Looking at Abstract Art and Sampling Phenomenal Concepts

Wed December 1st 2021, 5:00 - 6:30pm

The Working Group in Literary and Visual Culture at Stanford University invites you to our final event of fall quarter:

"Looking at Abstract Art and Sampling Phenomenal Concepts"
Presented by Grant Bartolomé Dowling, PhD candidate, Dept. of Philosophy, Stanford University
December 1 at 5:00 pm PST, via Zoom

Abstract: “Formalism” is a movement in aesthetics and art criticism that began in the 19th century and generated theories which evaluate works of art according to how well they instantiate the essential characteristics of their medium. For instance, Eduard Hanslick writes in On the Musically Beautiful that music should not represent feelings, but rather only tonal forms, with the result that “all the fanciful portrayals, characterizations, circumspections of a musical work are either figurative or perverse” (Hanslick 1854, 30). Similarly, formalists argued painting shouldn’t be evaluated by their depictive content, even if that’s what most people pay attention to: “the greater number of people…are accustomed to rely almost exclusively on their interest in, or emotions about, the persons or events called to mind by the imagery of the fine arts. Landscapes, for such, is just reminiscence or revelation of pleasant natural scenes; portraiture by the beautiful or fascinating ladies and celebrated gentlemen it presents; figure painting avails by its attractive or provocative nudes” (Fry 1926, 5).

Consequently, formalists embraced modern painting as painters obscured or completely removed depictive content: “Whereas one tends to see what is in an Old Master before seeing it as a picture, one sees a Modernist painting as a picture first. This, is of course, the best way of seeing any kind of picture, Old Master or Modernist, but Modernism imposes it as the only and necessary way” (Greenberg 1960, 69-70). According to Greenberg, paintings without imagistic content draw us to their formal features because they do "not exhibit the illusion or semblance of things we are already familiar with in real life; it gives us no imaginary space through which to walk with the mind's eye; no imaginary objects to desire or not desire; no imaginary people to like or dislike. We are left alone with shapes and colors. These may or may not remind us of real things; but if they do, they usually do so incidentally or accidentally—on our own responsibility as it were; and the genuine enjoyment of an abstract picture does not ordinarily depend on such resemblances” (Greenberg 1959, 70).

Are abstract paintings about more than the formalists let on? My presentation will evaluate Greenberg's formalist proposal of how to look at a work of art by drawing on two more recent philosophical developments: work on phenomenal concepts in the philosophy of mind by Brian Loar and Michael Tye and a work-in-progress on types of aboutness in abstract art by Kendall Walton. What forms of aboutness can a painting instantiate, and how many forms of aboutness can survive the formalists' strict restrictions for viewing a painting? After developing a formalist proposal for how to view abstract art by “sampling phenomenal concepts” and proposing that way of viewing art as a kind of pragmatic representation, I will offer two objections to the formalist program, one from art theorist Leo Steinberg’s 1972 response to Greenberg called “Other Criteria” and another from Wittgenstein’s response to Russell’s behaviorist theory of desire in the Blue Book.

The Working Group in Literary and Visual Culture is sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center. Made possible by support from an anonymous donor honoring the work of former SHC Director John Bender, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.