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Art, Representation in


Pictures form a subset of the artifacts that serve to represent particular things or kinds of thing, real or imagined, in a broad inclusive sense of the term represent. Like some of their fellow representations, but unlike others, pictures go on to attribute properties to the things or kinds they representproperties that thereby constitute their pictorial content. How does this work? What distinguishes the representing done by picturesdepiction from the representing done by various other familiar kinds of representation?

Plato and Pictorial Mimesis

Near the start of his case for banishing the poets from his ideally just city (Plato 1992, Republic X, 595a598b), Plato urges that poetry and painting are analogous mimetic activities, structured so as to be able to imitateapproximately replicateonly a superficial and trivial part of the deep and serious things they profess to take as models. The argument employs a three-story metaphysics with Plato's Forms at the top, ordinary three-dimensional worldly particulars in the middle, and appearances (eidola, phainomena, phantasmata ) at the bottom. Paradigm cases of appearances are shadows and reflections. Shifty, shimmery, and insubstantial, they owe such limited stability and stable apprehensibility as they to their owners, the three-dimensional worldly particulars from which they derive and to which they bear a real if limited resemblance. They therefore bear to worldly particulars many of the relations that worldly particulars are said to bear to the Forms.

The phrase "what S sees of X here and now" may be taken to refer to another appearance, another insubstantial something owing such limited stability and stable apprehensibility as it possesses to its three-dimensional owner X, the entity it manifests and imperfectly resembles. Such an appearance differs from a reflection or cast shadow in that it is attached to or embedded in its owner. In fact, it may be regarded as literally a partalbeit a dependent and ontologically inferior partof that owner.

Now painters and poets are mimetic artists, renderers. Painters undertake to render three-dimensional arrangements of physical objects and to do so on a two-dimensional surface, using as their medium line and color. Tragic poets undertake to render human agents engaged in spontaneous morally significant action and to do so on a stage before an audience, using as their medium the rehearsed movements and speeches of actors. One may take these renderers at their word when they say that they are out to replicate important worldly originals to the full extent it is in their power to do so. Still, what extent is that? Given the materials he must work in and the way he must manipulate these materials to count as a painter or poet at all, the most such an imitator can ever accomplish by way of replicating his original is to produce a second worldly particular almost entirely unlike the first except for possessing an exactly similar appearance. His would-be traffic in second-rate entities (worldly particulars) comes to no more than a traffic in third-rate entities (appearances). "Imitation is far removed from the truth, for it touches only a small part of a thing and a part that is itself only an image" (598b).

Add that what meets the eye (or ear) about an important or valuable object seldom if ever includes what makes it behave as it does or what makes it a good or bad thing of its kind, and one will have powerful reason for suspecting that the theoretically and practically decisive aspects of worldly particulars lie beyond the reach of the senses, hence beyond the reach of the particular media that make painters painters and poets poets. Echoes of Plato's reasoning abound in texts as recent as Susan Sontag's On Photography (1977).

Thinkers who reject Plato's metaphysics and his deprecatory attitude toward painting nevertheless often agree that depiction consists in the partial replication in a new and alien medium of a certain superficial aspect of the depicted thing's nature, something inherently capable of meeting the eye, call it the depicted thing's outward appearance. Such thinkers have various ways of embracing Plato's account of depiction's workings while avoiding his negative conclusions about painting's value. Sometimes they insist that depictive success is one thing and artistic success is something different and deeper. Sometimes they insist with Oscar Wilde that there is nothing superficial about surfaces.

There have always been dissenters, of course. One is René Descartes, who insists that engravings successfully portray the things they depict as having lots of properties they could not possibly share with those things. Indeed, when it comes to objects standing at a great distance or whose accurate depiction requires foreshortening, "the perfection of an image often depends on its not resembling its object as much as it might" (Descartes 1985, Optics, Discourse IV, AT 113). Descartes thereby prepares his reader for the alarming thought that our most useful and reliable sense-based ideas resemble their originals as little as engravings do theirs.

Gombrich and the Pursuit of Illusion

A vast renewal of philosophical interest in depiction begins in the 1950s with the work of the art historian E. H. Gombrich. Like Hermann von Helmholtz, Karl R. Popper, R. L. Gregory, and others, Gombrich holds that the content of visual experience is produced in a kind of unconscious inference by the human visual system to the best available explanation of the available retinal stimuli. (The stimuli on which visual system inferences are ultimately based remain permanently out of introspective reach.) The conceptual resources a visual system may draw on in framing these hypotheses include any and all concepts available to its owner and the standards by means of which it assesses them are sensitive to the full range of beliefs, expectations, and practical priorities its owner brings to the task of seeing what is before his eyes. The beholder's share in determining the content of his own visual experience is therefore substantial indeed; there is no such thing as the appearance a thing can possess when accurately seen from a particular physical viewpoint.

Only one particular kind of image, the naturalistic kind, is out to replicate an appearance taken on by a particular object in a particular context for a particular sort of appropriately prepared spectator. Naturalistic image making catches on only in particular cultural traditions at particular times. Images more generally are best conceived as substitutes for the things they depict, standing in for them in various forms of ritual and imaginative activity and sharing with them only the handful of specific properties, visible and otherwise, required for this special purpose. (Think of how a hobby horse stands in for a real horse.) In this sense, making (the production of substitutes) comes before and is more generally prevalent than matching (the production of objects designed to visually match the things they depict under appropriate objective and subjective conditions).

Consider a naturalistic image maker, out to capture some particular appearance of the particular object she is about to depict. Just as there is no way for her to set aside the effects of past encounters with other objects when it comes to trying to see this one accurately, there is no way for her to set aside the effects of past efforts to depict other objects when it comes to trying to render her depiction of this one appropriately responsive to how she now sees it. Instead she must rely on habits, routines, and formulas inherited from past image-making practice to give her a skeletal generic image of an object of the right general kind, which she then works over in a trial-and-error manner until she finally achieves a convincing likeness of this particular object. Naturalistic image making is a process of schema and correction.

Such small-scale explorations contribute to the larger-scale explorations conducted in image-making communities as they invent, refine, and promulgate redeployable techniques for appearance-capturing techniques based on hard-won empirical insights into how the human visual system works. Foreshortening, tonal modeling, and the various perspective systems are major inventions of this sort, but there are countless smaller ones: Think of Rembrandt's readily imitated trick of suggesting the glint of gold braid with a few loose, broad dots and dashes of yellow paint. When and where the naturalistic project catches on in the first place, the history of art largely consists in the history of such progressive innovation. When and where it does not catch on, art may change over time, but not in ways that possess the large-scale narrative coherence historians demand.

The history of art may be described as the forging of master keys for opening the mysterious locks of our senses to which only nature herself originally held the key. Like the burglar who tries to break a safe, the artist has no direct access to the inner mechanism. He can only feel his way with sensitive fingers, probing and adjusting his hook or wire when something gives way. Of course, once the door springs open, once the key is shaped, it is easy to repeat the performance. The next person needs no special insightno more, that is, than is needed to copy his predecessor's master key (Gombrich 1961, pp. 359360).

Gombrich's relation to Plato is complex. When properly experienced, a successful naturalistic image partially replicates an appearance the depicted object is capable of taking on. But this appearance is not a superficial part of the object; it is an effect of the object on a particular spectator made possible by the particular concepts and concerns he brings to the act of seeing. The artist devises her own means of achieving some of the effects the depicted object would have on a spectator's visual system if it were standing before him. But limitations inherent in her mediathe restricted range of lights and darks available from her paints and inks, the manifest flatness of the surface on which she deposits these substancesensure in advance that her replication of the object's appearance is partial at best. A depiction takes on the appearance the artist intends it to take on only if the spectator actively brings to his inspection of it the highly particular mental set the artist intends for him.

Still, and here Gombrich again sides with Plato, the experience the naturalistic image maker means to induce in the spectator is one in which it is for him as if he were seeing the depicted object face to face. This means he manages to neglect the lack of appropriate color (in drawings), the lack of appropriate binocular disparity (in full-color paintings of nearby objects), and so on. It also means that as the picture takes on its intended appearance for him, the content of his visual experience of the picture has less and less to do with the picture, and more and more to do with the thing depicted. He loses sight of the depiction in favor of the thing depicted, with the result that the specific devices by means of which the image maker induces the intended experience drop from visual awareness at the very moment they achieve their intended effect. Gombrich concludes that naturalistic image makers are inducers of illusion and that illusion obliterates its own conditions.

This illusion will be available to a given spectator only if he can approach the painting with its called-for mental set, hence only if he can readily identify this set and readily assume it without detailed instructions. Pictorial intelligibility is a special case of communicative intelligibility, depending on a rich, historically variable, culturally conditioned stock of expectations, assumptions, and conventions. In order to generate and disappear into an appropriate illusion, a set of marks must first be correctly interpreted as a communicative gesture on the part of the artist. Like Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson before him, Gombrich olds that to understand any communicative gesture, one must view it as a choice from among a fixed range of available alternatives, owing its significance in part to the natural significance of certain dimensions of difference (darker tones are naturally taken to signal darker objects, more vigorous gestures to signal greater urgency), in part to the conventional fact that one is tacitly but publicly committed to working within such and such a restricted set of choices (only these tones, only these gestures). To this extent, at any rate, art is a language, a system of signals resting on contingent and mutable conventions that must be internalized and respected by artists and audiences alike. All three main approaches to understanding depiction draw heavily on Gombrich's work, accepting some strands of it while rejecting others.

Intelligibility Accounts

According to the intelligibility approach, pictures are distinctive in virtue of how one's ability as an audience member to make appropriate interpretive sense of them builds on and derives from one's ability as a perceiver to make appropriate visual sense of one's immediate physical surroundings.

J. J. Gibson (1971) holds that perceivers extract certain crucial elements of a picture's content (e.g., depicted recessions in depth) from features of the marked surface (e.g., texture gradients across that surface), using precisely the same methods they use to extract corresponding features of their real visual environment (e.g., actual recessions) from locally available features of the visual stimulus (e.g., texture gradients across one's visual field). Pictorial understanding is just routine environmental feature extraction applied to a special artificially contrived stimulus: a picture's marked surface. The proposal is closely bound up with Gibson's idiosyncratic account of ordinary visual perception, his environmental optics.

Flint Schier (1986) proposes that pictures exhibit a distinctive division of cognitive labor between the mastery of particular pictorial idioms and the ability to visually recognize a particular thing or kind when presented with it face to face. On the one hand, pictorial idioms possess natural generativity : every pictorial idiom is such as to make possible a picture so representative of the idiom as a whole that understanding this particular picture would suffice to confer a general competence with the entire idiom. On the other hand, the interpretation of any given picture P redeploys ordinary capacities for face-to-face visual recognition in such a manner that:

(1) a general competence with the idiom employed by P, and

(2) a capacity to recognize each of the particular things or kinds that P depicts (and each of the particular visually detectable properties and relations that figure in P's pictorial content)

are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for a given spectator to be able to understand P. As it stands, Schier's proposal makes no allowance for the depiction of particular people that nobody could recognize on sightChrist, for instancenor does it allow for the large role collateral information plays in the correct interpretation of many pictures. Still, it feels like a first approximation to an important insight.

Semiotic Accounts

According to the semiotic approach, pictures are conventional symbols in a richer sense than Gombrich allows. A symbol system involves syntactic rules that classify items as tokens of various permanently available symbol types, together with semantic rules determining what an object must be like if it is to comply with be such that it could be accurately symbolized bytokens of a given type. What differentiates pictures from other conventional symbols are distinctive structural features of the systems to which they belong and from which they derive their pictorial contentpictorial symbol systems.

Nelson Goodman (1976) never offers sufficient conditions for a system's being pictorial, but he declares that a system cannot be pictorial unless it is syntactically dense, semantically dense, and relatively replete. The effect of the first condition is to insist that there is no limit to how similar two pictorial symbol tokens can be while remaining tokens of distinct symbol types. The effect of the second is to insist that there is no limit to how similar two objects can be while remaining such that the accurate depiction of one and the accurate depiction of the other would require the deployment of two distinct symbol types, one for each. The effect of the third is to insist that a relatively large range of perceivable features of a given pictorial symbol token are relevant to determining its type. Yet depictions formed in the array of lights on a baseball scoreboard fail to exhibit any of Goodman's three features.

Commonly the most salient parts of a picture are depictions in their own right, depicting parts of the larger whole depicted by the bigger picture and arranged in a manner reflective of the arrangement in this larger whole of those depicted parts. This constitutes an interesting affinity between pictures and such manifestly conventional representations as maps and diagrams. Andrew Harrison (1991) infers from it that maps, diagrams, and pictures are conventional symbols, belonging to systems whose (compositional) syntax and semantics relate the part-whole structure of complex symbols to the part-whole structure of compliant objects in an especially simple and uniform manner. Yet while maps and diagrams often come equipped with keys explaining their simplest individual significant components, full-fledged pictures do not and apparently cannot come with anything comparable.

Experiential Accounts

According to the experiential approach, Gombrich is correct in thinking that pictures operate by inducing a distinctive kind of experience, with the thing depicted figuring in the content of that experience. But he is wrong to attribute an illusionist phenomenology to the experience. Instead we should conceive it as a unitary experience, visual at least in part, whose content involves both the depicted thing and various visible features of the depiction itself. There are three main stories about how this goes.

Experienced resemblance theorists (Peacocke 1987, Budd 1993, Hopkins 1998) hold that when one experiences a picture appropriately, one visually experiences it as resembling the thing or kind of thing it depicts with respect to certain of the visually detectable properties possessed by each. Hopkins's version of the theory centers on a highly relational property known as outline shape. Begin with the cone of rays connecting visible points on the object's facing surface to a given perceiver's point of view. Take the intersection of that cone with a plane perpendicular to the perceiver's line of sight. The shape of this intersection is the object's outline shape for the particular perceiver in question. Hopkins is at pains to argue that despite the arcane way outline shape is defined, people are ordinarily implicitly visually aware of the outline shapes of things around them. He contends that whenever one experiences portion D of marked surface P as depicting object O, one visually experiences the outline shape of P (as seen from where one actually stands) as resembling that of object O (as seen from an appropriate hypothetical place).

The most basic kind of pictorial content accruing to pictures in any given idiom consists of resemblances to parts of the picture surface itself with respect to some fixed list of visually detectable determinable properties renderable in that idiom. The list always includes outline shape; it sometimes includes such further properties as local color and texture. One can call the properties on such lists visual field properties. Hopkins maintains that portion D of picture P depicts object O if and only if we are meant to experience D (as seen from here) and O (as seen from some appropriate hypothetical place) as resembling one another with respect to the visual field properties renderable in P's idiom.

Hopkins's indebtedness to the optical approach to picturing running from figures like Euclid in the ancient world to figures like Leon Battista Alberti in the Renaissance is obvious enough. Yet when I inspect the portion of Pablo Picasso's Guernica depicting a lantern carrier, I am acutely aware that its outline shape resembles that of a teardrop. (It is by making me aware of this shape and this fact about it that Picasso suggests the haste and strain with which the lantern carrier peers into a scene of carnage from a position outside and behind it.) Still, I do not see the relevant portion of Guernica as depicting a teardrop, aware as I am and am meant to be of the just-mentioned resemblance in outline shape. Moreover, I do not experience the lantern carrier's neck and head as having an outline shape resembling that of the portion of Guernica by means of which they are depictedto wit, one very much like that of a teardrop. To do so, I would need to experience the lantern carrier himself as having a flat face and a neck tapering off to nothingand I do not.

Richard Wollheim (1987) begins by noticing cases in which one's experience of a differentiated flat surface (a muddy wall or a frosty windowpane) involves two distinct aspects:

(1) a configurational aspect, thanks to which one is visually aware (in a manner that is mostly veridical as far as it goes) of the surface itself and its variations in local color; and

(2) a recognitional aspect, thanks to which one is visually aware of various robustly three-dimensional things, things that are not and are not believed to be before one's eyes at the time of the experience (battling horsemen, dancers in gauzy dresses).

These two awarenesses are distinguishable but inseparable aspects of a single experience, an experience of seeing-in: seeing the relevant three-dimensional things in the relevant surface. The configurational aspect can be described on analogy with a veridical simple seeing of a differentiated surface, which it resembles both intrinsically and in its characteristic causal-psychological role. The recognitional aspect can be described on analogy with a face-to-face seeing of the things one in fact merely sees in the surface. However, one can be aware of a differentiated surface in the particular manner exhibited here only by using the surface to discern absent three-dimensional things, and one can be aware of discerned absent things in the particular manner exhibited here only by being aware of a differentiated surface whose features enable one to discern them in it. In at least this respect, (1) and (2) are inseparable aspects of a single experience. And although they can be described on analogy with the simpler experiences just mentioned, there is a sense in which a detailed point-for-point comparison between them and such simpler experiences is out of the question: seeing-in and the simpler experiences to which it is in various ways analogous are "phenomenologically incommensurate" (1987) Such, Wollheim thinks, is the twofoldness involved in seeing-in. A painting depicts a given subject matter when one is inferably meant to see that subject matter in its surface and can indeed do so.

Michael Podro (1998) takes over from Wollheim's early Art and Its Objects (1980) the suggestion that a pictorial representation proposes a kind of simile or figurative comparison whose terms are the marked surface D and the subject O. And he adopts from I. A. Richards an interactionist view of figuration, on which any really deep comparison restructures one's thinking about both terms, reshaping one's thoughts about each on the model of one's thoughts about the other.

On the recognitional side of things, Podro insists that for depiction to occur, it is not enough that one's inspection of D activates one's capacity to recognize O in O's acknowledged absence; one must exploit one's recognition of X in a sustained, successful effort to visualize O. On the configurational side, he insists that one's awareness of D is never simply an awareness of how D is differentiated (lighter here, darker there; redder here, greener there); instead, it is framed in terms of how one takes the artist to have made her marks and handled her medium. There are at least two departures from Wollheim here. There is now a difference in kind between the configurational aspect of seeing a subject in a picture and the configurational aspect of seeing a dancer in a frosty windowpane. And configurational awareness is no longer largely veridical; the impressions a painter's marks generate about the manner of their making may be as designedly fanciful as the impressions a dancer's movements generate about the manner of their making. Configurational and recognitional awareness restructure each other repeatedly as one searches O (the represented subject) for real or merely fancied counterparts of what one has already discerned in D (the way the surface has been worked) and vice versa.

If Wollheim views depiction as one of several modes of pictorial meaning, Kendall Walton (1990) views it as lying at the heart of one of several related forms of make-believe pervading the cultural lives of children and adults alike. A game of make-believe is a form of individual or collective imaginative activity in which what players are to imagine comes under the sway of rules or norms of a certain special kind: given the rules of the game in question, what they are to imagine about themselves, the things around them, and reality at large (what is fictional ) becomes a fixed function of what is actually and discernibly the case about them, the things around them, and reality at large (what is discernibly true). The rules of such games may be maddeningly difficult to state, yet people seem awfully good at playing them and awfully invested in doing so.

Walton proposes in effect that a depiction D of an object O is a prop in a game of make-believe whose role in the game to which it belongs has the following features:

(1) The player is to look at and thereby come to see the object D

(2) He is to imagine about his act of looking at D that it is instead an act of looking at O, and about his resulting experience of seeing D that it is instead an experience of seeing O

(3) He is to manage the foregoing lookings, seeings, and imaginings in such a manner that he imagines looking at and thereby coming to see Oand imagines it both (a) vividly and (b) from the inside

(4) The game leaves him free to look at D in any of a wide range of ways, tending to result in a correspondingly wide range of experiences of seeing D

(5) How he is to imagine himself looking at O depends in a richly detailed manner on how he actually ends up looking at D, and the nature and content of the experience of seeing O he is to imagine having as a result depends in a richly detailed manner on the nature and content of the experience of seeing D he actually ends up having

Even the most naturalistic images continue to function as Gombrichian substitutes. When such a game is played, the called-for imaginings are such that they could not take place in the absence of the called-for perceivings, since they are about those perceivings, take those perceivings as their objects. It is equally true that the called-for perceivings could not take place in the absence of the called-for imaginings, since the perceivings involved in the execution of any demanding exploratory project are colored by it, owe their phenomenal character to it, and contain thoughts specifying its goals. This suffices to account for our sense that a spectator's visual experience of a picture is a unitary experience with two different kinds of subject matter: the depicted thing on the one hand, the depiction itself on the other.

The Future of Depiction Theory

In the last years of the twentieth century, the perceptual hypothesis account of vision favored by Gombrich lost ground to the modular computational account advocated by David Marr (1982). Many now regard vision as the computation of an accurate spatial model of one's immediate physical surroundings, from raw data about intensity distributions across the visual field, via a fixed set of speedy unconscious algorithms that provably deliver the goods in all but a special and statistically rare set of working conditionsalgorithms having no access to the higher recognitional capacities of the person who steers through the world with their help. The various mathematical representations computationalists must appeal to in dividing the task of vision into manageable subtasks turn out to bear striking structural affinities to various familiar kinds of picture. The work of Michael Baxandall (1995), John Willats (1997), and Patrick Maynard (2005) constitute the beginnings of an effort to make principled sense of the whole range of psychologically natural pictorial idioms (and the uses and limitations of each) in a manner informed by emerging computational accounts of vision. What impact these emerging accounts of how pictures differ will eventually have on the best philosophical accounts of how pictures are alike it is too soon to tell.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Art, Authenticity in; Descartes, René; Goodman, Nelson; Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig von; Plato; Popper, Karl Raimund; Wollheim, Richard.


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David Hills (2005)

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