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Against Affective Formalism

Matisse, Bergson, Modernism

2013
Author:

Todd Cronan

Against Affective Formalism

Close examinations of the works of Henri Matisse and Henri Bergson reveal problems of form and agency, expression and affect, representation and reality that are still in effect today

Against Affective Formalism confronts modernism’s dissatisfactions with representation. Writing in opposition to prevailing theories and assumptions about the relation of intention and form, Todd Cronan argues that the beholder’s response to art, outside a framework of intentionality, is irrelevant to a work’s meaning. What matters is that intentions make works of art different from objects in the world.

Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s experience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it.

Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

For nearly fifty years the humanities have been defined by a series of critiques: of the subject, of representation, of the visual, of modernism, of autonomy, of intention, of art itself. In their place various “materialities” have appeared: signs, identities, bodies, history, and works. Against Affective Formalism challenges these orthodoxies.

“What I am after, above all, is expression,” Henri Matisse declared. Matisse believed that through the careful arrangement of line and color he could transmit his feelings directly to the minds and bodies of his viewers. Yet Matisse continually struggled with the reality that his feelings were misunderstood—or simply ignored—by viewers of his art. Matisse oscillates between a desire for expressive command over the viewer and a sense of the impossibility of making himself known.

Against Affective Formalism confronts modernism’s dissatisfactions with representation. As Todd Cronan explains, a central tenet of modernist thought turns on the effort to overcome representation in the name of something more explicit in its capacity to generate bodily or affective experience. Henri Bergson was one of the most influential advocates of the antirepresentational impulse; his novel theories of memory and freedom gripped a generation of writers, philosophers, psychologists, and artists. Matisse and Bergson worked within and against the context of form and expression that remains in force today.

Writing in opposition to prevailing theories and assumptions about the relation of intention and form—most of which accept the “death of the author” as a basic fact of interpretation—Cronan argues that the beholder’s response to art, outside a framework of intentionality, is irrelevant to a work’s meaning. Intentions are not a matter of method at all: no letter, biography, document, archive, or key will recover an intention. What matters is that intentions make works of art different from objects in the world.

Against Affective Formalism

Todd Cronan teaches modern European art at Emory University.

Against Affective Formalism

Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s experience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it.

Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

Matisse knows that sensations belong to - or alas have been detached from - particular human occasions, ways of being, forms of life. But the exacerbation of colour in Matisse speaks, dialectically, to the lack of particularity that makes us 'modern'. This to and fro of contraries is dealt with powerfully in a new book by Todd Cronan, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. Colour, for Matisse―pure sensation, the stuff of the senses―will make, will be, a form of life. And at the same time it will enact the extremity―the uncanniness―of the wish.

The London Review of Books

Thanks to Cronan’s sensitive and subtle reading of the pictures themselves, Matisse’s place in the history of modernism has been intellectually and aesthetically redefined.

Journal of European Studies

An important contribution to the enormous corpus of Matisse studies and a bold counterclaim to the dominant affective stand of aesthetic theory.

Burlington Magazine

Cronan’s post-post-structuralist advocacy of the profoundly unfashionable concept of artistic intentionality is an attempt to draw collective attention to the almost invisible theoretical privilege we now award the reader and the text: an effort to speak truth to power that strives to model a more self-conscious middle way.

Theory & Event

Cronan wants to use this book to renew art history by shaking the field like a snow globe.

Art Journal

Against Affective Formalism

Contents

Acknowledgments
List of Illustrations
Introduction: Modernism against Representation

1. Painting as Affect Machine
2. Freedom and Memory: Bergson’s Theory of Hypnotic Agency
3. The Influence of Others: Matisse and Personnalité
4. Matisse and Mimesis
Conclusion. From Art to Object: The Case of Paul Valéry

Notes
Index

Against Affective Formalism

UMP blog - Who cares if you look? On internal and external relationships with art. (Part I of III)

“The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings,” writes street artist Shepard Fairey in his 1990 Manifesto.

Fairey is of course most well-known for his HOPE poster of 2008, but for my purposes he is interesting for his ability to capture the basic terms of any viewer-driven aesthetic. The logic of his claim is clear: “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEYhas no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.”

These are the terms, as I see it, that any viable account of viewer-driven aesthetics must accept. That only a few artists and critics actually accept all of these terms is not my concern, but the reticence on the part of artists and critics to accept these terms either points to something central about their project—that they actually don’t care about response—or a failure of nerve, that response is the key to their project, even if they can’t come out and say that.

Read the full three-part article.