A Short Essay on The World of Modern Art in Merleau-Ponty’s World of Perception

Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes Cezanne’s painting as a “drive to rediscover the world as we apprehend it in lived experience.”[1] This statement could easily apply to Merleau-Ponty’s own work in The World of Perception, where he sets out “to rediscover the world in which we live yet…are prone to forget.”[2] Thus, one way to read The World of Perception is as a work of re-description; by re-describing our immediate experiences, Merleau-Ponty seeks to recover the strange world of perception from the hands of a straightforward objective knowledge. One of the most evocative passages in which he does this is his exploration of painting in Chapter Two, “Exploring the World of Perception: Space.” In this discussion, three interrelated themes, present in the entirety of his work, emerge: the straightforward world classical painting presents and its distortion or disruption of the world of perception; our lust for control and ease as the mechanism behind this distortion; and the wildness of the world of perception that modern art reveals to us. After a brief description of Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception, I will examine each of these themes as they emerge in his discussion of painting and will then conclude by pointing towards some of the ethical directions they might imply.

At the outset it is important to differentiate Merleau-Ponty’s appeal to the world of perception from an appeal to classical empiricism. Where classical empiricism claims that our potential knowledge is restricted to our sense experience, Merleau-Ponty develops an account of ‘naïve’ perception. This names the perception of our immediate lived experience, an experience that is not detachedly calculative, but fundamentally interested and involved. Nicely calling proper attention to its non-analytic or in-the-moment nature, Thomas Baldwin, in his introduction, describes this perception as “our preobjective bodily experience of the world.”[3] In other words, while empiricism claims that our body receives various disjointed sensations that are then synthesized into experience by a knowing self, Merleau-Ponty argues that “our preobjective bodily experience is itself intelligent, fully enabling us to live and act in the world; knowledge, in this account, does not arrive after a second-order cognitive maneuver. Before turning to a fuller examination of this perceptual experience, I will look at the world it is set up against, the world classical art creates.

The classical painter, as Merleau-Ponty describes him or her, seeks to adopt an objective point of view for the scene he or she presents. He or she seeks a “compromise between…various visual impressions,” reaching this “common denominator” by arranging each object in relation to an objective standpoint, namely, the horizon.[4] In this way he or she can create a neat and perfect picture of the world. Further, Merleau-Ponty notes that classical painting “distinguishes between outline and colour.”[5] Here I think we can see a further example of the classical painter’s search for objective ground. By separating outline and colour the classical artist separates form and content. He or she thereby creates an objective starting point, a neutral shape in a neutral space, to which he or she can then add ornamentation.

Merleau-Ponty sees this “analytical vision” of classical painting as a distortion of the world of perception, the world as we actually encounter and experience it.[6] He points out that when we perceive the world “our gaze travels over what lies before us [and] at every moment we are forced to adopt a certain point of view…; these successive snapshots cannot be super-imposed one upon the other.”[7] To arrive at an objective viewpoint the classical artist must “interrupt [this] normal process of seeing” and extract an abstract picture from the particulars of his or her lived perception.[8] Removing the picture from the world of perception in this way, the classical artist alters it, such that the landscape he or she fashions “does not correspond to any of the free visual impressions” of lived experience.[9] Merleau-Ponty suggests that it is modern art that has the capacity to “recapture [this] feel of perceptual experience itself.”[10] However, before I move onto this world I want to look more closely at the process and mechanisms of our forgetfulness.

A recurring theme in Merleau-Ponty’s work is the perennial temptation that we face to imagine an abstract world of measurable neutrality. We should ask, then, what it is that causes us to forget and misinterpret the world of our immediate experience. In his other work, Merleau-Ponty often states that we forget the world of perception because the senses naturally make themselves invisible. This explanation can help us to better understand the ease with which we forget the world of our experience. However, I want to argue that Merleau-Ponty’s examination of painting suggests there is something more going on. The classical portrait he describes imagines a world “held beneath [our] gaze;”[11] beings “remain at a distance and do not involve the viewer.” This enables the classical portrait to have “a peaceful look, an air of respectful decency;” it is “polite company: the gaze passes without hindrance over a landscape which offers no resistance to this supremely easy movement.”

In other words, classical painting presents “our relationship to space [as] that of a pure disembodied subject to a distant object.”[12] This perspective of the absolute observer[13] in turn implies a world of neutral objects and promotes the “illusion that [we are] penetrating to the heart of things, to the object as it is in itself.”[14] Here the world presents itself as ripe for mastery and domination. Shortly before his discussion of painting, Merleau-Ponty argues that we cherish “the pure and straightforward…because they bring peace of mind.”[15] In a similar vein, the vision of supreme ease in a classical painting suggests that it is the classical artist’s desire for control that causes him or her to subject and alter the world. This process of classical painting in turn suggests that it is precisely our lust for mastery that causes us to create a world that is straight-forward and free of struggle; for, this is a world we may master and posses. However, Merleau-Ponty will claim that we live in “an enigmatic world of which we can [only ever] catch a glimpse.”[16] Therefore it is in the very process of seeking control by domesticating the movement of the world of perception that classical art kills what it hopes to posses.[17]

The significance of modern art, according to Merleau-Ponty, is that it brings to life the world of perception and shows that same world to be beyond our mastery.[18] Modern art presents a world that is wild, untamed, and full of depth and pregnant possibility. In modern art we see “before our very eyes the birth of the landscape.”[19] Where some wrongly “see errors of perspective,” modern art in fact presents “a world in which being is not given, but rather emerges over time.”[20] Within Cezanne’s fleshy presentation of objects they end “up swelling and bursting free from the confines of well-behaved draughtsmanship.”[21] In his work, shape and colour merge, defying us to envision a world of easy distinctions.[22] Instead of being considered self-identical, objects are thrust into relation with their neighbours. Characteristics that we classify under utterly distinct categories merge together; “form and content are mixed [and] blurred.”[23] In sum, we might say that modern art presents a precarious and tension-filled world full of depth and “trembling life.”[24]

Modern painting, as Merleau-Ponty describes it, further makes the world difficult and paradoxical by entangling us, the ‘viewer,’ within it. While making this point, Merleau-Ponty draws on Jean Paulhan to state that “the space of modern painting is space which the heart feels, space in which we too are located, space which is close to us and with which we are organically connected.”[25] By blurring together different perspectives the modern artist pushes against the notion that our connection to the world is distant and disembodied; instead modern art presents our bond to the world as intimately relational.[26] This echoes Merleau-Ponty’s earlier discussion of the physics of relativity, in which he states that the world is full of “human traces.”[27] It also anticipates his later discussion of sensory objects where he finds that “[t]he living, exploring, hand which thought it could master this thing instead discovers that it is embroiled in a sticky external object.”[28] Indeed, it is by drawing us into what we have come to see as the wild world that modern art makes this world come fully alive.

Looking back in conclusion, we can perhaps recognize the re-description Merleau-Ponty offers through modern art as therapeutic. It works to disentangle us from the illusory lure of imagining ourselves as occupying an objective position of control and domination and re-entangle us into us into the messiness of the world. The ethical directions which this therapy points to are numerous; I will mention only two here. Situated within the second decade of the 21st century, ecological implications are probably the most apparent to us; and Merleau-Ponty, who quotes Jean Paulhan to state that the modern painter celebrates “the marriage and reconciliation of man with the world,” seems to support such a direction. Working with human conflict, whether global or personal is another direction that Merleau-Ponty’s therapy opens up; again, writing that our new perspective may “prepare the ground for those rare and precious moments at which human beings come to recognise, to find, one another,” Merleau-Ponty seems to support such a direction.[29] However, some of the significance of Merleau-Ponty’s critique of the world created by classical art is that it can extend to within both the ecological movement and the work of conflict resolution. Where the ecological movement often seems pre-occupied with fixing, solving, or controlling the ecological crisis, Merleau-Ponty can show us how this still assumes a position of distant mastery and propose a more intimate means of working alongside various ecological crises. Likewise, Merleau-Ponty can help us see that the assumption, too often made by those involved in conflict resolution, that we can master a situation of conflict, erasing difference and delivering peace, presupposes a perspective of illusory control. Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of modern art can help us to see that in both cases our lust for mastery and control is counter-productive where we intend to be constructive; for, the world and its inhabitants are not subject to division and mastery. Merleau-Ponty’s therapy can, then, help us to affirm the tensions and ambiguities of life, relieving us of our desire to blindly strive after illusory and destructive finality.

[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The World of Perception,Translated by Oliver Davis(New York: Routledge, 2009), 39.

[2] Ibid, 31.

[3] Ibid, 21.

[4] Ibid, 40.

[5] Ibid, 39.

[6] Ibid, 41.

[7] Ibid, 40.

[8] Ibid, 40.

[9] Ibid, 41.

[10] Ibid, 41

[11] Ibid, 40. The remainder of the quotes in this paragraph are from the same passage. All emphasis is mine.

[12] Ibid, 42.

[13] Merleau-Ponty nicely describes the space of the absolute viewer on page 41 as “a medium of simultaneous objects capable of being apprehended by an absolute observer who is equally close to them all, a medium without point of view, without body and without spatial position – in sum, a pure intellect.”

[14] Ibid, 35-36.

[15] Ibid, 37.

[16] Ibid, 54.

[17] “This [analytical vision] controls the movement of their unfolding yet also [thereby] kills their trembling life” (Ibid, 41).

[18] In his later discussion of art Merleau-Ponty will reiterate many of the points made here: “In the work of Cezanne, Juan Gris, Braque and Picasso [objects] do not pass quickly before our eyes in the guise of objects we ‘know well’ but, on the contrary, hold our gaze, ask questions of it, convey to it in a bizarre fashion the very secret of their substance, the very mode of their material existence and which, so to speak, stand ‘bleeding’ before us. This was how painting led us back to a vision of things themselves” (Ibid, 69-70).

[19] Ibid, 41.

[20] Ibid, 41.

[21] Ibid, 39.

[22] Ibid, 39..

[23] Ibid, 39.

In Chapter 3, “Exploring the World of Perception: Sensory Objects,” Merleau-Ponty further examines this theme. He argues against the thesis that the various qualities of an object, colour, taste, etc., belong to “the entirely distinct worlds of sight, smell, touch and so on” (Ibid, 46). Instead he proposes an affective or emotional meaning to various qualities, where we both “restore a particular quality to its place in human experience” and thereby restore “its relationship to other qualities which [seem to] have nothing in common with it” (Ibid, 46). Hence, the various attributes of an object do not merely “stand side by side but are identical insofar as they all reveal the same way of being or behaving on the part of the [object]” (Ibid, 47-48). Merleau-Ponty suggests that this mode of assessing qualities will be more authentic to our naïve perception of the world, considering the “reactions they provoke in our body” (Ibid, 46).

[24] Ibid, 41.

[25] Ibid, 41.

[26] “Our relationship to space is…that of a being which dwells in space relating to its natural habitat” (42). And ultimately we see that “rather than a mind and a body, man is a mind with a body, a being who can only get to the truth of things because its body is, as it were, embedded in those things” (43).

[27] Ibid, 36.

[28] Ibid, 46-47. This argument will lead Merleau-Ponty to claim that “[t]he only definition of [a] quality is a human definition” (Ibid, 47).

[29] Ibid, 68.


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