Phenomenology and painting


My lifelong, simmering interest in Martin Heidegger, plus my recent quick rereading of early Nietzsche, has a couple friends wondering if I’ve become a dreaded existentialist, whatever that is. (No doubt this would mean someone who understands what “existential threat” means.) The answer would be “no.” My faith, humble and simple and nonsectarian as it is, remains unshaken—it’s a way of life, not a set of propositions about the world. But Heidegger keeps appearing in my path, even when I’m not seeking out books or essays about him. For example, while painting this week, I caught up with some of the latest episodes of In Our Time, a great, brisk discussion from the BBC about almost any subject as long as it’s dense with information: history, music, religion, art, and philosophy. I clicked on the “Phenomenology” episode and listened to a discussion that repeatedly reminded me of why I started painting years ago, as a way of seeking “meaning.”

Melvyn Bragg had three guests: Simon Glendinning, from the European Institute at the London School of Economics, Joanna Hodge, from Manchester Metropolitan University, and Stephen Mulhall, from the University of Oxford. The discussion turned out to be a sort of back door into an examination of what has generally been called “existentialism” though none of the panelists ever once used the word, instead referring to Heidegger and Sartre as phenomenologists because their work descended from Edmund Husserl’s. This off-the-cuff dissection of phenomenology was articulate and effective—and quick—so I’m going to reproduce some of it here, partly because by the end of the podcast I was struck by how much painting is, or should be, a phenomenological exploration.

Here are portions of the conversation, paraphrased and condensed in places, starting with an overview whose bearing on representational painting should be glaringly obvious:

Stephen Mulhall:

Phenomenologists are fascinated and struck by the fact that we grasp and comprehend all of the various entities that the world throws at us in the course of our everyday experience of it. The world and everything in it present themselves to us and we understand them, make sense of them. They’re intelligible to us. Phenomenologists are interested in the way reality manifests itself to ordinary human subjects. Their concern is one of the central ones in Western philosophy: the relationship between how things appear to us to be and the reality of those things. In modern philosophy that relationship has tended to generate a skeptical anxiety because philosophers worry about the ways in which appearances might mislead us.

The phenomenologist wants to understand how appearances can be appearances of real objects and events. If you want to understand how appearances can disclose reality you have to understand the content of those appearances. We can understand what makes appearances the kinds of things they are by careful elucidation of the underlying structure of them. You don’t need to invoke a reality behind them. Pay extremely careful attention to what is really going on when you experience real things as they present themselves to you. (Note: This sounds like the first rule for a representational painter.)

The discussion continued to unpack how this thinking evolved. One of the key steps for Husserl and his followers was what he called epoche: an attempt to suspend one’s natural, inherited understanding of what’s real. In other words, if you’re a psychologist, you simply observe what’s happening without interpreting how the mind or emotions work through preconceived theoretical templates. (A New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik a few years ago about his study of figure drawing with Jacob Collins, the founder of the Grand Central Academy in New York, made a similar point about drawing: try to see the actual shapes that meet your eye, rather than attempting to duplicate the object you recognize. What you think you know can prevent you from seeing what’s actually there.) For a philosopher, this meant putting aside—putting in “backets”—all the previous schools of philosophy with their metaphysical assumptions about appearances and reality, from Plato to Kant.

Simon Glendenning:

Epoche is an ancient Greek term which, in its philosophical usage, describes the theoretical moment where all judgments about the existence of the external world, and consequently all action in the world, is suspended.

It is something that belongs to the method of phenomenology… you have to first conduct this epoche. He means it as a suspending of normality: the natural attitude. In the natural attitude we are immersed in our lives and engaged with things, a cup on your table, a car in front of you. This everyday way of being in the natural attitude bears with it a presumption of existence. (Phenomenologists) will bracket this assumption, put it out of play, to bring you back to . . . the stream of experiencing life that is irreducibly related to you, as an experiencing subject. Partly because what he wants to do in holding off from the natural attitude is to see the way these everyday objects are constituted as the things they are within the field of subjective experience—the glass on the table, the steering wheel in your hands–rather than thinking that we are simply encountering things just as they are.


Bragg: Does this meld into what he later describes as the life world?

Yes. It was a later development. It will arrive in the same place in a certain way. He wants to distance us from a scientific conception of the world. What we might call the objective world of science. Science belongs inside the natural attitude. It’s looking at the structure of objectivity in its material formation: if we are looking around ourselves now we have the familiar world, with tables and chairs and other people. Science seems to be able to provide a more fundamental account of that reality in its objectivity, but Husserl, in his idea of a life world, rather than an objective world, he wants to say, “look, in our lives as subjects in the world we don’t inhabit an objective world of science. We inhabit a world of meaning where things have sense and matter to us and have significance.” He wants to displace a conception of what it is to be in a world (away from the scientific conception of objectivity) toward this lived, immersive idea of a life world . . . (Note: life world sounds quite close to Wittgenstein’s forms of life as a structure of meaning.)

Stephen Mulhall pushed this even further:

What it challenges is a certain assumption of naturalism. The field of significance or sense that is disclosed by doing the bracketing (epoche) is one which is a condition for the possibility of engaging in a natural way with objects and for a scientific investigation of the world. Unless we’re able to grasp the world as a meaningful field, we couldn’t go on to study it. There is a tendency to believe that once we have engaged in the natural scientific project we will be able to account for everything of significance in human life. What phenomenology is staking its claim on is the idea that that simply isn’t going to be possible. These fields of meaning and significance are not the kinds of things that we can possibly understand if we restrict ourselves to an understanding of an objective world understood purely as a world of matter in motion.

This seems crucial to me, as a way of understanding why painting represents a way of revealing “the world as a meaningful field” distinct from the way science does. In what sounds like a very dry analysis of a century-old school of philosophy, I actually hear echoes of a consternation at the root of most creativity. No, I admit I haven’t done a survey, but I’m convinced that most artists who are driven to make something meaningful—a song, a poem, a painting, a film—have, at least subliminally, struggled with the need to clarify “the field of meaning,” which serves as an unacknowledged foundation for our way of making things happen, or simply being, in the world. We live in a world where purposeful, pragmatic action, and thinking, has become our definition of human life. We work toward pre-determined ends: build a house, finish the update of a software program, get a satellite into orbit, defeat an enemy in the Middle East, or just flip a burger. It’s all purposeful behavior within the context of a “natural” understanding of life that goes largely unquestioned, or simply unrecognized. Science and technology aren’t simply how we make life “better” (leaving aside the issue of how they might diminish life), they have become the backdrop, the unconscious framework, for how we think we understand everything in the world and the world as a whole—and so the open question of who and what we are, and why we exist, remains unasked, except in the terms of science and its propositions about “a world of matter in motion.” Ask that question and you get talk of the Big Bang or evolution, which are entirely beside the point for someone in the grip of wondering what the “point” of life actually is. Wittgenstein would no doubt say that state of intense wondering is a way of having been fooled by language into asking a meaningless question, but I don’t think that recognizes why the question matters. There isn’t an answer to it, but being engaged in that impossible-to-answer question is at the heart of creativity, and, I think, philosophy, at least for Heidegger.

Phenomenology gave Heidegger a way to revive what he saw as the fundamental question of what the world as a whole is. We don’t ask that question because it has no answer, other than the partial ones that science offers which illuminate nothing for a person who craves a sense of meaning for everything as a whole. As the discussion moved to Heidegger, the participants said that Heidegger claimed the entire history of Western philosophy put aside the question of “the unifying nature of being.” The “question of being” gets ignored in favor of questions about what’s meaningful or real.

Joanna Hodge addressed this perfectly:

For Heidegger there is never going to be a proper answer, or even an address to the question of the meaning of being, because that’s the moment at which the thinking process gets started and it’s always receding away from you as you start doing your analysis and producing your answer to your question. It’s the question that has gone missing at the beginning of the history of Western philosophy for Heidegger. . . even since the pre-Socratics, the primary original insight that gets philosophy going in the first place—what is there? or why is there something rather than nothing? or how do we have a conception of truth?—that primary moment goes missing in a whole series of failed attempts to answer the individuated questions (of philosophy), instead of addressing oneself to the wonder of there being anything at all.

Painting is one way of addressing oneself to “the wonder of there being anything at all” through the lowly act of representing the appearance of things. How the act of doing that conveys something much larger, and more encompassing, is the mystery of visual art. (Heidegger hints about that mystery in one of his essays in his passage about Van Gogh.) Last night, I got a third of the way into Making Sense of Heidegger by Thomas Sheehan, published late last year, and it’s as delightful as a book about Heidegger can be, in some places written almost conversationally, but without sacrificing the careful, subtle distinctions he conveys—along with the decades of study he has invested into his understanding of Heidegger. Part Two is where he really hits his stride, and for the most part it’s fantastic to read. His thesis seems to be what Heidegger meant by “being” is actually what we mean by the word “meaning”: things and the world have being for a person only insofar as they have meaning. Being human means to be the creature for whom “meaning” is like water to a fish. The world is “meaning”, not matter in motion. I think this is where his subtitle comes in: “A Paradigm Shift.” Sheehan’s approach seems to be exactly that, but I need to get through the book to see what he thinks of the sense I get from Heidegger that we need an entirely new way to ask about “being” or, in Sheehan’s terminology, a new structure of meaning for understanding our place in the world.

2 Responses to “Phenomenology and painting”

  1. jim mott

    good reading for my upcoming trip. one needs time to read carefully and ponder.

  2. Richard Harrington

    As it relates to painting, I think epoch is everything. Leaving behind what you know, representing what you see- in front of you, or in your memory or mid’s eye. I still remember Richard Beale drumming it into me- quit drawing what you know, and draw only what you see. Our minds unconsciously seem to think we “know” everything, or at least it’s appearance. Something I’m trying to work on with Todd right now.

    Have you read Hawthorne on Painting? He was an American Realist that ran a painting school- where? Maybe Cape Cod- and always intended to write a book. He never did, but on his passing a student gathered notes from a wide variety of students, and assembled them in to the book. He breaks direct, representational painting down into a very simple formula of placing accurately seen and rendered shapes, of accurate color and tone, next to one another. A two dimensional puzzle-piece approach that is very simple conceptually, much harder to actually do.

    At some point I decided that wasn’t how I experienced the world- that direct, two dimensional representation. I love looking at work like that, and sometimes get pulled into the often thick, gestural brushwork that is part of so much of it, and then I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, and turn back.

    Which is meaning- the why I’m doing what I’m doing. I don’t think life has meaning, other than what you give to your own, to yourself. I don’t know where that leaves me on the philosophical continuum, and I guess I don’t really care. I’ve spent tons of time thinking/pondering it, and it eventually left me with family, friends, and the space I take up in my life. My work is an attempt to advocate for the things I think matter. And how that brake down into paint is again a form of epoch (I think )- when I quit trying to render exactly what I see in a place, and went to trying to represent the the experience of being there.

    We’ll see if it turns out to matter or not. In the meantime, it is for me a meaningful pursuit.