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A Universal Human Nature

...all great art, if not all art, presupposes a universal human nature in which artist and spectator share. (p. 8) [i]

In Painting as an Art Wollheim argues for the existence of a universal human nature that binds artists and spectators from one culture to another and from one time to another. Following Freud, he distinguishes the socially constructed self from the 'core self' the organization of id, ego, superego structures. This organization makes up a person's basic psyche and affects everything a person feels and does.

He shows that in painting there are some universal images and symbols, derived from Freud and psychoanalysis, that can be recognized despite the fact that they are not specific to a particular 'language of art' or to a particular social formation. The universality of pictorial recognition is a biological inheritance and as such it crosses boundaries that conventionalism would rule out. This seem true to the fact that we can respond to a variety of styles with apparently conflicting aims and commitments, and that we can take seriously work which expresses an ideology alien to us.

Wollheim's notion of universality aligns itself with the theoretical frameworks of psychoanalytic theories that underpin his explanation of paintings. Charles Rycroft in his introduction to�Psychoanalysis Observed makes the point:

the statement that psychoanalysis is a theory of meaning is incomplete and misleading unless one qualifies it by saying that it is a biological theory of meaning. By this I mean that psychoanalysis interprets human behaviour in terms of the self that experiences it and not in terms of entities external to it. (quoted in Fuller 1980 p. 22)

Nehamas (1992) notes that

"The construction and interpretation of roles. . . introduces an element of convention in Wollheim's understanding of both art and mind." (in Hopkins & Savile 1992 p. 241)

A role is a social construct. On this account, it would seem that our personality is constituted by a dual nature, a biological, and a social nature. The relatively fixed biological self that can, after a process of learning and maturation, slip into a number of roles at the appropriate time. When asked to say who we 'are' we frequently provide a list of our social roles that include socially defined ways of behaving and interacting with people. People act as someone in these roles is supposed to act. We can then have a conception of the 'self' as the organization of all of someone's social roles and how they affect one another.

The Artist's Posture

We begin with a deceptively simple observation: in order to work on a painting the artist has traditionally faced the canvas with his eyes open. Wollheim asks: why does the artist adopt this posture? It is because an artist paints partly with his eyes, and it is because he paints 'for the eyes' that he is, for that reason, a spectator of his work. In painting to produce an experience designed to carry meaning or offer understanding, the artist's posture allows him to:

"ensure that the experience that the picture is calculated to produce in others is attuned to the mental condition, or the intention, out of which he is painting it." (p. 45)

Wollheim proposes that experience must be 'attuned' to the intentions of the artist that cause him to paint as he does. The experience must come about through looking at the picture: it must come through looking at the way the artist worked. By grounding of meaning in sensory experience Wollheim is following in the British empiricist tradition of Locke, Berkeley and Hume where a change of meaning necessarily involves a change of experience.

The posture fulfils many functions. It allows the artist to compare the painting in progress with what he intends to paint and to play the roles of both artist and spectator. He can then anticipate the experience that he expects the spectator to have in front of the painting on which he is currently working. Wollheim follows Kant in claiming that if the artist as spectator has a certain experience, then, provided that there are no idiosyncratic factors at work, all other human beings ought to have the same experience. The artist adopts the posture because he believes that both he and the spectator share some general perceptual capacities that they use in looking at the completed painting.

There have been many changes in the history of painting: in materials, size of painting, its social status, but Wollheim writes, the posture that the artist adopts in the act of painting has remained a constant. The perceptual capacities that artist and spectator share, presuppose a universal human nature that both share. Wollheim has asserted that to be an artist or spectator is to fulfil a certain role. Wollheim refuses to allow the social formation to act as a primary determinant of what a painting means, but, as Nehamas claims, the roles of artist and spectator may be more local and culture-dependent than Wollheim believes. The role of artist and spectator is consistent with the view that the ground shared by the artist and spectator is provided by common acceptance of a system of cultural conventions. he goes on to write that if we link Wollheim's emphasis on the artist qua spectator to the thesis that this link is wholly grounded in a social formation and is defined by accepted conventions, there would be no need to posit human nature. Bryson, Holly and Moxey (1991) seem to miss the dimension that 'role' adds to Wollheim's account. In their preface to Visual Theory they comment upon Wollheim's notions of spectatorship:

And if the viewer is conceived as this universal human type, then the empathy which enables that artist to move towards the spectator, and the spectator towards the artist, can flow without hindrance. (Bryson et al 1991 p. 6)

They argue that there are also factors of difference: for example between one social group and another, between cultures and historical periods, difference of race and gender, difference between those who have power and wealth and those who do not. The experience of such differences is as much part of what is to be a human being. Wollheim does not deny these differences but before we fill the roles of artists and spectators we are human beings who share the same basic instincts, desires, fears, and needs.

Bryson (1986) proposes that the spectator is not a 'given': his role is constructed by the image itself. Different paintings from different periods imply different spectators. Bryson's argues that the stress on perceptual psychology has in effect dehistoricised the relation between spectator and the painting:

"history is the term that has been bracketed out" (Bryson 1986 p. xiii)

We can now understand what Wollheim means by his claim that "great art" depends on universal human nature. It is only by appealing to the stable structure of a 'core self' that painting can continue to be appreciated by succeeding generations and differing societies. Following Freud he holds that human nature, though inflected by cultural conventions, is more basic than culture. The artist's posture allows for 'empathy' and a bond of intimacy to be established between work and viewer, Wollheim's entire theory of representation and expression is drawn directly from this notion. This leads him to a direct confrontation with Bryson's semiological view.

[i] All references are to Painting as an Art unless otherwise indicated