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Doing Art and Doing Other Things: On Michaels on Photography

Walter Benn Michaels’s recent work on photography and intention ranges widely, so for the sake of economy, I’ll focus on the pair of essays that have previously appeared in nonsite: “‘I Do What Happens’: Anscombe and Winogrand” and “Anscombe and Winogrand, Danto and Mapplethorpe: A Reply to Dominic McIver Lopes.” As the titles imply, both essays feature extended discussions of the work of the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and the photographer Garry Winogrand, who according to Michaels help us think fruitfully about the relationship between, on the one hand, the embodied things of the world and, on other, the intentions and other states that get ascribed to certain classes of these embodied things, in particular human beings and artworks.

Michaels is drawn to Anscombe because her 1958 book Intention talks about intention and embodiment in ways that don’t cordon off something called the “mind” from the rest of the perceptible human body. In saying that someone is raising her arm because she “wishes” or “wants” to get the attention of a waiter, we shouldn’t picture these wishes and wants as residing in some inner space, generating—but ultimately divorced from—her bodily movements. The raising of her arm isn’t triggered by her intention; it embodies her intention. It is not the visible effect of an essentially private episode, nor the combination of two separable components (body + mind, movement + intention). It is a single purposive act—something she does rather than something she observes a body (hers) doing. On Michaels’s reading, Winogrand’s artistic practices make strikingly visible the merging of purposiveness and materiality that Anscombe attributes to human actions generally. Winogrand’s photos have been criticized by some artists and commentators—Robert Mapplethorpe and Arthur Danto, for instance—for being mere “documents,” bare inartistic records: they offer information about (e.g.) fashion in a particular decade or Winogrand’s own sexual hungers, but nothing aesthetically compelling. But to believe that, claims Michaels, is to underappreciate the specific ways that Winogrand’s photographs “transcend” the subject matter he shoots. A woman standing in her yard, for instance, is photographed through the window of a car door, which presents her in a voyeuristic light (i.e., we are in the position of passenger or driver looking for a cheap thrill); but the photo is tilted in a way that foregrounds the contrast between this car window and the four edges of the photograph itself. The photograph, in other words, composes its internal relations in particular ways, enabling it to include “the view” of the woman without being reducible to that view. The meaningfulness of the photograph is thus not consigned to Winogrand’s head (as, in different ways, it seems to be in Warhol or Mapplethorpe), but is all right there in the picture itself—much as, for Anscombe, the meaningfulness of an action is perceptible right there in the body, not anterior to or separate from it.

These nonsite essays echo some of Michaels’s earlier writing, particularly the second chapter of The Shape of the Signifier (2004), where James Welling plays something like the role that Winogrand plays in these more recent pieces and Cindy Sherman plays something like the role of Mapplethorpe.1 Throughout these works, Michaels offers what might be called, broadly speaking, a non-Cartesian dualism about intention:  human bodies are essential to our understanding of mindedness, but mindedness is not identical to bodily behavior. And broadly speaking, he is a cognitivist about art: the making and perception of artworks involve affective responses, but are also always subject to rational evaluation—i.e., criticism, be it the casual conversation of moviegoers, the shop-talk of practicing artists, or the formalized exchanges of scholars. As a dilettante about contemporary photography, I was grateful to have learned a bit about recent artists and critical debates. And I’m persuaded by the idea that “photographic agency” isn’t fundamentally different from the sort of agency exhibited in the other arts, even if that agency is achieved differently than elsewhere: in, for instance, the way Winogrand seeks to “disarticulate” the ostensible subject of the picture from the work of making the photograph itself, a process sometimes completed years after the camera itself clicked and recorded what’s in front of it, when the photographer distinguishes boring from “interesting” photos. I’m also convinced that the specific questions about agency and intention raised by photography are in part why photography has come to seem so important in accounts of the history of late-twentieth century art, when ideas of artistic intention begin to get renewed scrutiny among both theorists and practicing artists.

I am less sure, however, that I fully grasp the philosophical framework of Michaels’s essays, and in what follows, I’ll try to say why.

The first thing to say is that both of the ideas that I just attributed to Michaels—the non-Cartesian dualism, the cognitivism about art—emerge out of much longer conversations and traditions. The claims about mindedness, for instance, were relatively widespread in the mid-century Anglophone philosophical world. Gilbert Ryle famously criticized the image of the “ghost in the machine” with remarks that wouldn’t look out of place in Anscombe’s Intention: “Overt intelligent performances are not clues to the workings of minds; they are those workings.” Wilfrid Sellars questioned the image of a person as a two-part entity, “a mind that thinks and a body that runs,” and J. L. Austin warned us against regarding our speech acts “as (merely) the outward visible sign, for convenience or other record or for information, of an inward and spiritual act,” as if some “backstage artiste” were categorically distinct from the “tongue” that swears an oath.2 Behind all these figures, of course, stands Anscombe’s teacher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose later work is full of aphorisms and arguments designed to deflate our tendency to reify what’s “inside” us. “An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria”; or, even more famously and obliquely, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”3 As for the cognitivist claims about art, variations on this idea, too, have a long history. It was Aristotle, recall, who stressed the difference between a corpse and a picture of a corpse (the former triggers horror, the latter prompts our understanding), and Hegel talked of works of art as the transformation of mere matter: art emerges when “external existence” receives “the baptism of the spiritual,” when it is drawn through “spiritual productive activity.”4 Phenomenologists and pragmatists have likewise been keen to describe the entanglement of thought and sensation that gets embodied in painting, music, or literature, and a similar thought could be attributed to psychoanalysis, at least in some of its strands: unconscious intentions might be by definition unknown by the author, but they are intentions all the same, and thus interpretable by the therapist/reader.

I cite these predecessors not because every philosophical discussion needs to address, as Robert Pippin recently characterized some of his own work, the “great agenda-setting figures from the past who have interests similar to one’s own.”5 I mention them instead to ask why precisely Anscombe’s text is chosen to play the central role that it does in Michael’s accounts of photography. Intention is indeed a remarkable book and deserves the luminous praise it gets (my 2000 edition includes blurbs from Robert Brandom, Cora Diamond, David Velleman, Crispin Wright, and others).6 And again, I entirely share Michaels’s basic attraction to it. But I’m unsure how resonantly her book chimes with what he wants to say and, conversely, how far his essays line up with Anscombe’s own interests.

At the most basic level, concentrating on Anscombe’s book risks flattening the field of discussion quite considerably. The title of Michaels’s second paper—“Anscombe and Winogrand, Danto and Mapplethorpe”—presents a neat stand-off, as if one philosophico-artistic duo had united to do battle with another. But there are many ways to be an intentionalist. Time is always limited, of course, but each of the various historical predecessors I sketched a moment ago offers distinct nuances, and mentioning them reminds us of the sheer variety of positions—about what’s possible, about where the challenges lie, about where the accent should go—that have been available to thinkers trying to understand intentions in a material world. (The same is obviously true about the variety of ways to be skeptical about intention. Michaels tends to focus on the anti-intentionalism of contemporary art and theory, but other developments and strands of thought—data sciences, digital technology, neo-Darwinism—have probably done the most to erode the concept of intention over the last half-century, at least outside our increasingly marginal humanities departments.)

More importantly, however, I wonder whether Intention, for all its penetrating analyses, provides exactly the sort of resource that Michaels wants for discussing the philosophy and criticism of art. I mean this in a few senses. First, Intention is a stunningly difficult book, and part of what makes it stunningly difficult is that its author seems to be thinking through a set of issues rather than recording arguments about them. Michaels’s essays refer at various points to texts and artworks that offer what he calls a “theory of action.” But virtually every categorical assertion in Intention is followed by an obscuring qualification or nuance, and most of the text seems to consist, as Wittgenstein said of his own book, of “sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of … long and meandering journeys,” its reflections traveling “criss-cross in every direction over a wide field of thought.” (3). Anscombe may lack the power of aphorism and figuration that Philosophical Investigations puts everywhere on display, but she is every bit as committed to the power of example, and she circles repeatedly around an imaginative array of specific scenes, characters, and miniature narratives: Smith lying on his bed, the man jumping at a loud noise, the photographer setting up a camera, the man seeking revenge for his father’s death, the soldier with the false teeth, the farmer in need of a Jersey cow, and of course the man pumping the well—among many others. On the opening page, Anscombe suggests that there is “nothing wrong with taking a topic piecemeal,” and near the end, looking back on what she has written, she refers to having presented “an enquiry into intentional action and intention with which an action is done” (90). It’s hard to get a “theory” from piecemeal inquiries, and the specificity of the scenes that Anscombe dizzyingly conjures make it difficult to draw out just what kind of general claims she is presenting.

Second, it’s not always clear that the examples that do appear in Anscombe’s inquiry are the sort that will best inform the criticism of art. Most of Michaels’s references to Intention come from a couple sections in the middle of the book, when Anscombe is questioning the role of the “interior” in our understanding of someone’s intention. That focus is appropriate, given his own criticism of the caricatural terms theorists have sometimes used to discuss intention. But these passages appear within a much wider setting, and I wonder what happens when we are less selective with her book.

Take a moment near the beginning of Intention, for instance, when Anscombe asks how we recognize someone’s intentions—that is, as she says, whether there are statements of the form “A intends X” that “have a great deal of certainty” (7-8). Her answer is confoundingly simple: “Well, if you want to say at least some true things about a man’s intentions, you will have a strong chance of success if you mention what he actually did or is doing.” Why? Because “whatever else he may intend, or whatever may be his intentions in doing what he does, the greater number of things which you would say straight off a man did or was doing, will be things he intends.” As she says in the next paragraph, in both a law court or everyday life, it is usually unproblematic to say what a person is doing; and that person could likewise say what he or she was doing “perhaps without reflection, certainly without adverting to observation” (8). In its emphasis on the immediacy of understanding mental states, the passage recalls Wittgenstein’s repeated complaint that philosophy intellectualizes our responses to the world and to one another: “Just try—in a real case—to doubt someone else’s fear or pain!” (108). Anscombe’s point is that when we watch, say, a carpenter build a table or a basketball player shoot a jump shot, we aren’t extrapolating his or her intention. We perceive his or her intentions non-inferentially, grasping bodily motions as expressions of one intention rather than another—none of which requires, as she says, asking what is “purely in the sphere of the mind” (9). Obviously a person can lie about wanting to do something, or could pretend. But pretense and falsehood are intelligible only to speakers who already know how to read “straight off” or speak “without reflection,” and such scenarios certainly can’t be how the language of these states gets set up and instituted in the first place. (Hence the persistent emphasis in Wittgenstein on learning, training, and education.)

As Michaels knows, such remarks are bound to be simply ignored by a great swath of literary theorists, who would see them as naïve or outright unintelligible. And yet, if those same literary theorists wondered just how germane these examples and remarks are to artworks—not just photographs, but also to poems, paintings, music, literary works—they might have a point. Not because photographs and other works aren’t made with intentions, but because these intentions can seldom be “read off” the works in the way we understand “with a great deal of certainty” the intentions of a carpenter or basketball player. That’s why photographs, poems, paintings, etc. can puzzle as much as attract us. Indeed, when the intentions of a work are straightforwardly certain, it’s often a symptom of its being second-rate: fantasy, propaganda, advertising. With genuine artworks, our initial responses are often quite circumspect and tentative. We feel a mood, hear a tone, notice a line, perceive an echo or a connection between two images; we might look at a photograph and notice what Michaels nicely calls, in a discussion of Cartier-Bresson, the “rhyme” of a visual pattern. We often proceed quite slowly, returning to a work over and over, appraising and reappraising what we perceive. And we might find that, to make sense of these works, we need to start making inferences—situating a work in the context of the artist’s other works, comparing it to other works, placing it next to other exemplars of the genre. The point isn’t that we never come to grasp a work at all; we do, or at least sometimes it feels like we do. The point is simply that this gradual, drawn-out process of interpretation is a good deal more complicated than the immediate intelligibility that interests Anscombe, the kind we experience when we watch the hammer hit the nail or the basketball leave the shooter’s hand.7

Or take a later moment in Intention. “Can it be,” Anscombe asks around two-thirds of the way through the book, “that there is something that modern philosophy has blankly misunderstood: namely what ancient and medieval philosophers meant by practical knowledge?” (57). The final parts of Intention are devoted to attacking modern philosophy’s “incorrigibly contemplative conception knowledge” and contrasting it with an account of what it means not only to know the truth but also know what to do. In a careful analysis of “wanting,” “should,” “pleasure,” and related terms, Anscombe pieces together an Aristotelian description of rational agency, reconstructing the order of reasons that would justify an agent’s doing one thing rather than another or moving out of sheer whim. As illustration, she imagines a group of Nazis who, facing certain death, try to assess what to do with the compound of Jewish children near them. One of the Nazis sets up a mortar near the compound. Why? Because the mortar will be better placed to hit it. Why hit it? Because it will kill the children. Why kill the children? Because they are Jewish. Why kill Jews? Because it befits a Nazi to kill Jews, even in his final hours. With this final answer—roughly what Anscombe translates from De Anima as “Such a one should do such a thing” (64)—we arrive at the “desirability characterization” that obviates any further “What for?” questions. The “chain of ‘Why’s’” comes “to an end” (78).8 None of this means—as Anscombe immediately notes—that such reasoning necessarily goes through the head of an agent every time, step by step. No Nazi calculates so laboriously. The goal of spelling out the chain is that, as Anscombe says, “it describes an order which is there whenever actions are done with intentions.” The steps are a device that “reveals the order that is there in this chaos” of actions and events (80). Practical reasoning helps us make explicit the ways that a person’s actions are intelligible, laying out the means he or she has taken to achieve a given end, or—equally important—identifying just how these ends might not have been met. It makes sense to question a player’s decision to take a jump shot even if we know that, in the moment, the player wasn’t “deciding” anything, but just taking the shot.

Several passages in this stretch of Intention strike me as pertinent to an account of art, including Michaels’s account of contemporary photography. Not even the most strident intentionalist seriously believes, for instance, that artists sit down and plan out each word, brushstroke, note, etc. before they undertake the act of making something. Certainly Garry Winogrand seems not to have done so. Yet as Anscombe’s Aristotelian reconstruction of practical reasoning suggests, we shouldn’t take this fact to mean that the words, brushstrokes, notes, etc. are therefore arbitrarily tossed out, or the product of blind natural forces. In general, says Anscombe a little earlier, again invoking Aristotle, “one does not deliberate about an acquired skill; the description of what one does, which one completely understands, is at a distance from the details of one’s movement, which one does not consider at all” (54). The making of art is in many regards a paradigm of such skillful know-how. Whatever improvisations go into the making of them, artworks are in a certain sense rational, which is just to say that, in perceiving them, we as audiences and critics can begin to “reveal the order” that they display, an order “that is there whenever actions are done with intentions.”

At the same time, however, Anscombe’s example again raises the question of how far her account actually matters for the sorts of artists and artworks that interest Michaels. No doubt poets, painters, musicians, filmmakers, photographers have certain skills and trained capacities, about which they don’t give much step-by-step thought. That is in part why MFA programs could have come into existence. One goal of such institutions is to get its students to internalize a set of judgments, to make explicit procedures into implicit intuitions. But there’s also a reason why MFA programs have from the start been controversial. Both the Nazi and the non-Nazi know pretty well which range of behaviors are suitable to being a Nazi, and that killing Jewish children falls well within that range. The Nazi teacher knows to inculcate that lesson. Ditto with teaching carpentry and teaching basketball, however varied the means to those ends may be. If, however, there ever were such comparably clear criteria for “art” and “artist,” that day has long passed. In the domain of art, the Aristotelian premise that plays such a role in Anscombe’s account of practical reasoning— “Such a one should do such a thing”—no longer has the purchase it might once have had, and accordingly, the question “What for?” nowadays is brought much less easily to a clear end. We no longer, that is, have much shared agreement about what counts as “successful” or “good” art, or even “art” at all, and we no longer agree how best to become the kind of person who creates it. Hence Winogrand can look like a clumsy non-artist in the eyes of Mapplethorpe and Danto but an inventive, insightful, even paradigmatic photographer to Michaels. That such immensely thoughtful people, such educated critics and such skillful practitioners, could disagree about something as basic as the ends of photography and its exemplary cases—such a situation is a testament to the anomalous nature of art today relative to most other domains, including the domains that most interest Anscombe. Such a situation is conceivable only when, as Stanley Cavell puts it in an early essay on modernism, the question of “fraudulence” has become inescapable in discussions of art, and when our ability to distinguish the genuine from the imitation is too unstable, too fraught, to be “insured” by our knowing the right language or having healthy sensory reception. It is a situation in which, as he says, “crimes and deeds of glory look alike,” and “you often do not know which is on trial, the object or the viewer.”9 (190-91). It’s far less clear how to identify the artistic failure than it is to identify the bad Nazi, the table that wobbles, or the jump shot that bounces off the rim.

Mentioning this early paper by Cavell allows me to raise one final question that may sum up my others. As Michaels notes, Cavell learned a lot from Anscombe, and occasionally cites her in footnotes. But she never, tellingly, became central to his work. One reason, I suspect, was simply that the arts—Cavell’s own earliest passion, and what motivated so much of his own philosophical reflection—are not very seamlessly assimilated to a “theory of action.” They exemplify but also complicate standing ideas about how things get done, how they mean, and how we understand these doings and meanings. “The interpretation of the meaning of every work of art,” declares Michaels near the end of “Anscombe and Winogrand, Danto and Mapplethorpe,” “is an account of what the artist intended.” And then, after a brief and illuminating reading of Winogrand photograph Los Angeles: “But should we look at it this way? This is a question about how Winogrand meant it to be seen, which is to say, a question about what the photograph is about.” A sentence later, he says that his question is one about what “Winogrand was trying to do,” how his photograph “asks to be understood,” “what it means for it to be intended.” I confess to having difficulty following Michaels here, and I can’t tell whether all these terms—“intention,” “meaning,” “is about,” “asks to be understood,” “to be intended”—are meant (or intended?) to be synonymous. I have trouble understanding such statements not because I think artworks don’t have meanings, or because those meanings are not intended. I have trouble instead because I don’t grasp the singular noun “meaning” in that phrase “the interpretation of the meaning of every work of art,” or how precise of a “meaning” any particular work is supposed to have. Cavell’s early essay on modernism helps me articulate some of my misgivings, in particular the following single sentence, which appears a few pages after his remarks on fraudulence: “A work of art does not express some particular intention (as statements do), nor achieve particular goals (the way technological skill and moral action do), but, one may say, celebrates the fact that men can intend their lives at all (if you like, that they are free to choose), and that their actions are coherent and effective at all in the face of indifferent nature and determined society.”10 The Kantian ring of that remark is hard to miss: aesthetic pleasure arises when we grasp not a particular intention but intention as such, not the meaning but meaningfulness. Anscombe was a philosopher with a keen interest both in statements and in moral action, i.e., purposive behaviors performed either with particular intentions or with particular goals. Winogrand’s main intention in his photographs seems, by contrast, to have been more diffuse, less easily definable—the celebration of invention, display, and a certain conception of freedom. That distinction may get lost if we insist too much on having a unified theory of action, and Anscombe’s relative indifference to it may render her more marginal to discussions of the arts than we her admirers want to believe.


1. I don’t mean that Welling and Winogrand are similar photographers, or that Sherman and Mapplethorpe are either. I mean that, as Michaels suggests, both Sherman and Mapplethorpe present provocative and artfully staged subjects, but don’t do very much interesting with the camera itself. Whereas Welling and Winogrand, as different as they are, are for Michaels more intent on exploring the medium of photography. They photograph ordinary things, but are making artifacts that deliberately estrange ordinary perception. See Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). 95-105.
2. Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1949), 58; Sellars, “Metaphysics and the Concept of a Person,” in The Logical Way of Doing Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), 220; Austin, How to Do Things With Words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 9-10.
3. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, revised 4th ed., trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 161, 187.
4. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 33, 39.
5. Pippin, Interanimations: Receiving Modern German Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 7.
6. G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention (1958; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); hereafter cited in the text.
7. It goes without saying that the carpenter’s actions would also be unintelligible if we came from a culture without hammers and nails, and the basketball player would be unintelligible in a culture without baskets, courts, lay-ups, etc.
8. Anscombe’s claim isn’t that this is the only path for the Nazi to have taken, the only conclusion to reach. Her point is simply that coming to those other conclusions would require introducing other premises in his or her reasoning; see Intention, 74.
9. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 190-91.
10. Ibid., 198.
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