Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bridget Alsdorf reviews Brushstroke and Emergence

James D. Herbert. Brushstroke and Emergence: Courbet, Impressionism, Picasso. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 176 pp.

Review by Bridget Alsdorf

14 September 2016

Brushstroke and Emergence is an extended essay on the formal, procedural, and representational significance of the brushstroke in the work of Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Pablo Picasso, artists seen to exemplify the nineteenth-century myth of the painted mark as a signature of the self. James Herbert’s framework for thinking about brushstrokes is the philosophical—and, more recently, scientific—concept of emergence: “the way in which the interactions of simple behaviors at one level of a complex system can prompt unpredictable events at a higher level of the system that are qualitatively different from anything that exists at the lower level” (p. 2). The simple behaviors in this book are brushstrokes, while the higher-level events are paintings. Emergence, here, is a theoretical model for Herbert’s anti-intentionalist art history, challenging accounts based on presumptions of the artist’s mastery and transcendent individuality and instead promoting a mode of analysis that generates interpretation from the (painted) ground up. The methodological value of such an approach is that it hinges on close looking and dense description as the foundation for interpretation. And indeed, Herbert’s lively, engaging prose delves deep into the material and semantic intricacies of his pictures, which are carefully selected to showcase some of the most remarkable reimaginings of the brushstroke in modern painting. The descriptive intensity of the writing alone makes the book a worthwhile read, and the reproductions are top-notch, including some stunning details that make long-familiar paintings appear refreshingly strange.

The problem with Brushstroke and Emergence is that it makes intentionalism a straw man by defining it all too narrowly as always self-conscious and deliberate and aligning it all too predictably with the politically unsavory ideals of mastery and control. Intentionality need not take the form of a premeditated plan, formulated before brush hits canvas. It can accommodate spontaneity, improvisation, and chance without losing its guiding role. Herbert’s recurring analogies of ant colonies and economic markets are especially puzzling, as painters (much less their brushstrokes) are nothing like ants or investors. Likewise, the use of terms from cognitive science (neural network and neurotransmitters, to name two) is less illuminating than distracting in the book’s penetrating analyses, which hinge on concepts of impulse, experimentation, and the reactive, impromptu nature of a picture’s stroke-by-stroke construction that do not need any neurological vocabulary to be understood. Nor do these concepts convincingly negate the artist’s agency, which need not be rigidly controlling and impervious to painting’s many contingencies to be an active, expressive force. And for a book so intensely focused on the materiality of the painterly mark, and the process by which such marks are made, it is somewhat bewildering to repeatedly encounter terms like high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth that translate this mark-making into the intangible, electronic realm of computer technology.

Herbert is aware that his argument tips the scales toward anti-intentionalism, justifying this imbalance by the fact that too little attention has been given to nonauthorial ways of imagining a painting’s coming into being (see p. 4). I question whether this is true, especially in the more recent literature. Nonetheless, the rhetorical creativity and visual sensitivity of Herbert’s readings are a pleasure, and the sweep of his argument from Courbet to Picasso—especially in such a concise book—is notably ambitious. But this ambitious sweep produces a troubling, radically speculative proposal: for Herbert, it is not until Picasso in the years of analytic cubism that an artist manages to assert anything approaching intentional control over his brushstrokes and the picture those brushstrokes construct. The sheer intellectual demands of Cubism’s interrogation of representation necessitated an ever-present mind. This proposal is based on the presumption that pre-Cubist modes of painting inevitably resulted in artists losing their intentions in the automatic movements of habit and thoughtlessly reactive neurological events. How do we know that Picasso’s mind was “constantly conscious” (p. 122) while painting, while the brushstrokes of Courbet, Cézanne, Monet, and Seurat were “riven through and through by surges of neurons, including myriad unconscious emotions in the brain and countless corporeal habits embedded in the body” (p. 102)? This dramatic contrast is drawn with a breathtaking authority that the book as a whole—in its reevaluation of the role of the artist—asks its readers to disavow.