FUNDAMENTALS OF A PHILOSOPHY OF ART
ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF ARTISTIC EXPERIENCE(Printer Friendly Version | Back to Transcript)
Let’s go back for a moment to Greek myth and the Greek gods--and especially Apollon--to see what further insight they might be able to give us into this question of what art and artistic activity might be and do for man and to see if we cannot gain a little understanding of the atmosphere that made certain concepts so pertinent to art possible. Human beings in the world of Greek myth were to find their own way through that world of fate. Their gods were not there to love them or help them or save them in the sense of the Jewish or Christian God. The Greek gods were gods of fate, ironical gods, who did not pretend to love human beings-- though they could be seduced by strange means to love them. It was a most ambiguous relationship and one which perhaps was best revealed by that most ambiguous of all things: the Greek oracle.
The Hebrews too had their prophecies--and some very ambiguous ones from their prophets. But there was one quality in the ambiguity of Hebrew prophecies never to be found in Greek ones: the Hebrews believed that the good men who wanted to know would understand, that only the bad ones would die. With the Greek prophecies there was never a question of such a thing as goodness or badness, or men who would be saved and men who would not be saved. The Greek prophecy only managed things in such a way so that men would be overwhelmed by the truth.
Nietzsche felt that it was to meet the danger of such a pessimistic world that the Greeks created art in order to be able to create the kind of life they felt it to be--life which was “at bottom, in spite of all alternations of appearances, indestructible, powerful and joyous.” Since Greek art and Greek myth were so united and interwoven (to a point where Plato when he wanted to destroy myth felt he had to attack art because art was, so to speak, the carrier of myth), these words of Nietzsche also show us the way of man with myth--man who out of the deepest longing for meaning tried first to give meaning to the world by creating myth. The fact that later he destroyed that self-created myth and in the end had to face once again the inexplicable means among other things that we now have the opportunity to retrace and regain the beginnings of the thinking of man which were lost in this long development of the human mind and to gain out of those beginnings the deep insights and fundamental basic quality of thought they can show to us.
Kafka, for example, out of our modern needs was able to draw out of Greek myth the most pertinent insights for our situation--and in that strange way of the human mind with its capability to throw light backwards, so to speak, was able also to discover the strange existential situation the Greeks themselves lived in and to best reveal Greek existential thought. Kafka in his parable of Ulysses and the Sirens shows that little childish and inadequate means, little artifices that may not even be taken seriously by the man who uses them, may serve to rescue him, to distract him from the dangers of life--and, as in the case of Ulysses, even enable him to betray the gods, those Greek gods who do not do so well by man, those gods who envy man and try to destroy him when he does something extraordinary. In Kafka’s story the sirens represent woman’s seducing--not by song but woman at her most dangerous moment: when she is silent and only the eyes speak. Ulysses knew very well the sirens were silent, but being a Greek he also knew that to have escaped knowingly and to have shown it would have meant that the gods would have destroyed him (because by Greek standards he would have exceeded human bonds, he would have been guilty of hybris). So he set the stage to convince the gods (and thereby convincing himself too) and pretended not to “hear” the silence. He was such a fox that he was able to escape knowingly and not to show it. Kafka with this parable of Ulysses and the little artifices used by Ulysses to betray the gods and to save himself gives us such an insight into art itself and into Greek art and the role it played, that perhaps now we can approach Apollon and ask him: What is the meaning of art?
Apollon, like Dionysos, was a double god--a god who gave prophecies and songs. He had two weapons--the bow and the lyre. Both were a piece of wood bent and on both were strings. Yet one sent the mortal arrow, the other song. Or did the lyre perhaps send arrows too? How did the Greeks come to conceive of the god of art as a killer? Or what did death in that sense mean? There was the symbol of song on the one hand and death on the other--and we must ask: Is there something in artistic activity that justifies the way the Greeks used the symbols of the bow and lyre? And what did the arrow mean? What did the double armor of Apollon mean?
Apollon was the giver of oracles. What could oracles in the sense of that double god of prophecy and song, that god of the double armor, have meant? Can we find in the oracles themselves perhaps a hint? “The lord whose oracle is that at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but shows.” The oracle did not say anything though it spoke clearly and did not hide the truth. There was only one thing that would reveal the meaning of the oracle: the action of the man to whom the oracle was given and as soon as that action set in everything became clear. When a king came to the oracle to ask what would happen if he went to war with the Persians, the oracle answered: “If you cross the river, you will destroy a great empire.” The empire he destroyed was his own. Truth was given--which meant that it could only be used by a man who cared for truth. He should have heard rightly and then he could have stopped fate but he did not care for truth so he could not hear. By the oracle was given the chance to get out of fate, but he himself was entirely responsible whether he did so or not. It was entirely a matter of whether he was truthful or not--for only the truthful could understand and handle the truth of Apollon. Anyone who asked Apollon was given his own fate--but it was shown to him on his own body. Either he was truthful and could use the truth--which meant it built him up--or he was not truthful and it burnt him. The mercilessness of that kind of oracle has been the only art form round to render some experience of how the gods would have spoken to man if they did speak and while it was super-human, it was entirely human if understood and used rightly.
Socrates, for example, received an oracle he did not ask for, but he was such a fox that not even the goddess of fate could pierce his armor. When an over-enthusiastic student of Socrates went to the Delphic oracle to ask who was the wisest of all men, he received from the Oracle the answer: “Socrates.” Socrates knew that once before the oracle had spoken so directly(1) and that it was deadly, so he invented a shield of pretension to protect himself from Apollon. He said: “Yes, Socrates is the wisest of men--but only because he is the only one who knows that he knows nothing.” The Athenians were Greeks and finally killed Socrates for precisely the reason that he was the wisest of men--nevertheless he managed to betray the gods and to postpone the judgment and envy of Apollon.
Socrates was a man of irony, as Apollon was a god of irony (which was one reason why Apollon was really the only god for Socrates--if he had a god at all). What the irony of Socrates could mean we have had a glimpse of--a glimpse that shows us the start of all original philosophical thinking: namely, to know that we cannot know and what we cannot know--which, of course, makes us wise men. What the irony of Apollon could mean we have also had a glimpse of--a glimpse which leads us to the question: Is there something in art that is similar to the Greek oracle--something whose full sense can only be shown and developed by the full mobilization of the beholder himself who takes in art? Is it possible that the Greeks in conceiving of Apollon as the god of prophecy and also as the god of art were able to embody both those qualities in one god because there is something in art in relation to the beholder that is similar to an oracle in relation to the man who asks for it--a certain soul-searching, so to speak, that goes on in art as well as in prophecy?
Now there is another very strange ability of art and the artist which also comes to light in Greek myth. Orpheus was the singer of the Greeks-- a singer and a seer. Of him it was said that he could understand the birds and the stones. All nature spoke to him and in turn when he was singing everything in nature understood human beings, everything understood the art of human beings. His song gained him entry even into Hades, touching all and even regaining Eurydice for him until the moment he ceased to be artist and lost the magical power of art--until the moment when he looked back, wanting Eurydice in reality and not just in imagination. But what strange and wonderful kind of magic is this--where the artist through the power of art can make the stones speak, can make the universe speak--can make then speak and can understand them?
The recognition of this strange ability of art and the artist is contained not only in Greek myth but is to be found in many popular folk sayings and stories of all peoples where special qualities--qualities of the senses--have always been ascribed to the artist: he saw things other people could not see, felt things other people could not feel, heard things other people could not hear. It has always been conceived in folk ways that the artist as to the senses was uniquely gifted, that the artist had, so to speak, super-senses. (But that did not mean, either in myth or in folklore, that the artist was considered to be super-personal. It was not until the 19th Century that the idea of the artist as super-personal or the idea that the genius was absolutely different from other human beings came about and could be expressed in the negative sense.) Along with this also there has always been the very special position accorded to the artist who had lost one of his senses. If one of the senses--especially the visual sense--had been taken away from the artist, it could be a sign--a sign of super-sensibility brought about by the loss of one sense where the artist could really see things that others could not see (as the blind Homer was all-seeing). Blind seers typified this also in a synthesis of all senses into one sense completely aware of what was going on.
All these abilities attributed to art and the artist in folklore and especially in Greek myth--the ability of an Orpheus through the power of art to make all nature speak to him and in turn to make all nature understand human beings, the ability of the artist to hear, to see, to feel special things others cannot experience, the very special ability of a blind Homer to synthesize all remaining senses into one all-seeing sense--contain a clue for us, a clue to art in relation to the senses, and we have to ask: Is there something special that happens to the senses in art? Can men perhaps by over-sensitivity see things that pertain to the spirit? Can there be a kind of inner sense?
Now just as we have seen that no matter how many times we go back to Greek myth fresh insights and new questions arise endlessly out of the original mythical vision of art as experienced in Greek myth, we have also see that old philosophy (contrary to Greek myth!) did not really seem to understand art. Nevertheless, it was not until Hegel that philosophy really betrayed art with Hegel’s concept of content--with his concept that it seemed that no great human content could be expressed any longer in art--thereby denying that there was something absolutely eternal in art, thereby denying in fact art a rightful place at all. But we cannot accept this position, as it seems to have been accepted, quite so readily without asking first the question that philosophy should have asked: Is not the performance of art perhaps an activity that is absolutely necessary for human life? Can man really do without art without losing his standing as a human being?
Philosophy by never asking this question did a great disservice to art (and incidentally to itself) because only philosophy--free philosophy, pure philosophy--can answer this question for us. If we approach the question from the point of view of history of art, for example, from the point of view, let’s say, that we know there was intense artistic activity going on already at the time of the cave man (as we can see from the cave paintings), we realize that for art to have existed so early must mean there is more of an inner need for art than has ever been suspected, but still we do not really get an answer because all history of art can tell us is that art has always been there without giving us the answer of whether art is a basic source for life. Only philosophy, pure philosophy, free philosophy, can do that for us; only philosophy can give us an indication whether art is of such a basic quality for human life.
The fact that this question has never really been put and that art has really always been considered as derivative and never considered as a way of creating a way of life is very well indicated by the fact that until modern art was able to go back to other styles of other times and approach them, it rarely happened that people were interested in any other style of art than their own (except for the Renaissance and their very mistaken revival of Greek art). This possibility of modern art really to be able for the first time to go back to art styles of other times, strangely enough, came out of a very negative thing: out of the chaos of life and the resulting chaos of the non-style in art of the 19th Century where art was only a theatrical performance, faked, without knowing anything, philosophically speaking, about the originals. Out of this weakness to take every style for imitation’s sake without understanding the thing, grew the tremendous strength of modern art to transcend and to transform all styles into its own, building bridges of immediacy, so to speak, to every experience, creating a kind of internationality with all the dead peoples of the world-- and this possibility that we along with modern art can discover in art, in all art and all styles, is one of the greatest blessings of the curse of the terrible situation we find ourselves in.
It has been possible, for instance, for Picasso to revive old experiences of Attic Greek art and even to enrich them, to enrich the meaning of Greek art backwards--which is one of the greatest possibilities of the human mind. In genuine philosophy when a great thinker comes along and thinks anew, he always goes back to fundamental questions, and in doing so, every new insight he gains throws light backwards, so to speak. After Kant had done his work, it seemed in going back to Plato that Plato had never really been understood before. New things were discovered in Plato that had always been there, of course, but had never been found. All fundamental meta-physical thinking goes on in one context that never breaks and when the human mind discovers new possibilities, it always enriches old experiences. The same is true now in art. We are able for the first tine to experience art as a living body of human experience in which no part dies and in which each new part enriches all the other parts, to experience for the first time this miracle of the coherence of artistic experience that does not die with the new and enriches meaning for us if we go into it for life’s sake--which means there is an eternal quality in such a thing. We are able now not only to grasp the living body of thought in philosophy, but to grasp the living body of images in art too--with one simple pre-condition: the pre-condition that in order to be able to do so--in order to be able, for example, to use the magic key of mythology (as we are trying to use it here)--we must be able to reinforce whatever we use with our own experiences. Once we understand this, the arts can give us by this new phenomenon a thread of Ariadne to lead us out of the labyrinth to a new platform to stand on to re-experience the most different possible experiences of mankind in the past. And surely for art to be able to do such a thing for man must mean that there is something absolutely original in art that stands alone.