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James Carpenter

Illustration and expressive art represent unmistakably different activities, with regard to reality: the one, a fuller visual formulation of an aproblematic, shared reality—a story or concept, say, that viewers of the illustration will recognize as being illustrated there; the other, an expression of the artist’s own reality, which his work uniquely problematizes and “solves.” Nevertheless, much of what today goes by the name of fine art is in fact illustration, and much of what is actually expressive art is consistently judged according to illustrative criteria. The story in a novel, the subject of a painting, the meaning behind a poem, the emotion communicated by a piece of music—all these are illustrative concepts regularly imported into the discussion of expressive works, as are the comparative phrases with which their critics pronounce them successes or failures, better or worse. Indeed the terms “expression” and “illustration” are often used by artists and critics interchangeably, the former simply being used in connection with a more elusive type of object: self-expression, say, or expression of emotion, in either of which cases what is really implied is an act of illustration, or elaboration upon previously existing, clearly communicable themes of feeling or selfhood.

Expression, in the sense in which I mean it, is something else entirely, and necessitates a different critical approach. In what follows, I hope to work out this distinction a little, and explore some of its ramifications for art criticism and art appreciation in general.

It seems like a relevant observation, in beginning to articulate the difference between illustrative art and fine or expressive art, that the first contains multiple, essentially insoluble “parts” within itself, whereas the second constitutes one self-related whole. Picture and thing-depicted, symbol and referent, artist intention and audience interpretation—all of these are different framings of the componentry of art viewed in the first light; and what is “aproblematic” about art of this kind is precisely that the relation of these parts is given beforehand, taken for granted. Central to these distinctions is the fact that there are, in every artwork of this kind, essentially two incongruous (and not necessarily equal) halves: its meaning, a previously existing or expressible-otherwise-than-in-this-way statement about reality, roughly to the effect of “All this is such-and-such”; and its medium, the various means by which the artwork communicates this statement. The success of such artworks turns upon whether or not they communicate their meanings clearly—which clearness of communication, among other things, is what we mean by illustration.

This illustrative clearness, however, is a complicated thing. Because the canons of communication are established, along with the statements themselves, in a form separate from the artistic medium at hand—as, say, spoken commonplaces, or intellectual “concepts”—the clearness of the artwork in communicating them consists not only in the unambiguity1 of the meaning it conveys, but also in the sharpness of the distinction between that meaning and the means the artist has used to convey it. In other words, when we praise such a work, we’re at once upholding the union of meaning and medium (“what he’s saying about love in this poem is —”; “that painting of a tree looks just like a tree”) and their irreconcilable disunion (“this poem is a pretty way of saying that thing about love [which could be said otherwise]”; “that painting is not, in fact, a tree [which also exists in another form, its real form]”).

Having said this, though, what would be the alternative? Presuming that artworks are of things that they nevertheless aren’t, what other possible relation of meaning and medium could artworks represent, besides this one of both-the-same-and-different? On the one hand, to say that they are simply different gets us nowhere with respect to art; it only puts meaning and medium in the relation we put them in when we are relating the events of dreams, say, or when we describe nature as chaotic. The whole point of art seems to rest in some relation of meaning and medium, some relation that is not chaotic or disorderly.2Yet on the other hand, given the ubiquity of the aproblematic, both-same-and-different relation of meaning and medium, it seems like too much of a stretch to say that an artwork’s meaning and its medium can simply be one and the same. The idea is contradicted by our ordinary usage of the terms: meanings (as in “hidden meanings”) are the significances we take to lie behind or beneath the things that convey them, and mediums are precisely those conveying things—so called because they mediate between ourselves and those underlying significances. To think of the two as identical would be to get rid of the whole concept of an artwork being of something in the first place, and seems, on the face of it, as difficult as thinking of a person’s character being identical with his costume.3

But in the works I’ve been calling problematic or expressive, meaning and medium are in fact the same thing. In this case, in place of a preexisting statement, an “All this is such-and-such” that the work heterogeneously communicates, the work can be said to constitute at once a very specific framing of the question, “What is all this?” and the only answer that suffices to settle it. This identity of meaning and medium, this framing of the question of reality that is so individual, so specific, as to constitute the reality it seeks to understand, is what I mean by the term “expression.” It is, in fact, what we all mean by it, insofar as we use it—as we use the term “meaning” itself—equally to signify the act of expressing and the concrete import of that act. True, ordinarily we think of the concrete import of the act—say, “an angry expression”—as expressing something else, an emotion separate from it; but this is only due to the general nature of our commonplace expressions. To the extent that “an expression” concerns itself with being truly attuned to the emotion it expresses—as works of art do to the utmost degree—it is inseparable from that emotion; and the emotion it expresses is not itself a general one, indifferently expressible in many ways, but is as individuated and nuanced as the means of expressing it are. Unlike the reality with which illustrative communication deals, reality framed in this way cannot but be problematic, because it begins and ends with the work that seeks to define it, and so has no existence outside that particular act, that problem, of definition. Reality in this sense does not exist outside the exploration of it, in some clearer and more comprehensive form that waits to be better understood; it is that exploration, and depends for its substance on the success or failure of that exploration as an act.

This raises what I take4 to be a defining question: namely, on what scale do we measure expressive success or failure, absent any such outside reality to use as a criterion? The peculiar “communicative clearness” that constitutes success for illustration represents such a criterion; within its relation to the pre-established reality to which it refers, it has, as I’ve said, two conditions it must satisfy: the union of medium and meaning (“that painting of a tree looks just like a tree”) and their irreconcilable disunion (“that painting is not, in fact, a tree”). Lack the first condition, and the illustration will be unrecognizable as a depiction of something; lack the second, and it will be unrecognizable as art. Either means failure, as far as illustrative value is concerned.5 And for illustrative works that satisfy both of these conditions maximally, we have a term: we say that such works are virtuosic. Virtuosity in depiction relies both on likeness and unlikeness in maximum degree, because it implies not only that we recognize what the depictive reference is to, and marvel at its verisimilitude to that object, but appreciate the fact that it is a reference, and marvel at the artist’s ability to pull it off in his medium.6 The first implies that a likeness has been accomplished, and the second, that because it is only a likeness, it could have been accomplished in some other, less-right way. Within this scale of valuation, all referential work finds its place—even primitivism, which we might call the virtuosic imitation of non-virtuosity.7

With art as expression, however, there is no such thing as virtuosity, precisely because virtuosity is the measure of one’s skill in accomplishing something that could be done in many ways, better or worse, and expression is something that can only be done the way it is done, in the single instance. This is what is meant by calling illustration a technical art—a craft—as opposed to the more nebulous “fine art”; what is fine about the latter is not that it involves a better made or more elevated reference than illustration does, but that it is not to be evaluated in terms of reference at all—it is its own end, its own finis. We use the term to express the finality or finishedness of such artworks, their autotelic only-ness of form, their quality of having been made in this way and in no other. To say there is no external reality by which such works can be judged—to say that their meaning and their medium are inextricably co-involved in one another, such that they must be evaluated on their own terms, to be evaluated honestly—is to dismiss the question of their virtuosity altogether.

But having done away with that external scale of valuation, how do we judge whether artworks are successful or not? What is the criterion of judgment in an expressive work?

One barrier to approaching this question directly—say, by seeking a single definition of expression that could be used to decide in each case whether it were being done well or not—is intrinsic to the individual nature of expression itself: if we came up with a rule that told us what good expression was, we’d be at risk of simply canonizing a new kind of virtuosity, a new pre-established relation of medium and meaning, and hence of committing the same conflation of art and illustration over again.

Perhaps sensing this—or at least facing the divergence of the two forms, while attempting to square critical ideals with democratic ones—our age has hit upon what looks like an alternative to comparative criteria, to be used particularly in judging works of fine art: namely, the subjectivity of individual viewers. Allowing everyone to say for him- or herself whether a work of art “works” seems at once to avoid the pitfalls implicit in setting standards for something as elusive as expression, and to get at the real meaning of expression itself. For if what expression expresses are the thoughts and emotions of an artist (who is a subject), and whom it expresses them to is a viewer (who is also a subject), then subjectivity, it seems to follow, must be the whole point of the transaction. According to this line of thinking, artworks represent relationships between artists and viewers, and since subjective judgment is generally the best criterion to use in judging relationships—outside of special cases like criminal trials or therapy sessions—so it must be for judging an artwork. After all, unlike functional objects, a work of fine art doesn’t do anything except sit there being (subjectively) experienced by viewers; and without the artist and his “meaning” here to compare our experiences against, how else are we supposed to judge it, but subjectively?

This assumption, that fine art doesn’t do anything but get subjectively experienced, is exactly the point at issue; and on closer examination, it represents a new form of the same conflation of expression and illustration that I have been discussing so far. As expressive objects, works of fine art actually do quite a lot—just not anything that other things also do; and the reference of all their meaning to the subjectivity of the viewer is as mistaken as it would be in forensics to refer all conclusions to the subjectivity of the witness.8 It is only when we take such works for illustrative or referential objects that they seem to be doing nothing but appealing to our subjective judgment, by failing to appeal to comparisons of other kinds. And a kind of comparison is exactly what a subjective judgment is. Seemingly an alternative to the illustrative, virtuosity-bound mode of judging artworks, it’s merely the same mode over again; only now, in place of an obvious external object to which the work is supposed to refer, we have the subjective judgment of the viewer as our referent, in conformation with which the artwork is supposed to stand or fall.9 Thus subjective critics, who seem in so many ways to depart from the systematic rigidity of the art historian or technical critic, are in fact no less beholden to fixed comparative standards of judgment—standards that, in originating with themselves (or their conventional schools), appear that much less systematic.

As various and interesting as these judgments may be, expressive artworks as such are not relationships between viewers and artists. They’re expressive artworks; and though we have good reasons for treating them, as Cavell says, “in ways normally reserved for treating persons,” the real point of comparison is not that people and artworks are both essentially subjective, but that they are both types of things that differ from other things, in that they often require us to make non-comparative judgments to properly appreciate them. Subjective judgment doesn’t give us the criterion we need for achieving this kind of appreciation with regard to artworks; it’s only our most recently invented, most subtly disguised mode of mistaking expressive artworks for illustration, and continuing to misappreciate them accordingly. But the aforementioned problem still stands: how do we set up any standard of evaluation without doing that? What does a consistent but non-comparative criterion of judgment look like?

One way of characterizing what we’re doing when we say that Velázquez’s or Lucian Freud’s (in fact expressive) works are virtuosic, is that we’re taking a bird’s-eye view of their art—we’re momentarily pretending, as it were, that they’re doing something that other works do also, and comparing them favorably to those other works. But “pretending” is only the right word for it if we do nothing else, since this comparison is not, strictly speaking, incorrect; it would perhaps be more accurate to say that we’re taking them at the level on which they’re doing what other works do also. It is the truth, perhaps, but nowhere near the whole truth—or even, really, the right kind of truth. It’s how we might talk about a person we don’t know very well: to say, “such-and-such painting is a likeness” is like saying, “so-and-so is a male human being”—the two statements are equally true with respect to their objects, and equally short of the truth. Both are serviceable in an offhand way, but not of much use to a friend, or to a critic—who is (though perhaps some of them are liable to forget it) a true friend of art. As we get to know a person better, and get closer to their individuality—to the extent, that is, that we care about them, and avoid taking a solipsistic or strictly subjective approach to their existence—we’re forced to become more and more particular about what we describe when we describe them. With our closest acquaintances this will even take us up to a point of ineffability, where we simply use So-and-So’s name to refer to the collection of irreducible peculiarities we know as So-and-So. “That’s so him,” we say, with an emphasis as specific in meaning to us as it is vague to someone who doesn’t know him; and for others to ask us what we mean, to ask for other terms in which to frame the likeness, is for them to place themselves on the outside of our meaning altogether.

This apparent continuity between the bird’s-eye view of a thing, which treats that thing as comparable to other things, and the zoomed-in view of it, which treats it as irreducibly unique, would seem to account for the possibility of the conflation between art and illustration: in that sense, it’s entirely a conflation of interest in the viewer, a stopping-short of the more specific approach that would account for the thing in its own terms. But this doesn’t quite do it; or if it does, it undercuts the very premise of the distinct existence (and distinct valuation) of expressive works; for if individuality is simply a matter of the viewer’s interest in a thing, anything—certainly any artwork—could count as expressive, simply by virtue of its being attended to closely enough. And in a way, this possibility does seem plausible enough to be taken seriously: can’t this more specific approach, this zooming-in on the individuality of the thing, indeed be undertaken equally regarding illustrative works, and even non-art objects, as regarding expressive ones?

Certainly it could be argued that, just as every person, simply by virtue of being a person, is an individual—and every object, in representing its own configuration of matter and spatial boundaries, is non-consubstantial with every other object—every finite, concrete artwork, of whatever kind, is fundamentally unlike any other. Again, on a certain level this is true, and true even of works that only exist in reproduction, like prints. (Digital prints may come the closest, out of anything we make now, to material non-individuality; but even with those there are microscopic differences, say, in the surface of the paper, or distribution of the ink.) Nevertheless, it’s missing the point. These kinds of differences on their own aren’t what we’re talking about when we talk about artistic individuality—and we could say this even if the differences we were reckoning with were not simply physical differences between art objects as things, but more peculiarly aesthetic differences (say, in facticity) between them as art objects. Even to many critics such differences would seem to be all the individuality we need take note of in artworks: in even the most generic illustration there are individualities of brushstroke, choices of color and medium, pressures of hand, perhaps, and so on, to say nothing of the themes and objects painted; and to someone with an interest in these factic minutiae, they might easily be taken for expressive qualities. That in expressive works these minutiae do indeed tend to become expressive qualities makes the mistake even easier to make. Yet as with people and objects, mere individualities are boundless, and to name them in whatever order occurs to us, and then to pronounce on the object in accordance with that order, is only subjective judgment in a particularly dry guise.10 Here, then, as there, the real question is not, Are there differences between this artwork and others that can be used to individuate it? but rather, Are the differences between this artwork and others that we use to individuate it, actually the ways in which it individuates itself?

In asking this question, we’re pointing to a discontinuity between the two kinds of view, the bird’s-eye and the zoomed-in—an operational asymmetry that accounts for the fact that though it is easy to mistakenly treat artworks according to an illustrative standard, it’s not (strictly speaking) common for people to commit the inverse mistake. This is the case because what we have been calling the zoomed-in view is not simply a closer version of the bird’s-eye view, but rather a different kind of view altogether—one that revolves specifically around a thing’s internal functioning, and that consequently cannot be taken of anything made according to requirements external to it. Far from adverting to subjective interpretation, we are here bringing up a quality consistent to individual things that is nevertheless not comparable between them: namely, what we might call their self-functioning. It’s this to which we properly refer in determining the relevance of whatever individuating qualities we pick out in a work, as it is with our judgments of people’s individuating qualities, when our interest is in that work’s or person’s individuality as such. A person has a blood type that we can’t tell from meeting him; we could liken this to atomic differences between one artwork and another, say in the composition of two sheets of paper, but it seems more to the point to liken it to the “inspiration” that can’t be seen in an artwork. In both, these invisible qualities are admittedly present in some way, and may well be relevant to someone judging the functioning of the person as a potential blood donor, or the functioning of the artwork as a factor in its creator’s biography; but to someone asking who the person is, or what the artwork is—stressing the active-verbal nature of that is—they represent information external to, and at best causally explanatory of, that person’s or that artwork’s individuating function: what the thing does that makes it what it is.11

With this notion of the self-functioning of a person or thing also comes the possibility that, individual as every thing or person may well be in terms of qualities accidental to its self-functioning, in terms of qualities relevant to it there are indeed some things and people that are less individual than others—not, that is, because they lack individuating qualities per se, but because they themselves don’t function in such a way as to render the individuating qualities they do have relevant in describing them. The zoomed-in view gains us no more than the bird’s-eye view does, in getting to know such individuals; or rather, the distance is relatively long at which we seem to recognize that there is no more to be gained from zooming in. And if we have little difficulty seeing certain people as self-constituted after a general model of intelligibility—the inescapable subtleties and complications of psychological reality notwithstanding—how much easier should it be to think of certain objects as constituted this way by their makers, who indeed have every habitual incentive to do so? In a world of made things, expressive artworks are by far the exception rather than the rule12; the rest of everyday life, even the everyday life of an artist, offers precious little reason to pursue real individuality in any form. It is infinitely more practicable to act as others do, than to act as will only make sense within the total context of one’s own considered actions; to speak and write in commonplaces, than to coin one’s own intelligible new metaphors or phraseologies; to elaborate within a recognized visual lexicon, than to make visible the reality one really sees; to argue within systems, than to follow the seemingly chaotic order of one’s own wondering.

Not only is it infinitely more practicable to do these things, it is infinitely simpler to judge their products appropriately. We need not even be steeped in art for comparative examples to judge an artwork virtuosic; we need only say that it is comparatively better, as a thing of its kind, than what we encounter generally, since virtuosity is no more than value in comparison. This is why such judgments, even when made in the name of objectivity, so easily lead us back to the subjective: being based in comparisons with the things we’re used to, they vary with our individual ranges of experience. If what we are used to reading is the kind of storytelling we generally find in newspapers, thrillers and neighborly gossip, the works of a talented detective novelist will count for literary art as much as Henry James’s works do—perhaps even more so, since, in “getting to the point,” the detective novelist is that much more economical at achieving what we’re used to valuing. It would take pushing past such comparisons—and ultimately even past comparisons with more expressively germane novelists like Flaubert and Hawthorne—to get at what makes James great in a literary sense,13 as indeed it would for our detective novelist, if his work were made to hold up to that sort of scrutiny.

Yet it is not only for the sake of expediency that non-individual objects are made; to suggest this would be to elevate the apparent continuity we have found in experience between judgments appropriate to expressive works and judgments appropriate to illustrative ones to the level of a value judgment between the two, and say that expressive works are better than illustrative works, because they allow for a closer view of themselves. This is not the case, simply because (again), despite our being able to conflate them, the two are actually incomparable. The experiential continuity between them does not do away with the absolute functional difference between them, any more than the continuity between a conventional person and a marked individual (as human beings) does away with the functional difference between them, in how they each relate to their own individuality—a difference that is, philosophically speaking, absolute. We can take a bird’s-eye view with respect to an expressive work, just as we can with respect to its illustrative counterpart, but this does more than simply fall short; or rather, what it falls short of is another view entirely, involving a complete switch in what is viewed—namely, the self-functioning of the thing. That this factor is there to be viewed in this way at all, that it acts as an informing presence—the informing presence—in the case of the expressive object, is precisely what distinguishes that sort of object from an illustrative one, the entire being of which is referential and appreciable only in comparison with other things. To judge an expressive work is to look for its value on the level where it is not meaningfully comparable with anything but itself; and this is difficult, not because it involves more attention of the kind we ordinarily pay to things, but because it involves a different kind of attention altogether. Judging something as an individual requires suspending comparisons to other things until the particular relevance of those comparisons here is made manifest; discovering the meaning of references within it, rather than taking them as given; looking for patterns of meaning that may have no correlative elsewhere; constantly adjusting one’s whole understanding of the thing in accordance with the mutually informing and informed significances of its parts.

Among other things, this requires a certain provisionality of judgment on the part of the critic, which most critics—steeped as they are in a critical tradition rooted in comparative pronouncement—eschew as a fault. The critic who wishes to judge a work in its own terms has to assume from the beginning that the thing is exactly as it should be, and maintain that assumption at least until the order disclosed thereby shows any of the work to be out of keeping with the rest. Yet a good critic will maintain it much longer, having learned, from long experience attending to a wide variety of great individualities, to assume it likelier that his view is faulty than that the work is. In the case of very complex works, even works we find unquestionably great, this may mean a long time, sometimes a lifetime, spent feeling as though one hasn’t quite “gotten it”—which, to the critic habituated to approaching artworks this way, can nevertheless be the opposite of a painful feeling.

Quite as often it involves the opposite discovery, that works one does “get,” and even loves, are not expressively individual; for at the very least it means drawing a sharp distinction between subjective judgments and other kinds of referential comparisons on the one hand, and judgments appropriate to individual things on the other. In today’s quasi-democratized critical atmosphere, such a distinction of referential and expressive works seems the height of snobbishness, since it is assumed that if we once allow that distinction, we must necessarily conclude that the first is good and the second is bad, and dismiss out of hand anything that doesn’t “measure up” to the rarer standard of expression. Yet beyond the fact that this assumption is fallacious in the first place, those who seek to avoid the snobbery seemingly implicit in distinguishing works of these two types by applying comparative subjective judgments to them all, are liable to take up the very real one, of equating art with what they like. Our age has seen an unprecedented profusion of popular arts, whose value is manifestly not of the kind I’ve been calling expressive, but is instead referential; seeing this, and imagining that drawing a distinction between these arts and the “fine” or expressive arts would make for a puritanical purging of so much of what people find enjoyable, our critics have instead opted to deny the difference altogether by treating all art as referential, reducing the value of everything to virtuosity and reserving the last word on that virtuosity for those with the broadest basis of comparison to draw upon—namely, themselves.14 And inclusive as it may seem in the hands of a critic of broad taste, this approach tends to lead to a narrowing of valuations as pernicious as the one it seeks to avoid: rather than risk treating referential works as deficient expressive ones and (unnecessarily) restrict themselves from their enjoyment of popular art, such critics tend to treat expressive works as particularly obscure or out-of-date referential ones—as indeed most of them must seem—and quietly leave them off in favor of more readily accessible effects.

By contrast, a critic who is able to draw the distinction between things he can judge with reference to other things and things that must be judged in their own terms, is quite free to enjoy both as he will, and able to uphold the standards of excellence peculiar to either without applying them across the board. To such a critic, distinctions need not be tendentious; in fact, to the extent that the difference he recognizes is a fundamental one, such as the difference discussed here, comparisons of value tend to become meaningless, because different things bring with them different criteria of value. There are, of course, expressive critics who make the opposite mistake from the pop-art reductionist, and call for everything to be judged by the expressive standard. Certainly, as with the pop-art reductionist’s quasi-democratic impulse, there is a fundamentally understandable motive at the heart of this tendency, namely, the wish for all the world to be expressive. If the pop-art reductionist adapts art to the ideal of a universally democratized world of immediately comparable things, the fine-art zealot adapts it to that of a world of masterpieces, in which everything in it is a singularity of self-defined beauty. Yet as glorious as each of these ideals may appear to the people who espouse them, the real world resolutely conforms to neither; and if the pop-art reductionist is reproachable on the grounds of his cynical refusal to enjoy anything but what he can reduce to commonplaces, the fine-art dogmatist is equally so, for rejecting the kind of enjoyment in comparison that he might share with everyone around him.15 Where the other risks losing himself in populism, he risks alienating everyone else in favor of solipsistic asceticism. His kind of enjoyment is admittedly very deep, and he is right to desire its increase in the world around him; but precisely because it deals in individuals and not in commonplaces, there is a real limit to its shareability with others, which limit is only foolishly taken for a value in itself. Our lives may be utterly individual to us in the final analysis, whether we are notably individual people or not; but they are also connected, generalized and everyday, and in an existence so defined by the opposite of enjoyment, it is perverse—even in deference to an enjoyment we take to be richer—not to welcome what enjoyment may come from that quarter also.

Having taken what care I can to approach this last part of the question from what I see as both sides of it, I hope I don’t seem to betray that equability by reiterating that in our time, we are infinitely more liable to mistake our expressive works and individual people for referential ones, than the reverse. Our critical subjectivism, along with its adjuncts in art history and psychology, has proven a most efficient tool for reducing every meaning to a reference, and every value to a comparative value; just as our pursuit of equality in social and civic life, laudable as it is, has decidedly favored a comparative interpretation of equality, rather than an expressive one. As in our politics, our prevailing aesthetic dispute is not over whether we will use a comparative standard, but over which comparative standard we will use—the subjective one simply being the one that most often wins out.

In part, this is the case because, as I have mentioned, the alternative doesn’t seem to be a standard at all: the expressive view of a work of art has no pre-established setting for what kind of judgments will be appropriate to the individuality in question, or to which aspects those judgments will prove most relevant. Yet it is a discipline worth cultivating nevertheless, and not only because it allows us to properly appreciate things that we otherwise misunderstand. Expressive artworks are intrinsically valuable, and appreciating them for themselves—this being the only way to appreciate them as individuals at all—is certainly something we should do for the sake of critical rectitude. But there is another, far more fundamental end to be accomplished in judging them this way, that remains to be mentioned. When we seek to judge something in terms of itself—when, rather than fitting that thing to a comparative standard that we bring to it, we look for the standard of our judgment in its self-functioning—we are seeking to adequate our minds to it, to adapt our understanding to the requirements that thing sets for us. Insofar as we succeed in doing this, we are, critically speaking, acting in accordance with our own individuating principle—that aspect of ourselves that is truly open and adaptable to what the world will show us, that is free to change and expand as it will, and that is not reducible to any general standard, even the standard of our own subjective experience. Rather than resting satisfied with correlating the parts already available to it, such a mind appreciates what it experiences (as economists use the term) by growing to accommodate it, and becoming a more expansive, complex experiencer as a result. In appreciating the self-functioning of an expressive artwork—a thing entirely constituted to be unique—we sidestep the received criteria of comparative judgment that necessarily precede us, and act as individuals ourselves.


[1] Some artworks, which we call indeterminate, seem to have ambiguous meaning, but to the extent that they’re aproblematic, their meaning is as straightforward as any. “All meaning is open to interpretation by the beholder” and even “reality is fundamentally meaningless” are—qua discrete statements expressible in verbal terms—determinate meanings.

[2] The professions of, say, Surrealism notwithstanding. Even apart from the Surrealists’ psychoanalytical bent, the meanings of Surrealism were perfectly determinate, and determinately linked to their mediums. At the very least, they meant, “this is what nonsense looks like when you paint it”—which, despite having nonsense as its subject-matter, is as intelligible a code as a tagline in a Coke ad is: it presumes a common reality in which nonsense is a thing that looks like something in particular. In this sense Surrealism, absurdism and “magical realism,” when judged as fine or expressive art, share the same artistic failing: they all rely on an underlying assertion of everyday reality, for the force of their subversion of it.

[3] Which nevertheless, in the case of public and religious functionaries—to say nothing of actors and dancers—we do all the time.

[4] As do others; cf., particularly, Collingwood, Principles of Art, Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? and Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking.

[5] It’s interesting to see the ways in which illustrators who lean to one side or the other of this balance supply their own particular shortcoming. Thus political and conceptual painters, whose works often lack visually recognizable correlates, might help the viewer along with words or contextual references, whereas hyperrealist sculptors, whose works risk being indistinguishable from their objects, widen the gap with grotesque artificialities of scale, truncation, position, etc.

[6] For which reason there seems to be a limit to the appreciable virtuosity of photorealistic paintings, and their value to us as illustrative art. In order to elicit even the most vulgar “Wow!” a photorealistic painting has to be recognizable as a painting, or it will seem just another photograph.

[7] Or more fairly, the virtuosic imitation of what counts as virtuosic to another sensibility than our own.

[8] And for similar reasons. The fact that forensic doctors, and witnesses, and judges, and juries, are all people, and therefore subjects, does not mean that their functioning as doctors, witnesses, etc. should be made to revolve around their subjectivity; and that the reverse is taken for granted in the case of artists, audiences and critics in our society is more indicative of our habitual dismissiveness of the arts, than of any sense in that conception.

[9] As a critical problem, this new form of the same conflation—presented as an alternative, expressively appropriate mode of judgment—is disastrous; but lest it seem strictly a critical concern, it has concrete practical implications, too. Take it as granted that artists will make the works they have it in them to make, whether those works are destined to be judged correctly or no. (Whether or not this is the case, I leave for another discussion.) Even so, practical loss accrues to the rest of us whenever, by relegating the critical question to subjectivity, we pass up the opportunity art affords us to enlarge our own reality by the real consideration of someone else’s. If we look to expressive art to expand our experience in ways that illustration—with its necessary basis in reference to what is already familiar to us—can’t, we do ourselves a real disservice by treating it simply as another kind of illustration with a more private, but no less familiar, referent.

[10] This description fits much of what goes by the name of “formalist” art analysis these days, in which objective qualities like paint handling or the use of perspective are enumerated for a while—some of them gaining more traction than others, according to the sensibility of the analysts—then used as the basis for an extensive session in free association, the only real value of which is its disclosure of the subjective nature of the whole undertaking.

[11] That this function only ever appears to people, and therefore is taken for a quality open to subjective interpretation, is the source of much philosophical mischief. Again, solipsism is of course always an option; but does anyone actually conduct his daily life on the assumption that the functioning of fire on solid matter is a subjective quality, on the grounds that he observes it so functioning, or because it hurts him to stick his hand in it?

[12] Arguably far more so than in the world of persons, since not all truly individual people—or even many of them—care to express themselves by making individual things!

[13] And this is only to get at what makes James great as a novelist; to see what makes The Wings of the Dove great as a novel takes pushing past comparisons with The Golden Bowl.

[14] Cf. a recent interview with the author Jonathan Lethem (self-described in an earlier interview as “the best read person in fiction that I know”), who refers to “old, hierarchical, and class-anxious systems of putting quarantines around popular culture that rock and roll, and film noir, and R. Crumb, and the great science fiction writers, and Raymond Chandler had all made absurd…to anyone who actually cared about culture.” Presumably there is somewhere an old, hierarchical and class-anxious author, equally well read, fuming to an interviewer about the validity of examples like Mr. Lethem’s being “absurd to anyone who actually cares about culture.” And happily, there is a third critical option open to us.

[15] We might recognize, in this comparison, the equally facile one commonly drawn between the liberal and the conservative mindset. Certainly the basic accusations leveled by each at the other—that the one follows a policy of inclusion so rigidly as to tyrannize by it, and the other upholds an individualistic standard at the expense of the common good—are recognizable, as (perhaps) is the fatuousness of taking either as the sole principle of human action.