As It Feelsby Richard Shiff
During recent decades, as Joachim Pissarro observes, theoretical constructs have guided the critical evaluation of visual art and even shaped its base in perceptual experience. This type of “theory” doesn’t equate to the ideological baggage—specific to a time, place, and station in society—that informs each individual’s thoughts and actions. Such ideological preconditions accompany life within a cultural order. Pissarro alludes instead to elaborate discursive structures, the selective province of academics and public intellectuals, such as those associated with poststructuralist criticism, postmodernist art, and postcolonial politics. Beyond acceding to buzzwords and snob appeal, the danger in practicing rarefied theory is that its hypotheses may prove adept at bringing firm answers to vague questions. The critic begins to naturalize the constructed theoretical order, exchanging its fictions for the chaos of experience. Thinking doesn’t stray when following its own logic, even a Dada logic; and adherence to a chosen theory rewards the loyalist with intellectual security. The obvious alternative, equally extreme, is to purge theory, attempting to see and feel without direction or prejudice: “The intellect cannot err where there is none,” noted Heinrich von Kleist, wisely. Trust sensation. Trust feeling. Intuition—thinking that feels like feeling—needs no naturalization.
If we, some of us, have taken even playful theory too seriously, we haven’t lacked the potential for being warned. A number of artists and theorists have integrated thought and feeling (both sensation and emotion) rather than dividing them hierarchically, privileging one or the other. Those who pursued their preferred conceptual order to a dogmatic extreme might have heeded more tempered voices. Return to Roland Barthes’s “The Photographic Message” of 1961, for example. His initial emphasis on journalistic photography as uncoded and tantamount to immediate experience gradually shifts to reveal the uncoded photograph as inherently coded—coded as uncoded, and as such, yet another mediated sign. Today, we’re probably far more sympathetic to how Barthes ends (on his poststructuralist note) than to how he begins (from his base in structural analysis). Whatever the case, his true critical insight is contained in the feel of his thinking, as his phrasing works through a number of discursive paradoxes. Barthes’s lesson isn’t that we should revel in exposing paradox, often a mere rhetorical tic—rather, we should drill the bedrock of doxa beneath the paradox.
With regard to feeling and thinking, I like to return to C. S. Peirce for tempering. One, two, three: Peirce is both measured and direct. He often invoked the color red as an initial phenomenon (of sorts). Redness is a feeling having neither subject nor object—an instance of Firstness, a monadic quality yet to be identified in relation to anything else, more a potentiality than a presence. In contradistinction, Secondness is dyadic—an instance of thinking-feeling or feeling-thinking, that is, feeling felt while being conscious of the feeling. Imagine thinking the feeling. Thirdness is thinking itself—the aforementioned imagining, taken to fruition—thinking about a feeling or any other empirical datum as it exists at a remove, represented in a general play of signs, whether systematic or not.
Peirce’s philosophy is pragmatic, and as such was attractive to Donald Judd, one who offered many warnings. Judd regarded “the distinction between thought and feeling as, at the least, exaggerated.” He pursued order only up to a point, either in thinking about making his art or in seeing it. With respect to the objects he created, he preferred to leave their appreciation to Firstness and Secondness. Thirdness would be speculative, a matter of cultural politics. The appropriation and ironization of Judd’s and others’ images and concepts by artists and critics of the 1980s deeply irritated him. He considered such contributions to culture as parasitic—not in Jacques Derrida’s sense of generative cultural interference, but as careerist profit-taking. Appropriation set Thirdness before Firstness and Secondness, like commentary on experience that the commentator hadn’t had.
In 1993, Judd stated, “My simple objects encourage people to think about the nature of the world we live in.” We see. Then we think. Then we see. As Judd regarded the negotiation of objects, Ludwig Wittgenstein regarded the negotiation of language. He perceived that language mirrors nature and nature mirrors language—not much of a foundation for either but enough to generate a spectrum of pragmatic intuition, guesswork, and belief. Under the circumstances, description of the world becomes tantamount to explanation because we can do no better. “At the foundation of well-founded belief,” Wittgenstein concluded, “lies belief that is not founded”—a notion aligning him with Peirce (and Friedrich Nietzsche, too). After we see red, we believe we saw red. If someone instead saw blue, the fact remains that we saw red. What this fact or Secondness means, Judd said, “may be nothing”—no Thirdness applies, unless we apply it. “We feel facts resist our will,” Peirce wrote, “This is why facts are proverbially called brutal.”
As with Peirce and Wittgenstein, Judd’s sense of existence—feeling it as a fact, thinking it—entails circularity. How we view the world is itself a feature of the nature we see, the only nature that exists: “There is no other world but this one.” Encountering an object, we face an aspect of our existence. Perhaps the revelatory object will be one Judd himself created, because he produced each of his works to encourage us to notice it and by its example, to notice every other feature of the world. If seeing an object is to know it, then reflecting on how we see is to ponder the structure of the world, which includes ourselves. This is to know our world at first hand, not by concept, principle, or acquired custom, but with the immediacy and intimacy of self-reflection—a mode of seeing-as-thinking, thinking-as-seeing.
Seeing, perceiving, reflecting: each is a function that involves both thought and feeling. If Judd had a moral precept guiding his art, it was to avoid analytical fragmentation. Never convert a source of new experience to the sum of available, familiar components—it will amount to less than the whole. Judd recognized that reduction was a common response to any novel situation. Our tendency is to slight the most strikingly felt features of aesthetic experience because they’re the least established as doxa: “If changes in art are compared backwards, there always seems to be a reduction, since only old attributes are counted and these are always fewer. But obviously new things are more.” Judd wanted something more, something new. This is why parasitic art and criticism, however clever, so annoyed him. He produced his art as a way of preserving a unity of thought and feeling, reason and sensation, the whole works. “Thinking is based upon feeling, it’s all one,” he insisted; “the feeling gets you off the ground fast.” Feeling operates with extraordinary efficiency: “Emotion or feeling is simply a quick summation of experience, some of which is thought, necessarily quick so that we can act quickly.” Regardless of critical doubt, when we feel at-one with the world, we act; we take a caring, intuitive guess at the right thing to do. It’s caring to attend to our world of sensation, allowing it reentry to our world of signs.
RICHARD SHIFF is the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair at The University of Texas at Austin, where he directs the Center for the Study of Modernism. His most recent publications are Ellsworth Kelly: New York Drawings 1954-1962 (Prestel, 2014) and exhibition essays for Peter Doig (at Michael Werner) and Keith Sonnier (at Pace).