Subjectivism in the Theory of Pictorial Art

The Monist 86 (4):676-701 (2003)
1. A new wave of subjectivism in the theory of pictorial art began around forty years ago; and since then it has gathered pace in tandem with changing fashions in the philosophy of mind. The initial impetus was provided by the publication of Ernst Gombrich’s 1956 Mellon Lectures, Art and Illusion.1 In this book, and in many subsequent articles and lectures which elaborate its theme, Gombrich argues that the development of Western art – essentially the art of ancient Greece and the art of Western Europe from Giotto to Cezanne – consists in a series of discoveries about the nature of visual perception, and the means by which the effect of visible objects on our senses can be simulated. ‘What may make a painting like a distant view through a window’ he writes, ‘is not the fact that the two can be as indistinguishable as is a facsimile from the original: it is the similarity between the mental activities both can arouse.’ And in another place: ‘The goal which the artist seeks with such self-critical persistence is … a psychological effect.’2 These remarks are concerned with a specific artistic tradition, and with specific pictorial devices, such as foreshortening and shading, which I shall not write about here. But Gombrich’s work launched a search for a general theory of depiction based on the same approach. The search intensified in the wake of Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art, which persuaded most of its readers that the resemblance theory of depiction could not be made to work, but did not provide a plausible alternative to it. Today there is broad agreement among philosophers that the nature of pictorial art cannot be explained by analysing the relationship between the marks on the surface of a picture and the kinds of objects that they represent. The consensus is that it can only be explained by defining the psychological effect that these marks produce.3 Today, the two most influential theories of depiction that are guided by this general idea are Richard Wollheim’s and Christopher Peacocke’s..
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