|Art and Imagination
Nick Wiltsher and Aaron Meskin
The histories of the terms “art” and “imagination” trace peculiarly parallel lines. Empiricists, rationalists, Kant, and post-Kantians all tended to think of imagination as a fundamental and unified human faculty, essentially enmeshed in conscious life. Similarly, early aestheticians thought that all the questions of art—its definition, its appreciation, its value, and its judgment—could be subsumed under one theory.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the trends have been towards fragmentation and particularity. The ambition of giving a single theory of art has been thwarted by its prolific diversification. Within the European artistic tradition, movements such as minimalism and conceptualism have challenged general claims about the nature of art. Awareness of other traditions, such as the Chinese and Native American, has brought further challenges. Art is now made in forms far beyond the traditional categories such as music, literature, and painting. And genres continue to multiply. All this adds to the complexity of the task, and various large-scale distinctions within the domain of art (between, for example, representational and non-representational art, or fine and popular art) further complicate the picture.
Similarly, the idea that imagination is a single, unitary faculty has been challenged by the recognition that philosophers and folk alike ascribe to imagination a highly heterogeneous set of features, capabilities, and applications. One might thus doubt that a single sort of mental state or capacity is identified by the word “imagination” (Stevenson 2003; Kind 2014).
Accordingly, attempts to tease out the intuitively intimate links between art and imagination have become more modest. Where philosophers might once have used a general notion of imagination to underpin a grand theory of art, they now tend to argue that a specific kind or application of imagination can help to explain some particular element of art or artistic practice. And certainly, there are many questions of aesthetics where this is a promising approach. Making art is typically conceived of as the paradigmatically imaginative activity. We often praise works and artists for being imaginative, while criticizing others for being unimaginative (Grant 2012). The appreciation of art forms such as painting seems to involve something imagination-like: the appearance of things that are not really before us. Other works of art such as literary fictions, which do not seem to essentially traffic in these sorts of quasi-perceptual experiences are, nevertheless, typically understood as engaging and enriching our imaginations (Walton 1990, Nussbaum 1998).
Among the founders of modern aesthetics, Kant is most well-known for invoking imagination in his explanations of aesthetic phenomena. In the 20th century, the grand and general approach is most closely associated with R.G. Collingwood (1938). For Collingwood, art is, by definition, imaginative expression of feeling. Unsurprisingly, Collingwood is forced to take a revisionary approach to the domain of art. But the comprehensive nature of his theories of art and imagination has placed his ideas at the heart of debates concerning them, and we will return repeatedly to them throughout this chapter.
Among many who deserve attention, perhaps the best-known contemporary exponent of the particularist approach is Kendall Walton. He argues that the representational arts are founded on make-believe, a special sort of imaginative activity. Unlike Collingwood, Walton is not aiming to be comprehensive; he does not try to define art, nor to give an account of its creation or ontology. Rather, he focusses only on certain sorts of art, and certain aspects of the artistic domain. In this respect, Walton serves as an exemplar of current thinking about art and imagination.
To structure our discussion, we will distinguish three domains in which art and imagination might be linked: production, ontology, and appreciation. In the first section of the chapter we explore what philosophers of art have said about the connections between artistic creation, creativity and the imagination. In the second section, we engage withnview that artworks are imaginary objects. The third section of the chapter examines the problems of appreciation that face thisnapproach to the ontology of art. In the fourth section, we address a number of other ways in which philosophers have seen the imagination as central to understanding and judging art. The final section of the chapter briefly draws attention to a miscellany of questions about imagination across the arts.
The Creation of Art
Imagination can be recreative; for example, we can use it to model other people's thoughts (Currie and Ravenscroft 2002). It can also be creative: we can conjure new things, or at least new ideas of things, into being. Art-making is, at least generically, a creative activity. So the temptation to link artistic creation to imagination is compelling. Berys Gaut, for example, argues that there is a significant (although inessential) link between creativity and the imagination (Gaut 2003). One way to understand the link is to think of the creation of art as a particular application of general creative capabilities. Much work on creativity in art takes this approach (e.g. Boden 2010).
However, several highly influential aestheticians have thought that artistic creativity is somehow special. Kant thinks that the greatest artists have a unique talent for producing and expressing “aesthetic ideas”, which are ideas of the imagination which cannot be wholly brought under determinate concepts (Kant 1790: §314-317). So very few people (only those endowed with genius) can produce creative and original art.
The Romantic movement that blossomed in Kant’s wake enthusiastically endorsed the idea that artists have a special imaginative capacity that affords them insights and experiences unavailable to the ordinary person. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, distinguishes between mere reproductive imagination, or “fancy”, which everyone has; and the creative imaginative faculty, which only such people as poets possess, or employ to its fullest extent (Coleridge1817: 167. For discussion, see Warnock 1976: pt. III; Casey 1976: 182-188). This conception of artists as persons apart from others, with uncommon imaginative insights, imbues art and imagination alike with an air of mystery and exclusivity. It is the target of some of Collingwood’s sharpest criticism (Collingwood 1938: ch.6 §5). Collingwood conceives of creation as both explicable and available to all, and thinks that the cult of artistic genius founded by Kant is fraudulent. Nevertheless, he and Kant share some common ground on imagination and creativity.
Both Kant and Collingwood think of imagination as fundamental to conscious experience, though differ over how it is therein involved. Kant, for example, thinks that perception depends on imagination, whereas Collingwood allows that at least some sort of perception is possible without imagination. More pertinently, they both think that imagination’s involvement in artistic creation precludes the possibility that creativity is rule-governed. Kant thinks no rules govern true creation, and similarly Collingwood presents his own theory in contrast to the "technical theory" of art, according to which art is a craft: an artist skillfully makes something physical in order to achieve some particular, preconceived end, such as representation or amusement (Kant 1790: §307-308; Collingwood 1938: chs 2, 7). Collingwood only explicitly ascribes this theory to Plato, Aristotle, and Horace, but makes clear that, in some form or other, it informs a great deal of thinking about art. Collingwood agrees that artists make things, things that may represent or amuse, but argues that art proper involves creation: a special sort of making which can't have a preconceived end (Collingwood 1938: ch. 7). Creation is thus inimical to the technical theory. You cannot specify the end of a true creative process in advance. If art must involve creation, it must involve a process without a preconceived end. So you cannot specify in advance the rules that will get you to your artistic end. Since crafts involve specifying the end before the process of making begins, the essence of art is not craft (though a certain work can be a work both of craft and of art).
Creation, as Collingwood means it, is the imaginative expression of feeling. Art is the product of such creation, and art-products are not ordinary physical things (Collingwood 1938: ch. 7). The middle third of The Principles of Art is dedicated to expounding a theory of imagination that underpins all this. According to Collingwood, human experience has three levels. At the "psychical level", experience consists in a constant, transient flux of "feelings", a term which encompasses perceptual sensation, affect, and emotion, all of which are often (perhaps always) co-occurent in a particular feeling (Collingwood 1938: ch. 8). A feeling, an individual moment in this flux, may be consciously attended to. The act of attention lifts the feeling from the psychical level to the imaginative, where it is modified; it is clarified, brought into focus, perhaps vitiated somewhat, and becomes an idea of imagination, which unlike feelings at the psychical level may be retained and returned to (Collingwood takes himself to be improving upon Hume's division between impressions and ideas; Collingwood 1938: chs 10-11). At the third level, thought, ideas of imagination are classified: they are accorded titles such as "real", put into relations with other ideas, and so on.
Collingwood thinks feelings are often complex, obscure, and difficult to understand. Consequently, the work of imagination in clarifying a particular feeling is far from trivial. Much effort may be required to establish just what a particular feeling is. Part of that effort is expressing the feeling. Expression is not an act subsequent to the identification of the feeling; rather, it is partially by expressing a feeling that one comes to know what it is. Bringing a feeling into focus in your imagination is precisely an act of expression. Thus, expression need not have a publicly visible aspect. So what imagination creates is an idea that expresses a particular feeling; the essence of art is this imaginative transformation of the stuff of sensation into the matter of thought (Collingwood 1938: chs 10-11). Artists pin down the precise nature of feelings by expressing them using their imagination.
Exactly what Collingwood means by all this is the subject of debate, and no doubt the summary just given is tendentious (for discussion of how best to interpret Collingwood, see Ridley 1997; Dilworth 1998; Hausman 1998; Ridley 1998a; Ridley 1998b; Kemp 2003; D. Davies 2008). But whatever your interpretation, it is questionable whether Collingwood is really doing what he claims: making explicit something we all, intuitively, know already about art and imagination. Certainly, his neo-Humean theory of imagination is idiosyncratic. Again, we might think of imagination as sometimes creative, and sometimes recreative. Collingwood appears to simply deny that that the latter is a sort of imagination. Now, you might reject this, and reject his particular account of how imagination is creative, while being attracted to the idea that imagination (somehow) is involved in artistic creation, and that this involvement has something to do with expression, which in turn is a matter of abstraction from and distillation of the everyday. Even so, while this is quite a plausible claim concerning a large class of artworks, it is implausible that it is true of all of what is ordinarily taken to be art. For example, construing all examples of conceptual art and minimalism as a matter of the expression of feeling, even on Collingwood’s broad sense of “feeling”, is something of a stretch. Admirable as ambition is, in Collingwood's case a theory is perhaps stretched too thinly. Further criticism of Collingwood's view has generally centered on its implications for the ontology of art. We will discuss these, before turning to imagination's role in the appreciation of art.
The Ontology of Art
What do we actually make when we make art? Artworks, of course; but what sort of things are they? For several reasons, it has often been thought unsatisfactory to conclude that all artworks are physical things (Wollheim1980a: 36–43). It is easy enough to think of painting and carved sculpture that the physical artifact just is the artwork, but this is hard to sustain when we think of artworks that are capable of multiple instantiation, such as plays, prints, or poems. One solution is to stop thinking that all artworks must be the same sort of thing. Perhaps there is just a diversity of ontological categories, and artworks are variously distributed among this happy plurality (Thomasson 2004; Thomasson 2006). An alternative is to hold that artworks are all a certain sort of thing, but not a physical one: they are all imaginary objects.
The most naïve version of this view would be that artworks exist in the minds of those appreciating them, consisting in a sort of imaginative state they enter. This would, quite implausibly, make the existence of an artwork dependent on the existence of that imaginative state. Collingwood is often interpreted as holding a more sophisticated version of this view, dubbed the “Ideal Theory”. Even if he did not, some significant philosophers have certainly subscribed to it (e.g. Croce 1909; Sartre 1940: 188-192). The archetypal formulation of the Ideal Theory is that artworks are mental items, products of imagination, which can exist solely in the heads of the artist and appreciators. This is because the process of creating art is entirely an imaginative one, and so the true products of that process are entirely imaginary; they need not have any physical manifestation outside the mind of their creator, nor are they located, once created, in a sort of abstract realm of imaginary objects (nor, as a Meinogian might think, are they really discovered in that realm, rather than created). The Ideal Theory can be maintained even if it is also held that the process of creation involves expression (as it does on Collingwood's account), since such expression can be done internally. Writing, painting, sculpting, and so on are ancillary activities, no necessary part of creation, and physical products like paintings should not be confused with the mental item that is the artwork proper. The relation between the mental item which is the artwork proper and any physical product is entirely contingent.
Criticisms of this theory are not hard to come by. Richard Wollheim's have been particularly influential (Wollheim 1973; Wollheim 1980a: 36–43). He argues that the Ideal Theory mistakenly ignores the role of materials in the creation of artworks. If the theory is right, creation can take place entirely in the head; but manipulation of a physical medium is a vital part of creation, not a contingent adjunct to it. To deny this is to ignore the actual mechanics of creation, and to obviate the role of the audience in artistic practice. Further, the arguments for the Ideal Theory are based on a selective set of examples. While it might just about look plausible for poetry and music, it simply cannot be applied to painting and sculpture.
Such criticisms are typically taken to be fatal for the Ideal Theory. Now, as Ridley reads him, Collingwood never held anything like the Ideal Theory. Collingwood instead holds that expression must involve an external medium – precisely the claim that Wollheim makes against Collingwood. So though art is imaginative expression, that expression has a necessary public manifestation (Ridley 1997). Others disagree that Collingwood can be read as anything other than an Ideal Theorist (Dilworth 1998; Kemp 2003).
A different line of defense is to adopt a more nuanced version of the Ideal Theory. Such a version might start from close examination of Collingwood's notion of an “imaginative experience of total activity” (Collingwood 1938: ch.7 §6). This is what an artist undergoes when she creates an artwork, and it involves the employment of all her senses, and her motile capabilities too, or at least imaginative correlates of them (kinesthetic movements and the like). A sympathetic development of this idea might rescue the Ideal Theory from the criticisms above, though the key notion of the contingency of the physical product still seems present and still seems troublesome (Wollheim also criticizes a “nuanced” version of the ideal theory, and those criticisms might likewise apply to the line just suggested).
Further, this contingency generates a second set of criticisms of the Ideal Theory, concerned with the role of imagination in appreciation. We will examine these in the next section, before engaging with wider issues of imagination and appreciation.
If you accept that artworks are (in some sense) imaginary, or the weaker thesis that to properly understand an artwork is to grasp the imaginative idea or process that gave rise to it, you face several closely related problems. One is that, on such a view, the physical manifestation of the artwork again seems contingent; it just occasions a sort of imaginative reverie, and any item that would allow you to grasp the right imaginative idea could be substituted for it. A second is that, if artworks are imaginary items, there appears to be no possibility of genuine critical disagreement. This is because every aspect of the artwork that we might usually think of as an interpretative imposition, over which we could disagree, is taken to be part of the work itself, part of the imaginative idea. And that means, if you and I find ourselves with different things in mind when we contemplate a painting, we are engaging with different artworks. Apparent disagreements between us are not disagreements with the same subject matter (Kemp 2003).
Ridley's response to these criticisms is to argue that Collingwood's account of how imagination is involved in appreciation avoids them. Ridley argues that imagination is what makes the difference between (for example) hearing a string of noises, and listening to music (Ridley 2007). The noises are necessary elements of the experience; the contribution of imagination is to associate those noises so as to construct in the listener's head the precise imaginative experience that the composer underwent when composing the music. If this is correct, there are actually quite strict constraints on what can possibly count as a valid interpretation of an artwork; as Ridley says, Collingwood seems to require an exact match between the artist's experience and the audience's, without offering anything more than an empirically-grounded expectation that such a match can be achieved or verified.
If this is right, involving imagination in interpretation neither militates against genuine disagreement, nor renders physical artworks irrelevant. However, one might still think that the artwork is contingent in a weaker sense. If the aim of interpretation is to arrive at the relevant imaginative experience, anything that might occasion that experience would do equally as well as another. Artworks thus become fungible. But there is a strong intuition that artworks are not fungible; what one artwork does, another cannot.
This is not a criticism that could be leveled at Collingwood, since he thinks that an imaginative idea and its expression are inseparable. Feelings are complex things for Collingwood, and the expression of a particular one can only be done one way. Therefore, the feeling expressed by a work in one medium simply cannot be expressed in another medium. However, the criticism could be made of any theory on which grasping a sort of idea is the ultimate aim of interpretation. And many people have thought that artworks engage our imagination, and that such engagement is a necessary condition of true understanding. Kant is plausibly read as holding a view of this sort. According to him, artists express aesthetic ideas, which are ideas of the imagination to which no idea of reason is adequate; crudely paraphrased, this means that aesthetic ideas are special ideas generated by the imagination which cannot wholly be described in words or captured by determinate concepts (Kant 1790: §314-6). Proper interpretation involves grasping this aesthetic idea (though interpretation might involve more than just this). If this is so, it could be that any item which stimulates the imagination to generate the right aesthetic idea would do as well as any other item.
So the problem of how to reconcile something like the Ideal Theory with due respect for the materiality or autonomy of artworks is not just a problem for Collingwood. An intriguing alternative is to deny the apparently common-sense insight at the heart at the Ideal Theory. Where Kant, Collingwood, and others argue that aesthetic experience involves imagination more than perception does, Mikel Dufrenne argues that “aesthetic perception” involves less imagination than ordinary perception (Dufrenne 1953: ch. 12).
As the name suggests, aesthetic perception differs from ordinary perception. Both are intentional acts, directed towards intentional objects. In perception, the intentional object of your experience is some external object. There is often a question about what the intentional object of your experience might be, given the limited input from your senses. For example, on the basis of the same sensory experience, you might have a perceptual experience as of a real parrot, or as of a stuffed parrot. What makes the difference between the two, according to Dufrenne, is imagination. Imagination fills in the gaps and ambiguities of sensory experience so that we experience the world as filled with determinate objects which belong to particular sortal kinds.
However, in aesthetic perception, we perceive and consider a physical thing as a work of art: we treat the physical work as a special sort of thing, imbued with its own determinate meanings. If, in this act of aesthetic perception, we grasp properly the aesthetic object suggested by a work of art, all the work usually done by imagination in perception has been done for us already. The objects presented are already determinate; the picture tells us whether it is of a real parrot or a stuffed one. Thus, there are no gaps or ambiguities for imagination to complete (Dufrenne 1953: chs 6, 12).
Dufrenne's position depends on a number of questionable doctrines, concerning (among other things) perception, the role of imagination in perception, and the existence of such things as aesthetic experiences and aesthetic perceptions. And of course, the view just sketched can't apply straighforwardly to music or literature, since they don't involve physical objects in the same ways that painting or scuplture do. (Needless to say, Dufrenne does have things to say about these artforms). Nonetheless, the inversion of apparent common sense that he suggests provides an interesting counterpoint to Kant and Collingwood.
Appreciating Art Imaginatively
Thus far, our discussion of appreciation has focussed on the idea that proper appreciation of art is constituted by a particular sort of imaginative (or unimaginative) experience. In this section, we turn to the weaker idea that appreciation of (some) art involves imagination. For example, you might think that understanding what a representation represents requires an imaginative experience, or that the value of art depends on a certain sort of imaginative experience.
One need not even appeal to experience to think that imagination is somehow involved in the appreciation of art. For example, some think that interpreting art involves reconstructing the creative process (Wollheim 1980b). For another example, in the philosophy of literature, there is much debate over whether the best way to understand literature is in accordance with the intentions of the author, and whether that author may best be construed as a hypothetical figure whose intentions are to be divined from the text (see Levinson 1992 for the view, S. Davies 2006 for discussion). And similarly, some have proposed that the common practice of ascribing emotions to music can only be justified by positing a hypothetical person (or persona) who has those emotions; this is because music itself cannot literally have the emotions, but ascribing them to a real person (the composer or the performer) leads quickly to significant problems (Levinson 1996; Ridley 2007). Now, one does not necessarily have to invoke imagination to explain how we reconstruct a creative process, or hypothesize about authors' intentions, but it is natural to think that these things do involve the imagination. As ever, much depends on one's antecedent view of imagination; for example, whether one thinks that hypothesizing is an imaginative activity.
Beyond interpretation, some philosophers think that certain elements of art's value depend on the imagination, or even that judgments of its value are wholly contingent on the imaginative experiences it generates. The latter line is associated with Kant, and has been pursued in more recent times by several others. Anthony Savile, for example, explores the Kantian idea that art is valuable if, in experiencing it, we experience the beautiful or the sublime. We recognize that we are doing so by having a certain sort of experience, occasioned in the case of the beautiful by the fruitful interaction of the imagination and the understanding, and in the case of the sublime by a sort of antagonism between imagination and reason (Savile 1987; Savile 2006). R.K. Elliott offers a slightly different line, less in thrall to Kant though recognizably Kantian in spirit, arguing that a certain sort of “imaginal” response conditions the qualities and values we attribute to art (Elliott 2006). The key to understanding the Kantian view here is perhaps understanding the “free play” between imagination and understanding that allows for judgments of beauty, and this has accordingly been the focus of much critical attention (Crowther 1989; Guyer 1979; Guyer 2006; Ginsborg 1997).
The former line, that some elements of art's value depend on some sort of imaginative experience, can be found in work on the moral aspects of art. If you think that part of art's value is that it can be morally enriching, you might also think that it manages that enrichment by engaging our moral imagination. Of course, someone arguing this needs a conception of what a moral imagination is. Amy Mullin provides such a conception, arguing that imagining is a matter of creatively reflecting on, reordering, and restructuring concepts, and moral imagination is just doing so with moral concepts. She then argues that the sorts of imagining which are morally significant are also aesthetically significant (Mullin 2004; see also Nussbaum 1998).
Mullin's conception of imagination owes something to Roger Scruton. He in turn owes something to Wittgenstein. Scruton conceives of the imagination as fundamentally a sort of unasserted thought, with appropriate unasserted analogues for perception. When we imagine, we entertain a thought, or a perceptual image, without asserting that it is true, or veridical, or should be believed. As explained in Art and Imagination, this theory is couched in an argumentative and conceptual framework derived from Wittgenstein and, hence, focuses on linguistic manifestations of imagination (that is, on what people might report about their imaginings). Nevertheless, Scruton thinks that there are special aesthetic experiences which require understanding a work, that imagination underpins understanding, and that imagination is thus crucial to expression, representation, and symbolism (Scruton 1974; Scruton 2009). Scruton has applied his ideas to experiences of architecture and of music (Scruton 1979; Scruton 1999).
Beyond the artworld, a role for imagination has been suggested in the appreciation of nature. For example, Emily Brady argues that to appreciate the beauty of natural objects and environments, one must engage imaginatively with them as well as perceiving them (Brady 1998). This is offered as a contrast to a scientific model according to which one appreciates natural things better the more one knows about them. The involvement of imagination, Brady argues, is necessary if appreciation here is going to be properly aesthetic, rather than ecological or cultural. Her model is, again, Kantian in spirit, if not in detail.
Back within the artworld, the most significant recent proposal for a role for imagination in appreciating art is Walton’s, as presented in his Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (1990). His view encompasses all the representational arts (where “representational” is understood broadly to include such things as nonfigurative painting), and so is not much narrower in scope than Collingwood’s. In fact, since Walton is not interested in distinguishing “art falsities” from “art proper”, the category of representations is plausibly broader along some dimensions than Collingwood’s category of art. The larger structural difference between the two is that Walton is concerned only with a specific use of a specific capacity of imagination; he offers no general account of imagination, and seems unconvinced that one can be given (Walton 1990: 19).
Walton's key idea is that works of representational art (or “fictions” as he also calls them) are things which have the function of serving as props in games of make-believe. To make-believe is to engage in a specific imaginative activity which uses such props. In a child’s game of make-believe, tree stumps may function as props by mandating that participants in that game imagine various things related to bears (e.g., that there is a bear right there). In virtue of this, various things are fictionally true in that game of make-believe. (There are more bears around here than there used to be!) Similarly, props such as paintings and other representations invite us to engage in particular episodes of make-believe and, in virtue of so doing, make various things fictionally true in those works. Even a non-figurative painting, such as one of Malevich’s Suprematist canvasses, mandates that we imagine various shapes spatially related to other shapes and, in so doing, makes it fictionally the case that those shapes are spatially related that way (Walton 1990: 55). What is true in the world of the work depends on the features of the work, and relevant “principles of generation” (the rules by which fictional truths are generated from those features), which can vary among social contexts. To appreciate a work of representational art is to imagine correctly the propositions that are fictional in it, and in many cases, to imagine other things too; for example, to participate in a work by imagining emotional responses to events represented in it, or to imagine seeing things that a picture represents. Walton develops his view with particular reference to painting and to fiction, and uses the idea of make-believe to address questions about the ontology of fictional characters and the semantics of fictional names.
Though Walton's theory is presented holistically, criticism has tended to be piecemeal, focusing on one aspect or application of it. For example, much has been said about Walton's account of fiction, and his solution to the paradox of fiction, but since these are discussed elsewhere in this volume we shall concentrate on discussion of his view of pictorial representation.
According to Walton, a picture acts as a prop by inviting us to imagine (more accurately, make-believe) that we are seeing whatever is in the picture (Walton 1990: ch.8). Moreover, pictures mandate that we do this, as Walton says, “in a first-person manner”—we don’t merely imagine that we are seeing those things, we imagine seeing those things, and imagine this “from the inside” (Walton 1990: 28-35, 346-348). Finally, this imagining is intimately linked to one’s actual seeing of the picture—we imagine of our looking at the picture that its object is what the picture depicts. So representation in general is achieved through make-believe, and pictorial representation specifically is achieved by the complex employment of visual make-believe. Now, one way to argue against this view is to argue that representation is not secured by a sort of experience at all (perhaps it is secured by resemblance). Another way is to argue that Walton has the experience wrong.
For example, you might think that pictorial representation involves visual experience, but experience without imagination. Wollheim and Walton have a long history of debating this. Wollheim insists that depiction involves “seeing-in”, which cannot be explained in terms of imagination. Walton insists that it can; he therefore sees his ideas as complementary to Wollheim's, while Wollheim sees them as incompatible (Walton 1991; Wollheim 1991; Wollheim 2003; Nanay 2004). Alternatively, you might think that the account of imagination that Walton gives, or rather does not give, leads to ambiguities that undermine his account of seeing-in (Hopkins 1992). Or you might think that imagination is what gives us the occluded parts of depicted objects, and thus what makes them perceptually present, while denying that you imagine the whole object (Pettersson 2011).
In this section, we have moved gradually from thinking about appreciating art in general to appreciating certain artforms. In the next section, we consider a collection of further questions concerning the relationship between imagination and particular artforms.
Imagination Across the Arts
As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, recent years have found philosophical aesthetics shifting from being almost exclusively focused on the general theory of art to a more “careful and imaginative scrutiny of the individual arts and their individual problems” (Kivy 1993: 131). This careful and imaginative scrutiny has discerned distinct questions and issues concerning the imagination and its role in the particular arts. In this section, we briefly sketch some recent debates about the role of imagination in three art forms: film, videogames, and literature.
What role does the imagination play in cinematic experience? Most contemporary philosophers of art reject the idea that cinematic experience is founded on illusion (Currie 1995: 19-47). We are not, according to them, fooled into thinking that we see the events that are depicted on the screen. (The question of whether cinematic motion is some sort of perceptual illusion is a related, albeit distinct, matter.) An alternative view, one which is sometimes rooted in Walton’s general approach to depiction, holds that cinematic experience essentially involves imagined seeing. On Walton’s account, when we watch a film we imagine of our seeing the film that we are seeing the objects and events depicted in it. In fact, it is usually the case that we imagine that we are seeing those events for the very first time, no matter how many times we have watched the film (Walton 1990: 264)! Similarly, George Wilson writes that “the spectator knows that he is in the theater, but it is make-believe for him that he is watching from within the space of the story” (Wilson 1986: 56). Alternatively, Gregory Currie argues that cinematic experience does not essentially involve this sort of imagined seeing but, rather, is rooted in impersonal “perceptually imagining”; we perceptually imagine the events depicted in the film without thereby imagining that we see those events (Currie 1995: 164-191). Currie is clear that perceptual imagining is akin to perceptual belief; that is, it is a cognitive belief-like state which exhibits a distinctive counterfactual dependence on the visual properties of certain objects (cinematic representations in the case in question) as well as distinctive structure and content (ibid.: 181-185). (For a criticism of Currie’s account, see Lopes 1998.)
Let us turn now to a different species of the moving image—videogames. Although some videogame scholars disagree (e.g., Aarseth 2007), it is natural to think of videogames, most videogames at least, as fictions in some broad sense (Tavinor 2009). And, as mentioned below, it is standardly, although not uniformly, thought that there is an intimate connection between fictionality and imagination. Hence, on a very common view of videogames, they are properly understood as depicting “situations with imagined existence only” and as reliant “on our cognitive abilities to imagine such things” (Tavinor 2009: 44). Engagement with videogames, then, appears to involve Waltonian make-believe or something very much like it. David Velleman is a notable recent dissenter from this view. In an article which focuses on Second Life, but which is clearly intended to apply to other videogames, Velleman argues that participation in the game involves what he calls “virtual play” rather than make-believe or pretend play (Velleman 2008: 407). Velleman points to a number of reasons for distinguishing such virtual play from make-believe, including: (1) the putatively recalcitrant and determinate nature of truth in videogame fictions (ibid.: 407-409), (2) the nature of our affective engagement with videogames (ibid.: 411-412), and (3) the peculiarly intimate relationship between characters and their avatars. So, for example, Velleman explicitly contrasts imagining a monster while engaging in ordinary pretend play with awareness of the objects of virtual worlds (such as those found in Second Life). He argues that the latter objects, but not the former, possess “the determinateness and recalcitrance characteristic of reality” (ibid.: 411). More crucially, on Velleman’s view, it is not the case that a user of Second Life merely fictionally does things in the world it represents (as, again, is the case with ordinary pretend play); rather, as he puts it, such a user “literally performs fictional actions” by means of their avatars (ibid: 407). In other words, when we engage in virtual play—as in Second Life—“a person really has a fictional body” (ibid.: 414) which enables him or her to do things in the virtual world. But this is not the case with ordinary make-believe or pretend. In reply, Robson and Meskin (2012) argue against Velleman that videogame playing can after all be understood as involving make-believe in a fairly traditional Waltonian sense.
Most literature is fictional, so if one accepts the standard view that fiction and fictional engagement must be understood in terms of the cognitive imagination then one will be inclined to see the imagination as playing a central, if not essential, role in our engagement with literature. (For one recent version of the standard view, see Stock 2011; for criticism of the standard view, see Matravers 2014). But there is another way in which the imagination might be involved in our experience of literature: reading itself, it might be thought, has an essentially imaginative component. One traditional approach, often attributed to Joseph Addison and Thomas Reid among others, is that silent reading of poetry (and literature more broadly) involves the perception-like experience of the situations described in those works. “Poetical description”, Reid writes, “is painting to the Imagination” (Reid, quoted in Kivy 2006: 27). On Kivy’s account, this perception-like experience is best understood as a sort of internal “performance” of the fiction—“the reading experience, in poetic or prose fiction is…the experience of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ in the imagination, in the mind’s eye, a dramatic representation: a theatrical production in the mind” (ibid.: 29). Similarly, in Zettel, Wittgenstein considers the view that when he reads “the story pass[es] before me like pictures, like a cartoon story” (Wittgenstein 1968: 43).
There is plenty of empirical evidence that suggests that imagery can play a significant role in the experience of reading—so, for example, reading does produce some spontaneous imagery and training in the production of mental imagery can increase reading comprehension (Sadoski 1998). The philosophical question is whether reading essentially involves the production of imagery.
Kivy criticizes the “Addisonian” view of reading on largely introspective grounds (“simple introspection reveals that a running display of mental ‘images’ is palpably not what the silent reader of novels and other fictional narratives experiences” (Kivy 2006: 59)) but, in its place, offers a very different ‘performance’ account of literary reading. On Kivy’s account, silent reading of a literary work involves “hearing”, in the imagination, an auditory performance of that work. As he puts it, reading involves “story telling in the mind’s ear” (ibid.: 63). So Kivy agrees that some sort of sensory imagination is involved in reading, but disagrees about the sensory modality.
This is just a taste of the interesting work being done on the role of the imagination in different art forms, but we hope it convinces the reader that there is much more work to be done in the area. (For an interesting discussion of the underexplored role of the imagination in the experience of comics see McCloud 1993: 60-9).
Creativity; Imagination and Fiction; Fiction and Emotions; Kant; Musical Imagination.
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