Art is a discipline of knowledge. A great painting or sculpture is as much an intellectual achievement as a great philosophical treatise. Yet unlike other disciplines that rely on conceptual thought, art can communicate nonconceptual knowledge: knowledge free from the limitations and reductions of language and the abstractions of reason. Great art situates itself on the edge of discourse, half within its reach and half outside. Although we may grasp many aspects of an artwork through language and criticism, art’s totality exceeds conceptual thought. However many words we may throw at a painting, we can neither exhaust it nor achieve conceptual mastery over it.
Art partly resists conceptual mastery because it engages our perceptions—multiple perceptions. Every image holds more perceptual content than we could name. Attempts to conceptualize our perceptions must shoehorn our sensory experience into existing frameworks. For example, if a still life depicts both a banana and a lemon, we may be able to distinguish the colors of each fruit—the banana may look more green—yet unless we possess different names for all shades of yellow, we will describe them as the same. Even if we were to establish separate categories, yellow-this and yellow-that, information would still be lost between our perception and our concepts. Only with an infinite number of concepts could we adequately represent our perception—which is impossible and misses the picture entirely.
Yet we have become comfortable with the idea that art can be reducible to language. T.J. Clark, in The Sight of Death, notes that images are now an “instrumentation of a certain kind of language use.” They no longer stand apart from language, but rather aid words in providing “ten-thousand quick tickets to meaning.” The image that could relay meaning in and of itself has been superseded by the billboard, the tabloid, and the snapchat—simply words “given just sufficient visual cladding.” We have become so accustomed to words standing in for images that we have lost sight of the visuality of images.
Thus we have unintentionally developed a mindset in which art seems incomplete without discourse, that we need to finish its sentence with the words it cannot say. Not only does this mindset encourage us to jump to conclusions once we gain the slightest confirmation of our preconceptions, it also overprivileges discourse as a way to engage with art. When we focus on finding words to complete an artwork, not only are we reducing and obscuring its clarity, we are also denying ourselves an opportunity to gain knowledge and perspectives that lie outside our frames of reference. Regardless of our intentions, we are replacing the demands of the artwork upon us with our demands upon the artwork. Instead of attending to specific ways an artwork dictates its rules of engagement and regulates time, we subject the artwork to our time. We exchange present engagement with the artwork for processing discourse for some imaginary future where we can exchange this translation for capital. Even if we “take our time,” if we conceptualize the artwork in front of us, we have fast-forwarded through the most important dimension.
To restore our ability to engage with art on a nonconceptual level, we must eschew our desire to achieve conceptual mastery over art and shift our focus toward the present and our presence with the artwork. It is in the presence of an artwork that we can retain the sensuous, somatic knowledge that art confers free of conceptual thought. T.J. Clark’s experiment in returning to the two Poussin paintings over and over reminds us that through a rigorous practice of looking, of attending to an artwork in its presence, we can maintain a type of visuality that “situates itself at the edge of the verbal.” The more we slow ourselves down and allow the artwork to direct us, the more we become open to a type of knowledge that, although perhaps impossible to describe, can broaden our perspectives more than words alone.
Alex Findlay is an undergraduate student at Pomona College majoring in English.