FUNDAMENTALS OF A PHILOSOPHY OF ART
ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF ARTISTIC EXPERIENCE(Printer Friendly Version | Back to Transcript)
Totalitarianism--that ugly phenomenon that has shown us just exactly what the full consequences of the nihilistic situation and the decision against freedom can be--found the ground very well prepared by the break-down of Western metaphysics in the beginning of the 19th Century and the development of the nihilistic predicament of man that followed the blowing up of the framework of religion and myth in which man had lived for so long. But one of totalitarianism’s best allies--and one who in a way has been mainly responsible for the possibility of its success--is the philistine. Metaphysically speaking, a philistine is a human being who tries to blind himself against any higher possibilities, rejecting any obligation to make out of life more than the enjoyment of it, negating any transcendence-- only seeing life as the purpose of life itself. The philistine only wants to use life up, not to try to enrich it, and he avoids enthusiasm in order to profit just from existence. Schopenhauer once gave in answer to the question: What is the main vice of mankind? The reply: “Dumbness and laziness.” But it is more than that in the case of the philistine: it is the resistance to any kind of appeal that wants from man the real mobilization of his highest forces. It is an absolute passivity--this decision to take life as it is and not to be disturbed in this performance.
While we lived for so long within the framework of a world either centered in belief in God or belief in a meaningful cosmos, we had certain safeguards and guarantees for a certain restricted freedom at least and for feeling at least as whole centered human beings, as personalities and not as isolated individuals “thrown” (as Heidegger has expressed it) into a strange and meaningless world; and we had a certain working order of the human creative abilities (art, science, philosophy, religion) centered perhaps in the wrong way by religion but bound together in such a way at least so that they had a certain established place in man’s life and could interrelate and enrich each other.
But along with losing those safeguards and guarantees that had given man a certain security and sense of feeling safe in the world, and along with the blowing up of that existing working order of human creative activities (and to a point where it might well be compared to a solar system that had suddenly lost its center), we also on the other hand were put in a position where it seemed we had at last a chance to see what man absolutely on his own without the restrictions of an authoritarian framework could do, where it seemed that man for the first time had his real chance to show what could be done when everything was left to the free decision of human beings. With this, came immediately the overwhelming emergence of science as seemingly the most important creative activity and along with it the possibility not only to lose for the first time the great fear of nature we had had for so long, but also especially in the United States to question for the first time the basic conviction that eternal misery was the eternal condition of human life. With the establishment of the American Republic--that experiment made by European humanity here in America--came into being, along with certain other principles of human and political life founded in the American Constitution, the great American dream that misery was not the permanent condition of man and with the emergence of science, the very real possibility of man to attempt to alleviate it.
But just as we found out that man’s being absolutely on his own was not the easy proposition we thought it might be (that along with the great chance there was also a great danger), we also found out that while the victory of science made it possible more and more to handle things in nature, we came to know less and less about nature itself, and while science made it possible actually to do something about the misery of man, the great dreams we had had about what man would do when he was no longer in misery did not quite work out that way. We discovered, for example, that the assumption of the sociologist that more and more leisure time would mean more and more culture did not turn out that way at all--especially in America. On the contrary, it seemed that up to the beginning of the 19th Century when misery was still taken for granted (especially in Europe), when most people did not have enough leisure or strength to care about anything but staying alive, that still there was more concern for culture--that people who had enough to live on would never have dared or would have been ashamed to spend their time in such a way as going to the movies because they would have felt they were not doing their duty for the higher purposes of life. Religion, of course, was partly responsible for this. The Catholic Church, certainly, organized life in such a way that people were kept in constant contact with the metaphysical side of life and if they did not want to keep in touch with the higher purposes of life, they could be forced to do so by religion. Once that power of the church was gone, once it could no longer ask absolute obedience in respect to that, the present tendency began--but in all fairness it must be said that this tendency to care less and less about the higher purposes of life and not to utilize the added leisure time people have for such purposes, is no more entirely voluntary than the concern people formerly had for them was entirely a matter of authority.
The American people, for example, have more leisure time than people have had at any time, but it must also be acknowledged that even though working hours have been shortened, labor at the same time has been intensified to a point where every eight hours actually equals in the physical and mental toll exacted 14 to 16 hours of work--which means that people have empty leisure time with only the capacity to get in on another performance of being possessed, so to speak, by kitsch, of being put into a state of half-sleep, stupor. And this is not the only difficulty--for aside from the handicap of such a drain of physical and mental resources in earning a living, there is the simple fact that most of us just do not know what to do, and the further complication that if we do--if we do want to live in the metaphysical sense--we get fewer and fewer opportunities to do so. Not only is there the initial problem itself of the increasing difficulty to be concerned, as men in the past have always been forced to be concerned, with the higher purposes of life, with the metaphysical purposes of life, but there is the great danger of an increasing abyss between two extreme approaches with no middle ground in between so that if we avoid falling into either one of the two extreme positions, there seems to be nothing left but the abyss. There seems to be no firm ground between the one extreme position of the philistine, who is not interested to par-take in anything disturbing to self-enjoyment and the other position of people who are driven to care too much about culture.
With the tearing apart of the old alliance between the different creative activities of man (science, religion, art, philosophy) that existed so long in the old system of things, the different capabilities were pulled so far apart that no contact between them remained and it became possible to partly set against each other all the different capabilities of the human mind--and in a sense to pull the human mind itself apart. This destruction of any contact, so to speak, between the different creative abilities of man was greatly increased by the emergence of science as the dominating creative ability and while this so-called victory of the scientific mind made it possible for us more and more to handle things in nature and to question the necessity of misery, it also put us in the terrible position of being more and more torn apart, so to speak, as far as the human mind itself was concerned.
So it is quite understandable, though unjustified and quite dangerous, that art has come to be considered by a small group of people in a religious way, in a kind of idolatry, and artists almost as a higher race of man. Despair has driven certain men to feel that only art and the artist re-present certain higher principles and purposes of life now--as the efforts of Malraux, for example, indicate that he feels that what he calls human honor is only represented by art and the artists. And from here it is only a step to the cult of genius and the cult of aestheticism and the crazy patterns that have developed in this approach. It was not until the beginning of the 19th Century that the idea began to gain hold that merely by the gift of artistic creation someone became a higher human being-- a wrong and dangerous assumption that led to all the ear-marks of a cult where the followers adored, making saints out of the artists and leading finally to the result that art itself was left out. In those circles that should have sustained art ars gratia artis became almost art for the artist--and for the critics. Works of art were no longer works of art in themselves, but only something to be read by the critics and to be talked about until finally we had a phenomenon like the twenty students of Joyce who had never read Joyce himself but only the wonderful interpretations printed by the critics--which meant that instead of a group of people who were concerned with art itself, we had almost a cult of initiated people who formed a kind of sect and who seemed to be almost a psychopathological phenomenon.
But both the aesthetical cult and the crazy notion that the artist is like a prophet (who like a prophet can go into solitude and produce art, and who like a prophet can be followed and adored), however mistaken or dangerous, are at least a manifestation of the deep need of human beings for metaphysical experience and an underlying recognition of the fact that all the different creative activities of man have been isolated one from the other, and almost from man himself, until art is the only human activity today that is metaphysical, that has any meaning at all. And no matter how wrong such an approach to art is this need and the underlying awareness of it must be acknowledged along with any criticism of such a misuse of art because when we come to the problem of the philistine and his attitude towards art there is no such concern. On the contrary: under such circumstances the philistine is at ease and cones into his own. In fact, not only is he comfortable, but he has made himself feel even better by making use of democracy to ask everyone to be like him in order to be equal--using the equalitarian creed to bring people down to a lower and lower level. In applying this approach to art, he accepts no definition of art except what the public likes--which is a situation full of hypocrisy on the philistine’s part because what he really means is not what the public likes but what he, the philistine likes (and this has in the past driven some artists into the position, “If you do not read me, I will write so you cannot understand me.”--though they have outgrown this now).
This problem of the philistine is much more deep-seated and indicative of our situation, and much more difficult to handle than some of the approaches to the problem would indicate. Certainly, it is not, as has been thought by some, a class question--because no one can mock the philistine. It is almost impossible to mock him because he knows what he wants and pays for it. Nor is it a question merely of re-educating him. It is a much tougher proposition than that: it is a question of changing the general climate of the age--and in all fields of activity (science, philosophy, etc., as well as art). The philistine, who is so expressive of some of the terrible symptoms of our age, is a mortal enemy as difficult to handle as the symptoms themselves. And it is not even just the problem of the philistine, but also one of finding solid ground for the rest of us too. We must, for example, really have something to go on in order to convince people of good will that art is not entertainment but something needed for the very existence of life itself.
Why does the Philistine have such a genuine hatred of art--a hatred he shares in common with the totalitarian? It would seem that in America certainly, where there is such a gigantic production of kitsch, that he would be content with that. Why does the philistine have to be so vicious when he attacks modern art--and with a hatred that reminds one of the tyrants in history when faced with art. A speech that a totalitarian like Stalin or Hitler might make on modern art and the philistine’s position are absolutely alike--and for a very simple reason: they see a danger in art. The philistine really hates art because it reminds him that there is something more to life than he thinks there is and he does not want to be reminded of it (and here we can see one reason why the philistine has been such a good ally of totalitarianism, for as far as art is concerned what has been a bad conscience until totalitarianism comes then becomes a good conscience).
The philistine tries to have only one judge for art: the greatest mass of people, majority rule--and by a majority he has tried to drag down to his level. In a way the public is the final judge, but in quite another way than the philistine thinks. For art to come under any kind of rule--the type of majority rule the philistine believes in or even under the minority and protecting rule of those who attribute things to art it does not have--is a mortal danger, but there is one other kind of a public for art which is not a matter of rule. If we look, for example, at the public of Homer from his time until today, we see a tremendous audience and one that has made a decision for the work of art and the right one. It starts first with three or four elite in the artist’s time who understand what is being done and who work hard to advance their belief in it, and slowly in this way the audience grows as more and more people come to understand. Bach had a guaranteed living because the church needed art, but the guaranteed audiences of the churches of that time did not like him. They felt disturbed by his music--it was much too loud, much too difficult, they had trouble singing to it--and they tried to get him fired. Then a small group of people led by Felix Mendelssohn began to understand what Bach was really doing and the real audience started to grow.
Art has a very strange ability: it provides for a continuity of human experience through the ages. Works of art are built in a human tradition and the tradition and continuity that art builds contain an element of eternity. This relation to eternity of art is a terrible threat to the philistine--it reminds him of the one thing he wants at all costs to forget: death and the fact that there might be something eternal that goes on after his death. He not only desperately tries to forget death, but he wants to feel absolutely sure that there is nothing after death so as not to be concerned with what goes beyond his day and time. Art, therefore, with its continuity of human experience and tradition is a terrible threat to the philistine who wants to be his own judge, to make his own rules, and not to be reminded of the things that art inevitably reminds him of. So he tries to make art absolutely temporal, to cut off any relation to eternity it might have. In his struggle not to be concerned with anything that goes beyond his own day and own time, he cuts himself off from any contact with eternity--even the one contact that might be left to him: children. For even here, since bringing up children in the real sense means to be concerned with questions of eternity, to achieve his purpose he will have to make the same break with eternity.
This battle of the philistine against any relation to eternity is the real source of the concept that art is a luxury. It is not because of any utilitarian spirit on the part of the philistine or because he is a materialist, but rather because he is a fanatical conformist who feels an intense hatred of anything that is not an expression of his own personality. Even science, which has served the philistine in a certain way, is confronted now with the problem that a scientist, unless he can prove that he wants to lead only to practical and answerable results, has trouble getting a grant any more. So even science is being turned away from its creative possibilities and being turned into a science that does not lead to a promise any more--which means that science too will die. But it is in the arts, of course, that this underlying reaction is most visible and it is there that it is most obvious that the mass of our contemporaries do not want to be reminded of things that are a manifestation of so-called impracticable human capabilities. But unfortunately just in those impracticable capabilities lie the source of all our other capabilities. Once imagination and spontaneity are killed we become only operative minds that liken themselves to a mechanical brain. And since art is the greatest guarantee of imagination and spontaneity in man, just how creative or how operative we are depends exactly on the estimation of the importance of art in a certain society for the life of that society.
As long as we were within the old framework where all the creative activities of man were centered in religion and were related to each other, making it possible for men themselves to be creatively related to each other, the standing of art was either secured by the church with its guaranteed audiences or by political means by rulers who had the leisure and the pride to show their connection with art. Once this framework broke down art, along with all the other creative activities of man, found itself in a position where it had to prove on its own its own place in society. Science found itself in the best position, philosophy in a halfway position (good insofar as it served science, bad in metaphysical terms), and art in the worst position.
And to make matters worse for the position of art, exactly at the moment when art for the first time had to prove its necessity for human lire it was abandoned by the one ally that should have stuck by it: philosophy. With the words of Hegel that we no longer had the desire to express great human content in art, that it seemed that this role was going over to philosophy, philosophy betrayed art and out the bloodstream between them--and both suffered from it. What was really destroyed by those words of Hegel was art’s right of its own right, so to speak, and he did it by the use of one terrible term: content. This term “content” was the last word of old philosophical aesthetics and it showed the absolute non-understanding of art by philosophy. Hegel only expressed in a way what all previous philosophical systems had believed: that art was something that could only accompany a higher form of life. They had always thought (and Hegel too) that the whole of culture had to be there before the arts could develop, that art only came into being within a great culture (which, historically speaking, is nonsense).
But even so, philosophy did not really betray art until it did so in the idealistic way of Hegel and later in the scientific way of modern aesthetics which followed--not only because of Hegel’s concept of content and this theory that only high cultures produced art (which carried the final implication, once the old framework guaranteeing art its place was gone, that art could then be only a matter of entertainment, and as such only a matter of decoration, so to speak--which, if true, would make out of art something so unimportant for man that it would not really matter whether the philistine rejected art or not), but also because philosophy did not ask, when art was on its own for the first time, the one crucial and basic question: Is not art perhaps a basic necessity of human life? Can man live without art? And if so, what would happen to him? Is not art perhaps an absolutely creative ability of man whose loss might destroy all the other creative abilities of man?
Each creative ability of man has its own special realm, means, and way of proceeding. Art and philosophy, for example, are concerned with the metaphysical realm of man, though in entirely different ways; science on the other hand is concerned, and can only be concerned with the physical realm. Its means are means designed to handle the physical, and its way--the so-called scientific way--a way designed to be the most effective one in getting hold of and grasping the physical (which is the reason why the scientific approach applied to non-scientific matters has such deadly results). The scientist in order to keep contact with the arrangement of facts and data has to control as much as is humanly possible against any-thing that could disturb that contact--which means the scientist first of all has to cut out any imagination in his work. The tragedy of science and the scientist is that the scientist in having to be concerned only with the physical is in constant danger to fall into the belief that there is only the physical realm, that there cannot be anything else. He is constantly tempted by and usually falls prey to one crazy and impossible idea--and one that he tries to prove: the Idea that everything that exists has a cause, that all causes are related and that everything can finally be explained--which means that the scientist who falls into such a belief becomes a believer in science and the physical, conforming to the iron laws of necessity. To such a believer it becomes unimportant whether those laws of necessity really exist or not because he is committed to necessity and thus obliged to deny freedom, creativeness, and the fact that there might be something new under the sun.
To such a believer art then perhaps most of all would seem to be absolute craziness because if there is one thing that art does, it is to prove every day not only that in every work of art there is something new under the sun that cannot be predicted by an over-all scheme of the cosmos but that human beings, contrary to the conviction of scientific believers, can do something unpredictable, unforeseen and original in producing those works of art--each of which is different every other work of art. Works of art--and their manifestation of human originality showing that the metaphysical human being has the possibility to be an originator of a creative act--are a direct refutation of that crazy working hypothesis of the scientist that we are absolutely conditioned, that nothing can happen that is not conditioned, that man is a mere automaton of natural law--a hypothesis which, if true, would mean that all possibility of human freedom would be gone. This desire on the part of the scientist to prove that man is calculable and predictable is a particularly clear expression of what has been happening to us because always up to now we have been most proud of the final incalculability of man and the fact that human action was never to be finally predicted.
The extreme difference of position between science and art and the possibilities of each position can serve us very well here in our inquiry into just how important art might be for human life and into what art as a human creative activity might be. Art, taking exactly the opposite position to science, wants to show us that we as human beings are absolutely unconditioned, that we, so to speak, are like God: creators out of nothing-ness. And while this ideal of art cannot be proved either, one thing is sure: what can happen to us when we cease to exert this height of freedom (here artistic freedom) offered by art. The over-all possibilities of man lie somewhere in between the position of art (that we are absolutely un-conditioned) and the position of science (that we are absolutely conditioned) and how well those possibilities are realized depends very much on the part played by art in our lives.
In science, which is only concerned with the physical realm, everything must be proved functional, but in art and philosophy, which are concerned with the metaphysical realm of man, it is a question of intention. One expression of this capability of intention is to be found in the highest dream of man (and one he needs very badly): the dream to be absolutely free, not creative only but a creator too--a dream which is contained in art. Now human beings are creative creatures only, not creators, with a creativeness that is a derivant [is derived] from the Absolute, or to speak religiously, from the God-Creator--but without this dream of human beings to be creators they lose their possibilities of creativeness. Human beings and their relation to art and to this highest dream of man perhaps can best be compared to a chicken that cannot fly, but that also cannot jump if it does not try to fly. Art is trying to fly, trying to get rid of all physical conditions and trying to prove to the world that we are absolutely free. By trying, so to speak, to fly--by trying to exert and train our powers of freedom and creativeness--we still cannot fly, but we can jump and the performance of art has been one great gift given to us to help us to learn how to jump--which brings us back to the question: What can art be and how was it given to us? What kind of thing is a work of art and what is the secret of its effect upon us?
To approach this we must start with a so-called vicious circle found by Heidegger in his work in philosophy on art. Heidegger discovered that we were in a blind alley so far as the question of art was concerned. Knowing that Hegel’s aesthetics and the scientific aesthetics that followed did not go to the heart of the matter, Heidegger tried to ask how we could go to the question at all--and found that this was a very tough proposition indeed. If we try to explain art by looking at a work of art, using this means in an attempt to find out what art is, we are immediately faced with the problem that we cannot know what art is until we know the effect of the work of art on the beholder; but to be able to answer this means that we have to know what the artist intended, and to find out what the artist intended means, of course, that we have to consider artistic intention--which immediately brings us to the impasse of how can we find out what artistic intention is if we do not know what art is. This is the so-called vicious circle discovered by Heidegger. In attempting to solve this problem Heidegger decided to run this circle consciously--by a circular speculation returning to the first point which finally by running the circle many times become a spiral performance--and he found in the course of these speculations (by putting the question: What can a philosopher get out of a work of art?) certain categories of ontological thinking that could be approached by philosophy through a work of art.
For our purposes Heidegger’s circle only tends to throw us out into philosophy--but the circle does exist and we must ask: How does this circle come about? How is this circle possible? Is there perhaps a basic fault in our approach that brings us into the circle? And how can we get out of it? Since we cannot break the periphery of a circle, we must try to find the center of the circle; and to find the center of the circle, we must try to find one point of relation not within the periphery of the circle to which any other point is related. That means: is there in all these matters that we have in hand (art, the work of art, the artist, and the beholder) one common denominator, one definite thing in common to all? We are trying to find out what art and all these things that make up art might be (for example: whether they are original sources or only derivatives) and to find a distinguishing sign for art. Could it perhaps be that this distinguishing sign is the common denominator we are looking for?