated beings enter into exchange relations with one another” without recourse to any “higher, abstract level of being” and that it is only in light of this higher level of being that radical politics can emerge. Moreover, my putatively contractual picture of social relations lends itself to the ongoing and disastrous “hollowing out access to the [Enlightenment’s] ideals” that truly drove modern thought. It is certainly true that I do not make any appeal to higher authority than human agents (I explicitly take aim at doctrines of naturalists of every variety, including the current variant called affect theory), but it should also be clear that the agency described is never fully self-possessed. (What would that even look like?) My account of intentionality emerges within a situation where agents must continually make themselves known in a world where all the available modes of expression appear empty, routinized, habituated, merely conventional. I offer Emerson, Thoreau and Nietzsche (following Cavell here) as providing an account of modernism as fully “citational” and argue that citation is the necessary grounds upon which any “original” utterance can emerge. And in this sense I am fully committed the Enlightenment project of self-legislation initiated by Kant and elaborated (and problematized) by Hegel and Nietzsche and, much later, by Clement Greenberg with his account of modernism as self-critical (like Michael Fried I dispense with Greenberg’s medium-based essentialism).

What is being contested between Stimson and me, then are perhaps two competing Enlightenments. We would disagree, for instance, about what the great “universalist concepts like ‘sensus communis,’ ‘Geist,’ and ‘species being’” actually mean for Kant, Hegel and Marx. (They have little to do with the nexus of “nature and abstract social imagining” and a lot to do with active assent to the norms we produce.) Rather than tackling these giant terms I would reflect on what Kant calls the “touchstone of everything,” namely the Enlightenment: “the question whether a people could have imposed…a law on itself.” Kant describes this self-legislative act at length in the third critique, where he defines the quality of aesthetic judgment as an instance of a “subjective universal.” Subjective in the sense that it is grounded in one’s experience—one doesn’t appeal to anyone else’s taste in one’s judgment of the beautiful, there are no rules or laws to follow—and universal in the sense that it’s not an affective relation (“I like this”) but true (If this work of art is beautiful, it is for all of us). This is of course a highly complicated field which I won’t enter into further here except to say that what seems required by the Enlightenment position of giving the law to oneself requires 1) the rejection of “direction from another” rather than from oneself and that 2) this giving of the law to oneself requires constant assent and is open to revision, maybe even continual revision as assent wanes or proves unpersuasive. It is important to see that the “subjective universal” as it appears in the Third Critique is the model upon which shared social practices emerge, those shared practices we call norms. So is this giving the law to oneself, Bergson’s “self-possession,” equivalent to rendering agency and politics “ad hoc, anti-institutional, and threatened by isolation”? I don’t think so. Norms are binding, universal and true, even if their grounds are secured by ongoing subjective assent. A norm is not the same as a convention, or a contract, it is closer to what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “deep convention” (when speaking of the structure of mathematics) and Michael Fried describes as “primordial convention” (when writing of the conventions of beholding pictures). One does not choose to consent to a law that one gave oneself; rather one has to feel bound by it, as though it speaks most fully to who one is. If the law you gave yourself does not speak for you, then normative change might emerge. (These matters—both social and aesthetic—are discussed at length in Robert Pippin’s recent book After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism.) Finally, I would add that the contractual picture Stimson is rightly unsatisfied with is utterly identified for me with the Vorstellung side of the representational dialectic I consider. Why? Because this high-order representational awareness implies that the subject stands apart from the decisions that they make and evaluates them from a distance (this the weakness of externalism built into the contractual paradigm).

Art v. Nature, Interpretation v. Aesthetics, Again

I’m immensely grateful to Clune for his sensitive and thorough reading of my book and for pressing me to clarify some key issues. It should be clear that I don’t see the viewer as someone oriented toward the artist’s intention “rather than” their own experience. It’s difficult to parse the kinds of experience one has in front of a work, but I take experience as primary, but not sufficient onto itself. A simple example, but an utterly common one, is the physical condition of a painting. It may have deteriorated, or altered, be hung poorly, lit poorly, or have a frame that seems unsuited to it. These are primary aspects of one’s experience, several of them are “in” in the work, but with proper knowledge could and should be edited out—or zoned out—of one’s experience to the best of one’s ability (I gather this is all done quite naturally, as is the case with intentional analysis more generally).

Of course Clune’s basic contention lies elsewhere. It is here: What’s the ultimate difference between the experience of an artwork and an “experience” in the world. Doesn’t the world offer itself to intentional analysis in the way a Matisse painting does? He puts it this way: “Does our experience of the world lack form?” My simple answer would be yes. Clune compares two (far from counterfactual) “experiences,” one sitting in a room waiting for a call, one a walk outside where the sun bursts through an overcast sky. For Clune, it seems clear that “certain of our experiences just seem to us to have” “immanent form” (not imposed or projected onto them). In that form there is “no trouble saying” that some aspects of our experience are more central than others. I can’t quite see what’s at stake or could be at stake in saying that certain qualities are more or less central to the experience or how that experience differs from an affect. How could we even begin to discuss whether the landscape experience is imposed by the experiencing subject or immanent in the land and sky? On what grounds? How could that experience fail for anyone beyond oneself? Could I persuasively tell you that your experience was incorrect? If I identify some marks on a canvas as more central than others I’m just saying that the artist meant for these to count in more salient ways than others. That assertion could be wrong. Unless I’m a pantheist—a serious position no doubt, but not quite the one Clune seems to be arguing—I couldn’t persuasively say that you should be noticing your itching nose or not, or noticing anything in particular. Unless the Creator is the agent, I can’t sensibly agree or disagree with your sense of relevant form.

Clune is probably right (to a degree) about Immanuel Kant. Michael Fried and Walter Benn Michaels have cogently considered these problems in their most recent work. See, for instance, the fascinating discussion in Fried’s Another Light where he responds to Michaels’s account of Fried and to what Michaels calls “Neoliberal Aesthetics” (pages 272 to 274 of Another Light: Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand). Fried and Michaels have shown how there are ways in which Kant and John Cage can join hands in their vision of the perceiver’s share in the production of a work of art, but also how this doesn’t quite or fully matter to the larger question of antitheatricality (the latter is Fried’s point). Kant describes what used to be called the “aesthetic attitude” and it could hold for the viewer as well as the (postmodern) artist. I would say Kant goes awry when it comes to the Third Moment of the Analytic of Judgement of the Beautiful where he reflects on the question of purposiveness or Zweckmäßigkeit in aesthetic judgement. According to Kant, judgments about the beautiful involve a paradoxical mode of ascriptive quasi-intentionality toward the object (“as if”), an attitude he describes as a sense of “merely formal purposiveness” or the “form of purposiveness” without a specific end. This kind of claim works well for a landscape and not at all for a work of art. Why? Because works of art don’t just bear the “form” of purpose, they don’t come to us “as if” bearing purposes—they actually have them (even if it is not the one that Kant rightly rejected); that is, they are intended. We speculatively impute intentions to them, but the psychological activity of ascribing that goes on aims at a real historical thing—the author or authors’ intentions. It is not merely a feature of our experience like that ‘as if’ Zweckmäßigkeit of Kant.

Clune is brilliantly sensitive to these issues in Kant and he clearly grasps the difference and the significance of the difference between an affect and an intent (the difference, in Clune’s examples, between the love of an oak and the beauty of the field with the oak—they overlap but are distinguishable). But I can’t see how the friend’s failure to respond to the beauty of a place amounts to a “disagreement” about it. Take Clune’s naturalization of the pantheistic position, “Nothing is more natural than to approach the natural world as an intentionalist.” In a sense this is orthodox Kantianism and I don’t have any trouble with it except insofar as it has anything (important) to say about artworks. I can’t cogently disagree with a dog about their barking at the wind tapping a window. In fact, Clune’s description of it shows that he’s not taking the pantheist position that seriously (it’s the wind—not an intending agent—which the dog appears to not wholly take into account).

Clune observes the difference in attitude between viewers of art and viewers of a crime scene (the detective or the attorney), but seems to separate them too cleanly. As he notes about artworks “form is predicated on a kind of intentional stance [but that] doesn’t mean that we are really interested in intention.” He’s right to say I’m not interested in traditional notions of what one calls an intent (biography, artist statements, letters, documents, etc., that amount to avowals of intention) but I see no way, and even less desire, to distinguish between artistic form and intent in one’s experience. I’m deeply moved by Matisse’s sense of what it is to be a person (Matisse was fixated on the notion of personnalité, it is the core term of his aesthetic). In the briefest summary, Matisse feels and projects what it’s like to be a seeing being (oriented around surfaces presented to the eye) and an embodied being (oriented around senses of touch, weight, velocity, a sense of continuity between oneself and the world). Nothing about the duality—what I might call a phenomenological duality for short—traditionally falls under what Clune rightly worries is reductively “semantic or symbolic meaning.” (I nonetheless agree with Clune that this might feel like the weak spot of the Knapp/Michaels argument, but it’s more of a perceived problem than a real one.)

What is ultimately at stake in an intentional analysis? Does it matter that the meaning I see or feel in the work “actually existed in Matisse’s mind” or not, if my analysis is convincing (as Clune graciously offers) without making that kind of leap (or identification) of work with creating mind. And if the question of “actual existence” is bracketed, then we really are in a Kantian universe where “as if” is what truly matters. But that’s a little like forcing yourself to experience the world like the dog barking at the window. It takes no effort to convince myself that the field seen through oaks was ordered “as if” it were intended (the feeling might also pass quicker than the wind on the window); it takes enormous force of will to tell myself that the Matisse painting hanging in MoMA was anything but intended (the skeptical reserve about other minds seems to fail it on some crucial level).


1. I further consider these issues in my discussion with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in Bomb Magazine (Spring 2015).
2. This description is not meant to reflect on my respondents, it simply lays out the picture as I see it. This is not the place to go into the question of exploitation versus domination as the two counter models of capitalism. On the political stakes of this distinction, see “The Theater of Censored Poverty” and “The Political Ontology of Unemployment: How No One Need Apply,” both in
3. I’m confused how Cooper sees what I’m saying as seeking a “guide to right action,” unless he thinks intentionality is a guide. In a certain sense it is—my toothache is not part of the picture’s meaning—but it’s not as if intent tells us anything about how to get at an intent. Remember that one of my most basic efforts is to dismantle humanistic methods which almost by definition refuse the terms of disagreement. (That’s the point about Bois’s “surefire.”)
4. Consider Pamela Lee’s ur-classic October account of Bridget Riley, one that explicitly follows Bois’s lead: “In what lies Current’s retinal appeal? To what extent do we not so much see it, but feel it, experience the picture less as an abstraction than as a woozy sense of gravity visited on the body? Stand a little longer, look a little harder, and then what happens? In time, the surface begins to flicker, like a stroboscope; or wave, like a lenticular screen. Look longer still, and surprising colors—psychedelic phantoms—emanate from between the lines. Spangles of gold, pink, and green burst and flash, lining the eyelids, rattling the skull. The eye is enervated while the body feels something else: nausea, perhaps, or even a blinding headache.” Pamela M. Lee, “Bridget Riley’s Eye/Body Problem,” October 98 (Autumn 2001): 26.
5. See, for instance, a short piece of mine on participatory art, “Who cares if you look? On internal and external relationships in art.” Here I take up (in passing) a key work in the history of participatory aesthetics: Umberto Eco’s “The Poetics of the Open Work.” Eco looks back, along with Roland Barthes and Duchamp, to the moment of Mallarmé as the “first occasion when a conscious poetics of the open work appears.” The “search for suggestiveness,” Eco writes, “is a deliberate move to ‘open’ the work to the free response of the addressee.” So how free is it? As Eco makes clear, this is “not an amorphous invitation to indiscriminate participation.” Far from it. “The author,” he writes, “does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own.” For Eco, every response “always remains the world intended by the author.” Mallarmé’s “suggestions,” Eco concludes, “are intentional, [they are] provoked…always within the limits fixed by the author.” The “audience’s capacity for response” has been “directed and controlled by the author.”
Carol Armstrong responded to my notion of intentionality in this way. What Armstrong says here is important because it raises some basic and well-hewn objections to intentionality (I strongly argue in the book that these are pseudo-objections). Here is Armstrong (from an email exchange): “We have no access to what went on inside the mind of the maker of a work, even if s/he a left us a letter saying, ‘This is what I intended.’ All we can do is interpret the work and any other documents we have about it, just the way we have to interpret what others say to us. Of course we can be wrong; we can be wrong about lots of things. But whose interpretation is the ‘right’ one can only be judged by which one we find the most compelling on the evidence, visual and otherwise, and that’s always going to be open to disagreement.” All of the above is correct, even if “access” to a mind is never at issue (do we need access to someone’s mind to understand what they are saying? There is a difference between understanding and mind-meld). But Armstrong continues: “I guess the account of intentionalism that I’ve seen that I like the best is Michael Baxandall’s in Patterns of Intention. And so I think intentions unfold in process, in relation to other people, and in relation to a variety of contingencies. For me, works that have been all thought out in advance of being made seem the least likely to be interesting in their intentionalism.” This is fine too, except 1) an intent thought out in advance, like access to a mind, have nothing to do with intent as I see it (these are the “classical” objections); and 2) it’s not what Baxandall argues. The “process” Baxandall is talking about emerges in the object. Intention, Baxandall writes, is a “relation between the object and its circumstances” (42) and it constitutively escapes the artist’s intention and becomes a part of the visual culture. The result of Baxandall’s process-based account of intent is to free the work from the artist and, above all, the critic’s desire to enter fully into the artist’s world.
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