Thursday, March 20, 2014

Edmund Burke Feldman's move beyond Clive Bell's formalism

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)

Edmund Burke Feldman's first book, Varieties of Visual Experience came out in 1967. [However I have only seen the 1992 edition and it may be that some of this material was reworked from the 1967 version.]   Formalism was still a very live force in 1967.  For example, my high school teachers in that year taught us how to do formal analysis of literary works and of paintings.  However, Feldman's book (at least in this edition) represents some internal tensions in formalism, and probably the beginnings of a move away from formalism.  One can see here the rise in the importance of interpretation which led eventually to the fall of formalism and its replacement by contextualism.  The selection I am going to discuss  is from Goldblatt and Brown's Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts.  The selection is titled "A Formal Analysis" and comes right after the selection from Bell.  This is a bit deceptive since, although formal analysis plays a role in Feldman's thinking, his dominate idea here is the centrality of interpretation in criticism.  

Feldman begins with a careful analysis of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).  If he was a strict follower of Bell one would expect an analysis simply of relations of lines and colors.  There is some of that, but most of his discussion refers to the figures represented in the painting.  And very soon Feldman begins to talk about specific reactions by the viewer to what is happening to the figures rather than simply about the work's lines and colors or about feelings of ecstasy the viewer might have in response to the work as Bell would require.  In particular, there is one figure (the second from the left) that seems to be off-balance, or even falling.  Feldman observes that we can make "inferences about form" and that "certain physical and biological assumptions about man are shared by artist and viewer."  Our expecting the figure to fall is part of our experience of the work.  He also begins to talk about the figures in the painting in terms of a sequence of perception.  Talking about the heads of the figures, he begins with the one on the left, then moves to the upper right figure, and ends the the figure on the lower right.  So, in sum, "the idea of the viewer's expectation is very important in formal analysis."  (22)  Moreover, the artist is aware of this.  For example, Picasso, aware that we expect a deep space based on Western perspective, deliberately violates these expectations, producing a tension in the viewer. 

The formal analysis "accumulates evidence" for the interpretation and the judgment of the work. (Feldman sees criticism as a three-stage process.)  But interpretation is already happening in the very puzzlement that arises from the progressive distortions of the abstract figures of women and the construction of an unrealistically shallow space.  Feldman stresses that Picasso is making the viewer move (maybe not literally, although empirical studies show that our eyes do actually move in a sequence, focusing on one area of the painting and then on another) so that one feels one has to adjust position to make sense of the profile views of noses.  Moreover, one is forced to move imaginatively from left to right as the story develops in the figures, and as the falling figure also pushes us in that direction.  The increasing violations of convention leads us to the point where we will accept the joining of body parts in a continuous form in the figure on the lower right, and even focus on the negative spaces formed by the limbs. 

Feldman writes:  "Our formal analysis has begun to move from an objective description of forms to statements about the way we perceive them."  He insists that he has been extremely objective in his discussion up to this point:  "we have tried not to overlook evidence, and we have endeavored to make assertions which would not in themselves be the subject of disagreement."  This is not quite right, first because there is already a lot of interpretation to be found in his talk of falling figures and imaginative moving, and second because there is one rather glaring mistake in his descriptive analysis.  He writes that, "at the extreme left position of the canvas is a brown area which seems to be a closeup of a female figure, employing forms typical of African art...[it] seems to be an echo of a woman's back carried out in the brown color of carved wooden sculpture." (21)  Here, imagination has gotten the better of Feldman.  Try as I might, I cannot see a back or any hint of a figure on the far left, or any suggestion of African sculpture.  Moreover, if one looks at the various studies Picasso made before completing the painting, it is obvious that the prostitute on the left is holding onto a curtain with her raised hand.  The entire series of brown planes on the left, which Feldman identified as a woman's back, is just a curtain. A strict formalist, of course, would object to looking at earlier studies to illuminate something in the final product.  But what if the change simply takes something easy to recognize in the study and abstracts it in such a way that it is not so easy to recognize until one sees it in the study? 

Now we turn to the central moment in Feldman's account.  Throughout his discussion, he has been talking about the experience of art as something that happens to a viewer over time.  This is quite other than Bell's way of approaching art.  Feldman talks about the viewer trying to find a "principle of organization" (and this, by the way, may be why he was tempted to over-interpretation of the "figure" on the far left -  he sees it as possibly announcing the leitmotif of the painting!).  So, on his view, we accumulate information until we can no longer defer the project of interpretation, whereas, in fact, his own interpretation was already influencing his description from the start:  it is not so easy to ground art criticism in objectivity.

Interpretation, which is the process of "expressing the meanings of a work the critic has analyzed" (22) is, for Feldman, "the most important part of the critical enterprise."  Evaluation can even be omitted if we have done a complete interpretation.  In interpretation, we do not simply discover meanings but also state "the relevance of these meanings to our lives and to the human situation in general." (22) This is another point at which Feldman departs from Bell who would have us use art to escape life.  Feldman's position may also be contrasted to that of Hume who talks about delicacy of sentiment as correctly judging each subtle part of the work of art in a matter similar to the judgment made by the wine critic in which it is determined that the wine is good but for some small defect (e.g. a slight taste of leather.)  For Hume, judgment comes first, and interpretation is of little importance.  For Feldman, interpretation comes first, even (contrary perhaps to his intentions) during the so-called moment of pure formal analysis.  Moreover, Feldman recognizes that art as a human product is influenced by the value system of the artist and is a "vehicle of ideas."  He agrees with Bell only that one need not determine what the artist's actual views were or whether the ideas found expressed by the work are faithful to those views.  We need to still recognize that the artwork is "charged with ideas," however unconscious they are, and it is the critic's function to discover them.  Here is a blatant statement of the rise of interpretation as the dominant in criticism. 

Oddly, in the last two paragraphs of the selection, Feldman backs off from his revolutionary departures from Bell's formalism, insisting that we are talking about "sensuous and formal qualities of the art object," although he adds (unlike Bell) that this involves examining "their impact upon our vision."  Following this, he insists that we are not directing the viewers attention to words. (Isn't he being too defensive here, as though he had stressed interpretation too much for his formalist colleagues to accept?).  His solution to the problem is to refer once again to the unity that the viewer organizes:  "As we perceive the work, its qualities seem to organize themselves into a kind of unity, and it is this unity which becomes the meaning of the work..."  (23)   The meaning of the work, then, arises through the interaction between viewer and work, and not through any process of revealing the intentions of the artist.

Unfortunately, the selection leaves off here.  However, Feldman continues his interpretation in the book in a way that is quite striking and quite beyond anything that could have been acceptable to Bell-type formalists.  In essence, he argues that the painting expresses the fall of Western ethnocentrism and even, perhaps, a new positive attitude concerning the assertive power of women (this last, an interpretive stretch.)   I will quote this material here.

Feldman first observes that Picasso's use of white lines to delineate one of the figures is something we might have seen "in ancient Greek vase painting." He then continues: "The faces of the two central figures also have the expressionless stare which is characteristic of archaic Greek female images. … [They] embody the classical ideal of female beauty developed in the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world; they belong to Picasso’s own tradition (indeed, they look like Picasso!). By contrast, the other standing figures are derived from non-Western sources—African or Pre-Columbian.  Picasso has intentionally juxtaposed Western and non-Western racial types to express the fall of Western ethnocentrism. First, the classical beauty symbolized by the central figures is contrasted with the angular forms of the other standing figures; then they are synthesized in the hybrid figure at the lower right. … In the 'fall' of the classical figures we see the decline of a culture in which beauty is the object of serene contemplation. The ideal of female passivity is displaced by ideals of female activity and magical aliveness.” (Feldman, 1992, pp. 496­-497).

So, in the end of his analysis, Feldman returns to his interpretation of the unstable stance of the second figure from the left, this time making grand claims about Picasso's, possibly unconscious, intentions. This interpretation may be widely debated, but it does bring the painting alive again for me, and provides that unity of understanding that Feldman sought.  

By the way, one could go further here, claiming that Picasso has made a painting that represents (and perhaps exemplifies) the Nietzschean ideal of the Apollonian/Dionysian synthesis in "tragic" art, where the figures on the left represent the Apollonian and the ones on the right the Dionysian with its recognition of the tortured substratum of human existence and the possibility of redemption through ecstatic union with the Primal One.  1907 was a period of high interest in Nietzsche, so it would stand to reason. 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

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