Painting an experience: Las meninas, consciousness and the aesthetic mode

Journal of Consciousness Studies 15 (9):40-45 (2008)
Paintings are usually paintings of things: a room in a palace, a princess, a dog. But what would it be to paint not those things, but the experience of seeing those things? Las Meninas is sufficiently sophisticated and masterfully executed to help us explore this question. Of course, there are many kinds of paintings: some abstract, some conceptual, some with more traditional subjects. Let us start with a focus on naturalistically depictive paintings: paintings that aim to cause an experience in the viewer that is similar to the experience the viewer (or someone else) might have were they to see, in a way not mediated by paint, the subject of the painting. Of course, many or even most paintings do not strictly adhere to this aim; indeed, their artistry and expressiveness often consist in the ways in which this aim is subverted. For example, no viewer of the scene that Las Meninas depicts -- not even King Philip IV and Queen Mariana themselves -- would see what Velasquez paints in the mirror on the back wall. Other artists, such as Escher and Magritte, are even more blatant in their transgression of naturalism. But even in such cases, the aim of naturalistic depiction is the departure point for the aesthetic journey of perception and meaning. Asking our question is a natural consequence of rejecting dualism: if experiences are as much a part of the natural world as canvases, courtiers and Chamberlains, then they, too, should be capable of being painted. On the other hand, only the visible can be depicted in the sense described above, and rejecting dualism does not bring with it the implication that everything that is, is visible. One answer to our question, then, is pessimistic: there can be no painting of an experience, because experiences cannot be seen. Unlike the Infanta Margarita, and like justice, the number two, or feudal obligation, experiences, on this view, are not visible. But is this pessimism tenable? Wittgenstein writes: 'The timidity does not seem to be merely associated, outwardly connected, with the face; but fear is alive there, alive, in the features' (Wittgenstein, 1953, §537). Similarly, McDowell (1978) maintains that we see another's pain in their expression, and their behaviour. To think otherwise invites solipsism.
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