Review: Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism

Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. Todd Cronan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 324.

Artworks produce an expansive spectrum of affects, whether these responses emerge in a single observer or a general audience, are generated by prehistoric art forms or contemporary works, or are encountered in a sanctified museum space or in an ordinary public venue. Todd Cronan opposes this seemingly normative perspective through a philosophical and art-historical lens, decrying “affective formalism,” the modern and postmodern critical movement that regards an observer’s affective response to art as integral to the piece’s meaning (27). Cronan goes against this tendency by calling for a purposeful consideration of artistic intentionality.

Cronan bases his project on avant-garde artists’ dissatisfaction with representation, which modernist figures found insufficient to portray their experience of reality. Henri Bergson and Henri Matisse, in particular, share a desire for a form of expression that allows the unmediated communication of one’s self to another. While putting both figures in conversation is not novel within art history, Cronan approaches works by Bergson and Matisse through a new angle. He concentrates on Bergson’s theoretical and Matisse’s personal debates involving representational and antirepresentational forms. Cronan contends that an artist’s intentions largely speak to an artwork’s meaning. He limits his argument for intentionality to the realm of art because of the affective-inducing visuals normally attributed to high-art aesthetics. Cronan’s resistance toward affective formalism is grounded in the unjustifiability of emotions, as observers’ sensations cannot be controverted. In other words, affective responses create differing meanings with no way to choosing one interpretation over the other. By accessing an artist’s intentions through textual materials and biography, a sense of art’s meaning can be obtained. Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism’s mission is clearly stated in the title. Cronan’s clear language and intense self-awareness demonstrate the implications in disregarding intentionality. Affective formalism, according to Cronan, has been detrimental not only to art’s meaning but also to the viewer, as its “logic traded meaning for security, which is a higher price than we should accept” (5).

Cronan situates his analysis in opposition to twentieth-century thought in art history, which privileges affect-centered interpretations for determining meaning. In line with Roland Barthes’s “The Death of Author,” contemporary criticism deems intentionality a limiting, inaccessible substance—that “secret, an ultimate meaning” isolated from observers and even the artists themselves (Barthes, cited by Cronan 4). Cronan does not assert that there is one absolute meaning to an artwork that can be uncovered through artist’s intentions. He also mentions that artists, like Matisse, acknowledge the changing quality of their aesthetic aims through their process of forming art. With this, intentionality is a site for supportable and disputable interpretations, functioning as a way to discern meaning. To demonstrate his claims, he takes to task theories by major art historical scholars, such as Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, and contests their views on affective encounters with art. In turn, the subjective perspective of the viewer is still a concern but is not Cronan’s target. Affect as a meaning-making entity is a public occurrence but, more importantly, an academic phenomenon as well.

As an example, Cronan examines Bois’s “On Matisse: The Blinding,” which discusses the ways in which Matisse’s art is an aesthetic, affect-generating instrument. For Cronan, Bois’s reading cannot be debated, as it assumes that the beholder’s reception determines the work’s meaning. Bois’s argument “avoids any unverifiable assertion about the artist’s intentions to produce those response” (3). Although intentionality is ultimately “unverifiable,” Cronan notes that “verifiability is not the point with meaning” (4). He connects intentions’ lack of verifiability to emotional reactions’ unsubstantiated nature. Yet, the difference between intention and affect is that sensory responses cannot be debated, and, thus, their relevance to the art’s meaning cannot be determined. In addition, Cronan holds that intentionality is accessible through writing and biography, whereas an observer’s perception is inaccessible outside of individual interiority. His reasoning is that artist’s intent more precisely measures a work’s meaning than a beholder’s sensations because intentions are text-based and debatable. Intentionality is not a limitation but rather a way to interpret art in a productive manner. Cronan proposes that meaning can only emerge from arguable concepts, and intentionality is the crux upon which art can be examined and challenged in conjunction with other analytical and affective methodologies.

Cronan’s call for more intentionality in criticism works as a totalizing concept. If an observer’s affective reaction to art does not coincide with the artist’s intention, the emotional response appears incorrect. Cronan’s handling of Matisse evidences this potential problem. While Matisse wrote of his desire to communicate directly with his audience through his work, Cronan opposes this notion by looking at how Matisse’s art and writings “reflect on the problems of representing oneself to another” (2). The practice of analyzing artist’s intentions should not assume that the artwork perfectly aligns with the artist’s intentions. Cronan notes that an artwork should not be evaluated by whether or not it corresponds with an artist’s aim. At the same time, he addresses the risk of studying intentionality as a psychological practice. Cronan marks that he is not interested in Matisse’s psychology and calls his own project “antipsychological” (12). At the same time, his analysis and discussion of intentionality relies on Freudian theories of “unconscious intentions” and “primary identification” (13, 168). While his endeavor does not take a psychological approach, his use of psychoanalytic materials would seem to belie his self-description.

Cronan’s introduction, “Modernism against Representation,” provides an overview of modernism’s struggle with representational and antirepresentational forms, affective formalism’s nature, and his manifesto in favor of intentionality in art history. His first chapter, “Painting as Affect Machine,” traces a genealogy and history of affective formalism. This chapter outlines the “affective turn in modern art” through writers and theorists, such as Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Charles Baudelaire, Bertolt Brecht, and Roger Fry, and through artists, such as Matisse, Eugène Delacroix, Nicolas Poussin, and Paul Gauguin (15). Chapter 2, “Freedom and Memory: Bergson’s Theory of Hypnotic Agency,” explores Bergson’s complex philosophies of freedom, ontological memory, and hypnosis. Bergson’s theories of hypnosis allow Cronan to conceptualize art’s hypnotic effects on the beholder and the inseparability of intentionality from the artist and her work. Cronan links Bergson’s views on hypnosis to Matisse, as they directly speak to the latter’s conception of hypnosis’s relationship with art. Chapter 3, “The Influence of Others: Matisse and Personnalité,” chronicles Matisse’s written accounts of his anxieties about art’s hypnotic power over his own act of creating art. According to Cronan, Matisse conceived of a highly personal self called Personnalité, which worked to guard his interiority from outside influence. Yet he also believed “his self was not his, not his alone” (164). Cronan explores Matisse’s contradictory conception of himself as an artist and as a self through his paintings and writings.

Chapter 4, “Matisse and Mimesis,” then offers close readings of Matisse’s early works from 1895 to 1917 and relates these works to biographical information about Matisse. Cronan traces the artist’s negotiations between artistic attachment and detachment from his work and the world. Cronan claims that Matisse’s art marks “the limits and power of expression as a mode of understanding,” meaning that art’s expressiveness fashions connections and disconnections among the artist, the artwork, and the beholder (220). This creates a communicative network between the artist and the viewer through personal similarities and differences. Cronan’s conclusion, “From Art to Objects: The Case of Paul Valéry,” discusses the critic and poet Valéry, whose work both supports intentionality and conveys an anti-intentionalist message. Valéry’s beliefs mirror those of Bergson and Matisse. While his theories influenced affective formalism, Valéry’s work, according to Cronan, also resists his advocacy of viewers’ responses as meaningful practices.

Cronan’s work is provocative in its aim to access meaning through intent. His arguments against affective formalism are clear in formulation, yet analyzing intent finds its value in its application to certain cases rather than to general concepts. Cronan’s methodology analyzes a specific artist, philosopher, and aesthetic moment that lends itself to an intention-oriented reading. But many practical questions arise. How do scholars access artistic intent if the artist did not document her goals? Is there an effective alternative to intentionality outside of affective formalism? What if the artist expresses the desire for her work to resist intention-based readings? Can art still be considered art if its author did not see it as such? But even with these qualms, Cronan’s Against Affective Formalism promotes artistic intentionality carefully yet forcefully. His critical efforts are risky, and he is open to possible skepticisms and counterarguments about his argument. Perhaps ironically, Cronan’s admirable endeavor to access art’s meaning through intention feels like a struggle, an affective act that finds its significance in his intention and in his readers’ reception.

Brooke Clark