Wittgenstein and the ethics of hyper-realism

Rod Penner, 290 East Brenham TX, acrylic on canvas, 32″ x 48″, detail



There’s a sense in which Vermeer’s interiors have an aura similar to that of a religious icon. There is little that’s explicitly religious in Vermeer’s subject: civilized, upper-middle class life in a culture where capitalist wealth was generating a new quality of life and an economic environment where painting could thrive. You can look at other work during the same period and be astonished at the quality, but in Vermeer, something unique emerged, this ability to convey the most ordinary moments in a tranquil, prosperous household as if they were eternal, blessed, somehow transfigured by ordinary sunlight through a leaded glass window. In a certain sense, Vermeer used purely esthetic means to awaken an ethical sense in the viewer—ethical in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s broad and slightly unconventional sense of the word. He opens his lecture on ethics with a startling assertion: “Now I am going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics.”

He goes on to explicate what he’s attempting to say:

Now instead of saying “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good” I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with.

If you have read enough Wittgenstein, you would recognize that he is saying things that he, in other contexts, would call nonsense. This is not a pejorative term for him. It’s fundamental nonsense. To enquire into the “meaning of life” is to do something of almost grave importance, something he highly respected—as a threshold for living properly. (He would undoubtedly go on at length about the various implications of saying “properly” here.) This was, more or less, the mission of Socrates, to use reason as a ladder at the top of which you step off to live a good life, in the ethical (and also esthetic) sense of the word. It’s not a coincidence that Wittgenstein was the most Socratic of all Western philosophers since Socrates. He taught and philosophized by thinking along with his students, and he published only one book—which actually ought to draw comparisons to the pre-Socratics in its epigrammatic form—in his lifetime. What good means in this context is essentially indeterminate, inexpressible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s relative or subjective. Wittgenstein understood that to assert “I need to know the meaning of life” is to say something accurate and meaningful about a pursuit of nonsense—in his usage of that term. You are saying something about yourself that can be verified in a sense, so that the sentence itself has reasonable content about you, but the phrase “meaning of life” isn’t a signifier for which there are corresponding facts in the world. If the world is “everything that is the case” or the sum total of all facts, and logical thought consists only of propositions about the world that can be either true or false, then a phrase for which there are no corresponding facts is not logical; it is nonsense. And yet the fact that the phrase exists, that people use it, shows something that the words themselves cannot say: it “shows forth” the universal human urge to say what isn’t sayable, to think what can’t be thought—to discover, as it were, what life is. To put it another way, it demonstrates the human desire to step outside the world and see the whole of it clearly, objectively, in a way that makes sense of the totality of being. This is rationally impossible for a thinking individual, living within the world. You can’t step outside yourself and get a good look, let alone step outside the entire world for a more comprehensive view. In a similar way, in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein pointed out, in reference to logical thought as a picture of the world, “2.174 A picture cannot place itself outside its form of representation.” And “3 The logical picture of the facts is thought.” Therefore, thought cannot get outside itself to see and express clearly its own relation to the world. Nevertheless, thought reaches its limit and keeps pushing, speaking nonsense—in Wittgenstein’s sense—in order to express what’s unthinkable and inexpressible. There is something both absurd and yet utterly essential in this endeavor, this craving, and this restless compulsion resides at the core of Wittgenstein’s life work. He spent his life attempting to clarify the limits of reasoning and to show how reasoning—and especially science—isn’t enough, it can only take you so far, and not very far at that, when it comes to understanding how to live a good life, in both the ethical and aesthetic sense.

In his essay on ethics, he says:

I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were . . .  a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water . . . <even> if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

One’s first reaction to this is to say that there are, on the contrary, many quite obvious ways to describe ethical behavior, good behavior, a good life. Why is a book on ethics so unthinkable? Karen Armstrong, who studies the commonalities of the world’s religions, reduces the essence of religion to one imperative, The Golden Rule. This would seem to be a way in which one could answer the question about the most important thing in life, or the meaning of life: to not do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. This is for her the heart of all ethical codes. But this advice isn’t a proposition that can be verified; it isn’t a statement of fact that is either accurate or inaccurate. It isn’t an argument that turns a command—love your neighbor as you love yourself—into a propositional truth. It’s still an imperative, or command, and is in a sense supra-natural, not a proposition about facts, not something derived from the world or the sum total of facts about the world. It isn’t something one can derive rationally from what is the case in the world. The goodness of treating others with kindness and love may seem self-evident, but only if you begin with a presupposition of a self-evident absolute good—and reason has no way to express or comprehend this absolute other than to believe that it obtains. It doesn’t exist in the world and reason can only contend with facts in the world. This presupposition of an absolute good may be utterly central to your life, but as a rational postulate it’s a chimera. Absolute goodness can’t be located or described or, really, imagined, let alone verified.  For Wittgenstein, the only way to clarify this idea of The Good is to observe how language about it is used in a particular way of life.

All of this carries over into how Karen Armstrong, in A Case for God, explains why religion has become intellectually discredited over the past two centuries and yet is alive and well, in various forms across the globe: because it has been misunderstood as a set of propositions about the world rather than a complex language that “shows forth” a way of life that can embody a distinctly different awareness of human existence, with all the concomitant behavior that embodies it. The key for her, and Wittgenstein—and Tolstoy before him—was the realization that religion (and art for that matter) are ways of life, founded on the desire to align oneself with absolutes that transcend the facts of the world. Only with an assumption of these absolutes do facts have any value whatsoever. Otherwise, the world is a collection of neutral facts, none of which have more value than the others. Wittgenstein says:

I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.

This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolutely valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.


In this essay on ethics, as should be obvious from the clarity of these quotes, Wittgenstein says fundamental things about both ethics and aesthetics, religion and art, directly and plainly (in a way that’s more conversational than his better-known work which often leads the reader around the insight he wants to evoke, circling it and aiming at it obliquely.) For example, about his intimations of absolute goodness:

I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it, I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.’

And shortly, he adds:

The first thing I have to say is, that the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense! But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing.

Here, he is staying within the lines he drew in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. For a statement to make sense, it needs to assert something about the world that is either the case or not the case. There is no way to make sense of Wittgenstein’s ontological puzzlement, this wonder about everything that exists, because it seems to ask a question for which there is no intelligible answer. In this passage, Wittgenstein finds himself a philosophical bedfellow with Heidegger, for whom the central philosophical question was almost identical: Why is there something rather than nothing? A scientist might have an answer that mixes cosmology and physics, but that doesn’t respond to what’s being shown in the question. To offer this questioner a lesson about the Big Bang simply misunderstands the nature of the question itself, what the questioning represents in the life of a human being rather than what the question asks semantically. Science would try to twist the meaning of the question into a quasi-empirical framework in order to answer the question on terms that don’t address its role in the life of the questioner—and doesn’t address the puzzlement of rationality trying to exceed its grasp. To ask such a nonsensical question with enough insistence—as a Buddhist struggles to solve a koan, say—may serve as a crossroads or turning point in the life of the questioner, a prelude to some sort of awakening, about which again nothing sensible can really be said to elucidate its nature. A Zen Buddhist koan is an example of the sort of crucial nonsense Wittgenstein recognized as something at the core of what makes him human.

Imagine a scientist saying, “It isn’t really wonderful that everything exists, because it’s all just the outcome of the Big Bang.” Aside from being a buzz kill, this would be a bit like explaining the beauty and mystery of Vermeer by attaching probes to the skull and measuring what happens in the brain of someone looking at The Music Lesson. The scientific way of looking at the world entirely misconstrues the nature of aesthetic and ethical discernment and reduces subjective human experience to its concomitant physical events. This was Wittgenstein’s point, that rationality, and especially science, has severe limits—fully aware of the danger of how science and rationality are reductionist when applied in areas where science is irrelevant. It’s like bringing a crescent wrench to a baptism. If someone woke up to find that he had turned into a cockroach during the night, science would hypothesis and take measurements to explain it, but that would be missing the nature of the event. He says:

The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the absolute sense of that term. For we see now that we have been . . . describing the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle.


Aesthetically, Vermeer seems to offer the most distinguished case for what Wittgenstein is getting at. The Dutch painter depicts the most commonplace and ordinary things with no extraordinary value in and of themselves—a woman pouring milk, another woman getting a music lesson, and so on—while also conveying a sense that these domestic moments have been transfigured, instantiating a glimpse of what’s timeless, eternal, or blessed. And he does this without appearing to distort or change anything in what he observes before him. This quality is, one might think, an aesthetic corollary to “The Buddha is your everyday mind.” This is at the heart of what distinguishes Vermeer as a great, or even the greatest painter, the way in which he used marks of paint on a flat surface to convey a certain quality of light and color that, itself, embodied an otherwise inexpressible “spiritual” goodness.

When Vermeer depicts a woman pouring milk, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the picture. It is entirely mundane. So why does one have the sense here of eavesdropping on something holy? How and why does a Vermeer painting convey this aura? Again, there’s no reasonable way to answer this question and a set of scientific measures about the correlation between qualities in the painting and responses in the observer would be a comical misunderstanding of aesthetics. In a parallel way, though Wittgenstein didn’t consider himself religious and didn’t practice any particular religion, he famously said: “I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.” He wasn’t saying that he couldn’t overcome his Catholic upbringing at the end of the Habsburg reign. He wasn’t making an observation about his psychology. He likely meant the philosophical impulse for him was as all-consuming and was as much about the mind’s inability to grasp the wholeness of the world as would be the case for a devoted monk, just as driven to align himself with the ineffable wholeness he calls God, about which he has no choice but to remain silent, if he’s honest about what he’s able to express.

A collection of philosophical essays, Ludwig Wittgenstein between Analytic Philosophy and Apophaticism, concludes with a long, trenchant essay by Michael Grant, “Wittgenstein and the Language of Religion.” The early pages of this essay offer a way of understanding what’s happening in Vermeer’s work and how his greatness can be understood in a quite simple way, once you recognize the engagement between a painting and its viewer. To see this simple, yet puzzling way of thinking about painting only intensifies the mystery of its power, its alchemy. Grant’s essay also works as a way of understanding why photo-realism and hyper-realism offer an opportunity to alter the way a viewer sees without significantly altering the sense that you are engaged in an unmediated observation of the scene. Grant refers to a section of Philosophical Investigations that concerns “aspect seeing” or “seeing as.” It’s a familiar phenomenon. Most people have seen drawings or photographs that can be recognized in two different ways: maybe the most famous is the beautiful young woman looking away from the viewer whose ear can become the eye of an old crone when you recognize the entirely different image called forth by the elements of the picture. Nothing in the picture has changed, but you can see it in one of two opposite ways, each of which evokes an entirely different woman. You are seeing the same thing, in sensory terms, in all of its details and formal qualities, but you are recognizing two entirely different “aspects” of it. (“Aspect” doesn’t seem quite the right word, because it suggests “feature” rather than the act of recognition.) In the image you are recognizing two dramatically different people whose visible features are identical in terms of what occupies your field of vision. The ear of one becomes the eye of another, though nothing changes in the picture itself. It goes without saying that Escher depended on this phenomenon in much of his curious work. But there is a way in which a shift in “aspect seeing” could become a metaphor to describe how any visual art can change the way one sees the world—and maybe it’s more than a metaphor.

Grant writes:

Wittgenstein’s account of aspect-seeing starts from what seems a paradox: when an aspect dawns on me, nothing has changed in what I see, and yet everything looks different. “The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged.” . . . “It is of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand.” (p 168-169)

Wittgenstein here is describing how his philosophical method is an attempt to shift his reader’s or listener’s mind into a recognition of things from a different aspect: nothing in life changes, nothing in our scientific facts about the world changes, but everything is recognized differently.

A bit later, Grant adds:

It makes sense for me to ask you to see the likeness between two faces. I can ask you to look for it, and give you hints as to how to go about it. The same holds for aesthetic judgments. As with aesthetic insight, an insight which requires the exercise of one’s imagination, no information is acquired . . . Nothing is discovered. Hence there is a sense that aspects are not subject to dispute. They are not open to rational support or to disconfirmation by appeal to the facts. One might say that aspects are cognitively empty. (p 171)

He brings this all home, in terms of Vermeer, with:

Solving a picture puzzle, or engaging in aesthetic appreciation or judgment, may depend on getting someone to see an aspect to which he is now blind . . .what would be involved here would be distinctive: it would involve a form of rational discussion without the possibility of proof . . . (p. 173) “the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something—because it is always before one’s eyes . . . we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and powerful.” (p 175)

Vermeer aside, one could draw upon that last quote from Wittgenstein almost as an argument for what representational art does, by definition, in all cases—aside from anything else it is consciously created to do, whatever ideas or agendas an artist embraces.


On my last visit to New York City as the pandemic restrictions were lifting, I visited Meisel Gallery in its downtown location toward the end of my tour of galleries and museums. I was struck by Rod Penner’s hyper-realist paintings, not only because of their technical achievement, but because of the nature of what he was depicting. He favors small Texas towns that still look as if the marks of the Western frontier might peek out at you through the seams between one object and another, places where they might have shot scenes for The Last Picture Show decades ago. At first glance, I fell in love with Penner’s images, partly because he steps out of the way and lets you see exactly what you would have seen if you had been standing where he was when he captured what he saw. He shows you this part of the country invisibly and self-effacingly, and with astonishing accuracy, down to the tire tracks that reach out like skeletal fingers from puddles of rainwater and each speck of gravel arrayed like a galaxy on the blacktop. It’s not saying much to call a photo-realist or a hyper-realist “self-effacing” since that’s essential to the genre, which is to show you with exceptional precision exactly what meets the eye—without consciously modifying it. (Even though, and this is a fact at the heart of all painting, every photo-realist conveys the world individually, despite the conventions of the genre and despite the painter’s conscious intent to disappear in the act of painting.) Most hyper-realists are up to more than self-effacement, and you can feel their different personalities, at a minimum, in their choice of subjects and the way they crop their images or pick the sort of light they want the scene to convey.

Richard Estes is unique in the quality of his marks, for example. In general, photo-realism is a gaudy, sexy genre that emerged out of Pop Art, with a lot of things going on, and plenty of opportunities for shiny spectacle, where taste is flexible. It’s a commercially viable genre, and therefore of little interest in the critical community. (Dave Hickey wrote The Invisible Dragon against that bias.) Seeing a retrospective of Richard Estes up close at the Museum of Arts and Design in 2015 demonstrated how subtle and restrained his best work has been. Up close, his marks were visible, simple, methodical as Chuck Close’s, often seemingly uniform, though not as reductive as Welliver’s, and the marks disappeared as you moved away, like pixels from a distance, but even so, they hummed in your field of vision. It was part of what made the image come alive, that sense of rigorous and confident simplicity in his marks. In the images he chose, the busy metropolitan streets, he often evoked the exact feel of being in New York City, the submerged awareness of the city as a whole that laid the subliminal ground for my moment-to-moment impressions during my purposeful maneuvers around the city. The work selected for the Estes show was exceptional because of its subtle color and the mastery he brought to it during the years he executed the paintings. Often, as with so much hyper-realism now, he chose images for their abstract properties, with an effect similar to what Sheeler often achieved in his choices. Yet most of the images stirred my submerged awareness of the whole city, by making me see, at one remove and as a whole, what I had just been seeing on the streets around the museum in a more fragmented way. It was a subtle but radical shift in aspect similar to what Wittgenstein talks about. In the choices Estes made, mostly matters of personal predilection, he distilled an experience of beauty from subjects rarely considered beautiful in the daily experience of someone navigating the city. He made my everyday mind something arresting, liberating and marvelous, in its entire aspect, while not altering anything in the content of that everyday mind. How this is so represents a puzzle at the heart of why anyone loves even the most traditional visual art.

This is what Penner does even more vividly.  In the four acrylic paintings viewable at the Meisel site, completed between 2004 and 2008, he favors nearly empty streets at different times of day during the summer or spring, after a rainfall. Water stands in puddles and either drenches the blacktop or is drying from it. Part of the appeal and sense of wonder you get from paintings this masterful is the way Penner—like many who work in this genre—can seem to duplicate a photographic source down to the smallest detail. Each painting is a marvel of technical skill. But this isn’t what distinguishes Penner’s scenes. Somehow, in the choice of subjects and in the way he captures nearly empty streets in Bertram and Brenham, Texas—as sunlight falls directly or indirectly onto the macadam and the standing water, everything bathed in the same quality of light, the viewer is filled with a sense of momentary perfection and a faint sense of loss, which intensifies the moment’s perfection and beauty. Why, though, it is beautiful? The sense of loss accompanies, among other things, the knowledge that you know you will soon look away.

In Clearing Skies Bertram, TX (a witty touch, to indicate the state by its postal abbreviation, emphasizing that most viewers of his work would only have contact with Texas, if at all, through the postal service) the A.B. McGill & Co. stands like an historic monument, its brick façade showing forth a lost era of human labor and craft. It reminded me immediately of Vermeer’s The Little Street, where the walls appear to be assembled with individual, rough-hewn stones rather than uniform bricks familiar to anyone who shops at Home Depot now. The color and shape of each stone—they are used as bricks but look like individualized stones—appears utterly unique and distinct from all the rest. This wall itself is as interesting and as full of the human touch as a painting, and he shows it to you twice. Not only do you see it directly at the right edge of the painting but it’s mirrored in the large puddle on the parking lot below. It quit raining not long ago, the clouds are dispersing, the blue sky appearing again, probably late in the day but maybe having just cleared the horizon at the start of the day. This is not a picturesque scene, not a prospect most people would even notice, as they walk across the street, and yet you don’t want to look away from the painting of it.

Most of these observations hold for his 290 East, Brenham TX that shows the main drag in another small town, with its antiquated diagonal parking. Great Falls, Montana looked almost exactly like this when my wife and I moved there before we had our first child, in the late 70s. The rain has passed, the sky is completely clear, and the sun is either setting or coming up. It’s the photographer’s magic hour. Looking at the painting, I’m seeing the town the way I would if I had just finished working overtime at the counter in the local pharmacy, now walking home alone. Again, the painting does what a great Japanese haiku does: it presents to me something utterly ordinary and overlooked, something about which no one, in the actual material events of an average day, would pause and say, “Look at that, will you? I mean, just look at that.” And yet, as a painting, this view of mundane and literally pedestrian surroundings, silences my mind and makes me pause to keep looking, with a feeling that I’m seeing something infinitely familiar and yet breathtaking. There’s an e.e. cummings poem that opens: somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond any experience, your eyes have their silence: in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, or which i cannot touch because they are too near.

Art like Penner’s is about showing forth what can’t be touched because it is too near. This is a large portion of what Wittgenstein meant in his passages about “aspect shifts.” The sense of the miraculous can be awakened by particular events in life—it’s a miracle that horse won the race—but he was most interested in the philosophical puzzlement that gives rise to the sense that Being itself is a miracle, that the world as a whole is what a philosopher or painter or poet is, in a paradoxically fragmentary way, attempting to “show forth.” Absolutely nothing changes in what you see, in this sort of painting, when compared with what you would see in the actual place, but everything is seen differently, and that kind of seeing is at the heart not just of the aesthetic life, but is the ground of an ethical life as well. Without that kind of reverence for everything, why bother with any discriminations of right and wrong. You bother because the sort of perfection you see in a painting reflects the sort of perfection offered and ignored every hour of the day to someone too busy to notice, and that perfection once recognized inspires the desire to keep noticing and honoring it in your awareness and behavior. As Rilke put it, in recognition of a damaged torso of Apollo’s perfection: “There is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” This is a paradox—everything is perfect just as it is in this fragmented sculpture. In reaction to this paradox, one must choose this rather than that—and there’s no rational argument to justify this. It’s a paradox that can give rise to a life work of humble paintings of everyday things, depicted in a way that makes you think you’ve never actually seen them until you’ve seen them in a painting, and this is where aesthetic and ethical goodness fuse together. When you do see them, as if for the first time, you want to be a better person.

1 Response to “Wittgenstein and the ethics of hyper-realism”

  1. Jim Mott

    An impressively sustained, intense rumination, with flashes of illumination, all leading toward a refreshingly simple and worthwhile conclusion. Sort of like climbing a mountain to a clear vista. Nice work, Dave!