How Pictures Complete Us
The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Divine
Paul Crowther



Pictorial Beauty and Aesthetic Transcendence

Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art (1968) was important in stimulating widespread interest in the epistemology and semantics of picturing.1 This interest has continued, resulting in many important monographs—notably by Kendall Walton, Robert Hopkins, Dominic McIver Lopes, and Patrick Maynard.2 The continental tradition has also considered the philosophical significance of pictorial images, but in contexts mainly concerning their ontology or broader cultural significance. Works by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and, more recently, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Rancière have been especially influential.3 And of course, within the field of art history, pictorial representation is often addressed in terms that consider the philosophical implications of its history. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1960) was an important, pioneering book in this respect, and more recently James Elkins has produced a substantial corpus of important work.4

However, there is one aspect of pictorial representation that has received rather less attention, namely, the distinctive basis of pictorial art as art. I emphasize “distinctive” here because, while pictorial representation has often been included in general theories of art, there has, in recent times, been much less attention to the aesthetic uniqueness of picture-making. And there is such uniqueness. When a picture represents visible things, it changes how they appear—on the basis of factors distinctive to pictorial media. Among those who have addressed this, Richard Wollheim and Lopes have linked artistic meaning in pictures to the notion of expression.5 Neither of them, however, has explained what makes expression in pictorial art aesthetically different from that in other art media.6

One might, of course, say that the expressiveness of picturing is sufficiently distinguished from that of other things, simply by virtue of arising from pictures rather than from other things. But my point is that the ontological differences at issue here are also responsible for distinctive aesthetic effects. These give pictorial expression a different character from expression arising in other contexts. Indeed, the way such pictorial works move us is often (perhaps even mainly) through a response to the work’s overall artistic achievement as such, rather than to specific expressive qualities that might strike us as “happy” or “sad” or “tragic” or whatever. Indeed, when it comes to pictorial artworks of high quality, it is crudely reductive to suppose that their aesthetic significance is explicable using such straightforward expressive terms. Rather, it is the case that, in pictorial art, such expressive qualities are integrated within the distinctive unity of the picture as a whole. (“Distinctive unity” here means both that which is unique to pictorial art as a medium and the artistic style of the particular work.)

I would suggest, then, that it is worth considering an alternative to expression as a basis for explaining the pictorial work’s artistic status. The alternative I propose is to focus on the aesthetic grounds of its uniqueness as a medium. This can be done through two moves. The first is a general account of specifically pictorial beauty and how the experience of it can create a sense of psychological completion. The second is more extended (and forms the substance of the present work). It explores how this completion is achieved in distinctive ways, through pictorial beauty’s modes of aesthetic transcendence. These involve a felt symbolic “going-beyond” our finite limitations, together with (in some circumstances) a felt communion with the divine. Each artistic medium is able to evoke such transcendence on its own terms. To show what is special about pictorial art’s modes of doing so, I start with the general theory of pictorial beauty mentioned above.

Over the centuries there have, of course, been many theories of the beautiful. Most of them take it to involve harmonious unities of parts and whole in sensible phenomena (or in imaginatively intended structures such as literature). But problems arise when it comes to defining the wholes and parts in question, as well as the criterion of “harmonious unity” between them. The basic idea becomes difficult as soon as one tries to make it precise.

However, this need not be worrisome. The basic idea is flexible enough to allow different varieties of beauty to be made more specific ontologically—on the basis of different whole-part/aspect relations, or to put it another way, on the basis of the different kinds of objects involved. When the objects are artworks, these varieties will follow the distinctive ontologies of the relevant media (such as sculpture, architecture, photography, literature, and music) and some factors that cut across them. It is when we make beauty specific in such terms that it becomes more philosophically informative.

And so, to the specific case of pictorial representation. This practice does not center on copying. It involves, rather, the creation of physical surfaces marked or inscribed so as to suggest the appearance of some recognizable kind of three-dimensional item or state of affairs. The suggestion is achieved through features of shape, mass, and spatial detail (in terms of how the surface is marked) that—allowing for differences of scale, where relevant—are visually consistent with how an item or state of affairs of the relevant kind might appear. They allow us to see the three-dimensional structure as if it were in the surface (a fact made much of in Richard Wollheim’s work).7

Of course, such appearances can be wholly accidental—as when we see such things “in” clouds—but in the case of the picture, its way of being created offers cues that allow us to read it as created with the intention of suggesting a three-dimensional content to us. The criteria of such an intention include evidence of a process of physical construction, of the construction being sited on a treated plane surface such as a sheet of paper or a stretched canvas, and/or framing devices whereby the virtual three-dimensionality of the pictorial content is both drawn attention to and demarcated from the “real” three-dimensional visual world.

The attention in question here focuses on the open, twofold spatial unity of the picture (a notion that will be a veritable leitmotif in the present work). This can be illustrated through a contrast. To comprehend the unity of an event, its constituent parts must be perceived successively in an exact linear temporal order. To perceive them in any other order will jumble the parts and make the event unintelligible as an event. In order to recognize the spatial object as a unity, however, our perception of its parts is not tied to a strict linear order of successive apprehension. One can start at the middle and move to the top, or at the bottom right, switching to the left and then moving up—or whatever. The unity of the whole, indeed, is recognized as emergent from cumulative perceptions of its different parts. It has an open unity.

In a picture, there are multiple levels to this unity. As a physical thing, it is a plane surface with lines or marks placed or inscribed upon it. As a presentation of virtual three-dimensional content, it has another level of space that appears to be “in” the surface. When focusing specifically on the picture’s narrative or informational function, this latter level is the object of our attention. The physical surface is overlooked in favor of the meaning that is emergent from it.

On other occasions, however, the way in which an artist has represented something is a source of great pleasure in its own right. Such enjoyment can center on the appreciation of harmonies of line, shape, and color for their own sake. But this purely formal experience of beauty can be stimulated by many kinds of visible phenomena and is no help in explaining the distinctive beauty of specifically pictorial art.

The distinctively pictorial aspect is enjoyed when we attend to the work’s physical spatiality in relation to its illusionistic space and to the meanings of the narratives and/or figures it represents. And since this relation is directed by the artist’s own individual handling of the medium itself, the picture is not just a spatial appearance, but a way of making things appear that, at the same time, expresses the aesthetic interests and values of the creator.

What is decisive, in other words, is a complex unity arising from how the picture’s physicality, its style of composition and handling, and its virtual content or narrative make one another visible. Here, in other words, the unity of the work is emergent from three different aspects as well as the parts of those aspects. By means of this emergence, pictorial beauty discloses the world in a distinctive way.

Indeed, its uniqueness reaches further. For such beauty makes us attentive to space-occupancy at the level of space itself. The importance of this is that, in the finite world, space-occupancy is the criterion of existence. If something does not occupy space or is not an effect of space-occupying bodies and/or forces, then we have no grounds for saying that it exists. This is more than a dry fact of ontology. Space-occupying phenomena are not only the basis of our physical existence but the site of all the things we do as well. They have existential importance. Indeed, our interactions with landscapes, places, buildings, rooms, animals, and other human beings create meanings that are the very stuff of life. Space-occupancy is so significant as to permeate every aspect of self-consciousness.

Pictorial beauty plays a unique role here, since it transforms how spatial phenomena appear. The artist’s style selectively interprets them and heightens their appearance—bringing out features that might otherwise go unnoticed and unappreciated. His or her way of making-visible offers aesthetic and metaphysical insights into different aspects of space-occupancy and our relation to it. Of course, literature also describes things that happen in the spatial world, and music may allude to them, but only visual art presents and transforms space at the level of space itself, through the open unity of its aesthetic objects. Architecture and sculpture also share their three-dimensional character with the real spatial world, but the specific planar basis of pictorial art adds something.

Insofar, then, as pictorial beauty concerns space-occupancy, it engages with spatial phenomena fundamental to our existence in a way that other art media cannot. It should be emphasized, however, that this is not the basis of a hierarchy. For while pictorial art is privileged in terms of space, the other media also have their own unique ways of being beautiful. They engage with other fundaments of human existence.

Having established the distinctiveness of pictorial beauty, it is clear that the experience of it can offer a kind of psychological completion. This takes the form of aesthetic empathy—a mode of identification with the artist’s way of seeing and representing visual possibilities of space-occupancy. For us as social beings, the ways in which other people find meaning in the world is something fascinating. Of course, others might simply tell us what aspects of the spatial world interest them or move them, or how we ought to see them, but no matter how detailed the description, we cannot literally see as they do. In the case of pictorial art, however, the selection of content and the style in which it is rendered allow us to share the artist’s vision to some degree at the level of space itself. He or she offers a way of seeing—of interpreting and evaluating the visible world—which we can share or turn away from as we please.

Here, our social relation to the artist is based on freedom rather than beset by the psychological pressures that characterize our normal direct relations with other people. Such empathy is, in logical terms, disinterested, because in order to identify with the aesthetic interpretation of the world presented through the work, we do not need the artist to be physically present. Neither do we need to be aware of empirical facts about the circumstances of the artist’s life or his or her broader opinions concerning the world. Of course, we may well know a great deal about the artist, and such knowledge may enhance or inhibit our pleasure. But the point is that we do not have to have it in order to identify with the picture’s style of making-visible. Pictorial beauty completes us, by placing artist and audience in a free and mutually beneficial relationship at the level of space.

There is an important corollary to this. We can only understand who and what we are through comparison and contrast with other human beings. In seeing how a picture discloses space-occupying things, we are not only imaginatively absorbed by the artist’s style; we also learn things about our own possibilities and/or limitations. Aesthetic empathy through pictures, therefore, facilitates psychological completion in personal as well as social terms.

The general notion of pictorial beauty just described is really a general one. It describes what is involved when we enjoy pictures as art per se. However, it can be qualified further in terms of important subvarieties. The aesthetic transcendence described earlier is an effect of some of these, arising when a work’s pictorial beauty actively plays off against our sense of finite limitations. In such cases, we identify not only with the artist’s making-visible but also with the way in which it symbolically releases us from finite limitations and, in some circumstances, evokes a sense of the divine. We empathize, in other words, with the artist’s positioning of humanity in a more cosmic scheme of things.

This offers a completion of the self that is both aesthetic and metaphysical. By taking us symbolically beyond the limits of finitude, such transcendence provides psychological compensation for our otherwise helpless immersion in the flow of things coming to be and passing away. We are able to possess ourselves. This completion arises from some of the aforementioned subvarieties of pictorial beauty. These are, specifically, “ideal beauty” and what I shall call “metaphysical” and “holistic beauty.” It can also arise when the artist’s style engages with phenomena or meanings that in some way exceed the scope of our perceptual or imaginative capacities. In this case, we move from the beautiful to the sublime. The sublime operates with pictorial beauty’s basic structures of making-visible but in an extreme form—where the relation between the pictorial unity and its suggested illusionistic content involves reference to overwhelming phenomena. In experiences of both the beautiful and the sublime, it is sometimes possible to feel related to a divine presence. Whether this is genuine revelation or exhilarating fantasy is, of course, dependent on the viewpoint of the individual.

The beautiful, the sublime, and evocations of the divine have not been central to theories of pictorial art since 1945—though they have often arisen in discussions of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Jean-François Lyotard has also linked the sublime, in particular, to central aspects of postmodern culture and certain forms of high modernist art, but his approach is extremely schematic and raises severe difficulties that I have addressed elsewhere.8 And when notions akin to aesthetic transcendence have been considered more generally in earlier philosophy—for example, Kant’s notion of aesthetic ideas or Hegel’s and Schopenhauer’s aesthetics of the visual arts—they have tended to be tied too closely to the problematic metaphysics of those great idealist systems. (Indeed, while Hegel and Schopenhauer are attentive to some distinctive features of pictorial art, they tend to overlook those features that are central to my own account.)9

In this book, then, I argue that pictorial art completes us psychologically through its distinctive ways of being beautiful and sublime and of evoking the divine. However, before describing the book’s content in more detail, it is worth mentioning, briefly, some other recent treatments of its main concepts. Mary Mothersill’s Beauty Restored (1984) makes a good case for beauty as a general aesthetic fundamental, and Nick Zangwill (2001) has offered a sustained discussion of the statements we make and beliefs we hold about the beautiful.10 Jennifer A. McMahon’s excellent Aesthetics and Material Beauty (2007) develops an account of the general relation between art and beauty that is one of only a few to combine intellectual rigor with keen acuity in discussing particular works of art. Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999) effectively counters some of the politically driven criticisms of beauty that were influential in the 1980s and 1990s. More important, it sees beauty in a broader perspective vis-à-vis its humanizing potential, an insight shared by the present work. Alexander Nehamas’ Only a Promise of Happiness is an interesting book that offers some interesting ideas—especially in relation to the appreciation of late nineteenth-century French painting. However, it does not consider the cognitive basis of beauty and is, in many respects, more a book of philosophically informed art criticism than a philosophical work. Arthur Pontynen’s For the Love of Beauty is a polemical work that illuminates problems arising from the widespread dogmatic relativism that blights much contemporary thinking about the arts. One of the strengths of this book is a willingness to formulate a transcultural approach to beauty and cognate normative terms. However, for this to have the impact it deserves, Pontynen’s insights need more robust philosophical justification and less dogmatic, religious-based assertion.11

As for the sublime, there have been a surprisingly large number of books on the topic since the 1980s. Robert Clewis has discussed the relation between Kant’s theory of the sublime and his approach to freedom. Clewis’ book is particularly strong in developing an account of the sublime that points toward a correlated notion of respect for nature.12 Kirk Pillow’s study of sublime understanding is a sophisticated work that expounds Kant’s and Hegel’s theories of the sublime and critically revises and develops them in very searching ways.13 More recently, Emily Brady has written an important book on the sublime that is wide-ranging in both historical and conceptual terms.14 There are also two collections, one edited by Simon Morley and the other by Luke White and Claire Pajaczkowska, as well as a volume by Roald Hoffman and Iain Boyd Whyte that explores the sublime across the realms of both art and science.15

Most of the aforementioned studies of the beautiful and the sublime deal with visual material, including pictures. But they are far from my own approach in that none of them share the main focus of the present text—namely, the unique ways in which the making of pictures relates to the beautiful and the sublime. Similar limitations apply in relation to the rich contemporary literature on the relation between art and the divine. Richard Harries and Richard Viladesau, among many others, have written relevant works on theological aesthetics, without identifying the distinctive character of pictorial art’s contribution.16 T. J. Gorringe’s Earthly Visions is different: it has a specifically visual orientation and sensitively interprets a wide range of material. Gorringe says that “what I hope to have shown is the way in which some of the greatest secular art of the past four hundred years can be understood to speak of the presence and reality of God in ways which do not compromise its integrity.”17 More specifically, he affirms that painting “invites us to reflect more deeply on the mystery of existence. It speaks obliquely, and through images, as do parables.”18

Gorringe is right. Some pictures can indeed be parables of religious meaning, but while this can lead to profound insights, it is not philosophically compelling. Indeed, all the religiously oriented works I have just mentioned (with the partial exception of Gorringe himself) tend somewhat to preach to the converted, or at least to the sympathetic. Someone who is neither converted nor sympathetic will, accordingly, very likely dismiss the religious significance of pictorial art out of hand.

My own approach, in contrast, tries to first establish the relation between pictorial art and aesthetic transcendence on independent metaphysical grounds before raising the question of religious significance. This strategy emphasizes the specific ontologies of visibility that characterize different modes of pictorial art. Through this, I am able to clarify what it is about pictorial art that enables it to have possible religious significance as well as aesthetic meaning. Jean-Luc Marion has also taken some important steps in this direction, but his approach raises far more difficulties than it solves (as will be shown in detail in Chapter 6).19 In this book, then, I adopt a complex method. It is a postanalytic phenomenology that addresses the beautiful, the sublime, and the divine in pictorial art through close descriptions of the works themselves and through the analysis of relevant theories.

Questions of method aside, the layout of the book is as follows. Chapter 1 investigates the history and philosophy of ideal beauty in Plato, Plotinus, Alberti, Schopenhauer, and then (in much more detail) Sir Joshua Reynolds. By critically developing ideas from Reynolds, in particular, I formulate a theory of ideal beauty as the aesthetic presentation of geometric immanence and the concrete universal. I also show how the notion is still relevant, through discussions of Malevich’s late figurative work and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s postmodern classicism.

In Chapter 2, another form of aesthetic transcendence in pictorial art is identified, which I call “metaphysical beauty.” This has an intimate relation to the ontology of pictorial art—especially linear perspective—and involves an eternalization of our perception of the present and of the systematic structure of spatial recession. I argue that such beauty is in effect the pictorial expression of what might be called the “sensuous divine.”

The next chapters consider the sublime. Chapter 3 presents a reconstructed and extended version of Kant’s theory, with a new variation that I call the “iconographical sublime.” This reconstruction is then explored as the basis for a distinctively pictorial conception of the Kantian sublime. Particular attention is paid to work by the contemporary artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger. Chapter 4 considers the sublime in relation to a tendency in abstract art. It begins with a theory that shows such art to be allusively rather than illusionistically pictorial. The theory is then used to explore the notion of what I call the “mystical sublime” in relation to abstract works, most notably Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross series and Mark Rothko’s Seagram mural project. Specifically, I explain how the mystical sublime in their work can be read in alternative ways—existential, monistic, and theistic.

In Chapter 5, I point out the sense in which art has reached its limits and then consider a creative possibility that crosses photocollage with the compositional strategies of abstract painting and can be developed further through digital imagery. I argue that this idiom is a distinctive variant of the aesthetically transcendent holistic beauty found in painting.

Throughout the book, I show in passing how secular approaches to aesthetic transcendence can also be supplemented—if one is so inclined—by religious interpretations. In the final two chapters, I address the religious dimension of pictorial art in more specific terms. Chapter 6 is a detailed analysis of Jean-Luc Marion’s theology of painting. I identify some strengths but argue that the theory has serious deficiencies all along the way—especially in terms of Marion’s privileging of the icon and his inadequate notions of art and the aesthetic. The final chapter, Chapter 7, offers an alternative approach to the theology of pictorial art, arguing that it is only with the advent of self-consciousness that a temporal horizon of past, present, future, and possibility comes to exist in the universe. This horizon is made concrete in spatial terms through the making of pictorial art. I argue further that these metaphysical/artistic structures are of religious significance if interpreted in the context of faith. Last of all, I consider (albeit briefly) the general significance of beauty and sublimity in relation to the divine.