Style and the agency in art

Title: Style and the agency in art

Publication: S. Sedivy (ed) Art, Representation, and Make-Believe: Essays on the Philosophy of Kendall L. Walton. Routledge.

Date: 2021


Abstract: If I treat something as art I need to see how it manifests the choices, preferences, actions and sensibilities of the maker. In developing this idea I begin with Kendall Walton’s essay “Style and the products and processes of art”. From there the discussion will broaden in scope: from stylistic attributions to a much larger class of artistically relevant properties. Having made clear, I hope, how far appreciation of the work depends on understanding its history of making I will ask how the work/making connection affects what is often called the “ontology of art”. Under that grim heading I once argued, in revisionist fashion, that art works are the actions performed in painting or composition. The canvas on the wall is, on this view, the result of that act and therefore constitutive of the work: nothing can be the act of painting a canvas that does not result in a canvas being painted. We may call this strategy expansionism: the work is a bigger, more complex entity than we realised. I’m now wary of expansionist ambitions. I’ll try out a theory that combines an extremely inclusive account of what determines a work’s value with an extremely minimalist account of what the work actually is. If it thrives, we do justice to the appreciative work/agency connection from a metaphysics that is impeccably conservative; it will commit me to no more than the view that Duccio’s Maestà (the work itself) is a certain construction of wood and pigment, part of which is currently in the National Gallery. What could be less disturbing to a folk ontologist?

Pictures and their surfaces

Title: Pictures and their surfaces

Publication: J. Pelletier & A. Voltolini (eds) Pictorial Experience and Aesthetic Appreciation. Routledge, pp.249-269

Date: 2018


Abstract: Marks on a surface are capable of having a complex and very special interest for us when they are depictive marks. Such marks may point in two directions: forward, to the scene depicted, and backwards, to the activity of the artist. They are both depictive marks and traces of intentional activity with an affective as well as a mimetic (representational) function. I explain what, according to my slightly idiosyncratic definition, it takes for a mark to be a trace; roughly speaking, traces are marks which carry information about the circumstances of their production and allow that information to function in a certain way. This way of functioning is not easy to summarise but involves a kind of sympathetic response in the body of the viewer based on automatic or near-automatic tendencies of bodily imitation. Traces give us a pre-conceptual, embodied sense of their own origins in movement. Marks on surfaces may have both these functions: depiction and trace. The may have either, or neither. I introduce some examples of the kinds of marks that interest me via a discussion of Titian’s late painting and the contemporary reaction to it, and of the debate between Ingres and Delacroix. I am interested in the different ways these different kinds of pictures are experienced, especially those which possess depictive qualities but do not display traces. To understand this better I introduce the idea of a co-incident picture: one wherein any variation in the visible properties of the marked surface corresponds to some variation in the visible features of the depicted scene. Generally, the marks on the surfaces of such pictures do not have trace-function. But it will turn out that pictures of this kind come in very different kinds. Paintings and drawings in this class often have an interest which centres on their absence of trace-qualities; photographs and film images, by contrast, lack trace-qualities but their doing so is a non-salient feature of them. It is this, I argue, which means that paintings and drawings of all kinds have aesthetic surfaces while photographs and film images do not.

Visually attending to fictional things

Title: Visually attending to fictional things

Publication: Fiona McPherson & Fabian Dorsch (eds) Perceptual Imagination and Perceptual Memory, Oxford University Press, pp.186-208

Date: 2018


Abstract: There is a kind of perceptual-imaginative experience we have when we watch screen-based fictions. In such situations it is natural to think of ourselves as “watching Robin Hood” rather than as watching Errol Flynn dressed as Robin Hood. Screen-based fictions are not the only fictions that allow this kind of experience but they encourage it in ways that theatrical dramas cannot quite match, while still photographs do a poor job in this regard. This chapter offers an explanation of this kind of experience, partly by reference to features of the screen medium and partly by reference to aspects of human perceptual-cognitive architecture. The architectural story will tell us something about imagination that reflection on the phenomenology of imaginative experience fails to disclose. The resulting picture may also help us to understand certain kinds of delusions.

Empathy for objects

Title: Empathy for objects

Publication: Goldie and Coplan (eds) Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press. 82-98

Date: 2012


Abstract: We think of empathy as an intimate, feeling‐based understanding of another's inner life. We do not think of it as a way of understanding inanimate objects. Yet a century ago, talk of empathy for objects would have seemed very natural; it was the theme of a group of thinkers whose writings helped to found the notion of empathy itself. They were particularly interested in empathy as a means of attending to the aesthetic properties of things. I examine some versions of this program, and then move on to see what light can be shed on their idea of empathy for objects by current research in the sciences of mind. I identify a class of processes which, I claim, underlie empathy for objects as well as personal empathy; these processes are often called simulative in a special sense that I will explain. I then have two questions to which I seek answers of at least a preliminary sort. What sort of access to worldly things is it that we are given by these simulative processes; is it, in particular, a perceptual form of access? Second, what role if any does awareness of these processes play in our aesthetic encounters with things?

The irony in pictures

Title: The irony in pictures

Publications: British Journal of Aesthetics, 51(2), 148-167

Date: 2011


Abstract: Pictures are sometimes said to be ironic. In many cases this is an error—the error of confusing an ironic picture with a picture of an ironic situation. Nevertheless some pictures are ironic, and there are two interestingly different ways for that to be the case. A picture may be ironic in style, in which case its irony is independent of the context in which it is presented; or a picture may be ironic by virtue of its context of presentation. Having sorted this out, we can solve two problems: why do we often make mistakes about the irony in pictures? The answer has something to do with the nature of pictures themselves. Is the irony which is sometimes represented in a picture ever the product of the picture itself? The answer, yes, shows that there is a closer connection than we might otherwise have thought between the irony of representations and the irony represented in representations.