FUNDAMENTALS OF A PHILOSOPHY OF ART
ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF ARTISTIC EXPERIENCE(Printer Friendly Version | Back to Transcript)
We are living in a time where it seems more and more not only that the different creative activities of man are being driven farther and farther apart but that the need and significance of some of them for man are actually being questioned. Philosophy, certainly, seems to have lost the position it held for so long, and art and the artist, socially speaking, at least, have been driven from the human community. Only science seems to have strengthened its position. The strange thing about all this is that it started at the very moment when it seemed at last that the different creative abilities of man had a chance really to come into their own, that they had a chance to free themselves of a certain bondage, so to speak, that had been placed upon them by the central position held by religion for so long. Certainly as far as art was concerned, it seemed that at the very moment when it appeared to come into its own, the very moment when it no longer existed because of its function for the church, etc., the very moment when artists felt free for that first time, that its position steadily worsened--which brings us to the question: Is there any metaphysical validity to art when it is not related to the over-all picture of the age? Can art stand alone? Has art in itself metaphysical significance?
But first let me make clear what I mean by physical and metaphysical. By physical I mean simply all things that come into being without the help of man, all things that come into being by themselves--which would mean that in that sense certain so-called mental phenomena such as dreams, day-dreams, associations, etc., would also be physical in that they are occurrences that are not brought consciously into being by us. By metaphysical I mean anything that is brought into being by us--that would not be there without us and that can only be brought into being by us because we are free agents.
So, using metaphysical in this sense, we must now go back to the question of whether art has any real metaphysical validity (and if so, what?) because art has been placed in a most peculiar position: a position on the one hand of being questioned as to its usefulness at all for human existence and on the other hand it has been put by a small minority (in a vain effort to assure the metaphysical validity of art) into the position of being given qualities that are not within the framework of art--of being put into the position religion held for so long as a leader in the metaphysical aspects of human activities. So art has been put in the uncomfortable position of being denied on the one hand any real validity at all and on the other hand of being made into something that it is not at all, For art to be able to be the leader of the human creative activities of man would it not mean that art would have to contain truth that could be taken literally and that could lead human activities and solve human inner situations? Can art contain truth of that kind and in that sense? Can that possibly be the role of art and the significance of art for man? And on the other hand is it Possible that art has no significance at all for man?
Here philosophy and art touch each other--sharing in common the fact that both can be questioned as to their significance and relevance for human life today. Both, it would seem, have been put into a position in this scientific age where they no longer have an established and acknowledged place in man’s life. When philosophy betrayed art with Hegel and his concept that the arts acquire metaphysical validity and significance by expressing general content (as a religious belief, a general belief of the people, etc.), it seems that philosophy too managed to betray itself and got caught after Hegel in the same corner as art. So both philosophy and art have to prove again their own metaphysical relevance and absolute significance for life--which really means that philosophy (because philosophy is the only creative human activity of man that can tell the other creative human activities what they are) has a double task: to prove by philosophy the metaphysical significance of art in order to put art back into its right place in human life and also to find its own right place in human life by finding out what living relevance to life philosophy itself has. So it becomes even more complicated and we will have to check and double-check as to metaphysical values.
We have a strange phenomenon in art and one that is curiously related to the situation of art in our time: art at the time of the cave man. Hegel felt that art, like religion and philosophy, was the highest achievement of human civilization and wanted to prove that a state is an absolute necessity in order to bring culture into society, in order to produce art. Yet, can this be so now that we have discovered the cave paintings and see that there was art at the time of the cave man--and real art--and can this be so when we see the strange relationship between two extreme poles in the development of man and his civilization: the relationship between the age of the cave man and our modern age? There is an essential similarity in these two extreme ages in human development--for both are ages where almost every human effort has had to be put into earning a living. Yet the cave man produced real art with style, form, and transcendence, and in our age, where almost everything in our cultural life loses more and more meaning from day to day, the only ones who maintain their right to produce art and who produce the only new civilization in our society are the artists. Hegel believed that style, an over-all style at least, grows only when a new way of life in a given society is already on the march and has manifested itself. Where then does this new style of art we have professing a certain common will come from? How is it possible? And how does it relate to other dispersed attempts, as in philosophy for instance, to find a position towards the world, a new way of civilization? The situation seems to be unique--and to require unique means.
Now to go back for a moment to our question of the metaphysical validity of art and what its significance for man might be. Bound up with this, of course, is the question of what art might actually be--for we can hardly try to discover the significance of art without trying to find out first what it might be and what it might do. Art, according to Hegel, was “formed significance.” The modern concept has tuned this around to: art is significant form--with a third concept in the middle of the road: art is symbolic form. Now what can Hegel’s term “formed significance” possibly mean? However can significance itself be formed? Something can be formed into significance, but certainly the term “formed significance” is meaningless. What about the term “significant form”? That too is meaningless--for when it is understood it merely leaves one with banalities and no real meaning at all.
To find the key to the riddle, we will have to use a key that is in itself a riddle. Heraclitus in speaking of Apollon and his Oracle at Delphi--putting his words also in the form of an oracle--said: “The lord whose Oracle is that at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but shows.” Now the Greek oracles of Delphi were metaphysical riddles whose deep meaning could only be experienced in the flesh: that is, only after the event had taken place and had made the wisdom of the oracle clear to everyone. Taken in this light, what could these words of Heraclitus mean? The original word translated in this saying of Heraclitus can have many shades of meaning: to show, to signify, to indicate, to give a sign, to confront with meaning--or in other words: Apollon puts you before the experience. This contains the key to the riddle of what art might be and what art might do and it will be our key to try to come to the heart of the matter--and one to which we shall return again and again in order to check and double-check ourselves.
Now the most difficult thing in an inquiry of this kind is not to find an answer to our questions, but to put the question itself--to put a question that goes to the heart of the matter and that makes possible a preliminary answer to enable us to once more put a question. We have found in this spying of Heraclitus what we think is the key to our riddle--a key which is bound to Apollon. Could it not be that the figure of Apollon himself might not give us further insight into the problem we are pursuing here? For instance: could it be entirely by accident that the Greeks made the god of art also the god of prophets and seers? Could it not be that there is a relationship between the human capability of prophecy and the human capability of making art?
Now keeping those words of Heraclitus in mind--“The lord whose oracle is that at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but shows.”--let’s see what light they might throw on a phenomenon that unfortunately is very indicative of our time and one that greatly complicates the position of the modern artist: the phenomenon of kitsch. What is kitsch? For one thing, it appeals to sentiment instead of to the mind and heart. In kitsch the human being’s god-given ability to create forms of man, to create out of mere things, things of us, is used in order to make things that have nothing to do with art, to create so-called art objects or things that have the opposite meaning to things intended by art. Artists never before were up against this phenomenon in the sense that they were in direct competition with the creators of anti-art, with the creators of kitsch--which in the meantime had been turned from non-art into anti-art. How did it come about? How did it start? When was art first “used” and how was it turned into anti-art?
Some critics believe that Michelangelo’s “Moses,” which was supposed to be a compliment to Pope Julius II, and representational art contain the beginnings of kitsch--but the beginnings of kitsch cannot be found in so-called representational art or in the fact that things, so to speak, are represented since every work of art is representative at least in the sense that it represents human artistic experience of the world. And certainly as far as Michelangelo’s “Moses” is concerned, one must ask whether Michelangelo made a statue in order to show Pope Julius II himself as the power of the law-giver incarnate or whether he created a statue to give one artistic experience: that of the tremendous possibilities of law-giving contained by man. Technically speaking, we might say that the lesser artists of the Renaissance and later, who tried only to give sensual impressions of things without a real experience of feeling, did perfect a skill that later served kitsch very well; but while their work had only attraction instead of feeling, a non-artistic event still was needed to utilize this skill against art and to make out of it first non-artistic kitsch and finally anti-artistic kitsch.
The non-artistic event that brought this about was the work of the Jesuits who, in a time when religious experience was no longer a metaphysical experience taken for granted, founded the first psychological method--that of talking one’s self back into belief. They discovered the possibility to change men by mobilizing and by disciplining the imagination--and they found that one of the best means to influence people shaky in belief was to show them very realistic scenes from the life of Christ and from the Bible. The real founders of kitsch were the “employees” of the Jesuits who provided those scenes for them (--although later, certain artists themselves came to utilize the power of art for non-artistic means. Wagner, for example, attempted to show that art could redeem mankind, that art was metaphysical, and thereby started the destruction of art itself because of the means necessary to prove his point--the necessity to appeal to the nerves directly, so to speak, to overwhelm, to blot out all controls, and to completely tyrannize in the way only music can.) and we find with them already the great distinction between art and kitsch--the distinction which lies in the way the artist utilizes the means of art and the resulting effect upon the beholder.
When art is used by artists who are not representational but fictional, by artists who replace reality with what could be reality, by artists who suggest reality, it means that certain possibilities of pure suggestion in art are being used--and being used for a non-artistic purpose. It means that the artist does not create in you, the beholder, an atmosphere of receptivity where meaningful thinking and feeling starts, where you are free, enriched, and taken into an experience of a great soul able to transmit experience to you, but rather that you are mobilized in order to induce an opinion in you. A real work of art not only leaves you free, enriched and makes it possible for you in a way to become a creator, but in addition nothing is asked of you; in kitsch, on the other hand, you are asked--you are asked to believe something. A work of art does not tell you a truth--it only puts you before an experience which contains truth only in the sense of the words of Heraclitus (“...neither reveals nor conceals, but shows [signifies]”). Kitsch not only tries to tell you something--but it tells you a lie. It commits the crime of violating the free spirit of the individual, trying to introduce in you and to employ you for an opinion. A work of art, on the other hand, by never pretending to give you a picture of reality, gives you, the beholder, a safeguard against just that.
So the words of Heraclitus gain deeper meaning from our Own experiences with kitsch and from the words of Heraclitus we gain a deeper insight into what art--and thus anti-art too--might be. It is a strange back-and-forth procedure of enriching, a strange back-and forth movement in the continuity of the human mind.