Actually, Images Have Meanings of Their Own

By Jeremy Gilbert-RolfeOctober 4, 2014

Actually, Images Have Meanings of Their Own

Against Affective Formalism by Todd Cronan

HENRI MATISSE received considerably less critical attention during the last half of the 20th century than either Pablo Picasso, primary point of reference for the New York School painters of the ’50s, or, for the rest of the century, Marcel Duchamp. Picasso was thought of as muscular and Duchamp as cerebral. Matisse was felt to be neither, more concerned with the ornamental than either the tough or the very clever. However, in 1998, Hilary Spurling’s two-volume Matisse the Master was published to much acclaim and public interest, confirming that it was now possible to sell a big book about him.[1] That this might even mean a change in his relative status was confirmed, in a limited way, in 2003, when the Matisse Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York provided an occasion for intellectually influential people who would have said no such thing 30 years earlier to publicly agree that Matisse looked the stronger of the two.

Alongside this revival in the public sphere, even anticipating it to some extent, less mainstream critics and theorists also took an — in some cases for them unprecedented — interest in Matisse. This was stimulated or informed by Gilles Deleuze’s work, in particular his use of Henri Bergson, and it is their theories of affect that constitute the “affective formalism” which Todd Cronan is “against.” Those who don’t follow philosophical fashion may not know that “The Affective Turn” is an expression used by followers of Deleuze to describe their interest in pursuing affect, and its use extends far beyond art.[2] Matisse’s revival coincided with Deleuze’s influence being at its height, and Bergson had a close relationship with and influence on Matisse.

What Cronan calls “affective formalism” is a formalism of forces rather than forms, movements rather than shapes. Bergson and Deleuze are both philosophers concerned with duration, the later philosopher extracting from Bergson a number of features which he then elaborated, the most important being Bergson’s idea of “difference” as the fundamental experience of duration. Things are experienced as staying the same by not staying the same, as with a river or the sky. Moreover, Bergson’s idea of intuition is not what we usually mean by the term, i.e., a judgment involuntarily produced by a perception of an object of thought, but is rather much more a perception of a confused set of data, through and on which we act in order to make sense of it. It is from this, and his insistence on time as that which we live within, that his earliest readings of Matisse as a painter of rhythms — as opposed to shapes — are derived. What Bergsonian intuition makes apparent is difference, qualitative and quantitative distinctions, while the Deleuzian “difference,” as scholar Elizabeth Grosz puts it, says that “is not a concept bound up with units, entities, or terms” but rather “a relation between fields, strata, and chaos.”[3] As we shall see, it is the chaos side of things that separates the earlier from the later philosopher. In both affect begins there, but it is only in Deleuze that it seems to have to end there too.

Cronan shows that affective formalism is quite consistent with earlier uses of Bergson, whose thinking has been used to explain Matisse almost from the start, and usually in order to detach his paintings from anything he might specifically have meant in favor of an interpretation led by the viewer’s reading or response. Cronan cites Matthew Stewart Prichard, who in 1910 used Bergson’s definition, in Matter and Memory, of perception as “activity” — not habitual, but fully conscious action — to argue for an approach that put the viewer in full control of the work’s meaning: “A Matisse painting is a hint to creative action […]. The artist pulls the trigger, you go off or you miss fire. The result is your affair and not his.” Cronan offers, as the direct heir to such thinking, the Deleuzian Bergsonian team of Éric Alliez and Jean-Claude Bonne, whom he says follow the logic of that position to its conclusion when they “rightly insist” that if

it is not the artist’s intention that is the object of the beholder’s interpretation (all agree on that), then it can only be the beholder […] who defines the work’s significance. Every “spectator actor” makes his or her own work — and those works, like different bodies, embody difference without disagreement.

Cronan’s position is that without disagreement you can’t have an argument about what something means. He is against affective formalism because it leaves interpretation and thus evaluation up to the viewer, ignoring or at best suppressing any clues to meanings that might contradict the viewer’s conclusions, or for that matter the viewer’s perceptions. In place of response as the sole source of meaning he offers an approach, which he insists is not a method, that combines phenomenology and psychology.

This has enabled him to write a book which is delightful twice over: once in proving everyone else wrong about Matisse without that being his main point; again in his strong response to a question that has lain out there, repressed in plain view for decades. Monroe C. Beardsley and William K. Wimsatt’s famous 1946 (revised 1954) essay on the topic of “The Intentionalist Fallacy” seemed to have dealt conclusively with intentionalism, but Cronan shows that this is not so clear as we have thought, or wanted to think. Beardsley and Wimsatt’s essay is about the evaluation that follows interpretation, and argues that the author’s intentions can’t have anything necessarily (a qualification worth remembering) to do with evaluating the quality of the work, that it is better to evaluate Eliot’s uses of Donne by thinking about how they work in the poem — how they make the poem work — than by asking Eliot about it. What he meant by it may be exceeded by what it has come to mean in the course of being made, the original intention being developed in ways that could not be anticipated before that making began. This is not least because language has a life of its own, in which the writer participates without ever being fully in control.

Cronan’s argument shares two crucial terms with the arguments to which it is opposed: hypnosis and mimesis. Cronan describes Matisse’s interest in Bergson’s discussion of hypnosis, and the mixed feelings it aroused. Matisse wanted to control the beholder and specify how and what she would see, but he also wanted something like the opposite. The viewer must be led by the work, but her attention must at the same time be self-conscious — both hypnosis and resisting hypnosis are part of engaging the work. For both Cronan and affective formalism, mimesis is a way of engaging or articulating trauma, sharing Freud’s notion that trauma confuses, or disables, the separation of subject from object. Cronan argues, though, that in affective formalism trauma envelops and threatens the subject, the object becomes ominous, and instead of meaning emerging, the opposite does, the destruction of representation. The extreme anti-intentionalism of affective formalism renders even self-evident intentions irrelevant — leaving the viewer with nothing but their own trauma.

Cronan acknowledges that modernism as a whole is or was anti-intentionalist in a general way and thus anti-representational. But he argues that the rush to ignore the intentions that went into a work can lead to an interpretation that oversimplifies, and thus misrepresents, it and its complexity. Prichard’s approach to Matisse’s painting led further and further away from what it does. Cronan offers another start, which includes a thorough look at what is actually there. For this, his book will be welcomed by artists, who know affect to be always unavoidably specific, as when Mondrian said that he wanted to paint the sounds of billboards and lampposts.[4] We may be sure that he had particular sounds in mind, as one cannot have anything else in mind when thinking of a sound.

Brecht makes an appearance in Against Affective Formalism for obvious reasons: as he wrote in “Against Georg Lukacs,” “Anyone who saw me at work would think I was only interested in questions of form.” Cronan first cites him on the question of specificity and difference — “things should not be seen just ‘differently,’ but […] in a quite specific way” — to support the premise that “intention is crucial to the possibility of meaning at all.”[5] This is another way of saying that you can’t talk about what something means or what you think it is supposed to mean unless you (at least think you) know what the intention of the work is. Brecht next appears in a footnote. He and Matisse have a mutual admiration for Diderot, and this shared reference makes it possible to show that Brecht’s alienation effect is quite comparable in principle, and perhaps procedure as well, to Matisse’s complicated thinking about how painting could be disclosure that was also reserve. Here we are led to see how contradictory intentions — to absorb while providing distance, to represent within a complex of obligations to frankness and reserve — come together in painting as they might in a person, and certainly in a persona created out of the needs of a medium.

At times Cronan’s differences with “affective formalism” take a back seat to his observations about Matisse — all surprising and convincing, and to which I’ll return below. Before that, though, I should say a bit more about the differences between his thinking and what he’s against. While at pains to show a genealogy for affective formalism that reaches back into perceptually based 19th-century art theory, Cronan accuses it of identifying the work’s meaning too closely with its context, rather than detaching it from it, the traditional charge against formalisms of all sorts. Early Bergsonians take the work off to wherever they want it to go, Deleuzian Bergsonians find meaning somewhere adjacent to the work (in their minds at least, since the context is whatever the viewer choses), but neither treat the work itself as anything other than a starting point. Deleuzian Bergsonians also think it imperative that the work be seen to be against representation, while earlier users of Bergson seem to have felt less obliged to define the work as being so fundamentally about destruction. Prichard in 1910 may be offering a mimetic-traumatic reading, seeing only what belonged to both the viewer and the work, but he doesn’t demand that the work disappear into chaos. Cronan tells us that Bergson himself could not imagine art as something other than an intended image, albeit one in which intention was inscribed in what exceeded it.

For most of the book Cronan is too hard on Deleuze, whom he identifies too closely with those who use his ideas. But he also, until the last few pages, identifies too completely with Deleuze’s book about Francis Bacon, not one of his best books by any means; there Deleuze places special emphasis on destruction as the source of affect — we are told to see Bacon’s figures not as distorted, but as expressing a rhythm. Pure Prichard, and hardly adequate to one’s experience. Cronan is above all against the vagueness that he sees in Deleuze’s and his followers’ insistence on the anti-representational. He quotes Judith Butler: “Represented violence can only divert attention from what Deleuze calls […] the very special violence of form.” She does not want to talk about the form of that violence, though, but rather about it’s affect. The problem, as Cronan says (in response to a similar line of argument advanced by Yve-Alain Bois), is that “talking about how color and line affect you is not the same as talking about what they mean.”

For that, Cronan insists, there must be a way of talking about intention. Bois and Deleuze are both quite sure that trauma is a basic requirement of powerful art, confirming their acquiescence in a standard modernist theory of art, namely that it is founded in negation. In Bois as in Butler, “representation” is there only to be pushed aside by the immediacy of the image’s physical presence or effect. Cronan argues that it isn’t pushed aside, it was never there in the form its adversaries identify with it. Here too, another problem arises having to do with paintings always having to be violent in a way that puts the viewer outside them: Bois suggested that the redness of Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis was what led a lunatic to stab it with a knife, certainly an affect that could not be identified with the artist’s intention.[6]

Cronan concludes his argument against affective formalism by returning to Butler, and to her insistence that immediate effects on the nervous system are nonrepresentational in the critical, Hegelian sense: they are not only effects that act “at the expense of representation itself, but explicitly against representation.” If modernism generally involved faith in trauma — a belief that meaning begins with destruction, disaffection, decline, and negation, as in Baudelaire’s famous letter to Manet congratulating him on being “only the first” in the decline of his art — Cronan wants to think about this as something more than a vague fact of life. He says of Butler’s conclusion that pictorial autonomy threatens the beholder’s autonomy — that “we must reject Matisse to return to Deleuze” — that she “asks us to look away from art and look again at the world. Art’s fragile autonomy is exchanged for the limitlessness of experience. And nothing can save us from that.” In this sentence we see most clearly Cronan’s impatience with affective formalism and perhaps here too an impatience with its proponents’ comfortable relationship with violence, although that may be my over-interpretation. It is at least my impression that the word “violence,” used over and over at least since Baudelaire, has become implausible for that reason. Cronan in any case develops in his conclusion a version of violence as part of modernism that is not simple, and along the way shows that comfort with violence does not explain Matisse, nor his work. Cronan’s Matisse handles violence skeptically.

Instead of an image from which we must turn away (and back to philosophy) if we are to save ourselves, Cronan’s Matisse presents us with “pictorial modes of openness and closure [that] are mirrored by Matisse’s qualified account of his own ‘inner reserve.’” Cronan quotes Matisse himself: in “Exactitude is not truth” Matisse rejected “an uncontrolled surrender” to life; skeptical reserve stood side by side with the effort to, as he put it, “identify completely with one’s subject.” No turning away here but no total surrender either; restraint a preemption of a violence, whether as evasion or repression. Matisse’s response to his daughter’s suffering at the hands of the Gestapo shows him again struggling with how to express the sincerity fundamental to art. This is where Brecht re-enters the discussion, by way of his and Matisse’s mutual interest in Diderot’s actor, who speaks lines he didn’t write with such sincerity as to be counted a genius, raising the correlative question of where that leaves one who wishes to say something sincere. In life as in art, Matisse finds it hard to express his identification with his daughter’s mistreatment, because of the gap between the sincere and its performance, and I think it significant that this is the one place in his book that Cronan goes to the biographical in detail.


Bergson wanted to propose that “true memory” was not the same as habit, but consisted of images that were somehow outside the body, because they could be remembered but not repeated. The fact that you can’t repeat the act of learning something because you’ve learned it, but that you can remember the magic moment in which you learned it, implied for Bergson that true memory was unrepeatable and therefore did not belong to the unconscious memory of the habitual, bodily, or material. As with other assertions of the spiritual as opposed to the material, none of this could be proved. But when Bergson writes, “Nature confines itself to expressing feeling, whereas [art] suggests them to us,” Cronan argues that we should understand Bergson’s use of “suggestion” to mean “hypnotic suggestion.” Hypnotic suggestion has phases that lead to greater and greater depths, but Cronan notes that Bergson’s point is that it is “not the strength of the impact that matters, but the quality of the feeling it communicates.” (Which to me suggests precisely not the violence of a blow, but rather an awareness of a complexity made of sensations suddenly and involuntarily present.) Cronan continues, “The great artist is someone who can make us ‘experience what he cannot make us understand.’ And what the artist helps us to experience is the depth of ourselves.”

Cronan says that “Matisse entirely shared Bergson’s notion of the self, or personnalité […]. But unlike Bergson, Matisse could never dissociate sociality and independence, openness and self-sufficiency, mimesis and autonomy.” What Cronan calls “Matisse’s conflicted logic of the self” was “best captured” by Marcel Sembat[7]:

Notice that Matisse is original without trying. I know no one more insistent about the necessity of influences. […] He feels strong enough to assimilate, digest, and incorporate everything from outside. […] He has learned all the lessons and has used whatever techniques served his character and suited his genius.

Matisse’s originality is an effortless ability to use any influence or lesson without fear of being overpowered by it, because originality comes, as it were, “naturally” to him. Cronan explains that Matisse was preoccupied with influence, and that he saw influences always in strict regard to the demands of his own “originality.” Matisse responded negatively to Manet’s Olympia (1863-’65) and its “confrontational look,” which he thought “remains very close to traditional painting of the old school.” In contrast, in what Cronan calls “a deeply idiosyncratic judgment,” Matisse thought the contemporaneous Dead Toreador (ca. 1864) “the very finest” of Manet’s works.

Deeply idiosyncratic it may be, but I think it confirms much that Cronan says about Matisse’s work — and of the personnalité behind it. Matisse’s preference for the Dead Toreador suggests that he did not want painting to confront one directly — oddly, in the present context, identifying that with the past — but instead to give an experience that can be engaged at a number of levels — as can hypnosis. Parenthetically, the figure of the toreador is seen (i.e., felt) to be dead in part thanks to the vitality of the painting’s surface: what has been painted cannot be represented. Cronan’s discussion of Matisse can thus be seen as a logical pursuit of the implications of his deeply idiosyncratic judgment.

Cronan describes how in Still Life with Crab and Clay Pitcher (1896) the crab’s pincer “reaches over and across the threshold of the picture plane, fictively reaching out toward the beholder, at once threatening and solicitous, despite its literal and fictive enclosure in another world.” The picture plane and the work’s perimeter remain, for Cronan as traditionally, the place where representation (as he says, however broadly defined) takes place and outside of which it doesn’t. He says at the start that this ontological distinction is important to his thesis, but all his examples are ones in which the distinction is complicated. In place of confrontation, Matisse’s paintings perform “hesitant nearing,” a phrase used by Heidegger in a poem about Matisse. Cronan says this “might come close to Matisse’s basic aesthetic attitude.”

Acknowledging a debt to Michael Fried’s idea of pictorial absorption, he shows how for Matisse the question is one of “involution.” In a seminal essay written in 1967 Fried named the continuity of work with context “theatricality.”[8] A few years later he coined the term “absorption” to serve as its opposite. Fried developed the idea through studying the 18th-century painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze, in particular pictures of people sleeping or themselves absorbed — for example, in reading. What was represented was not an action, still less a pose, as much as a condition. Manet’s The Dead Toreador is an absorptive painting par excellance, or, for Cronan, an involutive one.

“Involution” has among its synonyms “complication,” while being a relative of “to involve.” In a discussion of Matisse’s use of the theme of a crouching figure, which first appears in le Luxe II (1907-1908) and Bathers with a Turtle (1908) and culminates in a tiny sculpture, Small Crouching Torso (1908), Cronan describes the figures in these works as “determinately inward,” “figures whose bodies are thrust in upon themselves as their backs and legs press against the limits of their media. The sequence as a whole unfolds toward greater degrees of involution and internalization.” Small Crouching Torso is almost entirely that, its arms are cut short and its legs compressed, and one can hold it in one’s hands. Cronan completes the above sentence by saying that “its bodily features are all but consumed within [its] circular egg-like form,” and on the next page that: “Although the body bears as little internal differentiation as seems possible while still evoking a measure of animate or bodily presence, its surface is rich with tactile cues.”

Cronan notes that in seeking to compare Bathers with a Turtle with Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Bois “turns his interpretation into an account of the psychic and biological causes and consequences of the picture.” He suggests that while Matisse’s painting “is clearly in dialogue” with Picasso’s, it would be better to consider the “structural consistency of Matisse’s fantasies of skeptical isolation and unbounded connection”: the opposite of the blinding Medusa function that Bois sees in Picasso, the opposite, too, of an image of mutual isolation. Skeptical isolation is self-imposed, it also precludes blinding the viewer, as does unbounded connection. Small Crouching Torso’s surface is a tactile connection with its interiority, complicating the viewer’s sense of the latter by involving her in how the work is open to, but at the same time determines, the space around it.

Plate with Nude (1907) anticipates Small Crouching Torso by eliminating space around the figure and fitting a nude onto a plate, roundness within roundness, but also soft within fragile. Small Crouching Torso is the opposite of that, but it would fit into your hand as the figure fits on the plate, determining the shape of what was supporting it. Later in the same chapter, Cronan gives us an example of when space may be said to govern the composition, as opposed to when the figure does, and the difference is telling. In The Painter in His Studio (1916), space governs but it can only do so by robbing the model of her vitality and reducing her to a sign, to an object among others rather than a body among objects. “The body has been drained of its sensuous appeal — Laurette’s curves have been ironically displaced into the rococo mirror on the wall […].” But:

In the charged space between artist and model, representation literally intervenes, suggesting at once connection and the gulf between the painter and his world […] sealed at the electric moment where Laurette and her chair seem to fuse with the image on the easel, as though the loss of sensuous appeal has been regained in what Matisse called the “condensation of sensations that makes a picture.”

This condensation involves our participation in a convergence between three forces — the artist, the model, the painting of the model — and the fusion Cronan sees is only observable as a condition of a larger fusion between the picture as a whole and the painting’s surface. Matisse, Cronan says, valued Bouquet on a Bamboo Table (1903) above all for its sense of “atmosphere and intimacy,” and suggests that this is the kind of intimacy Heidegger named “hesitant nearing” in his poem on Matisse. What animates Bouquet and defines its atmosphere is in part an allusion to what was never visible, the scent of flowers, filling the space as the plant fills the painting, while taking up very little space in it — a few stems in a slender vase, most of what you see is wall and tabletop. The flowers are a small part of the painting, best described using a term associated closely with Deleuze, an intensity. Everything in it is responsive to the properties of the flowers and their vase, which sits on the edge of the table very near the bottom of the painting, in this instance more recklessly than hesitantly one might say, in any event at “the spatial limit of the medium,” to use Cronan’s term. The flowers provide the space with movement, the brightest colors occur as local color (in the petals) and as reflected color, marking the outside of the vase.

“Condensation,” among its other connotations, suggests movement that you know to be happening but can’t see. There is also the reverse: movements that are not really there but that you cannot help but see, and moreover can only see as movement of one kind. Matisse was especially fond of using the “arabesque,” a combination of two pairs of “s” shaped lines juxtaposed at right angles, which one can only see as movement — the lines will not stand still. It isn’t a violent movement, being made of curves, and it is arguable that Matisse never uses it in the same way twice. Cronan quotes him bragging about his mastery over the objects he uses; they are “actors” that he has perform quite different roles from one painting to another. The same is true of everything he does with signs or marks (the arabesque being both) of movement, and I have left this point to my conclusion because rhythm is as important to Matisse as our recognition of the solidity, or not, of the objects he paints. It is in discussing this aspect of his work that Cronan shows most clearly the weaknesses of the affective formalist approach.

These differences turn out, I think, to be between an approach to art, or painting in particular, that wants the work to be seen as a single gesture, or movement, and an approach that follows from showing that Matisse’s paintings — and by extension the works of other artists — are made of many, hesitant, movements. Interestingly, this view of Matisse as a bundle of discontinuities reconciled in each work as a pure image, but otherwise for ever in contradiction, is offered by Cronan’s close readings; it is, perhaps paradoxically but perhaps not, much more Deleuzian in its refusal of totalization than affective formalism’s reductive emphasis on one, recurrent, meaning. Although he doesn’t say as much, Cronan makes it clear early on that the shortcomings of affective formalism are most egregious when attempted by art historians who prefer the simpler and more obviously violent world of Duchamp and Picasso.

Wanting Matisse to be Picasso misled Bois. Insisting on a discursive primacy for Duchamp is likewise shown not so much to impede Rosalind Krauss’s contribution to the debate as to sabotage it. Krauss defines “opticality,” a term derived from Duchamp, as the “suspension of the work in space as if it were nothing but pure optical glitter […] a condition that establishes the corresponding illusion that the viewer is correspondingly bodiless.” Solecisms aren’t the main problem, though. The problem is the rush to simplification in the name of trauma. In fairness to Butler — whose turning away from the painting’s autonomy may seem similar to Krauss’s illusion of bodilessness, and where one also finds a distressing emphasis on the traumatic model’s production of an image that blinds (what blinds in Bois in Krauss dissolves) — it should be said that Butler’s viewer is at least allowed to grant the work complexity. Krauss’s and Bois’s viewer, however, is not. Even as it is said to have an autonomy that threatens the viewer’s very sense of herself, the work is denied agency except as enigmatic-aggressive provocation. Cronan quotes Krauss describing movement in a late Picasso as involving an “optical beat,” which a couple of sentences later becomes a “rhythmic beat,” but which has nothing to do with representation, “even if its emergence is bound to a representational setting.” Bias emerges, perhaps. Krauss declares a Duchampian abhorrence of the senses in a funny passage about modernist painters refusing to go “beyond” the “retinal to the grey matter.” While this sentiment is, without too much of a stretch, compatible with Picasso’s predilection for drawing over color, it is not an obviously useful starting point for a reading of a painter who, whether or not every mark and icon is to be read as Cronan suggests, is known for his use of color. It sounds like someone who doesn’t like affect.


Cronan’s conclusion is about Paul Valéry. As involved with Bergson and his thinking as was Matisse, Cronan describes Valéry being led by his own account from intentionalism to anti-intentionalism out of impatience with his own success at the former.

In Cronan’s account Valéry thought he could write things that could control the reader — hypnotize them as it were — and he derived from this a dissatisfaction comparable to Matisse’s. He wanted a literature that was fully an activation of the forces of language, launched by intention but not returnable to it. This is the idea of a pure image again, perhaps, and, as with Matisse’s paintings, an image not returnable to its origin. Cronan shows Valéry to have proceeded from intentionalism, through a dissatisfaction with hypnosis, leading him to mimesis. Hypnosis, as a capacity found in the affective form of words, he found (or said he found) too easy to use. Mimesis, on the other hand, as a model for the loss of subject and object which unites the reader with the page — perhaps even more uncontrollably than that which is required by a beholder being able to see a painting — provided him with models both for what he thought could be let loose to operate on its own, and with a further hopelessness, caused by his sense of the limits of the second model, the limits of how much of its original meaning it could retain once in flight.

Valéry-the-intentionalist is like Matisse, then, in seeing the possibility not of a simple intentionality, but of the intention to produce what Cronan calls (in Valéry’s case) “autonomous configurations of language.” Here the operative word is “configurations,” and I think it returns us to condensation, as in Bouquet’s atmosphere, and the sounds of Mondrian’s lampposts. Cronan describes representation “intervening” in that part of the Painter in His Studio where the model’s image fuses with the space of the painting on the easel, and it is the fusing that is autonomous.

Representation can be described as “intervening” in what is already represented, because the picture, scene, or narrative has acquired its own agency in the course of becoming an image. Cronan says that what links Valéry’s earlier (intentionalist) and later (anti-intentionalist) work is “a view of the work as a material action and not as a representation.” “Fusing” is an action. The rest of the painting — in comparison to the part where images fuse — “just” indicates where things are. Cronan opposes what he calls Valéry’s “mimetic intentionality” to both (the viewer’s imposition of) no intention at all, as well as to the implausible idea that the work is a transparent guide to what the artist was thinking.

The implication is that Deleuzian anti-intentionalism, in a rush to concentrate on trauma, ignores the trauma carefully examined by mimesis. Not least, perhaps, because mimetic representation’s use of the traumatic model is not seen as alienation of the totalizing sort, but as its opposite: fusing as empathy and intimacy. Cronan finds that affective formalists do not allow enough to happen inside the image. One is left feeling that this is intentional, to be not so much criticized as called up like a magic ghost; there always has to be violence, and the work always an attack or provocation: either it blinds you or makes you want to stab it. In Cronan’s version of intentionalism, Valéry’s idea of language (or Brecht’s) as active form, or in Beardsley and Wimsatt’s anti-intentionalism, meaning is found in what one recognizes as motivated, not so much meaning in the sense of the reason behind the action as the reasoning in it that is at least in part its consequence. That is what separates them from affective formalism, where motivation is formulaically denied significance.

Cronan’s discussion of Valéry’s idea of language as material form brings in politics. The title truly is Brechtian: Cronan is against affective formalism for Brechtian reasons, because it isn’t specific enough. What links Brecht’s thinking to Valéry’s is the idea of language as a material, and Brecht’s politics we know. Matisse was an anarchist sympathizer and strong Dreyfusard, but Valéry’s politics were ambiguous and he took no side regarding Dreyfus. Cronan introduces us to Valéry through a letter to Gide, in which Valéry describes seeing some strikers shot by the police and expresses excitement and also relief, and the wish that they’d shot more. Gide expresses some concern, and turns Valéry’s bloodlust around with talk about literature being in the blood of both of them. Cronan does not lose sight of the real blood question, though, as Gide might have wished. A little later he quotes another passage from Valéry about a crowd, this time one is a representative of the Brechtian tendency. What is at stake in Cronan’s argument is not only the question of whether, if art means something, we ought to take that into account before projecting our own meanings on to it, but that art has to mean something — that in practice it can’t not mean — and that this has political implications. Brecht’s left-wing theater takes the same basic attitude toward form as Valéry’s more hesitant materialism. For both, manipulating the audience requires not simple control, let alone its simple opposite, the first impossible and the second useless. Brecht and Valéry want a language that can intervene in the political as agency, as action not representation, mimesis articulating or managing the traumatic to benevolent ends.[9]

Cronan’s last sentences concern viscera. Deleuze claimed that Valéry’s profound idea was that “what is most deep is the skin,” but Cronan claims the opposite, that for Valéry it is viscera all the way down. Depth is also filled with sensation. Depth is mutable when it comes to hypnosis and immeasurable in the case of trauma.

I think Cronan has written a book reminiscent of Barthes’s famous aphorism: a little formalism drives history out of the work, we might say, but a lot of affective formalism brings it back in. And while a little affective formalism drives intention out of the work, more than a little drives one to examine all that it seeks to repress.[10] Here it seems worth pointing out that what Cronan has recommended, as a possible alternative to vagueness and always reading every painting as if it were like every other, is a detailed version of the approach to art that we all, in fact, take for granted. I am nearly 70 years old and have never seen any work of contemporary or modern art without being told, or having heard somewhere, something about the artist and what she thinks she’s doing. Funny that the dominant view on affect should be one that wants to pretend we come across paintings in some other way, whether as alien objects found in the woods, or Others whose powerful incoherence always comes to the surface and blinds one, no matter how much art history you know.

Bergson, frustrated as usual by science, wanted to find a link between causality and free will — this was his beef with Kant. Cronan has reminded us that there may not be a demonstrable link, but there may be art in which what cannot be explained can nonetheless be experienced, since no act of free will can actually be seen without the implication of a cause. I end with one question, and a wish that goes with it. Matisse is famous, or some would say infamous, for saying a painting should be like a comfortable armchair, and I wonder why Cronan did not make more of this metaphor for which Matisse is so well known, and I think misunderstood. I have implied throughout that violence has come to be a bit habitual in readings of affect, reminiscent of the Renaissance lady who ordered up more and more paintings of the Madonna with the demand that they make her cry. Francis Bacon said “I believe in deeply ordered chaos,” and among Deleuze’s affective followers (and elsewhere), the “chaos” is affirmed and the “ordered” gets short shrift. But along with chaos, violence, and order, Cronan has convinced me, we should add relaxation and attraction to the components out of which Matisse’s paintings were made. Hypnosis and mimesis as trauma are surely even more inextricably united in the image that attracts than in the one that confronts, and one is most helpless when relaxed. You cannot not be hypnotized by what attracts you, the two words mean the same thing. And although Cronan addresses prettiness implicitly, in his very delicate reading of individual paintings, I wish he’d had more to say about the power of it.[11] It is from that which Butler turns away, and which blinds another while dissolving a third. Matisse may be hesitant, his posture and his paintings made out of reserve, but that’s not true of the color. At his best Matisse is total optical glitter, the risk that the color could go out of control an important part of the work, his in other senses unarguable and total — like a performer with an instrument — command of it being the other half of our experience of his work. That is surely what gives representation the agency Cronan describes. In Matisse one does not find either the alienation or ugliness of Picasso’s whores, nor the simple radicalism of Duchamp’s pre-modern elevation of mind over matter. One finds instead sensations neither necessarily pure, nor obviously associated with trauma, as much as with its opposite; one finds comfortable pleasure — girls, flowers — shock (distant memory of violence) as surprise, prettiness the grounds of an image pure in its unrepeatability, remaining visceral throughout the depths of its never incoherent surface.


[1] Hillary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1998).

[2] For example, The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007) is the title of an anthology that has nothing to do with art, but rather with the topic its subtitle implies.

[3] Elizabeth Grosz, “Bergson, Deleuze and the Becoming of Unbecoming,” Parallax volume 11 no. 2 (London: Taylor and Francis, 2005) pp 5-6.

[4] Briony Fer, On Abstract Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997) p. 33.

[5] For more on this see Cronan’s “Seeing Differently and Seeing Correctly,” Distance and Proximity (The Brecht Yearbook, 38) (Bowling Green: The International Brecht Society, 2015).

[6] Barnett Newman said that if everyone understood his work there’d be world peace.

[7] Sembat was a Socialist politician, married to a sculptor, who wrote a book about Matisse.

[8] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum (June 1967).

[9] What Cronan has said elsewhere about Brecht’s thinking regarding empathy and influence, and hypnosis, is echoed in what he says here about his thinking’s relationship to Matisse’s as well as Valéry’s. Quoting Brecht saying that

A considerable sacrifice of the spectator’s empathy does not mean sacrificing all right to influence him. The representation of human behavior from a social point of view is meant indeed to have a decisive influence on the spectator’s own social behavior. This sort of intervention necessarily is bound to release emotional effects; they are deliberate and have to be controlled.

Cronan goes on, “One might reasonably wonder what distinguishes Brecht’s vision of a work that produces a ‘decisive influence’ on behavior from the kinds of suggestive control of the audience he ceaselessly critiqued (as Brecht well knew, influence and suggestion were both terms drawn from hypnotic literature and practice).” See Todd Cronan, “Art and Political Consequence: Brecht and the Problem of Affect,” 10 (2013).

[10] Barthes’s “Death of the Author” appeared in 1967, and as Cronan notes he gives Valéry credit for pioneering the idea. It has been tremendously influential but Cronan’s book, among the other things it does, demonstrates that we are now at a point where certainties set in train by the doubts of the ’70s have now run their course and call for other doubts to be put in play.

[11] This might have led to some discussion of harmlessness and the trauma model. I understand why Cronan would look past what typically preoccupies those who write about Matisse, but think that playfulness can’t be left out of the map of contradictions. I brought up Benjamin’s child blurring subject and object by rotating his arms to become a windmill in an essay addressed not to bad criticism but bad abstract painting I think that would have been written while Benjamin was in Paris, when he had his children’s radio show in which he would explain difficult ideas, and return to it here because Cronan’s articulation of what went in to Matisse’s personnalité would seem to make his dependence on finding his image through the frivolous and, often, personal, all the more significant. Perhaps playfulness is, in him, the absolute extreme of one end of the axis of self-contradiction out which Cronan describes his works being made. If so, I think it perhaps relevant that neither skepticism nor restraint have any part in play.


Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is a painter who also writes about art and related matters, both on his own and with Rebecca Norton, as the collaborative Awkward x 2. His books and other writings include Beyond Piety (1995) and Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (1999).


LARB Contributor

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is a painter who also writes about art and related matters, both on his own and with Rebecca Norton, as the collaborative Awkward x 2. His books and other writings include Beyond Piety (1995) and Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (1999). A Guggenheim Fellow in Painting, he was the 1988 recipient of the College Art Association’s Mather Award for Art Criticism and of NEA Fellowships in art and criticism. He is a Professor in the Graduate Art Program at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena. For more please go to and


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