The Problem of the Work of Art

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination

The Portrait of Charles VIII by Jean Perréal

Merely looking at this portrait, we understand that king Charles VIII is an object, but it is not the same object as the painting, the canvas, and the actual layers of paint used for this painting. So when we contemplate what constitutes this painting separately namely the frame and the canvas, the main aesthetic object which is ‘king Charles VIII’ won’t emerge in our contemplation. According to Sartre, this image of king Charles VIII is not hidden, but the reason for its disappearance is that the consciousness is not fully aware of this image. So this image will reappear at the moment when consciousness is carrying out its work of imagination. The rationale for this occurrence, as stated by Sartre, is that one cannot see and contemplate both the image of King Charles VIII and the other things that constitute that painting simultaneously. In other words, the intentional act that apprehends the image as being king Charles VIII is sufficient in itself, it is complete and exclusive of the intentional act that grasps the frame, the canvas, and the layers of paints used for this painting.

So according to Sartre, to get the full aesthetic apprehension of this painting, it is essential that this depicted king Charles VIII must correspond with the intentional act of imagination within the consciousness. What is required for the imaginary process to occur, according to Sartre, is an analogon, which is an equivalent of perception. So, when we contemplate this painting of King Charles VIII (which is a material analogon) we conjure a mental image of King Charles VIII himself. Through the imaginary process, the analogon loses its sense and takes on the sense of the object it represents.

In this case, we know that King Charles VIII is unreal or imaginary, and since he can be comprehended on the canvas, he is an object of aesthetic appreciation. Then, we tend to ascribe the feelings we have about king Charles VIII to his painted image. In so doing, we can say he ‘moves us,’ or he is painted with intelligence, power, grace, and so forth. In this sense, we are made aware that an analogon can attain new attributes based on our intention toward it, we are also aware that the aesthetic object in a painting is imaginary. However, Sartre asserts that what is real are the marks of the brush strokes, the impasting of the canvas, its texture, and the varnish spread over the colours for the finishing touches. Even though all these are real, they are not the object of aesthetic appreciation. In other words, they are not beautiful. So according to Sartre, what is beautiful is something that cannot be given to human perception; to be precise something beautiful is transcendent and imaginary.

In conclusion, Sartre asserts that the real is never beautiful. Also, he asserts that beauty is a value that can only be applied to the imaginary and that carries the nihilation of the world in its essential structure. Aesthetic contemplation of real objects has the same structure as paramnesia, in which the real object functions as an analogon for itself in the past. But in one case there is nihilation and in the other there is creation. Finally, we must understand that paramnesia differs from the aesthetic attitude as memory differs from imagination.


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