© Kimmo Pasanen 2000

Modern art has been evolving for over a century in the Romantic tradition, which placed the artist in the heart of the creative process. He created the content of the work thanks to his visionary ability, instead of the commissoner of his work. This has resulted in some quite puzzling outcomes, like the Square by Kasimir Malevitch in which you can see just a black square on a white background. For him, this was his major artistic achievement. The spectator, however, is at loss and has trouble conceiving what makes such works “art”. A situation that has become current with the advent of contemporary art. The missing part, however, can be tracked. It is to be found in the  “horizon” of the work. It cannot, however, be seen in the work itself, even if in a certain way it is part of it. So what is it? The philosophical approach called Phenomenology provides insight to what constitutes the horizon of our perceptions.

In this essay, presented in the colloquium L’esthétique d’aujourd’hui at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France, in May 2000, I cover the Romantic heritage of Modern art and explain what constitutes the “horizon” of a work of art.



kimmo pasanen

Romanticism, phenomenology and modern art

The art of painting has a turbulent past and still manages to provoke mixed reactions and even occasionally stir up heated discussions. This is to a great extent due to its connections to image which in turn places it in a special relationship with the existing world. We are so used to images that we don’t realize what is needed for something to be an image.

One of the first occasions of a serious debate concerning images goes far back to the period of iconoclasms in the early Middle Ages. In these extremely heated doctrinal and, in the last analysis, geopolitical confrontations the question was about the nature of a true image. Behind this there was the debate concerning the Christian dogma of reincarnation. On one side it was held that a true image, or an icon, was of the same essence as the Holy Spirit in its incarnate form. Such an icon opened a space for the spirit of the contemplator to gain access to the Holy Spirit. This doctrine lives still with us within the sphere of the Orthodox church and very much according to the canons established in the Middle Ages.

The contesters of this doctrine accorded that at the best it was possible to make images of the saints but that no images are saint in themselves. For the images of saints a mere resemblance was sufficient, but there could be no question of an essential sameness of the image with its model. Images could not be spiritual, they were material objects. This clear and radical position, where resemblance was the key word, became the established canon for visual arts in Western Europe for centuries.

The debate seemed closed, the Roman empire divided. Alas, not quite so, as in the beginning of the 20th century artists like Kasimir Malevitch and the other Suprematists strived for an “objectless” art which would re-establish the spiritual space of icons with new artistic means. This was achieved by using colours and forms as means of transmitting the forces and vibrations of the Universe inhabited by an Absolute Spirit.
The coloured forms of the painting were energy fields, essentially of the same substance as the cosmic energies of the universe. This spiritually oriented non-objective art was almost immediately confronted with a non-spiritual version by the Russian Constructivists, of which the leading figure, Alexandr Rodshenko saw in colour just pure materiality.

The formalist school in the Netherlands and Germany continued in this vein, followed by artists in France and soon all over the world. In their opinion, art should not try to deal with matters spiritual or esoteric but concentrate on its own means. All the beauty and significance lay there. The formalist school carried the battle, in spite of the imposing presence on the artistic scene of the spiritually oriented masters, Mondrian and Kandinsky.

The matter seemed again to be settled for good. Alas, the “New York School” set out to re-invent abstract art, and the question of spirituality rose from ashes, this time strongly tinted with mythical and psychological tones. And curiously enough, the American abstract expressionists used a vocabulary that had been very much in vogue almost one and a half century earlier. A closer look reveals that also the continental non-objective painting had its roots in the same period – it all began with Romanticism.

Romanticism is a well known chapter in the history of art. In addition, several writers have recently explored the Romantic origins of Modern Art. There is no room nor need here to elaborate the issue further. For the sake of the present argument we need, however, to recapitulate some salient features of this otherwise heterogeneous and fleeting artistic movement.

Romanticism was to a large extent a spiritually oriented reaction to the limited outlook offered by the Enlightment, which reduced Man to a sort of a rational machine. The Romantics wished to unite the rational mind with feelings and emotions into a global and holistic approach to life. Art was to be the vehicle par excellence of achieving this and, indeed, the final aim was to transform life into art.

The Romantic artist was to be the herald of this new spiritual life. The Romantic artist, through his innate gift, his genius, was able to perceive the mysteries of life and capture the spirituality of the Universe, hidden underneath the changing appearances of the immediate reality, and mediate them to his less gifted fellow men. He had to be untarnished by the rationally oriented culture, preferably naïve and definitely original, and his lot was, by consequence, to be totally misunderstood by the great public.

The artist and his inner spiritual life with all its subconscious and unconscious layers became the pivot of artistic creation. With this conception, the nature of art changed radically. There could be no question of just imitating on a canvas the outer appearances of the surrounding world. Something more profound, something more pertinent was needed. Music served as a model, as it seemed to “speak” to everybody in an immediate and universally valid way.

In the visual realm there was one instance in particular that seemed to function in a similar way: landscapes. Landscape and seascape became the favourite means of expression for Romantic art, and in due course, the vehicle of the incipient Modern Art.

The Romantic landscapes were, however, not based on resemblance. They were not images in the mimetic sense of the word: they were generally not related directly to an existing landscape or scenery but were, instead, imaginings produced by the artist. The paintings represented imaginary scenes, distilled of the visual data gathered by the artist and transformed into a symbolism full of profound meanings.

They were not, however, totally detached from reality either. As Friedrich Schlegel put it, the work of art stood midway between a personal vision and the objective world, and could “hover between the portrayed and the portrayer” and reflect back the world’s view of the artist’s vision: it was not a mirror of the world, but a multiplication of mirrors.

There was a constant interplay between the artist, the world and the work of art. A plain, “natural” truth of a mimetic representation of a real world was replaced by an “artistic” truth based on the experience of the artist.

The creative process was by no means random or totally subjective. Having taken the cue from Immanuel Kant the Romantics maintained that the work of art was realised according to the inherent laws of art, which it also made manifest. These laws guaranteed the quality of the work. As a corollary, it had to be viewed in its own terms and judged according to its own criteria and not by any standards external to itself. A real work of art was not expected to be true to nature, or true to anything else, but only that it be true to itself. As Gustav Tieck said, “the highest art can only explain itself”.

In this endeavour, the artistic means were liberated of their previous narrative tasks. Colours and forms were in themselves meaningful, and a totally abstract art of colours and forms was envisaged. But it took a century and the development of a new symbolism of colours and of abstract forms that finally permitted the realisation of this ultimate Romantic aim.

Romanticism survived as a style half a century. The counter-reaction came in the form of Realism, which conserved, however, some of the basic tenets of Romanticism. One of the most important of these was the belief that everything in the Universe was meaningful. Thus any representation of the reality would be totally meaningful in itself. They also shared the Romantics’ basic vision of artistic creation: the artist should imitate Nature, not its forms, but its processes of creation.

They developed further the autonomy of the means of artistic expression, independent of any objective foreign to the creative process. Art was to be done exclusively for art’s sake. The Realists abandoned the Romantics’ search for the spiritual realm and came down from the sublime heights of Romanticism to the daily life with its ordinary scenes and trivialities. All aesthetisation was banned and ugliness and the grotesque were included as the very means to escape from the established aesthetic canons.

The result was l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake, but what art and where? If the reality was represented in its banality and even ugliness, the subject of a work abolished or, at best, aesthetically entirely indifferent, what place was left for art?

The aesthetic significance of such a work could only be shifted from the objects represented to the way they were represented. The means of representation acquired a pronounced independence and the aesthetic interest was to rest entirely on the style and the technique. Art was in the means and beauty in their skilful deployment.

Romanticism gave birth to Modern Art, as Charles Baudelaire declared. Its evolution has been marked with styles and doctrines oscillating between the Romantic and the Realistic poles. One can trace the Romantic origins in Symbolism, Expressionism, the spiritual non-objective art, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, among others. The Realist school is manifest in Impressionism, Cubism, Constructivism and Concretism, to mention but a few. In Impressionism and specially in Cubism the independent and decisive role of the means of expression is particularly evident.

In contemporary art, eclectism is often the case, the artists choosing the elements that suit them best without worrying too much about possible contradictions. But even that falls within the Romantic frame, as the Romantics cultivated contradiction and incoherence on purpose. It guaranteed the freedom of action and still does.

All in all, in true Romantic spirit there has been a general agreement that the work of art should speak for itself. This postulate delimited also the field of aesthetics which could concentrate its undivided attention to the work of art. With the advent of abstract art we have been, however, suddenly confronted with a very intriguing problem: there are paintings that look identical but which purport to transmit totally different, in some cases even opposite experiences or meanings. Contrary to what the Romantics believed, the symbolic meanings of colours and forms seem not to be immediately understandable, or at least not in a same way for everybody.

A painted red square symbolised revolution for Malevitch when for Rodchenko it was just red colour, beautiful and meaningful in itself.

If we want to grasp the true meaning of the work, it appears that we have to know also the work’s background and the beliefs that were operative in its creation. In one word, we have to take into account the artist’s intentions.

Philosophers have written a lot about intentions, and for reason. One of these thinkers is Jaakko Hintikka, a Finnish philosopher, who underlines, when treating the nature of intentions, that the discussion concerns the totality of our experiences which can be qualified as conscientious, leading, in the final analysis, to very important questions about the nature of our activities of reasoning in all of its aspects.

On the other hand, rather little has been written about the nature of intentions in artistic creation. Hintikka comes to help, again, as he considers in his essay Intensions of Intentionality the nature of intentions in the light of artistic creation. At first sight perhaps an unexpected opening as Jaakko Hintikka is better known for his work on logic – albeit exceptionally prolific in all fields of philosophy. But then again, not too much solid logic is being deployed in the discussion about art, so Hintikka’s input is particularly welcome.

Intentions are – very broadly defined – mental acts that are directed to an object that partly gives them their meaning. To cut a long story short, Hintikka argues that intentions are not to be seen as mental act directed to a specific object but to an array of possible and alternative objects or possible worlds, as the terminology goes.

Take artistic creation: it clearly cannot be directed to a determined object, but it still remains a totally meaningful and intentional activity. Paraphrasing Picasso, Hintikka says that the artist does not search – a determined thing or object – he finds it.

In other words, the artists has in his mind an intention to make a certain kind of work without having determined what the final features of the work will be like. When the artist comes upon the alternative that fits into the frame of his general intention, he chooses it. He works by trial and error, even if many times the first trial is the good one. But there always remains the possibility that it could have been different, and Hintikka notes that this is the very foundation of our aesthetic judgements.

Philosophically speaking any mental act is a complex entity which includes, among other things, the meaning, its reference, the way the meaning is given and a number of undetermined qualities. For instance, when seeing a house, we don’t see its back side nor its interior, but when conceiving it as a house we add them to our perception. The founder of modern phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, calls these qualities, which are in conformity with the meaning of our perception, its “horizon”.

To take an example from the world of art, when we see a fire-extinguisher in an art show, we apply a different horizon to it than to the painting hanging next to it. We can, of course, confuse them, which was Marcel Duchamp’s trick, but that is another story.

The analysis of the horizon of a mental act shows that the intentionality of the act is not determined solely by the meanings, but also by certain experiences and beliefs, pre-established by the person in question, and presupposed in the act in question. For Husserl, the description of the horizon of a mental act brought into phenomenology a new and extremely important methodological element.

Interestingly enough, the Romantics had anticipated this in a way. For them, art was by no means an isolated activity but grew out of a cultural ground which had a definite influence on its evolution. In other words, this cultural ground provided a part of the horizon of the work and was thus an integral part of it.

There is still another aspect of our mental acts, which seems to be of great importance in art. In our mental acts, which according to Husserl can in principle be expressed verbally, there are qualities which cannot be so expressed. The most important of these is the way the content of the mental act is given, including qualities like clarity, intuitive fullness and so on.

This “way of being given” could be interpreted in terms of artistic creation. Consider for instance the Realist school and their insistence that art was not in what the picture represented, but in the way the representation was realised. In other words, the Realists concentrated on the way the painting’s objects were given. The result, for instance the personal style, the particular painting technique, the palette chosen, is clearly an integral part of the work and of its over-all significance.

Much of the Modern art can be considered, as a matter of fact, as a development of the artistic means and personal styles to the extent that in many cases the style indeed equals art and vice versa. In the far end we have works about “nothing”, with no subject, no object, even no style, just the artistic means that have become the end in themselves.

Such a work was actually envisaged already by Flaubert. Perhaps impossible to realise in literature, but in painting it was done by Ad Reinhardt in the 1960’s in New York. Reinhardt’s black paintings were for him art in which nothing other than art entered, “art as art”. In such art, even the style becomes impersonal as the process of creating the work should follow the laws or rules inherent in the medium in question. The result is painting in its purest form, impersonal, universal.

The Great Romantic project seems to have failed, at least as regards transforming life into art and thereby rendering it spiritual. However, many of the original Romantic ideas are still operational. One of the most persisting ones is the Romantics’ vision about the artist as an exceptional human being with innate special gifts. Unfortunately, this vision has since then been disconnected of its philosophical foundations. As a consequence, instead of noble humanist aims we have individualism, rampant subjectivism and idiosyncratic expressionism. Such art equals often a personal, “private” artistic language, inaccessible to others.

Taking a hard look at it, we could even say, in a Wittgensteinien vein, that it is meaningless. In this regard contemporary art has come a long way from the Romantics who searched to formulate an universally valid symbolic language of art rooted in a community.

In general, the vision has become blurred about what kind of person the artist is and what is the nature of artistic creation. With the tools provided by philosophy we could perhaps achieve a better understanding of what is really taking place in our creative activities.
Developing further a phenomenology of artistic creation we would perhaps be able to assess correctly the significance, emphasised so much by the Romantics, of feelings, emotions and intuitions in artistic creation and in art in general.

In relation to the undetermined intuitions of the artist, for instance, these unconceptualizable elements seem indeed to play a cognitive role. In human communication in general the way something is being expressed often seems to have as much importance as what has been expressed, if not more. We capture this way people express themselves, in part, with our intuitions, feelings and emotions.

It seems that the Romantics were right in stressing that mind and heart, reason and feeling should not be separated, not in art, not in philosophy or aesthetics nor, evidently, in life.