FUNDAMENTALS OF A PHILOSOPHY OF ART
ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF ARTISTIC EXPERIENCE(Printer Friendly Version | Back to Transcript)
We have been able in the run of this course to return again and again to Greek myth and to gain each time a deeper insight into art. This has been possible for the simple reason that all Greek myth has a fundamental bearing on art. The nearness of myth and art was so close with the Greeks that one could be translated into the other permanently. Not only was there no myth not supported by art and artistic experience, but the relation-ship in Greek myth was made even closer by the fact that Greek myth had never fallen into the hands of the priests and had never been organized within theology or a special discipline (losing thereby its fertility). Since Greek myth was not organized, it was possible for artists to take myth for their work (and even in turn, as Hesiod and especially Homer did, to create for the Greeks their gods--which the Greeks very well knew) and it was an interchange that not only was taken most seriously but one that reached a point where myth and the creativity of the artist almost became one (which led later with Plato to the inevitability of an attack upon art the moment myth was attacked for while Plato was not an enemy of art--on the contrary--he was an enemy of myth and therefore had no choice but also to attack art). This is the reason why all mythical fundamental ideas of the Greeks have a bearing on art and why only there they give their full meaning.
Now we have seen that in a time where art seems cut off from all the old ties and the bond between art and myth completely broken, that art still continues to create myth--although it is myth that is used only in-directly now. We no longer take the other world that we create by art as reality itself, but we still create that other world--that other world of Olympos which is the world of art itself, a world constantly growing and a world we constantly have to re-enter to gain new strength for reality--and the fact that we can still create that world of art when art seemingly stands alone severed from myth, religion and philosophy gives us for the first time the chance to find out not only what the real place of art in relation to the other creative abilities of man might be--which has been impossible up to now because art was always taken as a derivative of religion, myth, or philosophy--but also to find out what art and its inherent qualities and means might be. We have the chance, for example, to find out for the first time what form might really be and to see, as we are able to gain more insight into art and what its strange abilities are, that what we have always taken for form--the artistic quality of the work of art--must only be an outward sign and that form must surely be more than that. For one thing, if the metaphor through the means of form is able to create art, then form must also be connected with the same special quality of art to be found in everything expressed by art--the special quality to reveal human personal qualities in a way that is only given to the senses--and indeed it is out of this quality itself that form actually develops.
This possibility of form is the reason why this other world of art can be built and why it is always consistent and growing--and it proves to us for the first time, and even objectively so, that every man belongs to man. It proves to us that human personal qualities are the same at all times--which in general makes communication with past times possible, and specifically in art makes it possible for us to understand works of art of past times. Art transcends historical man and proves to us that there is something personal in man himself, and men of all times, that in principle is absolutely the same as we are--which means that although in different times customs and cultures may be different, man cannot be considered to be absolutely different in different historical times in terms of person or personal qualities. The ability of art to build this consistent, constantly growing other world of art proves to us that in quality men have always been the same and that we need not feel quite so sorry for those who have not had the great good fortune to be born in our wonderful Twentieth Century with all its glories of progress and development-- that as to quality and profundity of thought we might do very well to look twice at those men of the past (at those men, for example, who first were able to create myths so deep and fundamental that we are able to return to them again and again).
Now we have seen that as time withers away from art--as knowledge no longer is required--we begin to gain more and more insight into what a work of art really is. As soon as art requires on principle understanding only, as soon as it requires to be understood and not known (as fetishes can be understood but never known), we begin to get deeper and deeper into the experience of the work of art itself. There is only one kind of art that we have never seemed able to approach at all, or only in relation to knowledge--and that is Tibetan art. Tibetan art seems to be the one art we have never been able to understand, the one art in which we have never been able to gain an understanding of the form or metaphor that speaks out of all time and space--and this can provide us with a most valuable op-opportunity to inquire a little more deeply into that favorite question of aesthetics, the question of form versus content and content versus form, and to see if it is possible to make such a distinction in art between form and content or if it is not rather bound up with the same question of identity that we find in relation to things and beings, being and meaning, essence and existence.
With this purpose in mind let’s first suppose for a moment that our inability to approach Tibetan art has not been caused by the fact we have been unable to find the key to it but rather by the fact that we have here a phenomenon where things have been built without artistic creativity at all, a phenomenon where things have not been changed into beings but are only symbols of content. This would mean that form and content would never be able to meet here--and certainly for us form and content never do meet in Tibetan art. We can know the shape or form of Tibetan art and can know the content and idea perfectly, but we can never bring both together for the simple reason that we can never have a feeling of form without an understanding of the metaphor used. If we would continue with our supposition that this has been caused not by our inability to understand the metaphor but by the fact we are dealing with something that is not art at all, then it would mean, of course, that we find here the possibility to make things look like art used for an inartistic purpose--the purpose of conveying an ideological message rather than human qualities--which, of course, would be kitsch. But the important thing here is not whether our supposition is true or not, but that by the means of this supposition (which was the reason we made it, of course) we can see quite clearly that the old argument of form versus content and content versus form simply cannot be made.
And now to go back to the question of the senses for a moment. We have seen that the work of art exists for nothing but the senses, that the exact location where the other world of art is built is the realm of the human senses, and that the procedure of double projection we have in art (the projection of ourselves into the work of art and the work of art into us) also meets in this realm of the human senses--all of which would seem to indicate strange powers of the senses that cannot be explained simply by considering the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell in the way we usually consider them. If we consider the role of the senses in art, we see there seems to be an indication that not only do we have outward senses as such, but inner senses too--and that all of them must have a double direction, all of them must be senses that can both send and receive in the sense that they can become creative on the one hand and can on the other hand receive creative messages voluntarily (in the scientific sense).
This would immediately seem to make a sharp break between the senses of sight, hearing, and touch and the senses of taste and smell (and would explain why all experiments to make works of art that could be received by the sense of smell or taste have never succeeded). We immediately seem to have the distinction here between active senses and passive senses, between senses that can send and receive and senses that can only receive. We seem to have on the one hand certain senses that have a corresponding inner sense and on the other hand certain senses that are not connected with the human mind but only with a very small part of the intellect (which has nothing to do with the mind and cannot work in imagination). But now the question becomes even more complicated because we seem to be left with only three senses in art--sight, hearing, and touch; we seem to be short two very essential senses: the sense we use in architecture and dancing and the second sense by which we receive and give music. Is it possible there are two other senses which have never been recognized as such--two hidden senses which nevertheless fulfill our requirements here? And there are, of course: the sense of balance and that very strange second sense of music located in the solar plexus.
So we seem to be getting deeper and deeper into our inquiry. We have gained some understanding at least of what the metaphor and metaphorical thinking might be and the realm in which they exist; we have seen what the metaphor with its form-building power is able to do; we have proved that the concept of content and form cannot be true; we have met the phenomenon of beauty, and we have seen that this phenomenon of beauty must have some identity with form. We have also seen that up to now it has been impossible not only to find the real place of art itself, but also to discover what such things as form and beauty might be. And we have to ask: What messed the whole thing up? Why was it impossible, for example, for the concept of beauty and form to be made in the old aesthetics? Why was it impossible to see that they must be related or perhaps even identical?
The last concept of beauty was made by Kant and the real stumbling stone that prevented him from discovering the possibility of the identity of form and beauty was the same one that handicapped all thinkers in the old line of aesthetics: he had to think in terms of content and form--which meant that even though Kant was the one who destroyed myth in life completely (the one who by making philosophy self-critical and by questioning certain assumptions of metaphysics destroyed thereby, without realizing it or in-tending to, the possibility of metaphysics itself and myth, and along with it, of course, the metaphysical position that had made such a concept as the one of form and content possible), he nevertheless remained bound, as we even now have somehow remained bound, to the aesthetics of that last mythical supposition. But while content and form as a metaphysical concept was a philosophical mistake, and one we are not entitled to make any more, we also have to discover what made this position possible, what value it had in itself, and then--since philosophical thinking, contrary to scientific thinking cannot discard thoughts of the past simply as being errors (there is no such thing as an error in the scientific sense in philosophical thinking; it is a matter only of more or less truth)--not reject it but overcome it.
Old thinkers in philosophy, contrary to Dewey, did put meaning into their formulations regarding art, but it was meaning that was related to the relation of myth and art as it formerly had been and that stemmed, of course, from the basic over-all position taken towards the world. We must realize that as long as men remained within the cosmological or theological framework--that is, as long as they believed that the world was either a cosmos that contained meaning in itself or that the world was a world created by God and therefore had been given meaning by God-- they could never, as we do now, question the old concept of form and content, make intention a condition of beauty, or make the distinction we now make between shape, as the contour, so to speak, of things given, and form itself. They could never consider shape, as we do now, as something that has not been created, as something that shows no intention, as something that has been given by occurrences and that must therefore be only functionality. The old thinkers within mythical belief when they beheld in nature what we call shapes still had to consider them to be forms because they could not distinguish between shapes without meaning and form since God’s intention must be visible in them or they must have been given meaning by a cosmos that contained meaning in itself. That meant, therefore, that the old way in art was either a procedure of de-forming, so to speak, a given form (as in mythical art--which we see in Egyptian art, for example) or later, beginning with the Greeks, a procedure of re-forming a given form rather than transforming a given shape into form (which is the procedure of modern art).
Kant himself, who made all this possible, was never able to break far enough through the old concepts to come to the concept that beauty was not in things but only in what we interpreted into them--but how very near he must have come to this. Certainly, he came so far in science as to be able to destroy all mythical thinking there by discovering there is a possibility that space and time are not really there, as such, in nature, but are conditions only of human thinking and the human senses, and it would have been but a small step to discover that form and beauty are no more contained in nature as such than time and space might be. But the steps forward that are made in fundamental thought, though deep and mighty ones, are also very slow ones--so very slow that if there is not half a step backwards there is at least a very long pause between them. So it has taken a long time until we have seen that there are no forms or beauty in nature and that in art it is not a procedure of re-forming form, as it formerly was, but rather a procedure of transforming shapes, things given, into form, a procedure of transmutation not only outwardly of shapes into forms but also inwardly of things into beings, of things into beings with inner personal qualities.
Now in many degrees of given development--in the world of the physical, which is function--there occurs a thing we call beauty too, but it is rather an experience in one of the sciences of something that suddenly makes sense rather than something that is meaningful--which means that it is attractive and has functionality rather than beauty and intention. In this sense too we often speak of pretty or beautiful girls, but since beauty in relation to the human being is physiognomic rather than physiological, if mere biological attractiveness is meant, it cannot be a matter of beauty but only attractiveness. Beauty with human beings too is a phenomenon that has to be interpreted, that has to have intention. Since the human being has, of course, a physical body which follows certain biological laws there is the temptation sometimes, especially in this age of science, to reduce the human being to his biological part, but the human being is also a meta-physical being who is capable of will and intention and it is in that sense rather than the biological one that we can speak of beauty in the human being. When we speak of beauty in a human being we can only speak of it in the sense of responding to an inner glow, so to speak, of what that human being as a person is that comes shining through the body (the physis) and gives beauty--or to put it more prosaically, in the sense of responding to an inner message that has been delivered of what that human being as a person is.
When we make physiognomic judgments--since we are judging a given shape (here a face) that has been taken in hand by the power of the personality and transformed into form which is identical with the meaning of that personality--we are really making judgments as to the personality expressed. When we say, for example, “I don’t like that mouth.”, we are really saying “I don’t like the personality that ‘grew’ that mouth.”--or when we say “What a beautiful face.”, we are really responding to the personality that transformed that face into form (and here, as well as in art, form exists in beauty or otherwise it is miscarried form). This procedure of transforming a given shape into form, as in art, is a mutual proceeding of transmutation (although in art it goes on willing while in the human being it goes on unwilling, so to speak, in the sense that he does not directly set about to transform his face--with the exception of the actor, who does--but rather expresses through his face the kind of a person he is) and, also as in art, is a phenomenon only to be understood in the realm of the human senses (we see it, not know it, since it is to the senses that it immediately speaks). But while all these physiognomic elements are closely related to art, it must also be said they are related only--and even then only while they have capabilities of creativity and only while they are actors of the personality itself (actors not in a negative way but in a way expressive of what that personality is).
And now that we have some of these things in hand let’s take another look at Cezanne and at what it really meant to be the first artist to experience the full impact of all these tremendous changes. We have seen that once the framework of the theological and cosmological approach completely broke down that it meant art and myth for the first time were entirely distinguished, but these things take a long time to be completely felt and while they were reflected more and more in the new problems facing the artist, Cezanne was the first to be put into a situation where he was faced to the full with a fundamental turn in the situation. He was the first to be faced as an artist with the full impact of realizing he was surrounded by a physical world which could only make sense, never meaning, and which could only contain shapes, never forms out of which the artist could bring inherent meaning and beauty--and he was so hurt by this new world that he made an enemy of nature, saying, “How can I put sense [meaning] into that!” He was afraid with his eyes, and so afraid with his inner eye that later he tried to explain what he had done by the fact that perhaps his eye was faulty. He was all alone, eaten up by one experience he could not explain--and from this come the one fundamental insight to which every-thing in his work related (as everything in Bach also related to one fundamental insight) and from this also came his illness. (Cezanne did not gain such a great insight into this new situation of man or become such a great artist because he was ill--quite the opposite. Contrary to certain beliefs, to become an artist is not quite such a simple proposition as just to be a neurotic.)
Cezanne was aware that the cosmos had lost its meaning, that man was lost, alone in the world and he had a feeling of absolute helplessness against the world revealed to him, but out of this suffering and awareness he was able to gain the deepest insight and to bring forth the most comprehensive answer:--the insight that man had to forget the superstition that there is consolation (the old metaphysical position) or that there is form in things in a world that contains meaning in itself (the old artistic position), that in a world able at best only to make sense man had to take heart now and had to fight from that new position; and the answer of the only way that man could fight: the answer of counter-action against the new situation by man himself changing the meaningless into the meaningful, by man creating any meaning that was to be put into the world--and as to art itself the answer that if there were to be any form it must be brought out by man himself, that man must transform given shapes into form, that form was now the phenomenon created by man to get hold of the realm of the physical and to transform it into that other realm of art, and that if there were to be a possible new style in art, reflecting man’s changed position in the world, the very pre-condition for it had to be this procedure of the transformation of shapes into form, of the given into the meaningful--which means that Cezanne almost by himself was able to change the whole artistic procedure into one of an artistic consciousness of form, bringing forth the fundamental elements and laying the foundations for a whole new style of transformation (which is not our so-called “modern style” but the real style of our times).
This achievement of Cezanne’s--the achievement of laying the foundations for a new style--means first of all that Cezanne is obligatory for everyone who wants to be an artist or to live artistically because there is a very odd thing about style: since style is the phenomenon in art that has the strange ability to be all-comprehensive and to permanently open up new vistas, once a new style starts to grow that growing style is obligatory for everyone involved in art. But still it is hard at first glance to realize what a really tremendous achievement this was of Cezanne’s and in order to understand it a little better we have first to go into the question of style and form and into the question of what it means not only generally when a new style starts to grow, but also specifically in terms of the actual means of art--what it means in relation to color, the brushstroke, structure, perspective, space, etc.
Perhaps the best question to approach first is the one of the brush-stroke--not only because it is one of the most characteristic examples of what Cezanne was able to do with the means of art but also because it is a most excellent example for our other question of the relation of form and style. Form and style are related unbreakably--and in a very odd way: not only does style grow out of form, but style is preconditioned by form so that once a new style is there all the forms have already the strange quality that they relate to each other. This becomes quite clear when we look at what happened to the brushstroke with Cezanne--who succeeded in making out of the brushstroke an absolutely new thing. Cezanne was able, for example, to make the visible brushstroke not merely a means of the individual signature of the artist (as it had been used in Baroque times and later), but to make it a means to bring about a density where the brushstrokes by their very diversity made the densest surface possible, where the brushstrokes made every color spot relate to every other color spot by a definite relating of the brushstrokes, and to bring about by that not merely a fitting together or unity of different colors and areas into a kind of mosaic, but to make out of it a real tensional relation between different forces (as seen in modern architecture)--which means that Cezanne was able to use the visible brushstroke as a means of transformation and as a means of expressing a new position taken towards the world.
And, of course, it was not only with the brushstroke that Cezanne wrought such a transformation of use. He was able, in fact, to achieve in his work all the great fundamental turns that mark the new style: the new concept first of form itself; then the discovery of the possibility of the interchangeability of essential forms--which came about first from his discovery of the possibility to give pure activity itself and then his development of a unity of activities, of different activities expressed in the visible brushstroke and in color, and second when he was able to bring all shapes in nature to, as he put it, a common denominator which made them interchangeable (which was one of his main means); and finally the discovery of a completely new concept of space and the discovery of a new kind of structure (laying thereby the foundations also for the new style in architecture--and architecture not just as the putting up of buildings, but as the art where we can get inside structure, so to speak, and architecture as the art where essences of generalities and forms are boiled down only to their significance for time and space).
We have only to look at “The Card Players” to see what Cezanne was able to do--especially in regard to structure. If we turn this picture around, viewing the top of the table as a windowsill, we see that we have a Cezanne landscape in miniature where the legs of the card players have suddenly become Cezanne trees and the space under the table suddenly the space of a Cezanne landscape. The real key to this was structure (but structure in the artistic sense only)--structure that made it possible for Cezanne not only to make the smallest space infinite (giving universal space in a still-life, for example) or an infinite phenomenon the smallest (since the structure was always the same), but structure also that had the possibility as a means or transition to unite new forms in their plurality into one great form of style.