FUNDAMENTALS OF A PHILOSOPHY OF ART
ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF ARTISTIC EXPERIENCE(Printer Friendly Version | Back to Transcript)
Art has always been supposed to be a language, a means of communication, but if this is so, is it not strange that the eternal essence of art comes out even more clearly once we have lost the immediate conditions and immediate time of a work of art, and that our understanding seems to grow in direct proportion to the extent the work of art becomes less and less communicative--as time withers away from it, as the iconic elements are no longer understood (or misunderstood)? It is not important, for example, to know whether the sculptor who built an animistic statue was an animist; it is only necessary to understand what could have helped the artist’s imagination so that he got such an overwhelming strength of expression--and even that is only a technical problem. In view of all that it seems doubtful that art is a language, a means of communication at all.
Language was the earliest creation of mankind--and all the definitions of man (man as a political animal, as a thinking animal, etc) depend upon the initial definition of man as a speaking animal, a language-creating animal (if man can be spoken of as an animal at all). All the creative abilities of man have been needed to make hint the creator of language, including, of course, artistic creativity (for example: certain words try to reproduce along with the meaning intended also the experience of the word, which is almost artistic experience in this sense)--but this does not make language an art, nor does it justify the use of the term “language” for art. The use of the term “language” in relation to art (the “language of color” the “language of music,” etc.) stems from the will to interpret art as a means of communication--underlying which is the idea that something is conveyed to me as the beholder by the artist and by the work of art, that the artist tells me something by the work of art. If it is true that art is a special form of language, then every work of art would have to tell me, the beholder, something--but this would contradict the words of Heraclitus: “The lord whose oracle is that at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but shows.” He shows, he signifies, he indicates--but he does not tell anything. A painting can tell a story, that is true, but that is not what makes it a work of art and the less contact with a story (communication) I, as the beholder, have with a picture, the more it means to me. Story telling means there is a time element involved, and as the time element becomes less and less, the work of art strikes me more and more.
The very meaning of the term “communication” itself makes it impossible to conceive of a work of art as a form of communication because there is always one condition for communication: an answer must always be possible-- which means that communication, strictly speaking, is only possible directly between human beings, directly with each other. Certainly, in a work of art this answer is never possible--either with the artist or with the work of art itself. My answer can never reach the artist of the picture because I do not face the artist, a man, but a work of art; and with a work of art itself such an answer is not possible because a work of art never engages me in a discussion--nor is it ever possible for me to enter into a discussion with a work of art.
But if a work of art is not communication, if it does not speak to me, what does happen to me, the beholder, when I look at a work of art? First of all, it is a question not of what the work of art does but what the work of art itself is. It is a question not of the work of art trying to transmit something to me, the beholder, which I should answer, but rather a question of the ability of a work of art, as a work of art, to bring me into an experience, and nothing else--which means that it is not communication but an engagement in participation where contact is established by my being taken into the work of art by form. To say that art is communication when it has the ability to bring the beholder into a procedure of participation means to underestimate and to misunderstand art because participation is a much higher possibility than communication and one which is surpassed only by the possibility of human beings in the creative human performance of love: the possibility of identification. Participation, therefore, as the possibility expressed by art, lies directly between those two other possibilities of human beings--the possibility of communication as expressed in language, for example, and the possibility of identification as expressed in love--and just as communication and identification have their own special abilities and laws, so to speak, participation also has its own special ability (the ability to engage the beholder in an experience) and its own special law (the law of form).
Now the objection might be raised: “Oh! That’s all very well what you say about language and art in terms of painting, but what about poetry--which is an art of language itself?” But in poetry is language really used as language? Do we not find that in the specific form of poetry itself, in the very changing around of words for rhymes and rhythms, is expressed the intention and deep meaning to get rid of language, to get rid of the quality of language? Does not the form of poetry itself take the mind of the reader away from language in the sense of communication, making language a means of pure expression to give instead of communication participation?
In prose at first glance language does seem to be the thing itself-- but do we speak prose or do we speak language? Some do speak prose--writers who try always to improve their style, who try to speak written language with long sentences, paragraphs, or even whole essays--but as soon as some one speaks prose he gives us a negative point for our argument because a man who speaks essays or articles, so to speak, can no longer communicate. He is not carrying on a conversation or discussion with someone else but merely speaking in the sense of reading aloud or quoting a memorized statement--which means that prose too must not be a means of communication. Prose in general is for description, for written thought, for transmitting information--certainly, it is not meant to be used, as the fool who speaks prose uses it. So at second glance it would seem that prose in general, let alone artistic prose, must not of necessity be communication merely because of language and that artistic prose itself, like poetry, actually gets rid of language as a means of communication and is able by means of appealing entirely to the inner sense of man, trying to mobilize his intelligence and understanding and to arouse direct sensual impressions, to bring the reader into an experience of participation.
This question of art and its relation, if any, to communication brings us back to Heidegger and the vicious circle be discovered because one very important factor in this vicious circle has been the underlying concept that art is a means of communication--a concept we are trying very hard to break since it seems that art simply cannot be approached in terms of communication. If for no other reason, we would have to discard this approach because nothing can put us into a work of art but the work of art itself. All the talking in the world by the artist of what he meant “to communicate” (and only a very bad artist would try such a thing) could not bring us into an experience that was not in the work of art itself or could make us see anything the work of art could not make us see.
But let’s go on now to another question brought up by Heidegger in his attempt to get out of the vicious circle because it brings us into a very valuable line of inquiry and one which will eventually lead back to a question we have already touched upon: the special role played by the senses in art. Heidegger tried the approach that a work of art is a thing, and then went on to show that being a thing it must consist of matter--and look! It does. This approach that a work of art is a thing opens up some very interesting possibilities for us. Certainly, literally speaking, a canvas as a work of art, or a piece of sculptured stone, or even vibrating air as in music, is a thing--but what kind of a thing? It is a thing like nothing else. First, it is an entirely produced thing--a thing that seems to have no necessity of existence. It is brought into existence entirely by human will and the world would be exactly as it is without it. It is a thing that seems to be definitely added to the world, an addition made by man--like a child born, but without the necessity (since a child is born out of a certain stream of necessity). Second, this additional thing is a thing that is entirely useless within the context of cause and effect. It seems neither to be caused nor to cause within that stream of cause and effect (unless it is considered to be a means of communication--which would put it where it does not belong)--a quality that can be discovered in no other thing except perhaps in man himself (who also can put himself out of the context of cause and effect). It seems to be a thing--this dead thing, this stone, canvas or certain continuity of vibrating air--that has no similarity to any other thing except to man to whom it is most alike. But how could such a thing have a similarity to man and to nothing else? What kind of performance would be necessary to create such a thing?
First, we must look at what it is made of: stone, wood, pigment, canvas, sounds, and words--all things (with the possible exception of words, which would seem to carry their own meaning) that are meaningless in themselves, all things that are dead things. Only words seem to be meaningful and alive--but once again we have to ask: How are words used in poetry and artistic prose? The trick of poetry is to take words out of their original communicative purpose in order to enable them to draw us into the participation of a certain experience--which means that the words as used in poetry have lost their original meaning in the communicative sense and have been rejuvenated by art. In art words are taken as dead material and loaded with the meaning of a certain specific experience. This artistic meaning can load words so heavily with such an association of experiences that the metaphorical content and meaning will carry over into communication--and to such a point that those words will never become entirely empty (which is the reason, on the other hand, why language becomes emptier and emptier the moment that poetry is not there to do this). A word like evening, for example, can gain through poetry such an ability to carry meaning, can become so loaded by great artistic experience that even when it is used in a simple phrase like “Good Evening” the associations are still there and “He who says ‘Good Evening’ says much.” And not only poetry--artistic prose can do the same. After reading Joyce one will find that many hollow words suddenly seem to have taken on new meaning, new associations of experience.
Art is the one activity of man where he can make himself most sure of being a conditioner, the one capability of man where he has to reckon least with conditions, where he is able to show that he can change things around as he wants to, where things (color, sound, wood, etc.) become the slaves of man and where they as things have the least to say--where man, more than at any other time, feels himself to be the master. Through art man has the possibility of all this power over things, but once again we have to inquire more deeply into the things themselves--into those strange things meaningless in themselves that become the materials used in art to express a very alive thing--because there is still more to it. There seems at least two more indications to be found in the materials of which art is made--and very strange ones: first, the indication that although material, of course, is used, there is the strange quality about this material that it seems to be as little a physical thing as possible and second, that it is bound to the senses in a very special way. In painting, for example, we have color. Now colors, as we all know, do not exist as such but are certain waves of reflected light of a certain length. Colors belong only to the human perception of the thing, to the manner in which we perceive waves of light. It is our visual sense that transforms the waves of light into perception of color--so in a way we could say that colors do not belong to things. Paint itself, of course, contains certain matter, and as such has to be considered a thing, but there again the matter itself is not used for itself but only because it can convey color. In music we hear sounds--but how? Waves of vibrating air become musical sounds to us through our ears--but actually all we hear are waves of air which through the ears are translated into sound. So sound again is a thing that seems to be almost without matter, that seems to be as little a thing as possible.
(Modern art in a way has given us a strange argument of this in re-verse. Plato thought art was imitation, that a painted table, for example, was only an imitation of a real table, but he had to wait a long time be-fore the modern artist put the real table, so to speak, into a picture-- which he did in the collage. In collages the modern artist thought he could put the “real thing” into a picture and by that take the meaning out of the thing itself, using real things to make them into non-things, to make them only conveyors of experience.)
Now this all seems very true as long as we are talking about painting with its waves of reflected light and music with its waves of vibrating air--but what about sculpture? Stone seems to be a very massive thing indeed-but, as it is used in art, is it really? Can we say (unless we would be able to invent a light that would show every interior grain of the stone) that in sculpture the “whole” of the stone is used? Is not the surface of the stone really the material used? And once again--since the surface is just the border where the thing ceases to exist--is it not as little of the thing as possible? But even if we acknowledge that in sculpture we also take a thingless thing, so to speak, and use it for a work of art, we still have to consider whether the second strange indication of the materials used in painting and music holds true. We still have to ask: Do we have the same dependence upon the senses with a surface that we have with color and sound. Can we say that a surface used in a piece of sculpture, like color and sound, only exists within our senses as such? Can we say that the same transformation takes place with a surface that happens with a wave of reflected light or vibrating air where those waves are transformed by the senses into another thing--into color or sound--and are taken to make a work of art only in the form into which they have been transformed?
Surface seemed to be different since we cannot prove so readily as we can in painting, for example, that the surface seen in the piece of sculpture is as different from surface as the border plane of a thing as color is from reflected waves of light--or in other words, it seems we cannot prove that surface, as the material used in sculpture, exists in the work of art only in the senses in the same way that color or sound do in painting and music. But in a piece of sculpture has not the same transformation taken place? Is not the artistic experience of a piece of sculpture based not on the border plane of a thing but on the immediate surface we have when we feel it. Is not sculpture dependent on our sense of feeling as painting is on our visual sense or music on our audio sense? Does not the same transformation have to take place in our senses? Is it not on our sense of feeling the experience of the surface that a work of art in sculpture is based--using the surface in order to mobilize our sense of feeling and touch? So can we not say that in sculpture also not only is as little of a thing as is possible used, but that it is used in the work of art only as it has been transformed by our senses?
Now what about poetry--and artistic prose, of course. Words, especially in poetry, are led back to sound--which, as in music, exists only as something through the sense of hearing--with this difference: sound in music is inarticulate sound while sound in poetry (and abstractly in prose) with its added material, so to speak, of words is articulate sound. This added burden, so to speak, of words may make things a little more difficult for poetry and prose (as we can see in an alliance between the two such as opera where articulate sound cannot compete with inarticulate sound--great poetry, as a matter of fact, can even be harmful to music with both destroying each other) but even so articulate sound still exists only as matter for our senses, is still a material event only for our senses and nowhere else.
So it seems that all the means used in the arts are made up in a way “of the stuff dreams are made of”--for they are things that are on that borderline of our senses where we touch the world exactly, that borderline between outwardness and inwardness that runs within our senses. Art is made of things--but special things that exist only within and for our senses (which is the meaning of the mythical Greek insight that Orpheus could hear the sound of trees and stones and could make himself understood to them). In general our senses are our means to communicate our will to the world, but in art a very strange thing happens. Our senses instead of being used for practical purposes are used in art to convey to them some-thing they otherwise would never experience: joy. Art--via the senses, as we have seen--has the strange capability to bring joy to the senses. A work of art must be a joy for the senses--a painting for the eyes, a Greek statue for the sense of touch and feeling, music for the ears--otherwise we would never be able through art to bring the senses into their own right and to show them that they are able to perceive more in life than just seeing, feeling, and hearing things. Art then mobilizes the senses in quite a different way--bringing them into their own, bringing them into their own in a way so they become autonomous. There is no other means except in terms of the senses to explain the effect that art has upon us.
Once we realize this, it must also become apparent that the only way to educate people to understand works of art is by educating the senses--leading the senses into the perception needed (the eyes, for example, into recognizing form, color and so on). By educating the senses we can make art speak to man; we can enable art to give back to man its power of self-explanation. A work of art never tells anything, but it has via the senses the power of self-explanation and if the power of self-explanation of a real work of art is lost, it means that the real loss is not in the work of art itself, but in the loss of our own sense perception and our moral loss of perception itself. So it seems that the senses--that strange borderline between outwardness and inwardness, that borderline where we touch the world exactly--are the only thing able to lead us into another strange realm: the realm where all art takes place, the realm that is like a small strip of land that can be claimed entirely by the world or entirely by man as belonging to him alone, the realm that is a kind of no-man’s land between the world and man where both realms meet and become indistinguishable.
But, once we have discovered that art is a thing that can only be approached by the senses, we still must go on further to ask: What kind of a thing is this thing?--for there is more to art than meets the senses. Having tried the one approach via the senses, we must now try the counter-approach: the approach via the concept of the thing itself--first trying to find out what it might be, then how it could be, what it is that makes it a thing. Is it a thing brought into being entirely by human beings? Is it a thing that would not exist at all if human beings did not make it? And what do we mean by a thing generally?