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Recognizing Human Action

Monroe Beardsley once remarked in passing—as though the point he had made were obvious and not in need of much defense or elaboration—that discovering an abstract painting you had been admiring was actually created by a chimpanzee would not “invalidate your response”1 to it. Beardsley made the remark in comments on Stanley Cavell’s “Music Discomposed,” an essay about issues of fraudulence and sincerity in art and their particular importance for modernism. Beardsley’s point was that it shouldn’t matter how the piece you were admiring was made because you were appreciating the aesthetic qualities of the product itself rather than any feature of the mind, feeling, or character of its producer. It was part of his broader attack—made most famously with William Wimsatt in “The Intentional Fallacy”—on the idea that understanding a work of art means understanding the intentions of its author. For Beardsley, taking into account the artist’s meaning and what she “tried to do” will inevitably lead the critic “outside”2 the work, in search of something external to it, hence for something irrelevant to it. In his rejoinder to Beardsley, Cavell argues we should be starting from what he claims is the “first fact” about works of art: that “they are meant, meant to be understood.”3 Fundamental philosophical (and political) issues are at stake in this difference between Cavell and Beardsley, as Walter Benn Michaels’s critiques of anti-intentionalism show.

Imagine a chimpanzee applying paint to a primed black canvas laid upon the floor. Looking a bit agitated, the animal stalks around the room, pouring paint down onto the canvas from tins. Occasionally he pauses to grab a stick, appearing to concentrate as he flings it to add ropes of color. If we were witnessing this scene, I don’t see why we should we deny that the chimpanzee was acting deliberately, that he intended to paint the canvas, or even that he knew what he was doing (he is not flinging paint just anywhere, after all). We might struggle to say exactly what he was doing, however. There is an unproblebmatic sense in which he was painting, of course, but was he doing what human painters do when they paint? Perhaps we will surmise he was trained to do this. Would we then want to deny that he may have meant something by the work he created? Or that the product was a ‘work’ in the first place, and he its author? (Human painters need training too, but of a different sort. We wouldn’t explain a human painter’s having painted with the fact that she was trained to.) And what if we found ourselves in the possible world in which the product came out looking just like Blue Poles? (The zoologist and surrealist Desmond Morris once worked with a painting chimpanzee. The results at least resembled abstract paintings. The story goes that Picasso hung one in his studio.) I’m not sure if Michaels is right to be so certain about his answers to questions like these, but I am certain he’s right when he says “it’s easy enough to see the implausibility”4 of Beardsley’s claim about admiring (what you thought was) an abstract painting then discovering who produced it.

In the vocabulary of Elizabeth Anscombe, a human act like painting calls out for a particular kind of description, where “a certain sense of the question ‘Why?’ is given application.”5 Admiring a sunset, we might ask why it came about, but that is a question of photonics and atmospheric optics rather than intention in action; nothing is meant in the sunset, which can be explained but not interpreted (that doesn’t necessarily mean we admire it as nothing more than a “bunch of colors.”6 Don’t we admire it as unintended? Can’t we be moved by the gratuity of the beauty of a sunset, which asks nothing of us?) Admiring a Pollock, asking “Why?” is to ask about the intention in the work, interpreting the significance of the painting’s features and their roles in constituting the whole, getting a sense of Pollock’s purposes in painting how he did. That does not mean mapping his psychology or uncovering his mental states; it means understanding the act that the work is.

Beardsley is caught in what Michaels follows Cavell in calling a “bad picture” of intention, which sets it up as “some internal, prior mental event causally connected with outward effects.”7 “There is a gross body of life, of sensory and mental experience,” Beardsley and Wimsatt write, “which lies behind and in some sense causes every poem, but can never be and need not be known in the verbal and hence intellectual composition which is the poem.”8 If we accept that picture, asking “Why?” means treating artworks like sunsets, inquiring after whatever caused them. That means separating the work from the intention, searching the former for evidence of the internal events that constituted the latter. And that means setting up human minds as private rather than seeing them there in our acts. Given that picture, one can see why Beardsley claims the intention of the artist must drop out as unknowable and irrelevant anyway, but we should attack the picture itself rather than its consequences. Recognizing Blue Poles as a human act is a condition of its intelligibility as a work. That gives “the correct sense” of the question “Why?” Taken rightly, the question will lead you not in search of causes beyond the work but “further into the work.”9 Understanding a painting means understanding what the painter did. So learning what we had been admiring was actually the product of a chimpanzee would show we hadn’t really understood it.

Though the admiration may be tinged by curiosity, irony, or enjoyment of the challenge it seems to pose to the values and conventions of the artworld, nothing need stop us from admiring the aesthetic qualities of paintings we know were produced by non-human animals. I can also appreciate the aesthetic qualities of the sound the rain makes against the roof. If I started interpreting the sound, however, it may be less an aesthetic than a religious (or psychotic or psychedelic) experience. Note that Beardsley defines music without any reference to the minds or meanings of composers (or musicians), as “sequences of sounds… characterized… by a special sort of coherence or continuity… those sequences that have rhythm and/or melody.”10 As Michaels argues, this is part of what happens when we treat artworks as objects rather than acts: suddenly you can find music anywhere (which is to say the category disintegrates). If we ask “Why?” before a chimpanzee painting, the question will probably be quite general and rhetorical, meant to point to our lack of interpretive criteria and the difficulty of understanding the object in question (perhaps like the philistine asking the same sort of question before genuine abstract works). Yet we shouldn’t describe it just as paint “randomly applied to a canvas,”11 for we may have grounds to wonder if the chimpanzee meant something, may even have sought to express something. In that respect his creation is unlike the rain on the roof. But whatever he was doing—whatever he may have meant by what he was doing—the chimpanzee was not engaged in what we call painting (and this despite the fact that he was painting in an unproblematic sense of that word).

Michaels puts that point by saying that your enjoyment of a painting’s treatment of opticality and sculptural illusion must be invalidated by discovering it was produced by someone who “doesn’t have the concept of either the optical or the sculptural.”12 That sounds a bit psychological, like a claim about the cognitive capacities of chimpanzees. (Michaels also invokes refusing and insisting, but those strike me as concepts of which a chimpanzee might have some grasp. I think my dog may have primitive versions of those concepts.13 ) Instead we should take it as a point about practice: whatever he was doing, the chimpanzee was not intervening in the art historical context in which these issues were salient. So it would be better to say that the work itself lacks those concepts, that it only seemed to treat them and that you had wrongly convinced yourself it was doing so. Of course, if the product came out looking just like Blue Poles that would either be a cosmic coincidence or—if the chimpanzee really had created an abstract painting—grounds for transforming our understanding of the powers of chimpanzees and their engagements with art history (and much else besides).

This is why Hegel opened his lectures on aesthetics by excluding the beauty of nature. As Robert Pippin argues, it is not that Hegel had some “Gnostic antipathy to nature itself as fallen or evil”; rather, the beauty of nature “was of no significance whatsoever14 to him because, precisely unlike the beautiful artwork, there is nothing historical in it, no self-understanding expressed in it, nothing to interpret in it. That feature of Hegel’s aesthetics is often mustered to bring out its difference from Kant’s, but despite the latter’s alleged ‘formalism’ he also emphasized the distinctiveness of the beauty of art, as when he argued that nature is beautiful “if at the same time it looked like art” while art “can only be called beautiful if we aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature.”15 Michaels is confusing the issue when he says that a human artwork that looks like nature in Kant’s sense is participating in “the refusal of intentionality;”16 rather, it is the outcome of an overcoming of artifice, where the work achieves a naturalness that we could never find in the rest of nature, and so does not let us forget we are beholding something intended. Perhaps chimpanzee paintings fall into an obscure grey area between Kant’s two poles, not achieving the status of painting while—because we cannot but see some intimation of meaning in them—making it impossible for us to appreciate them in the way we do sunsets. In that sense they are rather like bad art. The difference, of course, is that in bad art the intention is typically all too easy to grasp. Indeed with bad art the causal and psychological account of artistic intention assumed and then attacked by Beardsley starts to get a certain purchase, for in that context it is often as though we can see the artist himself trying, as his desire to achieve something is clarified by his failure to achieve it. As Eli Friedlander puts it in his book on Kant’s third critique: “Bad works fall short in known ways. There is nothing surprising in the way in which a work is bad, whereas there is always an element of wonder in the opening to beauty.”17

That gives us a way into a distinction important to Pollock’s work as well as that of Morris Louis, which Michaels brings out in his essay on Michael Fried, Anscombe, and action theory. Despite Michaels’s attacks on Kant, the central argument of the piece sounds strikingly Kantian. According to Michaels, both Pollock and Louis confronted the problem of how to create works that would present as genuinely meant rather than merely caused. Unlike Beardsley and Wimsatt, they were not out to “make clear the irrelevance of the effort to understand what the painter did.”18 They aimed to create works that would do what Kant thought art should, appearing like nature while foregrounding their status as human acts. When Pollock or Louis struggled, Michaels argues, it was with the psychological (Pollock) or physical (Louis) causes that sometimes found their ways into their works, threatening to turn them into bad art by giving evidence of the artists’ roles in them. When they succeeded, it was because they found the “right way” into their paintings: “demonstrating the independence of the work from the personality of its maker by demonstrating the identity of the meaning of the work (of meaning itself) with the actions of its maker.”19 Like that of Cavell and Fried, Michaels’s modernism consists in this commitment to the possibility that artists can get it right, and that we might too as beholders.

While Michaels’s writing about art expresses dismay at the decline of the idea that artists and beholders can get it right, his writing about politics expresses dismay at the rise of a form of liberalism that he claims is connected to this decline. That liberalism emphasizes identity and experience at the expense of class and inequality and privileges the recognition of difference over the redistribution of wealth. The connection is that anti-intentionalism in art takes the perspectives of audiences to override the meanings of artists, while the liberalism Michaels deplores treats politics as a struggle over symbols and ways of seeing rather than “objective social conditions”20 (that is why he claims in his most recent essay on Anscombe that the refusal of aesthetic form in the work of Robert Morris was “interestingly ambitious” but “politically catastrophic.”21 ) A common (and often question-begging) critique of Michaels on politics is that he underplays the importance of identity-based oppression, reducing issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia to the issue of class. A better critique of Michaels on politics is that he gets stuck in (what was once called) economism because he writes off every politics of recognition as liberalism. But aren’t there resources in intentionalism for a socialist politics of recognition, which would turn not on identity but action?

For capitalism is vicious not just because it creates wealth inequality but because it exploits and denies what Marx calls our “free activity,”22 subordinating our capacity for intentional action to the capitalists who buy it as labor power. Righting that will mean control of production, not just a fairer distribution of its products. Perhaps Michaels misses these more radical political resources because he draws a strict distinction between human beings and the rest of nature (which also sees him miss the intentionalist aspects of Kant’s aesthetics of nature, exclude non-human animals from conceptual life and meaningful action, and assume our appreciation of sunsets is all about color). His work on art shows it is human action that we recognize when we understand a successful artwork. Recognizing human action, we recognize ourselves as the self-conscious animals we naturally are. If you can’t see that, maybe it’s because you aren’t getting nature right.


1. Monroe C. Beardsley, “Comments,” in Art, Mind, and Religion: Proceedings of the 1965 Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy, eds W. H. Capitan and D. D. Merrill (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967), 104.
2. Monroe C. Beardsley and William K. Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy,” The Sewanee Review 54, no. 3 (1946), 469.
3. Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Art, Mind, and Religion: Proceedings of the 1965 Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy, eds W. H. Capitan and D. D. Merrill (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967), 123.
4. Walter Benn Michaels, “‘‘When I Raise My Arm’: Michael Fried’s Theory of Action,” in Michael Fried and Philosophy: Modernism, Intention, and Theatricality, ed. Mathew Abbott (New York and London: Routledge, 2018), 40.
5. G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2000), 9
6. Michaels, “‘When I Raise My Arm,’” 40.
7. Stanley Cavell, “Rejoinders,” in Art, Mind, and Religion: Proceedings of the 1965 Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy, eds W. H. Capitan and D. D. Merrill (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1967), 121.
8. Beardsley and Wimsatt, “The Intentional Fallacy,” 479-80.
9. Cavell, “Rejoinders,” 122.
10. Beardsley, “Comments,” 107.
11. Michaels, “‘When I Raise My Arm,’” 40.
12. Michaels, “‘When I Raise My Arm,’” 40.
13. See Alice Crary, “Dogs and Concepts,” Philosophy 87, no. 2 (2012): 215-37.
14. Robert Pippin, “What Was Abstract Art? (From the Point of View of Hegel),” Critical Inquiry 29, no. 1 (2002): 9.
15. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 185.
16. Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Economy, Autonomy (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 56.
17. Eli Friedlander, Expressions of Judgment: An Essay on Kant’s Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2015), 29.
18. Michaels, “‘When I Raise My Arm,’” 39.
19. Michaels, “‘When I Raise My Arm,’” 44.
20. Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem, 172.
21. Walter Benn Michaels, “Blind Time (Drawing with Anscombe),” Real: Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 35 (2019): 2.
22. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1992), 328.
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