An Unsuspected Ideal: Reassessing the Treatment of Representational Art in Jose Ortega y Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art

2013 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing

Olivier Simon


In his 1925 book The Dehumanization of Art, José Ortega y Gasset seeks to delineate, justify and champion modern art and its move toward abstraction. Central to his argument is a progression he sees from representational art to modern art, which he describes as a fundamental move from “human” or “realistic” art to what he calls “dehumanized art.” Representational art, says Ortega y Gasset, seeks to act like “an extract from life” (12) by creating a lifelike illusion of figures, scenes and situations as we might see them in real life. Behind this aim of representational art lies the idea that clarity and accuracy can give us, as Ortega y Gasset puts it, “imaginary intercourses” (21) with the depicted objects. Such an art for Ortega y Gasset, however, is “impure” (11) because it does not directly appeal to “true artistic pleasure” (9) that should arise from an enjoyment of artistic form alone. In this sense, we become enraptured by the story representational art tells us rather than by its lines, colors and composition. In other words, in representational art we cease to see what makes it art, and visually latch onto the representation itself. Modern art for Ortega y Gasset thus attempts to retrain our eye to look at the art itself, in large part by refocusing us on its formal features in a way that makes “purely aesthetic elements predominate” (9). The only way to achieve this goal, Ortega y Gasset contends, is for modern art to “dehumanize” itself, that is, to move drastically and consciously away from lifelike depictions so as to render reality in abstraction. He suggests that such an abstraction actually captures the essence of the object itself while foregrounding the aesthetic considerations of the media in which an artist is working. The slightest anchors that these dehumanized works of art have to reality, Ortega y Gasset suggests, collectively work to give us enough pause to begin to decipher the abstraction. From this Ortega y Gasset concludes that where traditional art makes its viewers experience “a state of mind which is essentially undistinguishable from their ordinary behavior” (9), modern art is revolutionary in that it “leaves [the audience] locked up in an abstruse universe, surrounded by objects with which human dealings are inconceivable” (21-22).

This summary of Ortega y Gasset’s theory offers us a credible account of what makes modern art unique. But can it be true that representational art is incapable of arousing in us the same kind of response that modern art does? To answer this question, we will test Ortega y Gasset’s theory against the 17th century painting Self-Portrait with an Easel by Nicolas Régnier. This French Renaissance oil on canvas depicts a painter in front of a large easel as he is painting a bust portrait. The scene is shrouded in shadows and two figures stare at the audience, building tension between the artwork and us. But however representational, Self-Portrait is a particularly interesting case study because it does not lend itself so easily to being classified in either of the two categories defined by Ortega y Gasset. In short, it is a painting that represents in literal human form the representational qualities Ortega y Gasset seems to question, but it also captures a moment of making art. Surely such a painting that captures the art of making art would cast into doubt the discreet classifications of representational and dehumanized art. Balancing Ortega y Gasset’s theory against Self-Portrait, in other words, will reveal that a work of representational art can go beyond a blank emulation of reality and “leav[e] us locked up in an abstruse universe” (21-22). While Self-Portrait is definitely “realistic” in its formal features, it also invites the sort of response that Ortega y Gasset attributes to modern “dehumanized” art. More important, it does so in a way that is not explicitly discussed by Ortega y Gasset. Ultimately, attempting to reconcile Ortega y Gasset’s theory with the evidence of Self-Portrait will reveal a foundational but subtle point in Ortega y Gasset’s argument and suggest a reassessment of his purpose. We will see Self-Portrait, in other words, as an unsuspected ideal of Ortega y Gasset’s theory of dehumanized art, in large part because it makes us hyper-conscious of its play on reality. That play with reality, much like dehumanized art, unsettles us, and draws our attention to the painting’s own formal composition over its depiction of reality.


Understanding why Self-Portrait with an Easel appears to complicate the Ortega y Gasset’s theory requires us first to assess the dichotomy between realistic and dehumanized art. Specifically, we need to address the dichotomy in terms of the mechanisms that Ortega y Gasset claims each type of art uses to elicit specific responses from us. Representational art strives to recreate our everyday affairs by embracing what Ortega y Gasset calls “human realities” (11), or the set of experiences framing human existence. This art presents lifelike, intelligible content that we can easily relate to and, more important, get emotionally involved with. This kind of art, for Ortega y Gasset, essentially “reduces the strictly aesthetic elements to a minimum” (11) so as to depict everyday figures and scenes as accurately as possible. In short, artists who deal in this kind of realism do not want to distract our attention from the human story they seek to tell in their work, which Ortega y Gasset derides as wanting to “let [their] work consist almost entirely in a fiction of human realities” (11). Realistic art is meant to be a simulation of real life, and Ortega y Gasset claims that this prevents us from properly engaging (and enjoying) the aesthetic elements of the artwork itself; rather, we “look right through [the work of art] and revel in the human reality with which the work deals” (11). Thus, for Ortega y Gasset, realistic art is not only lifelike but also reliable and comforting because in it the objects of our lives “are at once recognized” and “are our good old friends” (21).

Modern art, on the contrary, essentially seeks to unsettle us, to give us pause upon misrecognition, and to distance us from those recognizable objects of our lives. This dehumanized art for Ortega y Gasset spawns from the recognition that “[a]n object of art is artistic only in so far as it is not real” (10). In other words, the very purpose of an artwork is to be valuable and exist independently from the reality that might have inspired it. In order to address directly our aesthetic sensibilities, Ortega y Gasset claims modern art must impose a fictitious nature on the canvas by doing away with lifelike depictions. It instead must create fictions in which there is as little subject matter as possible, leaving us to see the artistic form itself. So, while a modern artist may “paint a man who resembles a man as little as possible” or “a cone miraculously emerging … from what used to be a mountain” (23), in practice, such shapes become unrecognizable, the colors unrealistic, and the content abstract and ambiguous. Again, the idea is to leave in the composition as little as possible those “human realities” that would otherwise distract us from a purely aesthetic enjoyment of the work.           

We will come to see that an important element of Ortega y Gasset’s theory is the role of consciousness, intention and purpose. He emphasizes that the modern move toward dehumanization does more than simply suppress realistic content or, worse, fail at capturing it: “It is not that the painter is bungling and fails to render the natural” (21). Rather, the painter challenges reality through “an explicit act of dehumanization” (22). In other words, dehumanization creates a new universe of seeing by actively and deliberately disfiguring or distorting reality. “The question,” Ortega y Gasset contends, “is not to paint something altogether different from a man, a house, a mountain; but to paint a man who resembles a man as little as possible” (23). This is why, Ortega y Gasset claims, modern art is unique and “leaves us locked up in an abstruse universe” (21-22). Modern art is unsettling to the viewer and constitutes for the artist “a triumph over human matter” (23). We therefore see how the distinction between dehumanized and realistic art for Ortega y Gasset essentially lies in two spheres: the type of response that each form of art purposefully seeks to elicit in its respective audience, and the formal choices that each relies on in order to do so.


While the contrast between realistic and dehumanized art appears definite in Ortega y Gasset’s framework, Self-Portrait with an Easel, an oil canvas by French artist Nicolas Régnier (1590-1667), seems to blur the lines of this sharp distinction. Put briefly: it adopts the form of realistic art and yet invites the sort of interactions with the artwork typical of dehumanized works. At first sight, Self-Portrait appears to epitomize Ortega y Gasset’s description of realistic art. Indeed, the degree to which the personages in it appear like real living beings is highly impressive, and even the title of the work announces the extent to which it aims at realistic representation. Almost everything about the painting seems representational: it depicts a painter in front of a large easel, palette in the hand, while he is busy painting the bust portrait of a man; the painter is dramatically dressed in a pitch black robe and wears an imposing and equally black hat; the man on the easel has a noble, fatherly allure and wears a red coat with a large furry collar; and the easel is positioned so that his bust is oriented toward the artist in front of him, yet his head is slightly tilted to the right so that he faces us. In an entirely parallel manner, the painter has his body facing his artwork but, instead of looking at his easel, turns his head left toward the audience. The result is a breathtaking symmetry between the painter and his easel, both personages confronting the audience with correspondingly powerful gazes. The painting, even with a cursory viewing, is visually intelligible. We can narrate what is being depicted.


In other words, it seems Régnier, much like the anonymous 1860 painter that Ortega y Gasset discusses in his book, had as his first concern “securing [the] likeness” (21) of his subject. Indeed, Régnier would seem to have “wanted nothing so much as to give the objects in his picture the same looks and airs they possess outside it when they occur as parts of the ‘lived’ or ‘human’ reality” (Ortega y Gasset 20). The human figures, the canvas, the hand, palette and eyes—all are highly detailed and carefully crafted so that we may recognize all of those human realities without effort. The brushstrokes are invisible, so that the painting looks almost like a color photograph. Throughout the composition, the traits are fine and precise, the colors and textures are smooth, and the shadows shrouding the background of both painted scenes (the one within the canvas, and the one within the easel) are entirely naturalistic. Self-Portrait is a work of art that Ortega y Gasset would readily identify as a realistic work of art, one that embraces a lifelike rendering of reality and that leads its audience through a reenactment of everyday life rather than through pure abstraction.

However, deeper considerations should make us hesitate in labeling Self-Portrait so readily representational. Recall that Ortega y Gasset’s distinction between realistic and modern art relies on a pairing between specific formal choices and specific responses from the audience. The representational features of realistic art, Ortega y Gasset theorizes, elicit a sense of familiarity and emotional involvement while the abstract features of dehumanized art elicit surprise and disorientation. The first clue that Self-Portrait does not fall into this simple division comes from the initial response the painting generates. While we expect realistic art to reify our lived experiences, to depict objects that are emotionally intelligible and that require only our “human sensibility and willingness to sympathize with our neighbor’s joys and worries” (Ortega y Gasset 11), Self-Portrait is somehow unsettling in its depiction. The strange symmetry of the composition is certainly involved in this effect, for it permeates the scene with something unnatural. The likeness between the painter and the figure on the easel, from their postures and their traits to the identical nature and direction of their gaze, seems too coincidental not to be constructed, construed or otherwise unnatural. The farther edge of the easel disappears into the background shadows so that the man on it protrudes strangely from his canvas, as if ready to step out of it and into the painter’s reality. As a result of this symmetry, the oval portrait on the easel functions like a central mirror, building a dual reality in the middle of the canvas that confounds us: who is the painter and who is the painted? The palette and brushes stand between the two figures, further blurring the distinction. More troubling still are the symmetric gazes of the personages, commonly and intently fixed upon us. Together they draw us into in the aesthetic process of a visual mise en abyme, in which an image contains in it a reference to or a copy of itself, suggesting infinite regression. This mise en abyme challenges us to evade the sense of vertigo that comes from staring at (and in turn being stared at by) the painting of a painter painting. The work of art seems so self-referential that it legitimizes its own reality over the reality its viewer, just as Ortega y Gasset contends a work of dehumanized art would.

Of course, Self-Portrait still operates on a realistic conceit, and the painting within the painting, as well as its resulting visual confusion, could readily be identified as mere visual tricks or play, not strategies that truly estrange the viewer from reality or constrain him to alien interactions for which he has no landmarks. However, even on this ground, Self-Portrait is akin to a work of dehumanized art. In terms of interactions with the artwork, Ortega y Gasset emphasizes that realistic paintings are appealing to us because we see in them “figures of men or women whom it would be interesting to meet” (9). In Self-Portrait however, the technique of mise en abyme prevents such a familiar interaction with the painting. First, if we attempted to imagine ourselves in a discussion with the working painter, we would be at a loss trying to determine which of the two figures we should address as the “real” painter. Second, the mise en abyme places us in a position in which we are not allowed to initiate and lead a normal interaction. Indeed, elements of the painting suggest that we are in fact the ones being painted, or even that we are the painting and that they are viewing us. The implied mirrors, the last one of which would be the physical plane of the painting itself, mingles so much what is an image with what is real that the painting casts our own reality into question. This would explain why the painter, holding his palette, looks at us as if we were his subject or his canvas. Even the title Self-Portrait with an Easel makes it unclear who is the “self” being painted, implying that it could as well be us. Thus, the painting strips us of our privilege position as exterior onlookers, making us vulnerable and thus “compels [us] to improvise other forms of intercourse completely distinct from our ordinary ways with things” (Ortega y Gasset 22). “With the objects of modern pictures,” Ortega y Gasset claims, “no intercourse is possible” (21). For Self-Portrait also, the kind of “imaginary intercourse” (21) in realistic art is impossible. This is because we cannot be part of an intercourse that endangers our status as outside viewers (or at least makes that status uncertain). Making us unsure as to where we stand in the triangle of viewer – painter – portrait renders us, in a sense, speechless. Such a painting, in other words, carries us to the same brink as dehumanized art.


What we have seen is that Self-Portrait with an Easel invites a response radically different from the kind Ortega y Gasset attributes to typical representational art. In this, we can readily see that Self-Portrait problematizes Ortega y Gasset’s argument about dehumanization. For all its representational features, it is difficult to deny that there is a fictitious, unreal quality to Self-Portrait, and that this quality likewise unsettles our notions of reality and therefore puts our focus on the painting’s formal elements (and particularly its composition). We can argue that this painting too “is brazenly set on deforming reality, shattering its human aspect” (Ortega y Gasset 21), and that it substitutes reality with a fiction: a world embedded in duality, where a painter, the figure he paints and even the audience are one and the same. Important here is the element of intention: we should not read this subversion of reality as a mistake or failure. This is something Ortega y Gasset himself would recognize. He refutes the claim that modern artists might simply be read as “fail[ing] to render the natural” (Ortega y Gasset 21) and that they are “going more or less clumsily toward reality” (Ortega y Gasset 21). Dehumanized art, for Ortega y Gasset, demands different standards. Again, the modern artist “is brazenly set on deforming reality” (Ortega y Gasset) rather than representing it. The implication here is that representational art can be judged by the degree to which they are “going more or less clumsily toward reality” (Ortega  Gasset 21). But even though Self-Portrait is representational in form, judging it on this crude criterion is equally inadequate. It would miss the very play on reality in the painting, a play that aims, to use Ortega y Gasset’s words, “to construct something which is not a copy of ‘nature’ and yet possesses substance of its own” (23). And in Self-Portrait, this “something,” this new reality, imposes itself through a wide spectrum of elements that goes from the impressive size of the work to the hypnotic gaze of the personages. The figures in the painting, for all their resemblance with human creatures, are not truly men. They are surreal, inhuman; they are not “our good old friends” (21).


So it is possible for even highly representational works of art to be more than mere emulations of reality and to provide a space for the reinvention of reality as modern art does. This is not to argue, however, that Ortega y Gasset does not account for a work like Self-Portrait. On the contrary, Self-Portrait actually illustrates a subtle but central point of Ortega y Gasset’s theory, one that is easy to overlook because The Dehumanization of Art does not expand on it explicitly. Indeed, Ortega y Gasset suggests a way for us to look at representational art in a dehumanized way. The suggestion comes when he justifies the move of modern art toward abstraction as a response to the difficulties the common viewer faces in displacing his sense of appreciation away from the subject of an artwork and toward its aesthetic rendering on a canvas. Looking at a work of art, Ortega y Gasset contends, is like looking at a garden through a window (10). We can adjust the focus of our eye to look through the transparent window and see only the garden in its details, or we can “deliberately disregard the garden and, withdrawing the ray of vision, detain it at the window” (10). This is where the suggestion that we can look at representational art in a dehumanized way comes in. When we detain our vision at the window, the garden itself blurs, its image now “a confused mass of color which appears pasted to the pane” (10). In other words, we no longer see the garden but rather the garden as it projects itself on a medium, the window. Similarly, Ortega y Gasset argues, appreciating a work of art requires a capacity to readjust our “perceptive apparatus” (11) to focus not on the human reality that is the subject behind the artwork, but rather on the aestheticized form of this subject on a medium. Hence, he emphasizes that “to enjoy Titian’s portrait of Charles the Fifth on horseback, we must forget that this is Charles the Fifth in person and see instead a portrait – that is, an image, a fiction” (10). We must not judge the portrait as a more or less efficient proxy for Charles the Fifth, but rather readjust our mind’s eye to judge how the portrait performs as an aesthetic exercise, independent from its subject.

This necessity to readjust our “perceptive apparatus” (Ortega y Gasset 11) is difficult. Ortega y Gasset contends the general audience fails to operate this kind of adjustment. To speak in the terms of Ortega y Gasset’s analogy, we are not quite skilled enough to maintain our eyes’ focus on the window. Upon seeing representational art, we can’t help but dive right in and “revel in the human reality with which the work deals” (Ortega y Gasset 11). Dehumanization then comes as a solution to this problem. It gives us reality as little as possible, and thus forces our attention on the act of aestheticization. Thus, it is not per se impossible for a representational artwork to function as a dehumanized work; it is rather that Ortega y Gasset judges the audience inept at operating the required adjustment of the “perceptive apparatus” (11). This reveals how Ortega y Gasset initially places the burden of artistic appreciation on the viewer rather than on the artist. He does not advocate so much for a new way to make art as for a new way to see art. Under this light, it appears that Ortega y Gasset would allow us to conclude that representational works like Self-Portrait in fact reach beyond a mimicry of life. He does, however, dismiss them as imperceptible to the audience of his time.


Because Self-Portrait with an Easel brings out the type of artistic interactions that Ortega y Gasset suggests are present in representational artworks but harder to perceive, the painting appears as another kind of ideal in Ortega y Gasset’s theory. It reveals how an artwork can use realistic formal choices to reach the same end as modern dehumanized art, namely, to “leav[e] us locked up in an abstruse universe” (Ortega y Gasset 21). Again, Ortega y Gasset suggests these mechanics but does not expressly consider them, in large part because he doubts the audience’s ability to focus on the aesthetic quality of an artwork whenever it contains representational features. Instead, Ortega y Gasset emphasizes the need for modern art to contain “deviations [that] point in a direction opposite to that which would lead to reality” (21) as way to buffer ourselves against our instinct to see the lived reality represented in such works. “Reality,” Ortega y Gasset theorizes, “waylays the artist to prevent his flight” (23), and so he must flee it at all costs. Yet, Self-Portrait offers an alternative. It realizes a “triumph over human matter” (Ortega y Gasset 23) not by fleeing reality, but rather by magnifying it to disorienting proportions. Thus, Self-Portrait functions like a trap, using the mechanisms of realism to trick us into unreality. To use Ortega y Gasset’s words, Self-Portrait lets us “look right through it” (11) and “invite[s] sentimental intervention” (9) by constructing an engaging illusion of life. When we start noticing the strange details of the painting’s dual universe, from the acute resemblance between the two figures to the suggestion that we might be the subject of the painting, it is already too late. The mise en abyme has closed on us, left us “locked up”; we are already prisoner, as Ortega y Gasset puts it, to the “abstruse universe” (21) of the work of art.

This ultimate understanding of Self-Portrait with an Easel as an unsuspected ideal of Ortega y Gasset’s theory explains the apparent difficulty in labeling Self-Portrait either as representational or dehumanized. It is certainly highly realistic in some of its features, yet it engages the viewer in interactions proper to dehumanized modern art. Ortega y Gasset only quickly considers the possibility of works like Self-Portrait, and even then, that consideration really only comes through the analogy of the garden and the window. But this, too, has its reasons: though being able to look at realistic artworks in a dehumanized way is part of Ortega y Gasset’s ideal, it appears that he did not think the general audience of his time would be able to do it. This is an interesting question to study from our twenty-first century viewpoint, now that we have been immersed in the modern world of abstraction for nearly a century. In fact, we almost expect to see art that goes beyond a more or less successful emulation of reality. In other words, we can understand why early commentators on modern art, like Ortega y Gasset, would cast a somewhat distrustful and perhaps elitist attitude toward the audience of art. Such attitudes would seem radical. Yet, maybe this radicalism was necessary to initiate the percolation of those ideas across the cultural matrix of the twentieth century. In other words, it may be because of a theorist like Jose Ortega y Gasset that it is even possible for us to see and experience a work of art like Self-Portrait with an Easel for what it is: art.


Works Cited

Régnier, Nicolas. Self-Portrait with an Easel. About 1620. Oil on canvas. Harvard Fogg Museum, Cambridge. Gift of Mrs. Eric Schroeder, 1982. 1982.116

Ortega y Gasset, José Ortega y Gasset. “The Dehumanization of Art”. The Dehumanization of Art and other essays on art, culture, and literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968. 8-23. Print.