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Feeling, Scale and Religion: Approaching Abstract Painting through the Aesthetics of Susanne Langer

Windle, Peter (2022) Feeling, Scale and Religion: Approaching Abstract Painting through the Aesthetics of Susanne Langer. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.95637) (Access to this publication is currently restricted. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:95637)

Language: English

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This study offers a new framework for understanding abstract paintings as well as offering a fresh look at Susanne K. Langer, a philosopher and aesthetician who has been somewhat marginalised over the last few decades and whose ideas deserve a fair hearing and application. Methodologically, the study also aims to be an art historically informed aesthetics, modelling one way in which the two disciplines can be integrated in the study of the visual arts. There are several reasons why a new framework for understanding abstract painting is useful. One is that art historians have asked for a clearer account of what constitutes an abstract painting, particularly in the wake of new discoveries of artistic practices from the prehistory of abstraction which have provoked a mixed reception. Even for canonical works, however, the standard understanding of abstract works as non-figurative or non-objective makes these works very hard to approach for many people. I argue that a framework for understanding abstract paintings which draws attention to the structure and phenomenology without undermining the diversity and complexity of these works is helpful, and, moreover, that informing expectations in this way facilitates individual responses to artworks. Finally, abstract artists’ statements frequently refer to the qualities of scale and space that the new framework concerns, and often object to their work being seen in terms of the absence or presence of recognisable subject matter. I examine Langer’s claim that artworks are images expressive of human feeling, first looking at her visual taxonomy, which includes images, models and pictures, before unpacking what Langer means by feeling in the three books she devotes to the subject, and the use that is now being made of Langerean feeling in neuroscience and psychology. Putting these together, I then look at Langer’s theory of art, considering the way that she claims expression functions, testing her claims against artworks, rival expressivist theories, and against common issues with functionalist theories, such as hers. The discussion on feeling looks at Langer’s ideas on how we interpret qualitative perceptual gradients; the discussion on art looks at how we interpret qualitative artistic gradients. The thesis considers objections to Langer’s work that have been made largely on the grounds that the influence of early Wittgenstein on Langer’s ideas undermines her whole approach. This leads into a discussion of one notion of form, tripartite form, which it has been claimed Langerean aesthetics cannot give a clear explanation of. I then go on to look at one gradient in detail, a gradient which I argue is particularly salient and which has been written about frequently in art history but which has never received sustained attention in the aesthetics of painting – the gradient of clarity of scale. This is looked at first in the context of traditional Chinese religious art, in examples which deal with progressively more ambiguity of scale, before the thesis offers the new framework for understanding abstract paintings – completely ambiguous intrinsic scale. In the context of these abstract works, I look in particular at how the manipulation of the device of scale intersects with the creation of works evocative of the sublime. The argument for this is developed through close attention to artist’s statements and other art historical material, and through readings based on Langerean aesthetics.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Maes, Hans
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.95637
Uncontrolled keywords: Susanne Langer, Abstract Painting, Scale, Feeling, Religion
Subjects: N Visual Arts > ND Painting
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Arts
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 01 Jul 2022 09:10 UTC
Last Modified: 26 Jul 2022 11:15 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Windle, Peter.

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