K. E. Gover
Figuring Out Figurative Art - Routledge
A review of Figuring Out Figurative Art in The Journal Of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
The collection of essays Figuring Out Figurative Art is based on an unusual and charming conceit: philosophers were invited to write about a work of art chosen from a portfolio of contemporary figurative paintings and drawings. They were asked to contribute an essay to the collection that connected their chosen work to some philosophical issue. No other instructions were given. Some of the writers specialize in the philosophy of art and aesthetics; others have expertise elsewhere within philosophy.
London art gallery Breese Little curated the portfolio, which consists of works by living artists. It includes pieces by artworld superstars John Currin and Yue Minjun as well as contributions from lesser-known but highly accomplished artists such as Chantal Joffe and Tom de Freston. While the works all depict forms that are recognizably derived from life, the styles represented range widely, from photorealism to surrealist collage…
… Sometimes this shift of register can be gratifying, however, as it enables one to encounter a favorite thinker in a less formal context. For me, this was the case with Lydia Goehr’s essay on two paintings by Tom de Freston called Quartet—Stage One and Quartet—Stage Two. It was not surprising that she chose the works with titles that referred to musical compositions, as Goehr is best known for her contributions to the philosophy of music. Her essay weaves together a first-person account of her process in preparing to write about de Freston’s paintings—she reads what others have said, she interviews the artist himself over a cocktail—and a reflection on the nature and limits of such a hermeneutic procedure. At one point, she observes, “one enters a danger zone—a prison-yard of meaning—every time one thinks that one has acquired a certain knowledge of an image by aligning the image to intentions articulated by the artist. Even if there is self-portraiture and a certain self-reflection or reflexivity within the painting, this sort of intentionality must be separated from an external set of articulated intentions” (p. 71). Goehr here makes the interesting distinction between the actual intentions that are expressed by the artist in a work of visual art and the artist’s post hoc report of those intentions. A more formal piece of philosoph-ical writing might connect that insight to the debates surrounding intentionalist theories of meaning, but in this context such observations stand alone, resting on the weight of Goehr’s authority and erudition.