Merleau-Ponty famously quotes the French writer Paul Valéry writing, ’The painter takes his body with him’. To understand what he means we must consider that Merleau-Ponty perceives reality through a Phenomenological lens - not dealing with the objective world, but which focuses on the nature of experience.
In his essay, Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty argues that our bodies seem to have their own memory. He writes, ‘I have only to see something to know how to reach it and deal with it, even if I do not know how this happens in the nervous system.’ (1993, p.124). For example, when a musician has not played a song for a long time, often he cannot consciously remember the notes. It is when he places his hands over the instrument, his fingers remind him how to play the tune. Likewise, Merleau-Ponty argues that this summarises all human experience. When our physical bodies interact with the world, not much of that interaction is the mind focusing on moving the body. It is not the case that our mind is the control-center sending orders to our body parts to move in the world. Rather, the body itself controls its own interactions.
Merleau-Ponty claims that this also applies to not just our hands and arms, but our eyes and our very sense of perception. When we perceive something, our minds don't control how we perceive. We automatically perceive reality. It is not our minds commanding our eyes to perceive in a certain way. We often think of our minds as computers, but Merleau-Ponty extends that to the body, calling the eyes 'computers of the world'. They are their own entities that can learn by themselves apart from the mind. Anyone who has done painting knows that as they become better, their eyes begin to notice new things, learning to perceive more and more detail. Learning to perceive more detail can be informed by the mind, yet the very act of perceiving is not commanded by the conscious mind. Perception is automatic. Merleau-Ponty writes ‘vision in any event learns only by seeing and learns only from itself.’ (1993, p.127). In other words, the eye, and perception is an automaton, independent of the mind.
In Merleau-Ponty's view, painting becomes much more metaphysically interesting. The eye learns how to perceive, and the hand paints. Both of these are actions of the body that remain independent of our conscious command. Since when we paint, our hands are painting our perception, that means that the automaton, our hands, is painting the automaton, our perception; the body paints the body. Both of these our minds have no conscious control over. Here is where it gets weird. Ponty argues that when we observe our own painting, our eye perceives the techniques of the hand which were expressions of our initial perception given by our eye. This circular function implies that seeing my painting, then, is in some sense my eye seeing myself. Not only that, I am seeing myself in a unique way that I cannot otherwise see through conscious thought in my mind. No wonder Merleau-Ponty concludes that ‘it becomes impossible to distinguish between … who paints and what is painted.’ (1993, p.129). When Paul Velery said, ‘the painter takes his body with him’ (1993, p.124), Merleau-Ponty infers a deeper meaning. The act of painting is the body projecting itself onto the physical world. This means the body is not just necessary for the painter’s ability to physically paint, but rather is part of the essence of the painting itself.
Merleau-Ponty, M., Johnson, G. A., & Smith, M. B. 1993, ‘Eye and Mind’, The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader Philosophy and Painting, Northwestern University Press Evanston, Illinois.