Putting Aesthetic and Psychological
Qualities into Words
It seems to me that the major modes of interaction with visual images—psy-
choanalysis, semiotics, gender studies—are also partly forms of repression
preventing us from coming to terms with what we are, what kind of writing we
are producing, and how we spend our lives. In this arena light reverie,
meandering, the gentle deliquescence of ideas, and the allure of half-conscious
structures are faithful supports for our chosen condition: they are ineluctable,
since they cannot be solved, and they are immobile, in that they cannot be fully
apprehended (Elkins 1997, p.xvii).
Elkins is an art historian, writing about the unspoken and unacknowledged aspects of his discipline; about what lies on the edge of, or on the hidden side of, scholarly objectivity. He is telling us that there is a whole range of aesthetic experience that is obscured by the constraints of analytical, critical or academic writing. Putting aesthetic qualities into words has always been acknowledged as something of a problem; but this has significantly intensified since painting began to emancipate itself from verbally explicit iconographic programmes and from the expectation that it should ‘tell a story’.1
It is not just that nuances of colour, the various pressures of line and the like are difficult to put into words; it is also that the realm of ‘feeling’ that painting, even in its more figurative forms, connects with is one that is often beyond the reach of language. To quote James Elkins (1999a) again: ‘Emotions cannot be excluded from our responses to paint: these thoughts all happen too far from words to be something we can control. Substances occupy the body and the mind, inextricably’ (p.98). Furthermore, these ‘feelings’ are by no means confined to the world of emotions: they include a wide range of psychosomatic inflection.
As we saw in the last chapter, the problems we come across in translating the qualities of paint into words also involve problems to do with trying to relate what is in conscious focus to what lies outside it. In relation to aesthetic