Please ensure to Cite the Author Kerrie Warren adequately to Avoid Plagiarism
Does the Absence of a Representational Image Diminish an Individual’s Aesthetic Response to a Painting?
An essay by Kerrie Warren 2015, Masters of Contemporary Art
Does the absence of a representational image diminish an individual’s response to a painting? Many of us have experienced the sensation of loving a painting, of disliking a painting, of feeling nonplussed or even bored by a painting. The aesthetics of artworks (in this case of paintings) are as diverse as their beholders, evoking a wide range of responses from subtle to intense. Sometimes the response is almost immediate and can be either negative or positive, or it may take us longer to absorb the experience as a painting grows on us over time. In this essay, I will clarify what is meant by ‘representational image’ and will define in broad terms what is meant by our ‘aesthetic response’, including two very different personal examples. The essay will then proceed to include a wide variety of viewpoints discussed in three sections under the headings of; Aesthetic Judgments, Ways to Perceive and Critical Assessments of Abstract Expressionism, before reaching a conclusion.
‘Aesthetic Judgements’, explores the main argument from a philosophical viewpoint and includes the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, James W. Manns, Clive Bell and Rudolph Arnheim. ‘Ways to Perceive’ investigates the question from a psychological angle and includes the perspectives of Professors Arthur P. Shimamura and Robert L. Solso. ‘Critical Assessments of Abstract Expressionism’ examines the writings of art critics and theorists Clement Greenberg and Clive Bell, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and also refers to the experience and thoughts of internationally recognised artist Philip Guston. In this essay, I propose that the absence of a representational image in a painting does not diminish an individual’s aesthetic response to it.
Many of us have experienced being drawn to a particular painting in a gallery full of paintings. This essay puts forward an interesting question, one that philosophers, art historians, art theorists, psychologists, critics, artists and beholders have been discussing over the ages and debating through the modern art movement. It seems, as a general consensus, that art in general does in fact stimulate the human mind and engage our emotions. The question put forward in this essay includes the descriptor ‘representational image’ (the absence of) which refers to images that are clearly recognizable for what they purport to be, as opposed to an abstract image or non-representational image that has no clear identity. ‘Aesthetic response to a painting’, in the context of this essay, refers to a human response or reaction to an artwork, being in this case a two dimensional painting. ‘Aesthetic response’ is broadly defined as being an affective or emotional one, how the individual ‘feels about’ the painting. Art can elicit a wide range of feelings and to a great extent is in the mind of the individual, ‘the beholder’.
The main argument, or question, is approached throughout this essay from the diverse perspectives of philosophy, history and psychology and examines the ‘absence of a representational image’ through critical thoughts on the modern art movement, in particular on the style of Abstract Expressionism.
Two personal examples of ‘Aesthetic Response to a Painting’.
It was June 2004, when I casually walked into the National Gallery of Victoria to view the exhibition ‘Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay. I was certainly excited to view firsthand works by iconic artists including Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh… making up the finest collection of French impressionist paintings ever to make their way to Australia. Looking back now, I’m not sure if it was the fact that I had observed Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting ‘Starry Starry Night’ as a reproduction on so many occasions throughout my life, or if it was because I had recently been listening to the most touching song titled ‘Vincent’ written by Don McLean as a tribute to the artist, or knowing that this painting had been created in an asylum at a time when Van Gogh was under great personal duress. Maybe it was simply the painting’s exaggerated composition, the swirling dynamic movements of the brushstrokes, the emotional fluidity of line, colour and texture that had been captured by the artist in oils on canvas?
I’m still not quite sure what it was, or if all of these elements combined, reduced me to heartfelt tears. I remember feeling quite aware that I was in a public space and that I must have looked quite tragic as I stared into that magnificent painting with tears streaming down my cheeks. However, I don’t remember anyone coming to my rescue as I tried desperately to contain my emotions. Maybe they understood such a moment? This was my first experience of an intense aesthetic response to a painting. ‘Starry Starry Night’ was painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889. The dramatic night sky dominates a seemingly peaceful village, the warmly lit windows and steeple in the distance provide some sort of emotional comfort whilst the cypress trees in the foreground appear to dance beneath the wavering stars above. Impressionistic in style, this painting is made up of easily recognizable, representational images.
It was June 2009, when I strolled into the Museum of Modern Art ‘MOMA’ in New York City to view a very exciting collection of works by abstract expressionist artists such as De Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, Krasner and Newman… together, these ambitious acquisitions were apparently unrivalled for their breadth and depth. Looking back I’m not sure if it was the fact that I had flown such a long distance and most likely suffered from jet lag, or that I had been reading the artists extensive biography ‘Jackson Pollock, An American Saga’ and had learned of his disjointed childhood that I could in some way personally relate to, or if it was more due to the fact that I had been practising a similar style of work in my own studio and had unconsciously placed this artist on somewhat of a high pedestal. Or was it simply the painting’s all-over composition, the intricate layers, the enormous scale and intensity of the web like mark marking?
I’m still not quite sure what it was exactly… if any, or all of these elements combined were what caused my heart to race, my adrenalin to rush, and the hair on my arms to stand literally up on end as (to my complete surprise) I felt the sensation of my response run through my entire body. It was such an exhilarating moment when I first beheld Jackson Pollock’s ‘Number 31’, painted by the artist in 1950. This large scale (269 cm x 530.8 cm) painting of abstract expressionist style ‘action painting’ is made of oil and enamel on canvas and has absolutely no recognizable, representational image at all. Thus, I have personally experienced two very intense aesthetic responses to two very different paintings. One painting was made up of numerous representational images whilst the other was completely devoid of any. My emotional and physical reactions to both are strong indicators that my aesthetic responses were not due to their being, or not being, a recognisable image present in the work.
For thousands of years philosophers have been making judgements about what is beautiful, what is art, and the notion of taste. Discussions have gone back and forth over time in regard to the nature of these experiences and how they relate to life. Ancient and widely considered Plato, a pivotal philosopher and mathematician who developed the first institution of higher learning in the Western World, thoughtfully considered the meaning of art… describing it as an imitation of reality, a mimesis. He believed that ‘representations’ deceive the intellect, and so banished them from his Republic. Plato’s view was certainly extreme, he criticised art and spoke of it being a very poor imitation of reality, claiming that representations cloud our thinking, stir our emotions, and degrade our sense of social responsibility.
We can only image what Plato might have thought of non-representational art, in particular an abstract painting with the absence of a recognisable image. An abstract painting is certainly not ‘mimetic’, so he may well have considered Pollock’s ‘Number 31’ from somewhat of a different perspective. On the other hand, Plato’s most famous student Aristotle acknowledged art as a form, a mimesis, and a natural pleasure that we could all learn from. He spoke of valuing art as an imitation of reality that occupies a position of priority in relation to all things, to life. However, Aristotle was also contemptuous of artists who did nothing more than simply try to copy or imitate reality as opposed to creating an inspired version of it. James W. Manns, philosopher and author of ‘Aesthetics’ published in 1998, believes that Plato’s critical view of representations, of ‘mere imitations’, were due to the fact that they take us even further away from genuine reality and from the objects they were meaning to represent.
A general theory of aesthetics aims to explain both representational and abstract art. It is generally agreed upon, that aesthetic experiences do arouse our perceptions and affect our senses. But what happens when we remove the idea of a representational image from a painting? Will our perceptions continue to be aroused or will our aesthetic response to the painting diminish? Art theorist Clive Bell, in his major work ‘Art’, first published in 1913, referred to art as ‘significant form’ and not only denied that representation was essential to a painting, but affirmed that it could in fact be detrimental to its true aim. Bell’s aesthetic theory focused on aesthetic experience and was a great defender of abstract art. He believed that significant form is what aroused our emotion when beholding an artwork, not the reading of its subject matter. He asserted that forms and relations of forms to each other, including line and colour, are the most important elements to achieve an aesthetic response. Bell’s theory has since been seriously criticized, as it claims primacy of form over conceptual content.
Rudolf Arnheim, author, art theorist and perceptual psychologist believed that the primary effect of visual expression is inspired by the formal properties of visual shapes. Shapes in general, including well recognised, representative shapes of heads, hands, tables, trees etc., play a compositional role in art and the beholders visual perception of it. Arnheim, in his book titled ‘Art and Visual Perception’ explores the effects that visual phenomena can exert on our emotions and leaned heavily on the theoretical framework of Gestalt psychology. Arnheim put forward that the concept of balance is a relevant and important element in the aesthetics of visual art, and that an unbalanced composition appears accidental and is therefore invalid. He goes on to suggest that the emphasis be on the pattern of directed forces that are being balanced, ordered and unified as a whole composition. Arnheim also argued that just as the visual form is indispensable as an interpreter of the idea, the subject matter is also important and should connect with the formal pattern. A relationship where one affects and depends on the other. In his book ‘Art and Visual Perception’, Arnheim writes that “Neither formal pattern nor subject matter is the final content of the work of art. Both are instruments of artistic form and serve to give body to an invisible universal”. Further on in his essay, Arnheim goes on to say that “The human mind receives, shapes, and interprets images of the outer world with all its conscious and unconscious powers, and the realm of the unconscious could never enter our experience without the reflection of perceivable things. There is no way of presenting one without the other.”  Thus, Arnheim proposes that abstract art does not mean pure art, as even the simplest line visually expresses meaning.
Our perceptions of art are as diverse and varied as the artworks themselves and future philosophers and art theorists will surely continue to put forward their own arguments and findings, and question our aesthetic response to paintings and various styles of art. We will surely continue to embrace their well-researched, well thought out theories and philosophies whilst we stroll through the galleries and museums to admire and be affected by a wide variety of both abstract and representational work, wondering to ourselves if it’s all simply a matter of taste…
‘Ways to Perceive’
Is that Art? Our own perception of art is certainly very creative. When we ‘see’ we naturally filter out various pieces of information and fill in gaps. As individuals we interpret what we see differently. In most instances, when our eyes are busy absorbing colour, contour and contrast, we are not even aware of the neurological, cognitive and perceptual sequences that occur within the process. Different minds interpret and react to visual stimuli uniquely, though universal principles and cognition apply to all of us. Arthur P. Shimamura, a professor of psychology and author of ‘Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder’ argues that the meaning of and aesthetic response to a piece of art (a painting) may be different for each person. He writes that our interpretations will be largely influenced by our unique memories and personal points of view. Shimamura also argues that aesthetics is not tied specifically to art, that there is no ‘art appreciation centre’ in our brain, that aesthetics is a hedonic evaluation based on pleasure or interest, determining what we ‘do and don’t like’ on a daily basis. Maybe this explains why we tend to gravitate to different paintings when we visit a museum or an exhibition? It’s common to arrive with an art-loving friend or spouse by our side, to then end up in the experience on our own. While we’ve been admiring a particular piece of work, our partner has unnoticeably continued wandering on right past… later to be found in another section of the gallery, thoroughly enjoying a painting that we don’t feel the need to spend any time with.
Shimamura believes that our interpretations of art will be influenced by our personal, cultural, political, religious and even sexual orientations. Prior experiences, memories and knowledge all play a big part, our metacognitive processes step in to guide the experience and determine the way we look at art and appreciate paintings. But what happens when we view a painting that does not contain a representational image, what if we are unsure of what it is that we are looking at? Shimamura writes that appreciation of the work has much to do with what the beholder seeks. If the work is mimetic (representational), we typically look at it as though a window to another place, evaluating its success in depicting realistic qualities. If the work is expressionistic, we approach it quite differently and seek from it an emotional response such as sublimity. If the work is of a formalist style, we evaluate its qualities of colour, line and shape, and how they affect each other. If the work is conceptual, we look for the thought or story behind it. So as a beholder we arrive at the painting with great expectation, and to a certain degree ‘what we like’ would possibly be largely determined by ‘what we already know’. Our response would also be influenced by what we are familiar with. For example, if the beholder already had some prior knowledge and appreciation of abstract art, they would not arrive at an abstract painting expecting to see a mimetic image, or one that they could easily recognise. If they did, it might very well lead to some sense of confusion and possible disappointment (as this would not be what they were expecting from the experience), the painting would not provide what they were seeking from it.
The way we see paintings is quite individual, thus how we ‘feel’ about a particular painting is likely to be dissimilar to how another person ‘feels’ about it. We each bring our unique self to the work, our past experiences and expectations. Professor Robert L. Solso in his book ‘Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain’ writes that “All viewers have extensive world knowledge that they apply when viewing an event. This background contributes to their deeper understanding of art”. He puts forward the argument that all art is representational, or partly so, as even mimetic art is idealised… and that at the other end of the scale, all art is to a degree abstract as it is not actual reality. Professor Solso also notes that humans have a tendency to react to generalised forms, which might explain our attraction to abstract art. “While realistic art may be comely, innovative art may be exquisite”. In our argument we ask if the absence of a representational image diminishes an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting. The evidence here suggests that it does not, and suggests instead that an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting is more affected by their own backgrounds, memories and knowledge… and what they might ‘seek’ or ‘expect’ from the style of painting, whether it contains a representational image or not.
‘Critical Assessments of Abstract Expressionism’
Through most of the nineteenth century, a painting appeared as a window into another world where artists had skilfully, and sometimes not so skilfully, rendered three dimensional representations of life and historical events onto the flat surface of a canvas. One might expect to behold well recognised forms of nature, narrative content and an illusion of depth. Paintings would generally offer a fixed interpretation, they made sense, or at least promised to. A painting such as ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Van Gogh is a great example. To address the main argument of this essay however, we will move forward in time to the early twentieth century from which emerged the ‘Abstract Expressionist’ movement in America. A style of non-representational art that didn’t tell a story or suggest a situation. A style of art that did not contain representational images, give an illusion of depth, or act as a window into another place. Pollock’s ‘Number 31’ as mentioned earlier in this essay is a good example of such a painting.
Influential visual art critic Clement Greenberg perceived the Abstract Expressionistic work to be superior for its originality and elimination of the picture plane. He believed an inherent purity characterised the work through its all-over compositional flatness. This style of painting doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else, a painting is a painting. In his essay ‘Abstract, Representational, and so forth’, Greenberg states that:
“Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles, and what counts first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary. No one has yet been able to demonstrate that the representational as such either adds or takes away from the merit of a picture or statue. The presence or absence of a recognisable image has no more to do with value in painting or sculpture than the presence or absence of a libretto has to do with value in music. Taken by itself, no single one of its parts or aspects decides the quality of a work of art as a whole. In painting and sculpture this holds just as true for the aspect of representation as it does for those of scale, colour, paint quality, design, etc., etc.”
Clement Greenberg, along with art theorist Clive Bell, defined the nature of modern art. Bell stated that “paintings that told stories and suggested situations added no new material to our lives, that descriptive art was inferior”. From his formalist perspective, he believed a beholder would appreciate a painting on the basis of the raw visual stimulus alone. It was the ability of the artist to magnify the quality of ‘sensation’ through an aesthetic interplay of colours, lines, textures and shapes to enhance its significant form. On the other hand, American art historian Meyer Schapiro argued that the absoluteness of the aesthetic, present in its purest form of abstraction, was a myth and that the idea that a modern painting could be reduced to an art of its medium was not a very plausible one. In the late 1940’s – 50’s, well recognised artist Philip Guston was opposed to being referred to as an abstract expressionist and was averse to the idea that a painting could be fulfilled in a simple self-investigation of the medium itself. Guston contended in 1960, “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: the painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, and therefore we habitually analyse its ingredients and define its limits.” He also stated that Abstract Expressionist paintings were filled with contradictions and were ripe with subject matter. Conversely, Greenberg did not pay any attention to the convictions of artists, declaring ‘I don’t think I quote living painters. And I don’t pay any attention to what they say in connection with their art.’ So the general aesthetic response to abstract art appears to be passionately diverse, with significant critical debates and differing ideas between art theorists, critics and artists, who have over time inspired numerous heated statements, causing a memorable stir and arousing quite a ‘sensation’ in their own right.
An individual’s response to art is varied, what we each behold and contemplate can elicit a range of feelings including curiosity, fascination, surprise, sadness, boredom, shock and even disgust. Undoubtedly art can stimulate our minds and stir our emotions. It is a perception consciously experienced and our personal experience of it is greatly influenced by what we already know. The evidence provided by the thoughts and determinations of the philosophers, art historians, theorists, psychologists, critics and artists included in this essay seem to suggest that an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting has more to do with their own prior experience, memories, knowledge and expectations than it has to do with either the absence or inclusion of a representational image. As beholders, we each interpret information differently and uniquely evaluate what we see based on the aesthetic sensations evoked by it. Aesthetic response seems to be greatly influenced by what we expect to see and what in turn we seek from the work… whether it is representational, abstract or otherwise. My own personal experiences when encountering the paintings ‘Starry Starry Night’ by Van Gogh and ‘Number 31’ by Jackson Pollock, provide evidence enough that I as a beholder can experience an intense aesthetic response to a painting with, and a painting without, a representational image.
I conclude from the research undertaken, and from my own personal experiences, that the absence of a representational image does not diminish an individual’s aesthetic response to a painting.
Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception : A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1974.
Balaschak, Chris. “Abstract, Representational, and So Forth.” Octopus 4 (2008).
Balken, Debra Bricker. Abstract Expressionism: Movements in Modern Art. London: Tate 2005.
Hess, Barbara. Abstract Expressionism. Edited by Uta Grosenick Köln Taschen, 2005.
Manns, James W. Aesthetics: Explorations in Philosophy. Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 1998.
Mattick, Paul. “Aesthetics and Anti-Aesthetics in the Visual Arts.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, , 1993, 253.
Shimamura, Arthur P. Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder New York : Oxford University Press, 2013.
Solso, Robert L. The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2003.
 Arthur P. Shimamura, Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder (New York : Oxford University Press, 2013), 3.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 4.
 James W. Manns, Aesthetics: Explorations in Philosophy (Armonk, N.Y. : M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 35.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 70.
 Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception : A Psychology of the Creative Eye (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1974), 444.
 Shimamura, Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder 128.
 Ibid., 259.
 Ibid., 128.
 Ibid., 14.
 Robert L. Solso, The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2003), 5.
 Ibid., 250.
 Ibid., 256.
 Debra Bricker Balken, Abstract Expressionism: Movements in Modern Art (London: Tate 2005), 23.
 Chris Balaschak, “Abstract, Representational, and So Forth,” Octopus 4 (2008): 133, 34.
 Manns, Aesthetics: Explorations in Philosophy, 55.
 Shimamura, Experiencing Art : In the Brain of the Beholder 10.
 Paul Mattick, “Aesthetics and Anti-Aesthetics in the Visual Arts,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1993, 255.
 Barbara Hess, Abstract Expressionism, ed. Uta Grosenick (Köln Taschen, 2005), 74.
 Balken, Abstract Expressionism: Movements in Modern Art, 47, 49.
 Ibid., 49.