How modern art eliminated the viewer. The search for smart paintings

The process by which knowledge is transposed from human consciousness to a domain of objective concepts and theories has been well documented. It pertains to our judgments, about which it is always possible to be right or wrong. Now, we should expect to find a similar transposition of other functions of mental life and, preeminently among them, the transposition of perception from the human subject to the objects perceived. Perception can be in the things perceived only if they have perception: before the artwork we discover that something identical with ourselves in our capacity as beholders, our ability to see, is already there. The fate of the visual arts was to depend on the success of this transposition, by which art might hope to aspire to something very similar to scientific objectivity. From this perspective, Clement Greenberg was right in claiming that the arts could save themselves only by showing that they too could avail themselves of the methods of criticism and science. The alternative to be feared was their assimilation to entertainment, the perennial threat of modern life.

We want to know how objects can exist without a beholder or spectator. Rather than a sudden elimination of the beholder, however, we must look for a process of successive exclusions, a process subject to sudden reversals and hesitations. For one could say of human consciousness what has been said of nature: you can drive it out with a pitchfork, but it keeps on coming back. Offering his acute analysis of the evolution of French painting in the second half of the eighteenth century, Michael Fried could not help being struck by one central paradox, a paradox which I think provides a perfect example for the problem we are trying to investigate here. The painters Fried is interested in were attempting to depict figures so absorbed in their activities and feelings that they appeared entirely oblivious of the viewer who, as the very nature of the arts go, must be standing before the painting. In view of more recent developments, this strategy may seem too simple, too literal and literary, and in a way it is, because it was obviously aimed at creating works of art of such expression and quality, sometimes defined almost exclusively in terms of how absorbed the depicted figures looked, that the real viewer would be held in front of the painting in a state of reverie and delight. And sometimes what seems like a wholehearted abandonment of perception is perhaps better seen as the more limited elimination of the beholder.

Stressing use over contemplation and placing art as a backdrop to activity, artists like Liam Gillick, Jorge Pardo and Rirkrit Tiravanija seem to want to create a spectacular in which the viewer is just another element of the visual complex. The autonomy of the image, the purity of optical experience, lost by making the viewer a willing or unwilling participant in the artwork, is regained and intensified when his movements add to the wealth and unpredictability of what can be seen, even if there is no one to see it. As in the crowded streets of a modern city or department store, each person is only a spectator for a short moment before turning into an object of curiosity for someone else, who cannot help being watched in turn, in a seemingly endless chain. 

What kind of intellectual transposition should we expect to find in this sphere? In what ways must perception be transformed if it is to become a property of objects themselves rather than the human beholder for whom they are said to exist? In what sense can this property help us understand the specific nature of artworks and the relation between artworks and mere objects? When Hegel argued that artistic objects are material objects which have received the baptism of the spiritual, he meant to reflect on the strange fact that a work of art, being a product of the mind, continues to belong to the world of the mind, even as it migrates into the material of stone, wood or canvas. Clearly, in this strange hybrid we may expect to find all the certainty of matter and all the life of perception. In the case of works of art, what we see already tells us how it is to be seen, the objects in front of us already include the ways in which they are to be experienced; it is part of the work of art to see the world in a certain way.

Interestingly, from this perspective, the history of modern art should not be seen as the progressive conquest of appearance, the effort to portray the external world with perfect realism, the infusion of human subjectivity with the objective nature of reality. This history will make more sense if we see it the other way around, as the slow assimilation of human consciousness by paintings and sculptures which, as the saying goes, start to breathe and look alive. Here we come upon a transformation scene, the process by which human vision acquires new characteristics, such that they can be appropriated by objects or things existing in the material world external to human consciousness. But this process is much more ambiguous than even its enunciation supposes, for we know that a number of cognitive and experiential qualities make a decisive contribution to human vision, one which is perhaps not immediately apparent but which can nevertheless hardly be denied. If artworks are sometimes said to embody a certain way of seeing, it would seem that they can do so only in relation to the cognitive capacities of human beings. And when it is said, not without justification, that modern art has moved in the direction of the purely visual at the cost of all tactile associations, this should be interpreted with caution. It is perhaps more accurate to say, even if the claim sounds at first much stranger, that the arts have invented a new understanding of the visual, one from which all previous associations have been methodically eliminated.

Our story does, in a sense, begin here. Although the understanding of vision as a cognitive process seems almost impossible to avoid, modern artists have been adamant that one can, at the very least, develop something like a critique of perceptual knowledge. By that I mean the methodical separation of what is genuine perceptual knowledge from all that it is associated with but which is something else. With the invention of perspective, the way is open for a way of seeing that is invariable in space and time, a way of seeing belonging to a transcendental, immobile ego, removed from duration and deprived of even the actual physical movements of eye or neck. What has rarely been stressed is that the invention of perspective, by introducing these limitations, brings the qualities of perception very close to the qualities of a physical object, thus laying the ground for the attempt to project an image outwards from the physical surface of the canvas. The eye of perspective shares with the painted canvas the twin impossibilities of changing and moving, of living and walking. And it is not only in the laws of perspective that this metamorphosis takes place. When an artist opts to represent a golden calf by dabs of ochre and umber paint rather than gold leaf, he has no doubt sacrificed a measure of illusion: we can no longer experience the change of highlights as we change position that would no doubt be experienced in the presence of a real golden calf, or any real shiny surface. Now it is true that he has to do so if he wants to preserve other elements of illusion, such as the position of the calf within the surrounding space, which may be, all things considered, much more important or even decisive. That said, we cannot help but think that the painter was not aware of a choice or a compromise, since the only effect he lost was that produced by a change of position in relation to the painting, and the greatest artists knew from the start that they were creating a painting, which cannot move and does not change its position.

The development towards what came to be known as the painterly style of the seventeenth century moved in the same direction. The new style has its roots only in the eye. Attention withdraws from the clear outlines of things, the boundaries or lines of solid objects. But what were these lines if not the echo of our physical grasp upon things and how could the operations of the hand survive without thereby denying or negating the medium in which painting exists? In the unified surface of the canvas there can be no clear boundaries, only gradations. Impressionists began from this premise. We know what work they produced. Monet, for example: “Gradually the objects he represented lost their consistency, everything was resolved into the flat mosaic of color patches which is, of course, a more or less accurate account of what the retina receives or what things would look like if our minds had never learned to interpret it as representing solid objects in space.” As Roger Fry recognizes, we may think of this idea as a scientific one. Crucially, its success depends on the systematic elimination of the self, the effort to discover what things would look like if vision came from these things and not from ourselves. When abstraction reached its apparent conclusion in Jackson Pollock, it is possible to argue that the new pictorial field is purely optical, in a sense that seems to imply that only those elements of human vision have be preserved which can be shared by the visual powers of a painted canvas: not only is line freed from its function of representing the natural world, but also, as Michael Fried puts it, “from its task of describing or bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational, on the surface of the canvas.” All those shapes and figures which possess a character because we ourselves possess a body. 

The static vision introduced by perspective painting remains tied to the human beholder in one obvious respect: the illusion of the third dimension. By comparing a painting to a window, the early theorists of perspective had strongly intimated that painting does not introduce a new way of seeing the world as much as it appeals to the ideal type of a purely transparent medium placed between consciousness and the world. One sees what is in the painting before and sometimes instead of seeing it as a painting.Another way to think about this question is to note that the painting conceived as a window separated the spectator from the world on the other side, effectively removing him from the depicted scene, while failing to erect a similar screen between painting and beholder. In the world of linear perspective, with its powerful abstractions from movement and the body, consciousness is no longer to be understood as human consciousness, but neither can it be confined to the restricted space of the artwork. What is most essential to a painting by Pollaiuolo, the illusion of space and depth, is just what the painting cannot provide on its own. As John Berger argues, “in front of the Pollaiuolo, the spectator completes the painting.”

Compare this to a cubist painting. Here the surface is the real arbiter of the imagination: the beholder may choose from a very great number of viewpoints, but no viewpoint can offer us anything like a spatial relationship between all the forms in the painting. Rather, as Berger puts it, the totality of forms is the flat surface of the painting: “The viewing point of Renaissance perspective, fixed and outside the picture, but to which everything within the picture was drawn, has become a field of vision which is the picture itself.” Such a painting resists the simple and normal act of being seen by negating the existence of a world beyond the surface: everything which the painting depicts is contained within the painting itself and the beholder can bring nothing to this depiction. In fact, as Gombrich famously argued, it is possible to think of the function of representational elements and forms in cubist painting as introducing contrary clues so as to counter the effects of an illusionist reading: they are not used to inform us about guitars and apples, but to “narrow down the range of possible interpretations till we are forced to accept the flat pattern with all its tensions.” A number of contradictions in cubist painting make it impossible to tell which of the shapes is meant to lie closer to or farther from the viewer. An artist like Mondrian is much less successful in countering the illusion of the third dimension.

Greenberg describes this process in dramatic language: “The picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas; where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other.” Greenberg, of course, argued that what is unique and irreducible in each art is the nature of its medium and therefore, in the case of painting, the flatness of the surface, the only condition it shares with no other art. But uniqueness alone cannot be a sufficient justification. The attraction of the surface has other roots. What happens as the fictive planes of depth grow closer and closer is that the specific character of human perception is slowly eliminated. To perceive is to draw a certain conclusion or to make an educated guess about reality based on ambiguous sense impressions. If we reduce a picture to the actual surface of the canvas, impressions detach themselves from us. They are free of the laws of human perception insofar as the flat canvas is a prohibition on interpretation: there is no room, no space for interpretation.

Manet dispensed with glazes in order to reveal as clearly as possible the reality of the canvas and the paint, that is, the reality of color on a surface. When he used black and gray, they acted as independent colors, with all the brightness of color, rather than darkness, shading, or modeling. I see two reasons why one might decide to stop using darkness and shading. First, it is easy to imagine certain conditions under which darkness has more or less disappeared: a landscape in a bright, sunny day shows us that shade is less a property of nature than a human modification of the natural world. Second, and more decisively, darkness can only belong to the world of solids, not to a flat canvas. If he wants to remain faithful to the medium with which he works, the painter is forced to recreate shape and form on the basis of color alone. It is inevitable that this new choice may prove a source of pleasure for the viewer, who has suddenly been introduced to a world of intense light and brightness, but the crucial point lies clearly elsewhere, and in Cézanne it is not only darkness but also light which we feel is sacrificed to the play of color. Rilke was thus able to claim that it is only with Cézanne that black and white “behave perfectly colorlike next to the other colors,” since in Manet black still “has the effect of a light being switched off.” More importantly, perhaps, by reducing individual objects to a common material element, that of paint itself, Cézanne replaces the cognitive elements of vision with a pure logic of the object, patches of color following one another according to a certain law. Whether these patches represent a mountain or a cloudy sky can be surmised only in relation to other patches or, rather, to the structure of the whole. In themselves they do not represent anything. It is the relationships between them that complete the picture. The painting teaches us how it should be seen, reproducing in its finished form the process by which it was created.