The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 189October 1997



Dominic M.M. Lopes

As the fact that art theory is called ‘aesthetics’ reminds us, artworks are things perceived through the senses. Thus an understanding of art depends in part on an understanding of sense-perception. Historians, critics and art theorists stand to gain by the enormous progress that has been made in recent decades in the psychology and neurobiology of perception. Indeed, it is a lamentable fact that so few have taken advantage of the opportunity. Few art historians or art theorists, for instance, have carried on the work E.H. Gombrich began in Art and Illusion. On the contrary, the trend has been to repudiate it.1 One aim of this paper is to demonstrate some of the benefits for aesthetics of taking the empirical sciences of the mind seriously. I shall proceed by contesting one widespread and largely unchallenged conception of the way art is grounded in perception.

This conception can be expressed in the form of two doctrines. The first is a doctrine in aesthetics which holds that the arts comprise a collection of art media, each of which is characteristically perceived through a different sense modality. I call this ‘the doctrine of medium specificity’.[1] This doctrine depends on a further doctrine in the theory of perception, according to which it is possible to distinguish the sense modalities in certain ways. Obviously we need to know how the senses differ, if we are to use their differences to individuate the art media.

1 E.g., Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting: the Logic of the Gaze (Yale UP, ).


I do not deny that there are different art forms, such as music, literature and dance, or that sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell are different senses. Rather I shall try to show that influential ways of drawing the necessary distinctions are inadequate. Since the doctrine of medium specificity and the doctrine concerning the sense modalities are closely related, an appreciation of where one goes awry will help us to see problems with the other. Thus my argument, if it is persuasive, will demonstrate how aesthetics and philosophy of mind can learn from each other.


It does not seem true, at first glance, that the art media are in fact individuated in any straightforward way by the sense modalities. Difficult questions fray the edges of the doctrine of medium specificity. What, for instance, is the medium of opera? Is it music or drama, seen or heard? Perhaps it is distinctively both. We might say that some art media are basic, being perceived through one sense modality, while others are composites of the basic media and engage multiple senses. However, there are two difficulties with this response. One is posed by media such as literature, which need not be perceived through any single sense modality – a novel or a poem is normally neither essentially seen nor essentially heard. But we may also wonder what purpose the doctrine of medium specificity is meant to serve in the light of the existence of multimedia artworks. Many art ‘installations’ deliberately cross the boundaries of the art media as they are traditionally defined, in order to criticize and undermine the traditional definitions.

Despite its inexactness, the doctrine of medium specificity is largely taken for granted by philosophers of art (Carroll is a notable exception). To understand this, we do well to consider the role the doctrine plays in aesthetics. No doubt it is true that the doctrine serves multiple purposes. For example, it underlies and justifies the organization of aesthetics into specialized subdisciplines, each devoted to the study of a different art form. But I am concerned with what might be called, for want of better terms, the conceptual or theoretic role of the doctrine – that is, the role the doctrine plays in framing theories of the arts, rather than its role in structuring aesthetics as an institution.

One of the tasks aesthetics has set itself at least since Lessing’s Laocoon has been to identify the essential features of each of the artistic media, usually with reference to features of works that can be perceived only through specific sense modalities. Thus Lessing characterized sculpture as spatial and


visual, as against music, which is temporal and aural.[2] A more recent example is Gregory Currie’s Image and Mind, which opens with an attempt to identify the features unique to film. According to Currie, what distinguishes film from other art forms is that films are made up of moving pictures, visually discerned and interpreted.[3]

This task of characterizing each art medium is central to aesthetics because the doctrine of medium specificity has normative implications. We never judge a work of art aesthetically good or bad tout court, but always good or bad as a painting, song or dance. Thus medium-specific features of a work are features the appreciation of which is necessary for us to judge it a good or bad work of its kind.[4] It is this principle that underlies our commonsense views that a good piece of music must sound good, because music is essentially aural, and a good picture must look good, because pictures by contrast are essentially visual.

A more sophisticated instance of this train of thought, one which has had some impact on painting in this century, is the art critic Clement Greenberg’s pronouncement that painting should be purified through a renunciation of the ‘illusion of the third dimension’ in favour of abstract two-dimensional visual effects.[5] Greenberg argued that since each art form is distinguished by its physical medium, each should pursue medium-specific effects. As pictures are the distinctively visual medium, they should pursue purely visual effects. ‘The desire for purity’, writes Greenberg (p. ), ‘works ... to put an ever higher premium on sheer visibility and an even lower one on the tactile and its associations’.


For the remainder of this paper I shall concentrate on the case of pictures. Pictures, unlike operas and ‘installations’, seem to fit the principle that any art form can be individuated by reference to a sense modality in which it must be perceived. Pictures are widely viewed as essentially and paradigmatically visual representations. While sculpture and film are also classified as ‘visual arts’, sculpture can be touched and film heard, so they are not purely or paradigmatically visual. Depiction is the purely visual art form. Evidence


that this is an article of faith is also found in aesthetic judgements concerning pictures (for the doctrine of medium specificity has normative implications). Thus we take delight in what pictures have to offer by looking at them – our delight in Van Gogh’s painted irises is a visual delight. A remark that ‘A good picture does not have to look good’ appears absurd (provided, of course, that it is an aesthetic judgement and not, say, a historical or financial one).

If it is true that pictures are essentially visual, that we necessarily appreciate them by using our eyes, then it follows that a person bereft of sight cannot appreciate pictures. Indeed, there is no better evidence that we do commonly define pictures as essentially visual than the fact that it is unchallenged orthodoxy, as much among the blind as among the sighted, that blind people cannot use or understand pictures. The suggestion that they could sounds like a paradox. It seems absurd to deny that pictures are visual representations.

Here is an illustration of the way this thinking pervades not only our common-sense beliefs about pictures but also the theoretical writings of scholars in the arts. In an essay on the American painter Jasper Johns, the art historian and critic Leo Steinberg asks the question: what is a picture? It is Steinberg’s way of answering this question that I wish to stress. For what he does is imagine a conversation in which a painter tries to explain what a picture is to a blind man. The conversation starts off thus:

Painter: A picture, you see, is a piece of cotton duck nailed to a stretcher. Blind Man: Like this? (He holds it up with its face to the wall.) Painter: A picture is what a painter puts whatever he has into. Blind Man: You mean like a drawer?

Painter: Not quite; remember it’s flat.[6]

The premise upon which Steinberg’s reasoning is based is clear. You know you have a good definition of a picture if you can use it to explain what a picture is to a congenitally or early blind person. This is because pictures are essentially visual, and so by definition inaccessible to people who have never had vision.


There has been a spotted history of making maps from wires and nails or embossed paper for the use of the blind. By the early nineteenth century the Perkins School for the Blind in the United States had assembled a small


collection of tactile atlases for its students.[7] Even so, it has been a widespread assumption, as much unchallenged among the blind as among the sighted, that pictures can be of little use in the absence of vision. The matter was only recently subject to serious empirical scrutiny by the psychologists John M. Kennedy, Susanna Millar and their colleagues.[8]

Kennedy had completed a survey of rock art from different cultures, and had noticed that lines are universally used to depict surface edges.[9] He reasoned that since surface edges can be detected by touch as well as sight, pictures made up of touchable lines should depict touchable edges. To test this hypothesis, Kennedy made raised-line outline drawings of familiar objects and scenes (e.g., a hand, a cup, pieces of fruit, a face, an automobile and a living-room interior). These were shown to congenitally or early blind volunteers who had no previous experience with pictures of any kind, and also to sighted subjects wearing blindfolds. Kennedy (Drawing and the Blind ch. ) found that all three groups recognized the objects depicted at about the same rate.

Before drawing any conclusions from this, it would be wise to register a few cautions. First, the success rate for recognizing pictures by touch is much lower than it would be for vision. Second, some pictures are more frequently recognized than others. Third, there is also some variation from individual to individual: while some blind people recognized many images, others recognized few. Kennedy isolated several salient variables that account for these three discrepancies. As to the first, the overall lower recognition rates for touch are due to its poor acuity in comparison with vision. This makes it harder to distinguish, for instance, a picture of a fork from one of a tulip. There is no evidence that blindness itself is a cognitive barrier to picture recognition: blind people and sighted people wearing blindfolds performed at the same level. As to the second, the variation in recognition


rates from picture to picture depends on the amount of detail in each picture. Additional detail decreases ambiguity and misidentification. By the same token, putting images in the context of a story vastly improves recognition, as does depicting objects as parts of larger scenes (e.g., a tulip in a vase will not be taken for a fork). This is significant because abundant contextual clues help sighted people interpret images. As to the third, the variation in recognition rates among individuals is a consequence of variable tactile exploration skills. Those who have been taught to explore a surface slowly and systematically have better success with raised-line drawings. We may conclude that blind people have picture-recognition skills independent of vision, even if they do not recognize pictures as easily as people do with vision.

One final point concerning tactile picture recognition deserves mention. Tactile drawings are recognized because outlines in pictures represent touchable as well as visible edges. However, outlines in pictures often represent objects as perceived from a vantage point, and one might think this would pose difficulties for blind picture-perceivers. This turned out not to be the case. For example, blind people had no trouble with a picture of a mouse showing one eye, one set of whiskers, two legs and only half a torso. They correctly identified the picture as a ‘side view’. Likewise, blind people grasped what was going on in pictures of complex scenes in which multiple objects were arranged at varying depths, with nearer objects occluding more distant ones. I shall return to this point shortly.

Having ascertained that ‘blind people do recognize the same kinds of outline drawings of objects as sighted people’, the obvious next step is to investigate whether they can produce these drawings (Kennedy p. ). To do this, Millar and Kennedy used a drawing board covered with a sheet of Mylar plastic on which a permanent raised line may be inscribed by the pressure of a ballpoint pen. The drawing kits were given to blind people who had no previous experience with pictures and who had received no instruction in drawing. When provided for the first time in their lives with the means to draw their own tactile pictures, blind artists made quite recognizable, sometimes remarkably sophisticated, outline drawings (Kennedy chs –). Kennedy’s volunteers produced, without tuition, pictures of drinking glasses, tables, cubes and human and animal figures, and all look much like pictures that might be drawn by sighted people.

It must be granted that pictures by novice blind artists are crude, if frequently charming. Lines are more often than not jagged and uncertain, failing to meet in neat junctions. But it should come as no surprise that, having been deprived of opportunities to draw, blind people may not manipulate the pen with the dexterity of their more practised sighted peers.


Kennedy’s volunteers frequently expressed frustration that their pictures did not realize their intentions, and this is itself evidence of significant pictorial ability. We must not confuse spatial and cognitive tasks (the knowledge of how to go about making a picture) with executive tasks (manual dexterity). We all have a good deal of the former ability; few have much of the latter.

The challenge of drawing is to find ways to translate three-dimensional shapes into two-dimensional ones. Sighted people employ several strategies to accomplish the task, and Kennedy found that blind adults hit on the same strategies, again without instruction. The simplest is to use similarity geometries, showing the rectangular top of a table, for example, by means of a rectangle on the picture surface. Similarity geometries have a cost, though. It is impossible to show by means of similarity geometry both the rectangularity of a table top and the fact that it has a leg fixed as perpendicular to each of the four corners. The solution is to employ more complex vantagepoint geometries that show those features of an object that would be visible from one viewpoint. Kennedy’s blind volunteers employed much the same repertoire of vantage-point systems as do the sighted, including convergent perspective. Here is Kennedy’s account (p. ) of the remarks made by one subject as he drew a table in three ways in quick succession:

Ray said, ‘If you’re looking straight down, you’d draw a rectangle without legs, because you won’t see them’. He proceeded to draw a rectangle. Next, he said, ‘If you drew it directly from the side, you’d only see two legs – a rectangle with two legs’. He then drew a rectangle with two straight appendages coming down the page. His third drawing was ingenious. He drew a rectangle with four appendages, each one radiating from a corner of the rectangle. He said, ‘But to do it this way, you’d have to be under the table’.

Ray’s problem-solving and ability to articulate his intentions are remarkable, but Kennedy notes (pp. –) that ‘each of the features that his drawings display is present in drawings by other blind informants, including his use of vantage points’. The abilities of blind people to recognize and produce vantage-point drawings track one another.

Convergent or vanishing-point perspective is perhaps the most advanced method of vantage-point drawing, and Ray is among a small number of novice blind draughtsmen who hit upon it by himself. That he did so is remarkable; that most did not should come as no surprise. After all, convergent perspective came late in European art and is far from common in world art. Moreover, it is one thing to invent perspective and another to appreciate it. In a carefully designed series of studies, Kennedy (pp. –) found that blind people generally appreciate convergent perspective in tactile drawings and extract accurate information about the direction and depth of objects shown in perspective.



If these discoveries come as a surprise it is because the categorization of depiction as a visual art par excellence is deeply ingrained. It is difficult to conceive of pictures as anything but visual representations. The question to consider is this: what is it about our conception of pictures as visual that has so bewitched us as thoroughly to obscure the possibility of tactile pictures?