Against Theory—Again (Though with Reservations)

Against Theory—Again (Though with Reservations)

Ivan Gaskell


In Thinking with Images (2019), John Carvalho proposes an “aesthetics without theory,” a phrase to be taken rhetorically rather than literally, for he accepts that percipients of artworks bring a theoretical knowledge to their encounters. He seeks to balance appropriate theoretical knowledge, notably Gibson’s theory of affordances, with reliance on empirical engagement with artworks to produce what he terms an “enactivist aesthetics.” He explores this proposal through discussion of four case studies: works by Francis Bacon, Duane Michals, Marcel Duchamp, and Jean-Luc Godard. This overview challenges Carvalho’s concern with meaning above making and use; and his apparent reluctance to offer an account of criteria by which to judge precisely which theories that form a part of a percipient’s “repertoire of skills” might “contribute to our thinking with a work of art.” A discussion of what might justifiably be claimed from an inspection of prototypes (originals) and reproductions concludes the article.

Key Words
aesthetics without theory; Francis Bacon; John Carvalho; Marcel Duchamp; Jean-Luc Godard; meaning; Duane Michals; point; reproduction; Diego Velázquez


1. An “aesthetics without theory”

For a philosopher to claim that a field of inquiry has been upset by too much theorizing may seem to be so contrary to the professional grain as to appear ridiculous. Yet I am nothing if not a contrarian, and in a subtler way so is John Carvalho, who in a significant book, Thinking with Images: An Enactivist Aesthetics, offers an “aesthetics without theory.”[1] To assume that Carvalho’s claims merely harken back to the position that Susan Sontag famously articulated fifty-five years previously in her essay, “Against Interpretation,” would be wrong.[2] Neither is Carvalho repeating the arguments put forward by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in their 1982 article, “Against Theory.”[3] The world has moved on considerably since these articles were published, enduring wave after wave of theory and of what has passed for theory. Although Sontag, and Knapp and Michaels, make some good points worth recalling, Carvalho is not naively attempting to turn back any clock.

Carvalho’s “aesthetics without theory” is, in truth, anything but an aesthetics without theory. One should read this key phrase not literally but rhetorically. His principal means of arguing in its favor is to offer four case studies. Each is in a different medium: painting, photography, installation (or assemblage), and film. They are all twentieth-century works, although his first case study, Francis Bacon’s painted studies after Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome),[4] takes his readers back to the middle of the seventeenth century.

Carvalho is well aware of the perils of proposing an “aesthetics without theory.” At the height of poststructuralism in 1983, literary scholar Terry Eagleton, citing the economist John Maynard Keynes, claimed that there can be no such thing as consideration of a literary work — and, by extension, any artwork — without theory, for, he claimed, those who dislike theory or claim to get along better without it are simply in the grip of an older theory.[5] There is a flaw in this argument: a commentator must be deliberate and consistent when evoking a theory. By contrast, an ideology can subtend a commentary without acknowledgement, including on the part of the commentator. One can offer an interpretation of an artwork without evoking a theory, though it is not likely that anyone can offer an interpretation beyond the bounds of an ideology. Without evading ideology, one could conceivably advance a theory that would banish or at least undermine the pertinence of theory to the perception and cognitive processing (interpretation) of artworks.

Furthermore, on Eagleton’s account no theory is disinterested. That is, all theories have an agenda, which Eagleton is disposed to regard as invariably political. “All theory and knowledge,” he writes, “is ‘interested,’ in the sense that you can always ask why one should bother to develop it in the first place.”[6] If one adopts this line of thinking, one might ask why Carvalho bothered to develop his enactivist aesthetics in the first place. An obvious surmise is that he was dissatisfied with what, until then, had been on offer. And what was on offer, in my understanding, was the a priori application of a theory or theories to a body of material — items functioning as artworks — in an attempt to explain that material.

2. A misplaced search for meaning?

That procedure is almost invariably a matter of seeking to ascertain meaning. Here one might profitably recall the penultimate sentence of Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”: “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means” (author’s emphases).[7] I have long argued in respect of visual art that “meaning” is a slippery term subject to what Willard Quine terms “semantic ascent”: that is, a term with more than one predicate subject to elision of distinctions among them.[8] As such, it is the opium of art historians.[9] As Ian Hacking advises: “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask what’s the point.”[10] “Point” is a matter of use, and use changes depending on who is using a thing, how, and when.

When encountering the artworks that constitute Carvalho’s case studies — Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (Des Moines Art Center),[11] Duane Michal’s works, including René Magritte Asleep, Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (Philadelphia Museum of Art),[12] and Jean-Luc Goddard’s Le Mépris — one can surely do better than to ask what each might mean. This is so, whether or not one thinks in terms of the application to each case of any one among a number of available theories. These include the theory that Carvalho favors: psychologist James Gibson’s theory of affordances that ascribes complementarity of effect to constituents within an environment.[13] In short, Carvalho makes a rather eloquent case in the introduction and first chapter of his book for distrusting the procedure of applying theory to a body of material in order to arrive at its meaning. But then in his case studies, he does just that.

One might adapt a remark reportedly made by Godard about Alberto Moravia’s novel on which he based his movie, Le Mépris, to epitomize Thinking with Images: “C’est un livre simple sur des choses compliquées.”[14] This is most certainly not an expression of contempt (mépris) or disapprobation for the book on my part, for, like most philosophers, in contradistinction to many theorists, I greatly admire and strive for simplicity when considering complex matters. The simplicity and clarity with which Carvalho discusses his case studies is hard won and admirable. Is this why he took the trouble to develop his enactivist aesthetics in this book? Or is the project compromised by an inevitably misplaced search for meaning?

3. Art history and film studies

Carvalho’s search for meaning leads him into the realm of art history and film studies. Although his chapters on works by Bacon, Michals, and Duchamp are interesting enough as art history, he rather loses sight of issues of philosophical pertinence. Furthermore, as art history, I missed the comparisons an art historian would bring from experience in that field to situate the visual devices that Carvalho’s chosen artists use.

In the case of Bacon, there is little difficulty in this respect, for Bacon makes his sources of inspiration clear. To paint the works in question, he relied principally on Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which he studied consistently in reproduction after reproduction. The work of Duane Michals, though, is a different matter. Even though he often relied on commercial photographic work for a livelihood, in respect of his art, Michals does not belong in the category “photographer,” but rather in one he helped to construct, that is, “artists who use photography.” As such, his work is closely allied with that of his contemporaries and younger artists whose work is often gathered under the rubric of Neoconceptualism.

Neoconceptualists were and are artists who were not photographers but who used photography and other so-called “new media,” such as video and performance. In this context, it is hard not to see works by Michals that Carvalho discusses in relation to a long tradition in European art. For instance, one might think of Michals’s Balthus and Setsuko (2000) in relation to Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) and its many derivations, such as Peter Paul Rubens’s Venus with a Mirror (c. 1614-15, Liechtenstein Princely Collections, Vienna).[15] A second example is Michals’s photographic sequence, Dr. Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of Uncertainty of 1996, which one can see, in part, as a response to Neoconceptualist artist Helen Chadwick’s celebrated photographic self-portrait, Vanitas II (National Portrait Gallery, London), of ten years earlier.[16]

When considering Michals’s construction of serial photographs in more depth, one might want to acknowledge how conceptual artist Keith Arnatt had earlier used this very device. In 1969, Arnatt executed his celebrated Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) (Tate, London), a photographic sequence of nine images showing the artist in a standing position progressively disappearing into the ground.[17] Of course, response can go in more than one direction. Neoconceptualist David Ward, in his contribution to Fran Cottell and Marian Schoettle’s 1986-88 group exhibition, Conceptual Clothing, produced his own Illuminated Man, recalling Duane Michal’s work in the same medium and with the same title of 1968.[18]

In the case of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage (1946-66), a full discussion is scarcely conceivable without at least mentioning the precedents drawn on, if not by Duchamp, though this seems likely, then by many of his practiced viewers. I refer to seventeenth-century Dutch painted peepshows, such as the Views of the Interior of a Dutch House (c. 1655-60, National Gallery, London), by the trompe l’oeil painter, student of Rembrandt, and painting theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten.[19] Duchamp’s final major work, the intellectual and physical labor of two decades, is a peepshow to be viewed through two holes in a time-worn Spanish wooden door studded with hand-fashioned iron nails and set in a gently arched brick door frame. The scene visible through the peepholes — the prone body of a naked woman, her head obscured, holding a lamp set in a landscape with a mechanically moving waterfall — depends on anamorphic projection to produce a convincing illusion no less than does van Hoogstraten’s painted interior of a Dutch house.[20]

Then there is the matter of artists’ responses to Étant donnés. One of the prime ways in which one can demonstrate the worth of those artworks that Carvalho values — the “challenge they present to our rule-bound ways of thinking”[21] — is to point out how other artists have demonstrated their own thoughts about these works by producing works in their turn. In the case of Duchamp’s Étant donnés, one may point to Richard Baquié’s Sans titre: Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage, 1991 (Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon).[22] Baquié’s work is an exact replica of Duchamp’s, but “stripped bare” by the omission of the enclosing walls that in the Philadelphia work conceal the interior so that it is only visible through the peepholes, much as one side of van Hoogstraten’s peep show box in the National Gallery, London has been removed to admit light and curious gazes.

4. Originals and reproductions

The real strength of Carvalho’s case studies emerges when he places his faith in what he rightly insists is a necessary procedure in the discussion of artworks: firsthand inspection of the prototype (or original). This is not a straightforward matter, and neither do I suggest that Carvalho thinks it is. As a general observation, it would be intolerable if all commentators on art were to be entirely subject in any absolute sense to the tyranny of the unique. It is perfectly possible to say things about artworks—even, at times, sensible things—from an inspection of reliable reproductions, whatever a reliable reproduction might be. For instance, I have gained some knowledge, at least, from a reproduction of Baquié’s Sans titre: Étant donnés that I admit to having discussed and illustrated in a book, even though I have never actually seen it.[23] The art historian’s responsibility is to know what one can justifiably say about such a thing from a reproduction and what one cannot say.

Carvalho’s choice of Francis Bacon’s work as a case study brings to the fore puzzling complications concerning originals and reproductions. In his paintings derived from Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, notably his Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, in the Des Moines Art Center, Bacon was responding to other images, such as a still close-up of the dying nurse in Sergei Eisenstein’s movie, Battleship Potemkin, of 1925,  and also to reproductions of the Velázquez in books, though expressly not the painting itself. Bacon allegedly never examined it in actuality in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, Rome. Carvalho mentions Bacon’s explanation as to why that should be — “fear of seeing the reality of the Velázquez after my tampering with it, seeing the marvelous painting and thinking of all the stupid things one had done to it”[24] — but I am not sure we should necessarily place much weight on it. A reproduction of a painting is inevitably a simplification: it reduces a complex and subtle three-dimensional object — and all paintings are three-dimensional in their structure and facture — to a two-dimensional image. The three-dimensional complexity of a painting can be a source of considerable anxiety to many who become aware of it, not least those who themselves make such things. One might surmise that Bacon, who in all likelihood was acutely aware of this difficulty, thought it better to keep things relatively simple by appealing to a reproduction.

When considering Duane Michals’s works, one must take into account the conceptual complexity that surrounds them in respect of their reproducibility. Michals’s photographs are what one might term “distributed images:” works that exist in a multiplicity of forms of equal status and validity. The product of a single negative can exist as a hand dodge-and-burn print, itself unique, mounted and matted to Michals’s specifications, and inscribed by him in his characteristic script as part of the work. Produced in editions, for instance, of twenty-five examples that vary minimally, each one can function as an artwork on a museum gallery wall or study room easel. However, a reproduction can take its place in printed book form, as a multiple, to quite different effect from its counterpart in a frame but, as Carvalho explains, as an artwork no lesser in status and validity than its framed equivalent in a museum or private collection. Carvalho mentions that Michals has expressed a preference for the book form. One might therefore work from such books with results just as valid as if one were to work from mounted, matted, and framed technically unique gallery prints.

5. Conditions of encounter

Consideration of the presentation of artworks on a gallery wall or in a book raises the question of conditions of encounter. When encountering an artwork, whether unique or a distributed image, the circumstances of encounter have a decisive effect on the viewer’s perceptual process. Each different circumstance affects the reception of the work. These very varied circumstances include place of encounter (gallery or conservation laboratory, for instance), nearby artworks in the viewer’s peripheral vision, wall color, and lighting. Viewers can potentially encounter moveable artworks, such as Francis Bacon’s oil paintings, in a variety of circumstances, but viewers can only encounter the complex assemblage that is Duchamp’s Étant donnés in one place: a specific gallery in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It has been there but for a period of conservation treatment since it was acquired by the Cassandra Foundation, which donated it to the Philadelphia Museum in 1969, following Duchamp’s death the previous year. The work was installed in accordance with the artist’s detailed written instructions.[25] Carvalho’s description of his encounters with the work, including even the smell of the ancient wooden door against which one presses one’s face to see through the peepholes, is the truly pertinent element in his discussion. These descriptions demonstrate that Carvalho’s intellectual and affective engagement with the artwork derives primarily from his empirical encounter with it.

In contrast, Carvalho’s discussion of Duchamp’s La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (1915-23), known as The Large Glass; Philadelphia Museum of Art,[26] is conventional and far less perceptive because in this instance, rather than relying on his own personal observations of the work in its particular circumstances and the thoughts that followed upon them, Carvalho appeals to the lucubrations of theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guatarri.[27] But these are really no substitute for firsthand engagement with The Large Glass. This is, in part, because personal descriptions and reflections that take account of conditions of encounter vindicate Carvalho’s central claim that worthwhile artworks are “those that make me think because I do not know what to think about them.”[28] Theory does not necessarily offer an adequate guide, for it habitually fails to take account of the particularities of conditions of encounter. This lack is what allows the percipient to respond thus: “We only begin to think when we do not know what to think.”[29] This is the core of Carvalho’s “aesthetics without theory.”

6. An “aesthetics without theory” with and without theory

Carvalho’s reliance on Deleuze and Guattari in the case of The Large Glass, and his trust in Gibson’s theory of affordances, suggest that he is far from prepared to forego theory in order to “fly solo,” trusting to the thoughts that come following the realization that he does not know what to think. He excepts from his prohibition and embraces, “every theory that contributes to our thinking with a work of art,” acknowledging that such theories “must already be a part of the repertoire of skills we bring to the appreciation of that work of art, and it [the appreciation] must be drawn out by the affordances that turn up in our engagement with that artwork.”[30]

This might appear to be a reasonable position, for it seems important to acknowledge that no one can approach an artwork without some prior notion of how to go about engaging with it, even if that mode of engagement may appear culturally inappropriate or naive. That is, all percipients bring theory of one sort or another to an engagement with an artwork, in addition to inevitably encountering it within a likely unacknowledged ideological framework. For instance, I recognize Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Des Moines Art Center as an item of the type “painting in the European manner,” and I have a basic idea of how to use it in what I take to be an appropriate way. A nineteenth-century Māori mere pounamu or patu pounamu from Aotearoa New Zealand[31] may present a greater challenge to a person enculturated in the European manner. Similarly, a European oil painting might have presented a conceptual challenge to a nineteenth-century Māori person. In both cases those challenges would be a consequence of cultural unfamiliarity.

What Carvalho does not offer is an account of criteria by which to judge precisely which theories that are a part of a percipient’s “repertoire of skills” might “contribute to our thinking with a work of art,” other than to note that our thinking “must be drawn out by the affordances that turn up in our engagement with that artwork.”[32] This may mean no more than that the percipient should discount a theory according to which a Māori mere pounamu or patu pounamu is not a numinously-charged nephrite hand club, or that Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is not a secular oil painting. Carvalho limits what he holds to be acceptable theories by excluding just two types: “It is not, then, theory tout court we want aesthetics to do without but any particular theory that threatens to be the only theory and every theory that would ignore the work of art for the purposes of aggrandizing theory itself.”[33] These two exclusions would seem to be sensible, but are they enough to define legitimate or even merely productive modes of engagement with items functioning as artworks? I think not.

7. Conditions of encounter—again

The challenges of understanding legitimate use come to the fore when considering the adaptive reuse of items as artworks across cultural boundaries of space and time. Carvalho is unclear and unspecific when it comes, as it must, to asking what a legitimate mode of apprehension — in this instance, specifically aesthetic apprehension — of, say, a nineteenth-century Māori mere pounamu or patu pounamu by a twenty-first century person enculturated in the European manner might be.[34]

Returning to the all-important conditions of encounter between percipient and artwork, one can acknowledge that there may be no choice but to acquiesce in the conditions under which one experiences Duchamp’s Étant donné, which Carvalho describes so productively. But there might be choices available in the cases of Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome, Bacon’s study after it in Des Moines, and Goddard’s Le Mépris. Carvalho discusses conditions of encounter with the movie: whether projected in a cinema (the prototypical mode) or viewed in reproduction via a DVD. This is not to say, once again, that the commentator cannot glean things from viewing in one set of circumstances that are not available in another. In 1989, the critic Paul Driver published an article on Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).[35] He had arranged to view it at the British Film Institute on a Moviola machine such as was used for editing. He chose to do this because the quality of a film print and its clarity when arrested are far higher than the image available by means of a video cassette reproduction. He registered aspects of the movie that had escaped him, regardless of the number of times he had watched it projected.[36]

Now, it is conceivable that Carvalho could receive an invitation to view the Velázquez or the Bacon in a painting conservation laboratory, were either to be removed to one for evaluation or treatment. A painting in a clinical laboratory, out of its frame and on an easel, looks quite different from when it is displayed in a gallery. And even variously contrived modes of display can radically affect the appearance of an artwork. For instance, Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X has long been displayed in a small top-lit gallery in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. I do not recall the wall color against which it was hung when I last saw it some forty years ago, but photographs on the internet show it to have been a pale green in 2011, superseded by a deep blue by 2018.[37] These different backgrounds undoubtedly affect the viewer’s perception of the work to the extent that it appears subtly and inescapably different in each circumstance.[38]

As a final and telling example of how the same work, allowing for differences of condition over time, can appear radically different in different circumstances, one might cite one work by Piet Mondrian. Mondrian’s mature paintings are uncompromisingly but subtly three dimensional. They frequently have five painted surfaces rather than just one, as many assume. They are extremely difficult to grasp in reproduction. Furthermore, their character is radically affected by the frames that Mondrian designed and made for them himself, stressing the artworks’ continuity with rather than separation from the world.

At the time of writing, Mondrian’s Tableau I: Lozenge with Four Lines and Gray of 1926 is shown in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which received it in 1953 with other works by Mondrian in the company of works by South American artists.[39] Since it was last shown in the museum in 2015, the transparent framing box that then surrounded it, serving to protect it but also severing it from its surroundings, has been removed. That alone has altered its appearance radically. A photograph from 1953 shows that when the work was shown with others from the bequest of Katherine Dreier to the museum in that year, it was placed quite differently: high on a dark wall on its own, regarded, as it were, from a distance by Constantin Brâncuși’s monumental sculpture, Maiastra (1910-11).[40] Previously, as a photograph from 1941 shows, Tableau I had been in the home of the donor, Katherine Dreier, in West Redding, Connecticut, likely since 1926, where it jostled visually with items of Chinese and American eighteenth-century furniture and was almost brushed by a planar standard lamp.[41] In 1926, it had been shown at the Brooklyn Museum in an exhibition organized by the art organization, Société Anonyme, Inc., founded and run by the collector Katherine Dreier with the artists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. In a photograph of the installation, reportedly by Man Ray, one can just make out Mondrian’s Tableau I through Duchamp’s own, at that point undamaged, Large Glass, which is discussed in detail by Carvalho.[42] Since Mondrian painted Tableau I in that same year, 1926, one can go back no further. I know of no photograph of it in Mondrian’s studio. Conditions of encounter matter, and in respect of the works concerned “make me think because I do not know what to think about them” matter most urgently. This consideration precedes and matters more than any application of theory; though to claim as much is not to dismiss theory entirely, let alone the role of ideology, in attempting to understand percipients’ responses to artworks.

8. Conclusion: trust in firsthand observations

In conclusion, the philosophical substance of Thinking with Images is in the Introduction and the first chapter, “Aesthetics without Theory.” Carvalho goes on to make plenty of pertinent and perceptive art historical observations in his case study chapters, yet the text suffers from a lack of precision regarding the kind of theories that form part of a percipient’s “repertoire of skills” that might “contribute to our thinking with a work of art”; other than that they should neither threaten “to be the only theory” nor “ignore the work of art for the purposes of aggrandizing theory itself.”[43] Carvalho might have trusted his own firsthand observations of artworks rather more as a way of setting himself to “think because I do not know what to think about them.” Carvalho’s firsthand observations come alive most vividly in his description of encountering Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Such personal accounts lend his discussion, when he relies on firsthand inspections, subtlety, interest, authority, and even a credible means of enacting an “aesthetics without theory.”[44]


Ivan Gaskell

Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies
Bard Graduate Center

Ivan Gaskell focuses on philosophical puzzles arising from writing history from tangible things. His most recent books are Paintings and the Past: Philosophy, History, Art (2019), and The Oxford Handbook of History and Material Culture (2020), edited with Sarah Anne Carter. In 2016, he was appointed a permanent fellow of the Advanced Study Institute of the University of Göttingen.

Published January 27, 2022.

Cite this article: Ivan Gaskell, “Against Theory-Again (Though with Reservations),” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 20 (2022), accessed date.



[1] John Carvalho, Thinking with Images: An Enactivist Aesthetics (London and New York: Routledge, 2019).

[2] Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” Evergreen Review, 8, 34 (1964), 76-80; reprinted in Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966), pp. 3-14.

[3] Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry, 8, 4 (1982), 723-742; republished in Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985). Carvalho addresses their argument: Carvalho, Thinking with Images, p, 20.

[4] Illustrated and discussed on the Website of the Galleria Doria Pamphilj:, accessed May 15, 2021. I cite the collection location of artworks in the case of unique or exemplary items; others exist in editions.

[5] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. vii.

[6] Eagleton, Literary Theory, p. 207.

[7] Sontag, Against Interpretation, p. 14. She concludes: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

[8] W.V. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960), passim. Quine’s semantic ascent is not to be confused with his semantic drift, nor his language drift, nor yet his semantic switch: W.V. Quine, Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1987), pp. 105-108, 111-114, 186-189. Perhaps this is an example of what Ian Hacking had in mind when describing Quine’s philosophy as “more given to regimentation than inquiry”: Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 45.

[9] Ivan Gaskell, “Diptychs—What’s the Point?” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 64, 3 (2006), 325-332; revised as “The Puzzle of Meaning,” in Ivan Gaskell, Paintings and the Past: Philosophy, History, Art (New York and London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 13-32.

[10] Hacking, The Social Construction of What? p. 5.

[11] Illustrated and discussed on the website of the Des Moines Art Center:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[12] Illustrated (the exterior door) and discussed on the website of the Philadelphia Museum of Art: For a video of the approach to the door and the view through a peephole, see:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[13] Most influentially discussed in James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1979): “The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment” (p. 127). Carvalho, though, relies on Alva Noë’s citation of a slightly later passage in Gibson’s book: “I understand affordances to be ‘the possibilities for action provided by things,’ by what a thing is as well as what it invites, threatens and does”: Carvalho, Thinking with Images, pp. 3-4 citing Alva Noë, Varieties of Presence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 120, citing, in turn, Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, p. 128.

[14] “It is a simple book about complex things.” I have been unable to trace the origin of this quotation, but it is frequently cited in discussions of the movie.

[15] Michals: see, for example, the print in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg:, accessed May 17, 2021; Titian: illustrated and discussed on the Website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC:, accessed May 17, 2021; Rubens: illustrated and discussed on the website of the Princely Collections, Liechtenstein:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[16] Michals: illustrated with details on the Website of the Feldschuh Gallery, New York:, accessed May 15, 2021; Chadwick: illustrated and discussed on the Website of the National Portrait Gallery, London:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[17] Illustrated and discussed on the website of Tate:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[18] Ward: illustrated on the Website of David Ward:, accessed May 13, 2021. First shown in the exhibition Conceptual Clothing, devised by Fran Cottell and Marian Schoettle, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and eight other UK venues, 1986-88; Michals: illustrated with details on the Website of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta, GA:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[19] One illustration on the Website of the National Gallery, London:, accessed May 15, 2021. On this much-discussed work, see Susan Koslow, “‘Wonderlijke Perspectyfkas’: An Aspect of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting,” Oud Holland, 82 (1967), 35- 56; Celeste Brusati, Artifice and Illusion: The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten (Chicago and London, 1995), pp. 169-217; David Bomford, “Perspective, Anamorphosis, and Illusion: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Peep Shows,” in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, and New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 124-135; and Herman Colenbrander, “A Pledge of Marital Domestic Bliss: Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Perspective Box in the National Gallery, London,” in The Universal Art of Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), ed. Thijs Weststeijn (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), pp. 139-159.

[20] There is a large literature on Duchamp’s Étant donnés. It was first published by Anne d’Harnoncourt and Walter Hopps, “Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage: Reflections on a New Work by Marcel Duchamp,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, 64, 299/300 (1969), 5-58. Juan Antonio Ramírez, Duchamp: Love and Death, Even, tran. Alexander R. Tulloch (London: Reaktion, 1998), pp. 199-248 includes useful illustrations of the work in construction. “Convincing illusion” is an over-simple way of describing the scene visible through the peephole: the woman’s body and the long grass in which she lies have a verisimilitude that contrasts strikingly with the obvious artifice of the flickering lamp she holds, and the motorized representation of the tumbling waterfall.

[21] Carvalho, Thinking with Images, p. 2.

[22] Illustrated and discussed on the Website of the Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon:, accessed May 15, 2021.

[23] Ivan Gaskell, Paintings and the Past: Philosophy, History, Art (New York and London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 101-102.

[24] David Sylvester, Francis Bacon: Interviewed by David Sylvester (New York: Pantheon, 1975), p. 38, quoted by Carvalho, Thinking with Images, p. 43.

[25] Marcel Duchamp, Manual of Instructions for Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage, introduction by Anne d’Harnoncourt (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987).

[26] Illustrated and discussed on the Website of the Philadelphia Museum of Art:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[27] Carvalho, Thinking with Images, pp. 95-97, citing Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lang (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), and A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). In his discussion of Bacon and Velázquez Carvalho (Thinking with Images, p. 39) had appealed to Deleuze’s questionable consideration of the Baroque: Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibnitz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

[28] Carvalho, Thinking with Images, p. 2.

[29] Carvalho, Thinking with Images, p. 90.

[30] Ibid., p. 23.

[31] Many such things exist: see the work in the British Museum, London, illustrated and described on the museum website:, accessed May 15, 2021.

[32] Carvalho, Thinking with Images, p. 23.

[33] Ibid., p. 23.

[34] I offer a theory in Ivan Gaskell, “Aesthetic Judgment and the Transcultural Apprehension of Material Things,” in Social Aesthetics and Moral Judgment: Pleasure, Reflection and Accountability, ed. Jennifer McMahon (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), pp. 161-179: I identify three modes of engagement, any one of which may function separately or in conjunction with either one or both of the others: (1) supersession: the new users employ and interpret it solely on their own terms without regard to the uses and interpretations of its earlier users, either oblivious to those earlier uses, or purposefully to expunge them; (2) assumption: the new users discern familiar characteristics that they value, including aesthetic characteristics, and that they assume earlier users also discerned and valued; (3) translation: the new users attempt to learn the terms of use, interpretation and value of the earlier users by means of cultural acquisition and translation, acknowledging that these may differ from their own wholly or in part, but in the belief that their acquisition will bring them advantages.

[35] Paul Driver, “A Third Man Cento,” Sight and Sound, 59, 1 (1989), 36-41.

[36] Paul Driver, personal communication to the author.

[37] Pale green wall (velvet?), in a photograph by Jonathan Becker for Vanity Fair Magazine, taken April 26, 2011: Getty Images:, accessed May 17, 2021. Deep blue wall (velvet?), in a photograph included by Messalla in “Rome: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj,” Corvinus, Jan. 23, 2018:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[38] This is well known to every art museum curator and exhibit designer who invariably go to a great deal of trouble when selecting wall coverings, whether paint, paper, or fabric. This includes the apparently ubiquitous and uniform white commonly used for the display of modern and contemporary art. Shades of white vary considerably, and great care is often given to making a choice. I recall seeing samples of different whites painted on a gallery wall in a new museum being outfitted so that the curator, designer, and director could make a choice among them.

[39] Illustrated with details on the website of the Museum of Modern Art, New York:, accessed May 15, 2021. On display in Gallery 512: “Circle and Square, Joaquín Torres-García and Piet Mondrian.”

[40] “Summer Exhibition: New Acquisitions; … Katherine S. Dreier Bequest,” June 23-October 4, 1953:, with a further link to installation photographs by Soichi Sunami (see nos. 4 and 5):;, accessed May 17, 2021.

[41] John Schiff, Interior View of Katherine S. Dreier’s West Redding house, “The Haven,” with Piet Mondrian, Painting I, 1941, photograph, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT:

[42] Marcel Duchamp, La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, installed at the International Exhibition of Modern Art (Société Anonyme), Brooklyn Museum, 1926-27, Katherine S. Dreier Papers/Société Anonyme Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. See grupa o.k. (Julian Myers and Joanna Szupinska), January 13, 2021:, accessed May 17, 2021. Man Ray’s authorship of the photograph is stated by the Centre Pompidou, Paris:, accessed May 17, 2021.

[43] Carvalho, Thinking with Images, p. 23.

[44] This article is an elaboration and revision of a paper given at the “Author Meets Critics” session on John Carvalho, Thinking with Images: An Enactivist Aesthetics at the American Society for Aesthetics Eastern Division (held online) in April, 2021. I should like to thank fellow panelist and organizer Deborah Knight for her invitation to participate, and also fellow panelist Sonia Sedivy. I thank John Carvalho for his considered and gracious response to my initial remarks. I was able to write the initial paper and this article thanks to my attachment to the Research Institute of Bard Graduate Center for the spring semester, 2021, and I should like to thank the dean, Peter N. Miller, for this opportunity.