Although this is a work of art theory, its primary concern is not with beauty, or aesthetic value more generally, but rather with the nature of pictorial representation. After all, before we can judge whether a representational painting achieves aesthetic excellence in the way it depicts something, we must first perceive what it depicts. And John Hyman is interested in how depiction is even possible. This question has fascinated philosophers for a long time, but it can very quickly get a grip on any reflective person. However familiar we are with the business of linguistic communication, for example, it doesn't equip us with any obvious answers when we stand back and ask ourselves how mere marks on paper or sounds in the air can embody and convey meaning. A similar difficulty arises if we ask how a configuration of lines and colours on a plane surface can possibly succeed in depicting a man or a battle, a forest or a god. Indeed, once we are struck by the sheer mysteriousness of pictorial representation, worries about what makes one picture more aesthetically valuable than another may come to seem secondary in comparison.
LRB 25 January 2007 | PDF Download