Jason Gaiger is Professor of Aesthetics and Art Theory at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall. His most recent book, Philosophy of Painting: Ancient, Modern, Contemporary (Bloomsbury, 2022), provides a historically informed analysis of the contemporary relevance of painting, showing how philosophical reflection can deepen and extend our understanding of this enduring art form.
His other books include Frameworks for Modern Art (Yale University Press, 2003), an English translation of Johann Gottfried Herder’s Sculpture (The University of Chicago Press, 2002), and, as co-editor, Art in Theory: 1648-1815 (Blackwell, 2000) and Art in Theory: 1815-1900 (Blackwell, 1998).
Sculpture and the Haptic Imagination
Lessing’s account of the ‘free play’ of the viewer’s imagination in his Laocoön: on the Limits of Poetry and Painting (1766) is clearly in tension with his attempt to establish medium-specific restrictions on poetry and painting, for the greater the reach of our imaginative capacities, the less the artist is constrained by the inherent features of her chosen medium. In particular, the claim that painting and sculpture as spatial arts are not equipped to sustain the kind of sequential understanding required for the comprehension of a temporal process is undermined by his recognition that the viewer can imaginatively reconstruct the preceding and succeeding stages that lead up to and follow from the depicted moment. Through close examination of a range of relevant examples, I show that the resulting account of imaginative engagement is not restricted to representational art forms such as figurative painting and sculpture but that – suitably adapted – it can also be extended to include fully abstract sculptural objects, and that here, too, what I term the ‘haptic imagination’ has a vital role to play insofar as it is responsive to an overtly temporal structure that is internal to the work itself.