PRINT February 1979

Mentalism Versus Painting

Julian Jaynes suggests that mental space is the fundamental analogue-metaphor of the world, and that it was only with the linguistic development of terms for spatial interiority occurring around the second millennium B.C. that subjective consciousness as such can be said to begin.
—Robert Morris

Plato is said to have discovered the mind, but it would be more accurate to say that he invented one version of it. Long before his time, the Greeks had constructed an elaborate explanatory system, a strange mixture of physiology and metaphysics. A pure mentalism was not long in making its appearance, and it has dominated Western thinking for more than two thousand years.
—B. F. Skinner

MENTALISM IS AN UMBRELLA term used to cover a philosophy or belief system that accepts as primary the existence of a nonphysical, internal “mental space” in which “concepts” dwell and bear a topographical likeness to opposed “outside” events. Common to all forms of mentalism is a transposition of environmental and hereditary features to the “world of the mind” (sometimes described as “mysterious” or “inaccessible”). A consequent verisimilitude is effected as the new mental features bear resemblance to outside sources: a theory or system wins acceptance as real by virtue of its completeness or resolution; the system takes the place of the world because it is itself worldlike, and because it is seen to occupy the same nonphysical dimensions as the mental space it is designed to fit. This sense of verisimilitude is further enhanced by the corroborative property of the as if. In Freudian theory, for example, a person is said to be “driven” by a host of “inner” (unseen, hidden) agents, and, indeed, a person may respond to the world as if governed by such internal agents. Acceptance of a specific (fixed) system or viewpoint as an exclusive pan-enveloping reality is, after all, what constitutes the essence of belief.

But if no single belief system is seized upon as adequately representing reality, then mental space itself may be conscripted as the “fundamental analogue-metaphor of the world,” and subsequently filled with as many concepts, theories, and formulations as the occasion permits. This “eclectic” mentalism gains adherents in ages of disbelief, like our own, when no single belief system can exercise social hegemony and when formation of a “subjective consciousness” is required to compensate for the loss of common cultural denominators. Problematic, here, is the issue of meaning. While acceptance of a single belief system offers coordinates whereby relative values can be established (if only, at this juncture, on a personal level), in the context of an eclectic mentalism meaning is virtually impossible to guarantee and can be said to exist only as a function of complicity (to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “I’ll be in your dream if you’ll be in mine”).

The relation of mentalism to painting is highly complex, and fundamental to its explication must be a consideration of the role played by visual perception. Not surprisingly, the word “perception” has developed mentalist connotations. It has come to mean the process whereby the person functions like a camera or Xerox machine, actively engaged in “taking in” or “making copies of” the world. Another (stimulus-response) view has the environment “battering” its way into a passive subject. “Both formulations directed attention to the inner representation of reality in its various transformations.”1 For ancient man, the act of perceiving was a means of “acquiring” the environment, not by possessing it directly but by duplicating it in the form of an inner representation which could be stored “in memory” and later retrieved. It is significant to establish that in a mentalist account, one way or another, the environment gets “into” the person.

Of all the senses, sight allows our greatest access to the world. In mentalist language, a large part of what we “know” of the world comes through the eyes. It seems likely that theories of knowing may have derived from theories of seeing and that both may have resulted from a linguistic attempt to deal with the phenomenon of image-making. Skinner notes that “the copy theory of perception is most convincing with respect to visual stimuli. They are frequently copied in works of art as well as in optical systems of mirrors and lenses, and hence it is not difficult to imagine some plausible system of storage.”2 The marvelously mimetic Bison c. 30,000–10,000 B.C., in the cave at Altamira, obviously predates any “copy theory.” Once the “linguistic development of terms for spatial interiority” had been established, it was possible to model inner on outer representation and, further, to extrapolate “concept” from “inner representation.” The distance from an inner representation of a specific tree to the “Tree of Knowledge” is poetic only. (There is certainly no physiological evidence for a literal phenomenon of inner representation: “There is a temptation, which must be avoided, to say that the eyes produce pictures in the brain. A picture in the brain suggests the need of some kind of internal eye to see it—but this would need a further eye to see its picture . . . and so on in an endless regress of eyes and pictures. This is absurd.”3 Hence only a mentalist explanation can account for the theory of inner representation.)

In their cohabitation of a fictive mental space the function of both inner representation and concept is in different ways to bring the world into the person. To do this both seek a reduction of the world. The inner image can be no more than what the eyes apprehend (“take in”) at a given moment; the concept can be no more than a simplification (abstraction) of the outside event. Both are topographical transpositions, though the inner representation is accepted easily because it seems to be a point-to-point matching of responses to stimuli; the inner “map” is seen to coincide more or less exactly with what is outside. By contrast, a concept or idea “maps” the “essence” of the thing—a stickier proposition. Who’s to say what’s real? With which conceptual chart does one best navigate the noumenal waters? Philosophers may argue the question while standing on the unemployment line. For in the context of mentalism the difference between percept and concept is quantitative, one of degrees rather than qualitative or substantive: both occur within the same theoretical “frame,” a frame the eclectic mentalist takes for reality itself. “Those who believe. that we see copies of the world,” writes Skinner with respect to perception, “may contend that we never see the world itself, but it is at least equally plausible to say that we never see anything else.”4 It is at least equally plausible to say that we never know anything else.

But if not mentalism, what?

Radical behaviorism asserts that “the environment stays where it is and where it has always been—outside the body,”5 and dispenses with mentalist theories altogether. Such an approach rarely has been brought to bear on specific esthetic problems.6 We need not look far for a reason. The cultural critic John Leonard has called the subjective state of mind “the Wonder Bread of art.” The diet of liberal humanism upon which Western civilization has long fed has made artists unhealthily suspicious of scientific inquiry. Science explodes myths—which many modern artists thrive on. Yet, like Wonder Bread, the nutritional value of the contemporary artist’s myths is low. Behaviorism, while it cannot enrich such myths, may be able to restore some sense of the reality.

If fictive mental space can be demonstrated, as behaviorists insist, to have no real existence inside the person, we are faced with the dilemma of either its disposal or its repositioning. To dispose of it would be to foreclose on the possibility of fiction itself. Fortunately, repositioning offers a happier alternative, that of exacting a location for what has been termed “mental space” in the environment, outside the person, in an area that the community has designated for the specific function of making fiction concrete. This is the area of art. To speak of a book, a painting, a symphony, a building, a sculpture, etc., is to assert that the “analogue-metaphor of the world” is a finite form of specific duration and/or dimensions. All art is concretely metaphorical, that is, regardless of quality or intention, a work of art is fictional; the medium itself is fictional. Thus the distinction between form and content becomes totally irrelevant, as both are subsumed within this definition of art.

However, the problem encompasses considerably more than formulating a definition of art. Mentalism evolved as a linguistic attempt to deal with reality, but it quickly established its own “inner” reality, thus eliminating the necessity to refer to the outside world for verification. Western estheticians, many of whom are heavily mentalist in orientation, have made claims which appear self-reflexively plausible, but which upon closer scrutiny cannot be substantiated. Walter Pater’s famous precept, that all arts aspire to the condition of music, is a case in point. Indeed, the confusion which exists today in the visual arts may be traced directly to this type of thinking.

Anyone intimate with the music of Gustave Mahler will concur that whatever else his music may be about, it is about the behavioral process of human feeling. The sudden, inexplicable shifts of tempo, the conflicting, multiple melodies, the obsessive, even neurotic return to certain motifs, parallels the irrational “life of the emotions.” The great length of a Mahler symphony (the average lasts well over one hour) highlights a lack of concern for the kind of structure usually associated with musical composition (of the sort that led Frank Lloyd Wright to call a Beethoven symphony an edifice of sound). One is allowed, in Mahler, real time to follow the music as it happens, because one is not pressed to remember or anticipate structural methods; one is not pressed, in short, to think, only to feel. To experience a Mahler symphony is to run abreast of it emotionally. In this (metaphoric) sense, Mahler’s music is pure feeling, but the adjective “pure” refers to the process of feeling, not to a single “ideated” feeling.

Mahler composed his first symphony (subtitled the “Titan”) between 1884 and 1888. He died in 1911 (after having lived in New York from 1907 to 1911). The “Silver Age” of symbolism in Russia lasted from about 1895 to 1910, during which time “artists, writers and musicians gave unprecedented attention to the theory of artistic meaning and form.”7 This is the beginning of the “Russian Connection,” an understanding of which is crucial, for it demonstrates the degree to which mentalist attitudes have infiltrated the arts. In it we find the roots of “Mental Painting,” a curious genre developed out of the contradictory desire to “embody ideas.”

According to John E. Bowlt:

The Russian Symbolists were haunted by the line devised by the Romantic poet Fedor Tiutchev many years before: “A thought uttered is a lie.” Blok [the Russian poet] . . . was acutely aware of the artist’s “inexpressibility” and . . . felt that music could provide the answer [to the question of a “reliable” artistic medium], that music was the clearest means of communication, that music could overcome the fragmentation of art and life.8

Later, Kandinsky would speak of an “inner sound or inner artistic note.”9

The mentalist notion of a hierarchic Chain of Being has been entrenched in Western thought since the Scholastics. While it is no longer applied to the descending order of angels, man, animals and so on, it has come to inform esthetic debate concerning the natures of respective artistic mediums. Just as man once aspired to the condition of angels all the arts should aspire to the condition of music. There is an implied morality here: man’s “body” prevented him from attaining pure, wraithlike spirituality. “Body” was “bad,” as gravity forced it earthbound, away from the Deity, away from heaven. Worse, it was inelegant, and the poor soul suffered imprisonment in the klutzy mass of flesh much as one suffers a boring conversation. Music, on the other hand, is “good,” for in the presumed hierarchy of media it is the least corporeal, thus the most spiritual and the most abstract. A kind of esthetic mainlining is posited here: unencumbered by a physical object, music is presumed to go straight “in.” This is essentially what is meant when the nature of music is described as “direct” or “spontaneous.” But such a position is as absurdly unrealistic as it is mystically quaint. Musical notes are just as phenomenally real as are daubs of paint. Both the sensation of hearing and sight are caused by sound and light stimuli, which affect those bodily organs sensitive to them. Both music and painting remain outside the person, and in the environment.

Now no less an esthetician than Immanuel Kant has said: “I would give the palm to painting.”10 Painting is a physical, that is, object embodied, manifestation of what in Western thought has constituted the very essence of mental space. Painting’s unique set of properties has enabled it to achieve cultural supremacy of a different sort, in that the cultural events it seeks to describe are themselves secured in the medium of paint as objective facts. No other artistic medium can claim to function in quite this manner.

Unlike the products of other disciplines, a painting can be broken down into two constituent parts, hypothesis and proof, which correspond to the delimit-ed surface and the paint substance upon it. When properly integrated, the two parts form an insoluble whole of extraordinary expressive and cultural power. The space of the canvas functions as a “mental space” in that it exists as a hypothesis which the artist must test or verify in the act of painting it. The paint substance is metaphoric “content,”which is put into this transposed mental space. But that in itself does not insure meaning. The extent to which meaning can he obtained depends largely on the artist’s capacity to work through the paint, to squeeze the content out of the paint.

R. L. Gregory, in the Eye and Brain, reminds us that “in the Western world rooms are nearly always rectangular; and many objects, such as boxes, have right-angled corners.”11 Not surprisingly, the average easel painting is rectilinear and consists of right angles and a field delimited by the framing edge. The right angles serve as coordinates, and the framing edge serves, a priori, to distinguish the interior space from the surrounding environment. What makes all this noteworthy is that the flat, circumscribed space imposes a unique order on the act of seeing.

Viewing a three-dimensional object requires that we make use of stereoscopic vision. The small distance between the eyes, which in the average adult measures only about two and a half inches, is enough to give us depth perception. In essence, seeing in stereoscopic space is seeing with two points of view, one for each eye, from which a third, composite view is drawn. (This activity takes place in the brain; it does not result in an inner image.) Stereoscopic vision is useless when it comes to viewing a flat surface so that “paintings are generally more compelling in depth when viewed with a single eye, and the head held still.”12 Whether realistic or abstract, painting enforces a kind of “cyclopic” vision, a singular point of view. By dispensing with stereoscopic vision, painting frees the brain to determine the nature of visual meaning. But the meaning so determined is circumscribed, as it were, by the framing edge, which delimits not only the canvas, but “mental space” itself. Thus there may be a physiological explanation for painting’s prominent position in Western culture. Gregory notes, for example, that “the images in the eyes lie on the curved surfaces of the retinas, but it is not misleading to call them two-dimensional.”13 This is, literally, an “inner representation” (though not, obviously, within the brain proper). But one is led to ask, in light of the following evidence, whether this is wholly a passive operation:

The retina has been described as “an outgrowth of the brain.” It is a specialized part of the surface of the brain which has budded out and become sensitive to light, while it retains typical brain cells which greatly modify the electrical activity from the receptors themselves. Some of the data processing for perception takes place in the eye which is thus an integral part of the brain._14

It would seem that a painting is an object invented in the image of the retina. Painting, being both two dimensional and a physical object, detached from, but congruent with, the environment, partly assumes its importance as a symbolic retina, which is itself two dimensional and a physical object, detached from but congruent with, the brain. The “mental space” that finds its literal place on the “thinking retina” finds its external analogue on the surface of the canvas.

The imposition of a single viewpoint by a flat delimited surface begs reference to the distinction, made earlier, between fixed and eclectic mentalism. An artist’s willingness (and technical ability) to surrender a specific viewpoint over to the picture plane allows for the possibility of meaning. That such a viewpoint or “conceptual frame” may have no existence if presumed to inhabit an interior mental space is not as significant as the viewpoint’s finding life in the substance of paint. Conversely, if an artist’s belief system is restricted to mental space alone, to an unstructured, nonphysical interiority, a suitable external analogue-metaphor, other than canvas “space” itself, will be impossible to achieve. Painters seeking to express such things as pure feeling, pure form, pure idea, betray themselves as eclectic mentalists as the terms refer only to the nonphysical “mind” which engendered them. If they have any external reality, it is as printed words on a page.

Painting has been characterized as “an old man’s (or woman’s) game,” in contradistinction to other artistic disciplines. (The story of the four-year-old Mozart composing a clavier concerto “of such difficulty that possibly no one could play it,”15 adequately provides the contrast.) Mastery of the medium, especially of oil paint, is usually precipitated by a period of frustration, during which the artist acquires coordination of a complex order. Unlike, say, the discrete keys of a piano, paint as a substance lacks predefinition; it is sludgelike and one can, like a wheel in mud, get stuck in it. Indeed “muddy” describes a novice’s effort when individual colors run together in swampy confusion. Mud also implies clay, something elemental given over to the formative principle. But whereas the potter draws the pot up naturally, on a wheel spinning to universal metaphor from mud(dled) mass to form, the flat canvas voices cultural considerations that enter into the manipulation of paint. “What” enjoins “how” in the question ending “to paint,” and even as the artist delights in accomplishing progressively intricate motor feats, the hand begins to bend in the direction of history. Of the myriad factors which determine the final shape of a painting, there is only at bottom the artist interacting with the environment through the medium of paint. But paint is no slave, no hostage to ideas. The brash, youthful Cézanne could not simply will himself to paint like Veronese and Rubens. The very density, complexity and subtlety of paint requires respect of the artist as the substance defeats attempts at “conceptual” manipulation. (The difference between illustration and painting can be traced to the behavior of the artist; the illustrator is one who spurns the exigencies of paint, ignoring its existence in order to get the message across. In the instance of illustration, paint obtains its revenge by sharply limiting expressive content.)

Paint is a slow, slow medium. As a metaphor for all that one must cope with or get through, it has no equal. And when applied to the hypothetical mental space of the canvas, it becomes a vehicle that allows fiction to materialize. It is a transforming substance which can transform fiction into reality, but only if the artist recognizes its properties and realizes its possibilities.

Perhaps no 20th-century painter exemplifies the “painting as concrete analogue-metaphor” position better than Piet Mondrian. Moreover, his presence in New York from 1940 until his death in 1944 served to focus a controversy, then stated in terms of the inhibiting character of relational painting, which has resurfaced as a debate over whether painting can function as a vehicle for metaphysical transcendence (beyond objectness).

If the Western world is rectilinear, Mondrian’s painting is the epitomy of it. “All art,” Mondrian writes, “expresses the rectangular relationship . . . by the height and width of the work.”16 Here the rectangle is not presumed to exist a priori, but it logically issues from the intersection of “vertical and horizontal lines [which] are the expression of two opposing forces; these exist everywhere and dominate everything;their reciprocal action constitutes ‘life.’”17

Nuance of thought was not one of Mondrian’s strong points. He looks at the world and sees but “two opposing forces.” These may be moral (good and evil), biological (life and death, man and woman), or visible in nature (a tree against the horizon): any pairing of antonyms will suffice. Vertical and horizontal become the coordinates, the scaffolding, of Mondrian’s conviction, his “fixed” mentalism. They initiate a pictorial drama called “Dynamic Equilibrium,” which pushes up to, but stops at, the framing edge (the limits of mental space). The framing edge performs the dual function of giving fictive mental space the limits that define it as a separate finite world, while it fences out the larger environment. Vertical and horizontal are no idle symbols, as they can be secured demonstratively in paint as actual pictorial forces. “Resolution” thus assumes considerable importance. A belief system cannot be convincing if it is not resolved completely and neither can a painting; but it is not the form idea that is resolved, it is the metaphor. Mondrian himself is unambiguous on that score: “In art content and form have alternately been overemphasized or neglected because their inseparable unity has not been clearly realized.”18 Mondrian ceased working on a painting when the visual metaphor reached the framing edge, when his singular viewpoint or belief system became entirely and evenly visible across the surface of the canvas. (He talked endlessly of the “fixed laws of the plastic arts,” of “constant truths,” of “true art [taking a] single road.” He was nothing if not “single-minded” and not surprisingly warns, “in painting and sculpture, one must also fear eclecticism.”19

In a chapter in The Anxious Object, significantly entitled “Barnett Newman: The Living Rectangle,” the late Harold Rosenberg quotes Newman as saying that he “supports a position ‘beyond Mondrian.’ ‘The geometry (perfection)’ he I Newman] has written of the Dutch abstractionist, ‘swallows up his metaphysics (his exaltation).”20 Barbara Rose has cast Newman’s relation to Mondrian in Freudian terms: “Mondrian was the symbolic father Newman had to defeat,” she writes, going on to say: “We can assume that Newman did a lot of thinking during the forties and that much of that thought was about Mondrian. The ghost of Mondrian seems to haunt Newman’s career, a silent specter with whom Newman kept on a life-long shadow boxing match.”21 Clearly, Newman perceived Mondrian as a major obstacle to his own personal development.

Various interpretations have been offered as to the precise nature of the “obstacle,” all partially true, none wholly convincing. On one level it was presumed (by the formalists) that the tightly organized linear synthetic-cubist space of European modernism blocked further pictorial advance. Experimentation with certain Surrealist techniques, such as automatism and the use of the “unconscious” or “fantasy” to suggest imagery, could “loosen up” pictorial space and hasten the process of formal innovation. Mondrian gets lumped in with the Synthetic Cubists and Newman with the Abstract Expressionists. Such an interpretation is valid as far as it goes—it simply does not go far enough. The following statement by Newman himself (1947) is also true: “To put it philosophically, the European is concerned with the transcendence of objects while the American is concerned with the reality of the transcendental experience.”22 The “European,” of course, is a reference to Mondrian. Mondrian typified the European attachment to the sensuous object, to the visible world, to things as they are. In going from “appearance” to “reality” Mondrian did not subvert painting’s traditional function as representing nature. He merely extrapolated a different order, which he then physically established in paint. Mondrian was fully cognizant, and accepting, of the biological imperatives governing life, of the natural physical laws over which man has no control and, finally, of his own mortality. He chose to give definition to this finiteness in his art. He labored within it, as within the framing edge, for he saw clearly that there was nothing outside of it, and his tightly organized linear compositions bear formal witness to this recognition.

Newman could not tolerate Mondrian’s acceptance of limits. Not to imagine a space outside of life, a sublime mental space of transcendental freedom, was unpardonable. It was also un-American. Newman can be said to have identified with the American Dream (fantasy), which corresponds to the “liberating” agency the formalists advocated to defeat Cubist syntax. By tapping into the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau, Newman inadvertently underscored this country’s fundamental remove from a European sense of history. The metaphysics of the Transcendentalists, of Newman, and of the Conceptualists who followed him, via Malevich and the Russian “mental” painters, attempts to bypass history (collective biological limits), claiming not to be time-bound. Unable to compete with Europe on its own historical terms, an impatient and surly America found it was quicker to develop an imagination than a past: the categorical imperative spoke (“Do ’em one better”) and suddenly Yankee ingenuity posited metaphysical freedom as a means to circumvent European necessity. But necessity, in mothering this particular psychic invention, has since discovered that she had a historical pregnancy after all. For there are issues which cannot be restricted to Europe alone. If they could, Newman would not have been so distraught over Mondrian’s example.

Mondrian embodied everything Newman detested: a nasty materialism, as evidenced by Mondrian’s commitment to paint as paint (material substance), a delight in being “modern,” a Panglossian faith in progress fostered by an equally nasty logical-positivism. Yet what profoundly bewildered Newman was Mondrian’s willingness to embrace, openly and without qualification, the physical world as the sum total of reality, and to acknowledge, again without reservation, the role of science in determining the factual constituents of that reality.23 (In 1947, Newman wrote “The First Man Was an Artist,” an essay outlining his objections to science.)24 Mondrian saw unity in the world but recognized two kinds of knowledge of it, factual and fictional. The artist was not in competition with the scientist: both worked toward the same goal (understanding) but with different means. This was unacceptable to Newman. The artist as God was the creator of an alternate, a metaphysical reality, an abstract reality. But to play God, to pull off this metaphysical reality, required a suspension of disbelief comparable to that required by the theatre. For the experience of transcendental reality is a theatrical one and Newman’s art is eminently theatrical.

If was as if Newman climbed upon the stage of his time only to discover that the show had been canceled. The devices of fantasy had become fatally obvious. The problem Newman faced in the 1940s—and which conceptual artists still face was that science, in exposing natural laws, had precluded personal fantasy from serving as a viable, pan-enveloping reality, a reality in which one could believe seriously. Unfortunately, solutions to the problem must be bracketed within a “limiting” art context, of which the audience is aware, knowing as they do that what they are seeing is not really real.

Newman offered a new show. Dispensing with the pictorial equivalents to actors, props and spoken narrative, he filled his symbolic stage with an intense colored light. But to see it you literally had to believe it, as though admission required an enormous act of faith. Discovering that to enlarge his art context he had to enlarge himself first, Newman devised a behavioral strategy. By taking upon himself the role of God, he drew on 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian conditioning. The propensity to genuflect before an image of the Deity, or before an image created by a symbolic one, is still very great. Newman, therefore, bought some necessary time. On a formal level, he sought to reinforce the theme of enlargement by the monumental dimensions of his paintings. A reciprocal relationship was set up in which scale abetted ambition. However, as Mel Bochner correctly observes in speaking of Pollock, “You cannot escape limits by enlarging your boundary.”25 Newman no doubt thought that by substituting metaphysical devices for the visible devices of fantasy, his strategy would escape detection.

Within the genre of mental painting are two approaches to scale. The one favored by Newman derives from the esthetics of the sublime promulgated by Longinus, Burke and Kant. A sense of “boundlessness” is the key tenet. Just as certain natural wonders evoke the “infinite” or the “cosmic” by their sheer size, a gigantic Newman canvas is meant to inspire similar reverential awe. Certainly Newman’s work physically impresses because of the large scale and chromatic intensity. The problem remains as to whether these qualities are enough to catapult the spectator into metaphysical rapture, given the obvious and artificial confines of the gallery or museum space. A fundamental contradiction in Newman’s paintings works against his intentions. As “abstract” and as “metaphysical” as his work is purported to be, it nevertheless refers to, and is itself a part of, the world of natural phenomena, by virtue of its obtrusive physicality and opticality.

By contrast, Malevich’s classic Suprematist paintings have been characterized as “sizeless.”26 Now, there are cultural differences which easily explain the two attitudes toward scale. The one is peculiarly American, expansive and light in its optimism; the other, derived from icon painting (which usually is of modest size), is quintessentially Russian in its introspective pessimism. The Russian’s emphatic indifference to limits or boundaries is presumed sufficient to countermand the physical limitations of the object. The sublime boundlessness for which Newman attempted to create a physical correlate is here recognized to exist only in the “mind.” Consequently, “the abstract picture is the catalyst for pure or self-reflexive consciousness [which] . . . becomes aware of its existence as primordial feeling . . .”27

Certain Suprematist works of Malevich, such as the White on White, 1918, are said to be about “the Platonic pessimism [which] is that we can’t see reality because we’re trapped by existence.”28 Such a statement is a self-reflexive linguistic construction that refers to nothing. The “Platonic pessimism,” from a behavioral standpoint, is an utter fabrication. “Reality” does not lie outside of existence; it is existence. There is no metaphysical problem, for there is no need for a metaphysics.

The content of “mental” painting is escape—escape from boundaries, from limits, from scientific determination. It is an escape which, as Bochner says with regard to Malevich, is “bound to fail,” and yet there is “grandeur” in the attempt. A person flaps his arms in an attempt at flight; his feet do not leave the ground: this is considered some kind of miracle. When Malevich flies like a kamikaze into aerial Suprematist space, there is grandeur and not lunacy in his mission. We are led to believe that the weight of the sincerity adhering to a futile attempt validates the attempt so long as the effort is of heroic metaphysical dimensions, and so long as the engendered artifact bears some mark of the effort. Then we have arrived at a point where an awfully circuitous procedure is necessary to maintain interest in a philosophical position that science progressively makes untenable.

Andréi B. Nakov notes that “in 1919 Malevich found his personal solution to this crisis: he declared the ‘acuteness of the pen’ superior to ’the disheveled brush.’”29[!] Malevich’s choice of language over paint is in keeping with the escapist nature of mentalist sensibility. On one level it represents escape from the physical determinacy of the framing edge and from the slow substance of paint. On another level it shows how little allegiance language can owe to the world and still “get away with it.” Malevich’s example also demonstrates the power a self-reflexive language can exert on those who, for whatever motive, feel compelled to flee existing conditions.

Possibly the most significant contribution behaviorism can make with respect to art is to expose, on a cultural level, the dynamics of “word and emotional conditioning.”30 Experimental psychologists have long since shown that “hypnosis involves previously established word] conditionings.”31 “Pure form” (Clive Bell on art), “pure feeling” (Donald Kuspit on Malevich), “pure subjectivity, almost pure meaning” (Mel Bochner on Malevich), “pure idea” (Barnett Newman on himself), “pure__” (Piet Mondrian on Practically Everything) are voodoo words which cast a spell of enchantment on those seeking escape from an “impure” world. Indeed the final irony of modernist painting may be that the artist who fell most completely under the spell of the pure was the one to whom the meaning of painting was clearly known, albeit on a very abstract plane. Mondrian’s religion of the pure required the sacrifice of his own personal life. His monkish eccentricity, his asceticism, was his form of escape, the tribute paid to a civilization that has all but lost touch with itself.

Avant-garde sensibility from the outset has displayed the primitive’s terror of rational inquiry and of the intuition which extends it (reason’s reason), as if reason were some cannibal of insatiable appetite. For the past hundred years the body of art has been sacrificed piecemeal on the altar of purity in predictable rituals, until all that remains is the shrunken head of mentalism. Behaviorism will have that too, for it has begun to demand of language that it refer to something other than itself. It demands words earn their keep in the vocabulary. “Abstract” must now refer to the distance a metaphor must travel and not to that area (art) presumed to lie outside of human experience.

Ross Neher



1. B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism, New York, 1976, p. 81.

2. Ibid., p. 89.

3. R. L. Gregory, Eye and Brain, New York, 1974, p. 7.

4. Skinner, p. 89.

5. Ibid., p. 81.

6. See Gregory Battcock, “Towards an Art of Behavioral Control: From Pigeons to People,” in his Why Art, New York, 1977, pp. 43–56. Battcock takes Skinner literally. Skinner foresees the abolition of art as we know it, to be replaced by a broad program of cultural design based on knowledge derived from the behavioral sciences.

7. John E Bowlt, “Symbolism and Modernity in Russia,” Artforum, November 1977, p. 40.

8. Ibid., p. 42.

9. Ibid., p. 42.

10. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard, New York and London, 1968, p. 175

11. Gregory, p. 160.

12. Ibid., p. 169.

13. Ibid., p. 50.

14. Ibid., pp. 45–46 (italics mine).

15. Michael Levey, The Life and Death of Mozart, New York, 1972, p. 14.

16. Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, New York, 1945, p. 57.

17. Ibid., p. 13.

18. Ibid., p. 53.

19. Ibid., p. 14.

20. Harold Rosenberg, “Barnett Newman The Living Rectangle,” The Anxious Object, New York, 1964. p. 169.

21. Barbara Rose, “The Passing and Resurgence of Barney Newman,” New York Magazine, November 8, 1971, p. 82.

22. Barnett Newman, letter to Clement Greenberg, published in Barnett Newman, by Thomas B. Hess, New York, 1969, p. 38.

23. “It is my conviction that humanity, after centuries of culture, can accelerate its progress through the acquisition of a truer vision of reality. Plastic art discloses what science has discovered: that time and subjective vision veil the true reality.” Mondrian, p. 14.

24. Barnett Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist,” The Tiger’s Eye, October 1947, pp. 57–60.

25. John Coplans, “Mel Bochner on Malevich, An Interview,” Artforum, June 1974, p. 60.

26. Ibid., p. 60.

27. Donald Kuspit, “Malevich’s Quest For Unconditioned Creativity: Part I,” Artforum, June 1974, p. 56.

28. Coplans, p. 60.

29. Andréi B. Nakov, “To Be or To Act: On the Problem of Content in Nonobjective Art,” Artforum, February 1978, p. 44.

30. See Andrew Salter, Conditioned Reflex Therapy, New York, 1961.

31. Ibid., p. 24.