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Aesthetic Engagement: Mark Rothko

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: Analyses the nature of aesthetic engagement with a painting through a specific discussion of the work of Mark Rothko in the Tate Gallery, London

I start with an interest in seeking to characterise aesthetic response, as a part (not necessarily always present) of our total experience of an individual work of art, and in doing so, to distinguish aesthetic response from other possible effects that a work may have upon us. If we can successfully describe and delimit aesthetic response, then we can begin to think clearly about how in a teaching context it might be elicited and nurtured in its own right - for otherwise, it may remain muddled up with all the many other things we might want to do in that context.

To make the discussion concrete, I am going to particularise it, and say what I have to say in relation to painting - in fact, to one painter's paintings.

So I now ask myself two questions: First, What is it to have an aesthetic response to a (typical) painting by Mark Rothko - a painting which, like those in the Tate Gallery, is non-figurative but expressive. Second, How is such a response connected to the painting as a work of art. Eventually I answer these questions by characterising a kind of engagement with the paintings-hence, the title of this essay.

Now, to do any work, the idea of an aesthetic response - used but not characterised in my first question - must contrast with some other possible response or responses to the same object or a near-miss object which might be mistaken for the same. I will, in fact, begin by characterising a form of response to an object which I will classify as non-aesthetic.

Imagine, then, that someone enters the Rothko room at the Tate Gallery. Before they have focussed their attention selectively on any one painting, they find that they are affected by something-they-know-not-what. Their stomach muscles tighten, or they feel suddenly more alert, or a black cloud descends and alters their mood - and so on, through an indefinite number of possibilities. Suppose that the person now reflects on the psychosomatic changes affecting them, and comes to think of them in terms of human emotions, as being parts of sadness or grief or awe. And, finally, suppose that the person focusses on the paintings hung in the Rothko room and is amazed by their potency.

What I want to say about this imagined scenario is that in it there is no characterisation of an aesthetic response to Rothko's paintings as works of art. The chain of causal connections which I have sketched is the wrong way round: looking at the paintings come at the end of the chain, not at the beginning. For someone's response to be an aesthetic response to the paintings (strictly, a painting), they (it) would have to figure at the beginning of the causal chain, in a way that I shall shortly consider.

But before doing so, I want to pause to consider what kinds of response were being sketched in my imaginary scenario.

There are some obvious candidates for the role of causes in provoking the responses I imagined. It could be that our individual on entering the Rothko room responded to the subdued lighting, or the colour ambience - dominated by maroons and blacks - or to the chapel-like coolness and quietness, or to some other aspect of the environment which I have not thought of.

Some of the causes just mentioned are of the sort which will give rise to responses which are conceptually mediated: if someone sees the Rothko room as (like) a church or chapel, and responds to that, it is clear that we have to do with a conceptually-mediated response since church and chapel are full-blown concepts.

But in other cases the response imagined does not seem to be conceptually-mediated and can also be characterised as involuntary and unconsciously caused. There can be reactions which are not sought for, not anticipated, and not connected to our thinking. Someone just finds that their stomach muscles have tightened or that they have become suddenly more alert.

If I try to lump together such responses and classify their causes, I find myself saying with the philosophers that such responses are caused by secondary qualities of objects: qualities of light, sound and colour. Secondary qualities contrast with the primary qualities of objects, consisting of their extension in space and duration in time and with tertiary qualities which I will be considering later in this essay.

I don't have a shorthand for the class of responses with which I am now concerned, but I want to characterise them in part by saying that they are essentially manipulable: we can create environments to causally produce such responses as effects. A large part of industrial psychology is entirely devoted to correlating kinds of environment with kinds of effect, and (in its applied branch) manufacturing them accordingly.

Some philosophers of art, and notably R G Collingwood, have said of entertainment that it is also a manufacture of response, and in some instances this may be sustainable as more than a metaphorical claim. For example, secondary qualities of musical sound can be arranged so as to produce involuntary, unreflected response in an audience. Supermarkets play music designed to make you walk fast or slow in a way which is involuntary and unreflected, caused but not conceived. Such music may or may not have musical interest: as Roger Scruton somewhere remarks, music can be expressively blank and yet create a mood. We could define 'mood music' as music that works through its secondary qualities to produce a range of responses.

But this is to run ahead of myself, and I return to the Rothko room where I supposed that someone becoming aware of psychosomatic changes affecting them might begin to theorise or interpret their reactions as awe, sadness, grief and so on. In a subsequent step, they might look to the pictures as the causes of these emotional states. But in this they would either be mistaken, or else they would be using the word 'pictures' in a special, limited sense. They would be mistaken if, in fact, it was the subdued lighting, empty space, or silent atmosphere which caused their response. They would be using 'pictures' in a limited sense if it was only the secondary properties of the painting, the colours, to which they were responding in some undifferentiated way.

For a picture or a painting is not just a disposition of colour tones and hues capable of affecting us (capable of causal effects). It is also an intentional disposition of colour. And this disposition of colour may - and, some such as Kant would say, must - possess tertiary qualities of expressiveness. By this I understand that we can properly use the language of emotions (emotional predicates) to talk about the painting's properties and that this is a condition of the painting's being characterised as a work of art.

Put differently, the secondary qualities of a painted canvas may trigger responses such as those I have characterised above, but these qualities do not belong to the canvas as a painting or work of art. And this is so even if there is identity or overlap or mutual reinforcement between the responses which secondary qualities of a painted canvas trigger and the responses which may be elicited by its tertiary qualities as painting or work of art.

These latter responses are available to us in and through what I shall call aesthetic engagement with a painting or work of art, and it is the nature of this engagement which I shall now try to characterise.

An individual stands at an appropriate distance before a painting, seeking to engage with it, both intuitively and reflectively, as the result of some painter's intentional engagement with the materials and medium of painting. By engagement with the medium, I mean that the artist is to be thought of as using paint not just as matter or material with secondary qualities but as an expressive (typically) representational and (typically - though not in Rothko's case) figurative medium, enabled by the traditions and conventions of visual art. The secondary qualities undoubtedly have their effect, but now in the context of a studied or deliberate engagement with the product of the artist's studied or deliberate activity.

Suppose that in and through such an engagement, someone comes to see a Rothko painting as expressive of some painful emotion - suppose, melancholy, grief or despair. Richard Wollheim, for example, in On Art and the Mind characterises the 'expressive quality' of the Rothko Room paintings as ' a form of suffering and of sorrow, and somehow barely or fragilely contained' (page 128). To see the paintings in this kind of way is to see them as bearers of tertiary qualities, qualities which are characterised -and rightly characterised - in the language of human experience.

We only have to do with 'abstract' art where the language of human experience can find no toe-hold, and this is probably to say that there is much less abstract art in the world than is sometimes imagined. As Richard Wollheim has insisted, the class of representational art is larger than the class of figurative art which is contained within it. Rothko's paintings are representational without being figurative. The label 'Abstract Expressionism' generally applied to them would better be changed to 'Non-figurative Expressionism'.

Though we know that the emotional qualities of his paintings can be linked, symptomatically or indexically to Mark Rothko's actual emotional life, and knowing this may enable us to locate them more precisely, nonetheless the paintings 'work' as works of art to the extent that those emotional qualities can be located through engagement with the paintings independently of knowledge of the life.

But locating such qualities in aesthetic engagement is not to be thought of as an intellectual exercise. It is itself an engagement in which we call upon our own human experience and it is our own felt reponse which tells us, subject to correction, what are the expressive qualities of the painting. We get at the qualities of the painting through the empathic response of imaginative identification or the sympathetic response of sensitive observation. (The characterisations of empathy and sympathy here are fully developed in another work by Richard Wollheim, The Thread of Life).

I say 'subject to correction' because we know that our responses will, inevitably, be coloured - symptomatically and indexically - by our own idiosyncratic experience of life, and that sometimes this colouration may change or obscure what is in the painting, making of it something more like a Rorschach ink-blot than the result of art making.

Nonetheless, the responses elicited in us through an engagement with the painting as a work of art possessing teritary qualities are categorially distinct from those reponses to secondary qualities which I sketched earlier on. This is so even though, in real-world encounters, secondary and tertiary qualities of a work are co-present and co-experienced and - for a large class of cases - co-operative: colour as colour and colour as expressive medium can work in the same direction.

In the very unusual and specific case of the Rothko Room (though the same applies to comparable installations), the effect of having several related paintings hung together may well be that it enables confirmation to be had of the rightness of engaged response to an individual painting. It may well be that the repetitiveness of the images is rightly seen to add its own inflection to the expressive meaning of individual works, shifting that towards the sublime regions in which our capacity for feeling awe and fear is evoked. (Compare, say, the repetitions between Act One and Act Two of Waiting for Godot ).

Again, it is clear in the case of the Rothko Room how non-aesthetic responses as causal effects of it as an environment are congruent with - co-operate with - the responses which emerge from an aesthetic engagement with the paintings. In the present instance, this is deliberate: Rothko knew what he was about.

This does create controversy. It may have to be admitted that there is no way of avoiding the fact that in engaging with the tertiary qualities of an embodied work of art we are also affected by its secondary qualities, though resistance to making this admission may lead to some absurd stratagems. The standard absurd stratagem is to deny that the real work of art is embodied or requires embodiment to be engaged with. So, music becomes its score rather than its performance; poetry soundless 'text'; and paintings - well, ideas of paintings (Clive Bell's 'Significant Form' or worse).

But even if the admission is made, and the absurd stratagems avoided, it can still be argued - and rightly - that there is a great deal of difference between the inevitable union of secondary and tertiary qualities in a painting (or musical performance, and so on) and the deliberate intent of someone to produce reactions in an audience through the secondary rather than the tertiary qualities of a work. The latter, it is said (to refer again to R G Collingwood) is manipulation and the stuff of entertainment not art.

Sometimes it is, though once the trick is rumbled, audiences may regain control over their situation. For example, it may be that the first audiences for the 1812 Overture didn't know what was happening when what we now call the pyrotechnic effects were exploded upon them, and that they were affected psychosomatically in the way that unexpected loud bangs normally affect us. Contemporary audiences are in a different position: they know that the bangs are coming, and are part of the work. And they look forward to them.

This is not to say that the bangs no longer affect us psychosomatically; they do, though perhaps differently because they are expected. What the facts actually are in this case is an empirical question, just as it is an empirical question whether (for example) a visual illusion will go away once we are conscious of how it is produced. There are, in fact, very clear cases where conscious knowledge fails to disrupt visual illusions: for example, the Mller-Lyer illusion persists even when you know all about it. (That's the one with two parallel straight lines of equal length with arrow heads on each end of one line, and reversed arrow heads on the other). Something similar is most likely true in the arts, where our liability to be overcome with sentimental emotion seems pretty encapsulated against our knowledge of how it is malignantly produced by manufacturers of sentimental films and music. Knowledge does not always provide immunity, which is why there exists the kind of aesthetics of suspicion exemplified by Collingwood, and present also in all those formalisms which seek to disembody the work of art.

But the right way forward is not by suspicion, but by seeking to understand the complex relations between the secondary and tertiary qualities of a work, and the locus of aesthetic response in engagement with those relations.


I want to round out this essay with a brief consideration of our characteristic engagements with built environments and novels. This should help get painting in perspective, and further clarify the idea of aesthetic engagement.

An architect, even one who disdains the aims of an industrial psychology, is responsible for designing something which when realised as a built environment and inhabited space has an inevitable ambience - the product, in this case, of primary qualities of extension in space as well as of secondary perceptual qualities. The ambience may be congruent with, or at odds with, the tertiary, expressive qualities which an architect may seek to incorporate into a design which normally concentrates on the look of a building (as if a building were a sort of painting).

I think the aesthetics of architecture goes wrong - as idealist aesthetics in general goes wrong - if it appears to suggest that the embodiment of a design in an actual building is a sort of contamination which can only be redeemed by exclusive attention to how buildings look. But in the aesthetics of architecture there is an overwhelming case for attending to how buildings feel. That is why they have to be visited, at first hand.

In contrast, the novel may well be the binary opposite of a building. When, as we say, we pick up a novel, it is most unlikely that the book itself creates any significant non-aesthetic responses in virtue of its secondary qualities. I say this with all due respect for the arts of book design. A book is barely an environment, and when we begin reading the novel, our engagement is with the intentionally created properties of the literary work of art, barely touched with the intrusion of its particular embodiment. It is nearly all tertiary quality, though the cadences of a prose or the design of a plot may have significant secondary qualities - as when we describe a prose style as hypnotic, or a plot structure as gripping.

The medium of the novel is thought represented in language. I say 'represented in language' because novels can be significantly translated, and when I say that the medium of the novel is thought, I mean that the novel is a form of conceptual art - perhaps the only form worth having. But it is art not because of the thought, but because of the way the thought is worked to express and evoke worlds of possible human experience (possible worlds of human experience) about which we would be hard put to decide whether the invitation to us is to discover what we think about them or what we feel about them.

In these last few paragraphs, I am aware that the attempt to characterise some differences between non-aesthetic response and aesthetic engagement in relation to the paintings of Mark Rothko has given way to some disputable remarks about the aesthetics of architecture and the nature of the novel. Whether this is a development or disintegration of the plot, I must leave the reader to judge.


Collingwood, R G The Principles of Art. Oxford University Press 1938

Wollheim, R On Art and the Mind. . Cambridge University Press 1974

Wollheim, R The Thread of Life. . Cambridge University Press


This essay is significantly rewritten from 'Rothko: Aesthetic and Non-Aesthetic Responses', appearing in Cogito, v 4, n 1, Spring 1990, pp 47-50, and where I acknowledged the help of Robin Morris, Janet Sang, and the late Michael Stephan.

Previously published (with numerous tyopgraphic errors and omissions) in .Aspects of Education. number 55, pages 18 - 24 (University of Hull 1998); not significantly revised for this version