Monday, December 1st, 2003

Richard Wollheim: 1923-2003

R.B.Kitaj Richard Wollheim-Study for Three Philosophers (detail) 1976 Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd
R.B.Kitaj, Richard Wollheim-Study for Three Philosophers (detail) 1976 Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd

To me, then, it is as though my body consists of nought but ciphers which give me the key to everything; or as if we could enter into a new and hopeful relationship with the whole of existence if only we began to think with the heart.
– Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “The Letter of Lord Chandos”

Le seul paradis c’est le paradis perdu.
– Marcel Proust

Socialist. Aesthete. We can scarce bear that our loves, our various and varying loves, should not be able, always and fully, to tolerate each other – and so it is that the child continues to live with the adult – and yet, such is the demand placed upon any self, any being that would aspire to wholeness as a person. Hilary Robinson, the aesthete of economically modest background, is the means by which Henry James, in The Princess Casamassima, dramatised such claims upon wholeness: if, at one point, the point of acculturation, of social acceptance and passage into the privilege of ease, art is adornment, soon, the space of breathing provided by ease, makes of art an attainment and one that is irreversible, and being so its claims upon oneself intransigent. How, then, must the aesthete Hilary Robinson – since he must he must – reconcile the attainment of beauty and its claims upon full consciousness with the social, ethical and political claims of conscience, equally intransigent, and, unlike the ease of art, without the auroras of seductions? As is well known, the dilemmas, feints, velleities and losses entailed in the tensions lead the anarchist and aesthete that was Hilary Robinson to self-slaughter – but the tensions dramatised in James’ novel, published in 1886 – year of Symbolism,vers libre, anarchist attentats – have never gone away, indeed, they are the politico-existential core of modernist and avant-garde sensibility, wheter in an Eliot or a Debord.

It is unlikely that the claims of “art for art’s sake” – let us say, as outlined in the preface to $Mademoiselle de Maupin – are redeemable, unlikely, that is, because its language, or more specifically, its idiom, has long since acquired the fragrance, the essence of period flavour, and the stories through which it might be evoked no longer command the attention. The Dandy has made something of a return, but one cannot imagine that Baudelaire, still less Brummell or the fastidious Pater, would recognise any of these $revendications – and no genetic testing has yet been devised for affairs of the spirit; and though aestheticism, too, has undergone some re-habilitation in recent times, one cannot avoid the sensation that it is, as with so much else in what is fondly called $the art-world, something of a ready-to-wear kind.

The French language has two forms for the English word power: pouvoir – let that be brute power – and puissance – let this be more than influence, yet no where near the urgency of power, in the way in which once upon a time one might have have spoken of a puissant sovereign. The philosopher Richard Wollheim, who died at dawn in his London home on 4 November 2003, is amongst those whose power had nothing whatsoever to do with the politics of the art-world, and everything to do with presence, elegance, insight and the experience of truth – indeed, with love, the only means by which criticism of art can exist – and all, strangely, even at times, disconcertingly, conveyed in the manners of imperturbability.

To have met him, even only once as I had the good fortune with my former wife and our elder daughter Sophie-Thérèse joining in at our Chicago home in May 2003, is to realise that Wollheim’s was the manner of thought and superb conversation – fortunately or no, good conversation is not democratic – and in this he resembled his friend and mentor the late Isaiah Berlin. The ideal was never writing – the use of numbered sections or paragraphs in his books is a way of not imposing specious unity, and nearly all is books grew out of lectures – for the ideal was of conversation, all the while recognising a place for writing as meditative practice (and surely it is this that is captured in his wife Mary Day’s portrait of him at work?). It is an ideal, a pose, even, that allows for the balance of seriousness and play, cutting wit and necessary distance: the reality of this ideal made Wollheim, like Berlin, utterly beyond the dangers of provincial Englishness, and open as only a cosmopolitain can be.

The seriousness of art in his life and thinking, following on from his mentor Adrian Stokes, could hardly be said to be “typically English” – here one is reminded of how Kenneth Clark, an admirer of the earliest Stokes, dropped him after Stokes had discovered Melanie Klein not only as his analyst but also for his art criticism – and yet everything about the manner bespoke a very particular generation and class of Englishman for whom questions of justice, power and art were never negligible. (Amongst the continued damage done by the temporary triumph of Stalinist Communism – which André Breton so brilliantly described as a form ofmoral extermination – is the continued difficulty of hearing this form of socialism.)

At the centre of his thinking throughout his life – and here I would include his early study of F.H. Bradley (1959), a figure of more than passing interest to T.S. Eliot and Adrian Stokes – were questions concerning the nature, extent and power of artistic $experience in the inner life. As a disciple of Adrian Stokes and Melanie Klein, the term $inner life was not only in part synonym for the older Romanticimagination, but was the means by which, through the larger architecture of psycho-analysis, the study of art could be retrieved from an aetiolated aestheticism and a descriptively impoverished professional philosophy of art and placed at the heart of understanding human cognition, motivation and value, and in so doing recover the radical (psychological and epistemological) claims of nineteenth-century aestheticism. (It is this that differentiates Wollheim from such respected predecessors such as R.G. Collingwood and Suzanne K. Langer.) Where many of the dominant philosophers of his generation – I do not include here the incomparable Stuart Hampshire or the late Bernard Williams – studied the philosophy of mind either through science or neo-Wittgensteinian language-games, all the better to emphasise the sociality of behaviour – for there is nothing hidden, no innerness – Wollheim, drawing upon Klein and Stokes (from his 1969 book $Art and Its Objects to his Mellon Lectures Painting as an Art, 1987) studied the art-object as a way of addressing the question of what it means to know another mind, and he did so by subtly adapting and extending for philosophy of mind the mechanisms of introjection and projection as not only psychological but social because historical structures in the development and growth of human identity and modes of relating to a distinctively human environment.

From this Wollheim could emphasise, with Merleau-Ponty with whom his work is in fundamental agreement, the central rôle of intention broadly conceived (what Merleau-Ponty called operant rather than act intentionality) to encompass desires, wishes, feelings, etc. in the process of mark-making by the artist and the consonant, but not identical, capacity to recognise, see-in the marks made significance.

There are, I think, two central aspects of what Wollheim called complex perceptioninvolved in artistic experience: first, and in this he follows Stokes, that the canvas – and painting, it has to be accepted, was Wollheim’s model of art – functions as a body: Stokes would say that “behind” the canvas is an imago, hence, for Wollheim as well as Stokes, all art, including abstraction, is an art of embodiment; second, and this aspect of Wollheim’s theory of art is underappreciated even by those who work with Wollheim’s conception of the internal spectator, that the artist is not only the first viewer of a work, but must necessarily adopt two different and distinctpostures in the creation of the work, namely as maker and as viewer. (No doubt one could if one wished address this in terms of the performative.) This entails a certain but necessary imperception on the part of the artist and means, furthermore, that the artist performs a role comparable to that of any viewer – indeed, is it not obvious that artists sit and stare longer at their works than most viewers could conceive? – and thereby the artist’s own relation to the created work poses for the maker – “For she was the maker of the song she sang” – the same claims of knowledge or ignorance as that to be found with any viewer of the work – “Whose spirit is this? we said.” This means of addressing the question of the emergence and definition of a work, which is materially comparable to the emergence and coming into definition of an emotion, eschews the central fear of much contemporary art-talk, namely, the so-called intentional fallacy and the correlative fear of the artist’s point of view.

One might, then, say of a Wollheimian account of artistic experience – by which I mean much more and something else than a theory of art whose technical concern is but to clear the ground – that it identifies a certain kind of object capable of bearing sustained and inter-subjective acts of attention; it is an object whose modes of depiction – textured mark-making on a flat surface – are distinctive but not unique to it, hence, in his appreciation of De Kooning in Painting as an Art (1987), Wollheim is able to see-in the work the re-activation and embodiment of primitive actions of infantile experience: sucking, excreting, wetting, gouging, etc; it is both a material object and an object-medium of phantasy; the possible richness of such an object is implicitly linked to the possible richness of an interior life, a life whose richness is in part historical,and it must indentify a particular kind of experience, one marked by passivity – there is indeed, as Wollheim said, a question of passivity of the interior life. Though worked out in relation to painting such a conception of artistic experience is clearly not limited to painting and can – and should – be extended to other media (say, the performance work of Marina Abramovic, certain of the films of Chantal Akerman, the installation work of Susan Hiller, or the pottery and installation of Edmund de Waal).

Clearly such an account is expressivist, concerned with the movement and economy of affect – Wollheim has long refuted Gombrich’s conventionalism and had no sympathy for semiotic accounts which are but variant forms of conventionalism which presuppose what needs to be explained, namely, the power of art, and all the more so if the aim is to expose the ideological dimension of art, for it is still to be understood why something so fragile should bear such weight, all the more so after repeated exposures. There can be no doubt that a socially impoverished existence – violent, mean, ungenerous in every way – would not be compatible with the conditions required for the appreciation of the art admired by Wollheim: above all Poussin, Bellini, Manet, Hofmann – though this is not quite the Eden of Auden’s “Vespers” where it is written that “In my Eden a person who dislikes Bellini has the good manners not to get born” – but Wollheim’s bravery, his courage – and I shall never forget the cataleptic force with which this realisation struck and disoriented me – is the recognition that there is no logical connexion between a given art and a given politics.

I recall reading André Breton, the magnificent Breton of the mid-1930s when the fundamental principles and insights of Surrealism are being organised and understood as capable of intense philosophical range, asking, as a way of recognising, one infers, that Surrealism may well be a victim of its own success, that there be established – $it would be desirable, he says – a very precise line of demarcation between what is and is not surréaliste. $$There then ensues a long paragraph where Breton wonders what signs, tickets, $marks there might be to indicate not merely that such and such an object is surréaliste, a mark inimitable and indelible but, even more tellingly, that it is the product of a surréaliste state of mind. Breton’s eventual realisation is almost Wittgensteinian: of course there is no (Cartesian) distinctive external sign that would irrefragably demarcate an object and correlative state of mind as surréaliste. Instead, there is a way of being, of living – a form of life – that is capable of being surréaliste and in the affective economy of which certain objects – works of art or no – fulfill and play certain rôles. It might even be said that in his own way – and here Breton and Surrealism stand in for the profoundest aspect of avant-garde sensibility – Breton and the ablest of his generation from Bataille to Blanchot discover something that Wollheim and his peers, in part under the influence of Isaiah Berlin and in decidely less agonistic terms, came to realise: to seek any political function for art as art is one with totalitarianism. Practise politics because one is a citizen, the artist knows no more than any one else given sufficient leisure and means; seek justice since injustice is manifestly ugly and destructive of the person.

What, in the diction of Continental thought would be referred to as aporias (ontological, epistemological and otherwise), in the Anglo-American tradition of Wollheim, Stanley Cavell (and here I would inlcude Martha Nussbaum whose reading of James impressed Wollheim) would simply be a recognition of the non-foundationalist nature of all thought. (The ironic Hume who de-constructed the concept of causality before returning to his game of billiards is the pre-figured hero, here – something with which Jean Wahl and Ferdinand Alquié, teachers of Gilles Deleuze, would agree – as well as the author, in Wollheim’s view, of the finest essay on art in English letters.) Cavell’s account of scepticism in art and modern thought certainly recovers some of the agonism of Continental philosophy, whilst Wollheim may be seen, in a profound sense as Aristotelian – hence the balance, the poise – in that he accepts the regressive and recursive nature of all thinking, but he also compreheds, relatedly, that there is a distinctive form of knowledge in emotional experience – Aristotle being the basis of all cognitive accounts of the emotions – of which art becomes a public type. Aestheticism is but the historico-psychological recognition of this mode of thinking in a period of political and social transformation; prior to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries it went under various guises of stoicism – as even the slightest acquaintance with Pater’s Marius would show.

Adrian Stokes Still Life: Last Eleven (no.7) 1972 oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches Collection Ann Stokes Angus
Adrian Stokes, Still Life: Last Eleven (no.7) 1972 oil on canvas, 14 x 18 inches Collection Ann Stokes Angus

I am still coming to terms with Wollheim’s last book On the Emotions (1999) and so cannot yet say whether it fulfills the promise of what is implied in such beautiful essays from The Thread of Life (1984) as “From Voices to Values: The Growth of the Moral Sense,” “Cutting the Thread: Death, Madness, and the Loss of Friendship” (after reading which, at the time of a sustained study of Artaud’s portraiture, Artaud’s experience took on for me a new depth and relief), and “The Good Self and the Bad Self: The Moral Psychology of British Idealism and the English School of Psychoanalysis Compared” from The Mind and Its Depths(1993), in other words, a genetic, which is to say, historical account of moral sensibility and imagination, a non-Kantian exposition, to be sure, that is, that can account for human responsibility and responsiveness as constitutive possibilities of what it is to be a person without, however, falling into prescriptionism. Once more – and here the comparison to be pursued would be with Bernard Williams’Shame and Necessity (1993) – artistic experience becomes the model and mediation, as though after the growth of creativity crystallising into an art-object capable of generating and supporting insight, it is as though presented with a gift one can refuse it. (At the limit, for Wollheim, one sees a work of art as one sees a person, namely, as an end and not a means.) That is the playfulness – or wantonness of the matter.

When there is talk of ethics and aesthetics being one – as was the case in the absolutist Wittgenstein of the Tractatus period – it is not in terms of values, that this should be understood, but in terms of the play of imagination. For here is Wollheim’s greatness – his discomfiture – where, in a profound sense, his sensibility rejoins the Continental tradition, where, though an aesthete, he avoids the banalities of preciosity, for Wollheim takes it as a “general truth about morality, that it cannot be demarcated from nonmorality, along with what I take to be its two consequences – the complexity of moral reasoning and the pathological aspect of morality.” (Richard Wollheim, responding to Nussbaum’s reading of James, in “Flawed Crystals: James’s The Golden Bowl and the Plausibility of Literature as Moral Philosophy,” New Literary History, vol. 15, no.1, Autumn 1983, p.190). This is, of course, Klein – and even Bion and Frances Tustin – but substitute “politics” for “morality” and the full force of the claim – and insight – is ineluctable: the pathological aspect of politics is precisely what has driven the generation of the inter-war years down to the their philosophical heirs through the line of Bataille. – But no, I should not wish to make Wollheim one such – closer to home, Bernard Williams has explored such questions in Shame and Necessity whilst Stuart Hampshire has written $Justice is Conflict (2000). Wollheim was the heir of Hume and he preferred $that mode of scepticism. I recall when I picked up my copy of On the Emotions being both thrilled and not at all surprised: it was the fulfillment of a life which, having abandoned pacifism and risked itself, became centred on the things that matter: love, friendship, art and social justice, as would be ethically required to be finely aware and richly responsible. It was a life well lived.

Richard Arthur Wollheim, b. May 1923, London and died London, 4 November 2003, was educated at Westminster School and Bailliol College, Oxford (History and Philosophy, Politics and Economic). After serving as a Captain in the British Army – and briefly held as a prisoner of war in France – from 1949 he taught as a lecturer and then as the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and of Logic at the University College, London until 1982 when he joined the department of philosophy at Columbia University leaving in 1985 to join the department of philosophy at Berkeley. From 1996 he split his time between Berkeley and Davis, with many visiting positions around the world, always finding the time to live part of the year in the United States and part of the year in London. He was the author of many books, beginning with a study of F.H. Bradley in 1959, one novel, A Family Romance (1969), many studies on Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays (1974),Sigmund Freud (1981), Freud (1991) and innumerable essays in the philosophy of mind: On Art and the Mind (1974), The Thread of Life (1984), The Mind and Its Depths (1993) and, his last book, On the Emotions (1999). He edited an important anthology that was influential in introducing Adrian Stokes to a wider audience,The Image in Form: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes (1972). He was also the author of two influential books on art and aesthetics, Art and Its Objects (1969, with six supplementary essays, 1980) and, from his Andrew Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington (1984) published as Painting as an Art 1987. In addition Wollheim published essays on contemporary art in many journals throughout his life – in 1965 coining the term minimal art content which would morph into Minimalism – but most recently and fully in the London-based Modern Painters.