FUNDAMENTALS OF A PHILOSOPHY OF ART
ON THE UNDERSTANDING OF ARTISTIC EXPERIENCE(Printer Friendly Version | Back to Transcript)
The artist as a human being (not to mention as a creator of art) has found himself in a steadily worsening situation until at last he finds himself in the position of being both a genius and a monster. And to make matters worse, as if it were not bad enough on the one hand to be considered a monster, genius itself has come to mean something almost as bad in terms of a human being. The artist is placed in the terrible predicament of being considered on the one hand a special type of human being, with special qualities as a human being, who because he is a “genius” and thus so special is to be excused from the responsibilities of life and not to be measured by the usual yardstick, and on the other hand of being considered demonical, a danger for society, a monster. This impossible situation for the artist personally has been another result generally of the breakdown of the framework of theological and cosmological thinking and specifically, of course, an indication of the changed position of art itself.
Within the old order of cosmological and theological thinking the artist was still considered to be “the mouthpiece of Apollon,” and though we might have a few serious questions about this now, it still assured the artist--both as a creator of art and as a human being--of a tenable position. All this lasted until Kant destroyed the foundations of this old order, but since these things take such a very long time to be felt and understood, Kant himself was still able to conceive of the artist in the old way and wanted to reserve the word “genius” only for the artist (as the one who was inspired and rightly could be so, as the one who could use intuition, and rightly so--as the philosopher or scientist could not). But once the old order of things was really gone the situation became more and more pathological for the artist. The artist as a human being frightened other human beings, and came to be considered more and more dangerous for society--for a society that had no room now for a metaphysical concept of life but only recognized a physical concept of life--until the artist finally found himself in the terrible situation of living in a world that either had no place for him at all or considered him to be super-human--of living in a world that looked at him as a sort of combined genius-monster.
Now this predicament of the dual position, so to speak, of the artist has its parallel, of course, in the position of art itself and the split that came about putting art into a position on the one hand where it no longer was considered to have any significance for a scientific world and where on the other hand, it was given significance that did not belong to it. Since it does not seem likely that this was caused entirely by the development that followed Kant, there must have been some basis for it at least in Western thinking about art that had gone on before--and there was, of course.
Plato, as we have seen, felt that the artist was “the mouthpiece of Apollon,” who could speak in beauty of the truth when this gift of Apollon was given to him. Plato also felt that the artist should never try to imitate things as they appear but should try to give true being (which to Plato, of course, was ideas)--and from this stems the distinction between form and content. We tried to make a distinction between thought and form--which accounts for many things that have crept into art. Bother these statements of Plato’s concerning art and the artist prevailed up to Nietzsche--and then with Nietzsche came the final explosion of all the basic fundamental errors of Western philosophy, and the split in philosophy itself that started with Hegel was completed. As Hegel brought out one bias--the scientific one--developing logic and the scientific approach to the full and by that spoiling thinking itself--so Nietzsche brought out and developed the other bias: the aesthetical one. With that philosophy broke in two.
Now every philosophical statement is not only a statement but a pro-position implying action. Half of a philosophical statement is a situational judgment of a certain situation, which can be checked (“This is how I, as a philosopher, evaluate this situation from the facts at hand.”); the other half of the statement is a proposition which proposes a course of action to be agreed upon (“This is what I, as a philosopher, feel to be the best position and course of action to take in this situation, and if you agree, let’s proceed on this way.”). This propositional element of a philosophical statement has not been acknowledged, nor the element of agreement in it recognized (a philosophical statement mostly having been considered simply as a statement), but nevertheless these elements of will, intention, and subsequent action are there and have to be under-stood if we do not want to fall prey to every proposition that comes along.
Nietzsche recognizing the terrible dangers and implications of Hegel’s approach tried to set art against science and tried to design a whole system of metaphysics on the premise that man lives by art. Everything has value only because of its aesthetical value--including man--which puts the artist in the position of being some kind of a super-man. We have the concept of the artist as a super-man with man taking the same position as the artist takes and with the artist trying to teach man how to take that position--and it is a concept that tries to make genius the creator of everything and genius itself completely free, completely arbitrary. But this is only the opposite end of the pole which means that Nietzsche too fell into the trap. To say that art is more than life, that it is the top of all thinking means to think of the artist in a mythical way--to think of the artist as a “mouthpiece of Apollon” (and here with Nietzsche as the mouthpiece of the will to power).
Nietzsche overrated art because he loved it so much. He like Plato was a highly gifted poet and he, also like Plato, deliberately sacrificed his artistic capabilities in order to be a philosopher--which was not an easy proposition for someone who loved art as much as Nietzsche did. He said once in talking about poetry: “Are there People who know what the poets of the strong ages called inspiration?” It seemed to him, as a poet himself, that it was a state of enlightenment--and of such enlightenment that everything could be used at once to write the truth, everything begged to be used--with a tremendous richness and fullness of forms moving on and into him. This is an accurate description of the state of mind in which a work of art starts--but again in the mythical realm, again the concept of “the mouthpiece of Apollon.” Nothing seems to be really done by the artist; everything seems to be being done and only using the artist. But what is the artistic process? Is it an unconscious or a free activity?
Now we have seen there are three kinds of thinking--fundamental thinking in philosophy, analytical thinking in science, and the activity of metaphorical thinking in art--and we have also seen that in metaphorical thinking there is a certain process of association. This, of course, immediately brings in an almost inevitable comparison of the association that goes on in metaphorical thinking with the associative process found in psychoanalysis. But to compare them too closely would mean to take the artist as a possessed man--a man possessed by involuntary associations he cannot control--which in turn would mean to compare the artist to the insane man because the insane man is also possessed. So we must ask: Is metaphorical thinking really possessed thinking? Is the artist really only “the mouthpiece of Apollon?”
Now the three kinds of thinking--fundamental, analytical, and metaphorical--are very closely related to that only too well known and most aggravating of all questions to a parent: Why, Daddy? When a child asks: Why Daddy is it so?, he is usually satisfied with a how or what--with how it works or what it is--which means that most children are usually content with an analytical answer. But then there is the child who when he has heard the how or what still asks: But why? This child who really wants to know why cannot get the answer from the how of it or the what of it--which means he has entered into a stream of fundamental thinking and philosophizing. The third child, on the other hand, never asks a question at all--he just gives an immediate answer. He sees a happening and immediately gives an explanation; he identifies it with himself inwardly and then invents and tells a story of what happened. Now which child would we say has suffered the greatest impact of reality? All have felt the impact of reality, but it is the child who does not ask but answers who is the most hurt by it. The answer is the result of the awareness of a real event in a mind that cannot bear the impact, but must fortify itself by transcending it, by transforming it into something unreal. This process can also be seen in a psychopath, and philosophically speaking, these answers are lies.
So it seems that metaphorical thinking transforms reality by a psycho-pathological process into a lie. But is there more to it than that? What, for example, makes the psychopath and the artist different? Why can an insane man and a child do artistic painting? What do they have in common with the artist and what divides them from the artist? This seems all bound up with mental processes--which say nothing in themselves but produce forms--and with the question of being possessed by mental processes. Being possessed is a mental phenomenon that philosophically is explained by fundamentalized thinking of the demonical and scientifically explained by studying some of the mental processes. But where does the child fit into this?--for there seems to be a strange bond that links the child, the insane man, and the artist.
The child who shields himself against the impact of reality by a process of transformation is a child who withdraws into himself first and then answers this impact, if it is a very great one, by transforming reality into unreality. But when the impact is not so great that it has to be answered by a lie but can be answered only by inner transcendence, we have a painting child--and one who has a tremendous advantage over an art student who is trying to learn how to paint things as they look. When this child paints a cat, for example, he tries to make a cat, not paint one; and when he is finished the painting is not a picture of a cat, it is a cat to him--which means, artistically speaking, that the mentality of the child gives him the same advantage that the animistic painter had when he believed not that he was painting a likeness of a god, but that he was actually making a god. This naive state of mind (which only a child with the absolute belief of making something or a primitive believer, as the animistic artist was, can have) is one undisturbed by reflection; it is pure reaction of the mind. But while reflections cannot come into this, the disadvantage is that the form either creates itself by this process or form cannot be created at all because it cannot be controlled. The child and the animistic painter identify themselves absolutely with the object and the object with themselves. This is an ability that has to be regained as an active performance by every artist, but with this difference: he has to be the master and not the slave of the process (as the child is).
The insane man also is a slave to a mental process. He is always under the impact of one impact he has never gotten rid of--and one that eventually swallows everything up with it--which means that through the mental process which controls him he makes a negative process of an aim of every human being: the aim to be able to unite at the end of human life everything into one unity that makes sense. This takes place in the insane mind in a negative way--as a process of decay. The complete unity is achieved by the complete destruction of every meaning into an idée fixe, for example (which is one of the clearest examples of this). The insane man is a complete slave; he has lost any free decision. The unifying logic of insanity breaks out in him unifying everything in the wrong sense, making everything revolve around one thing which controls him. When the psychiatrist brings this person to painting it is for several reasons. For one thing, the mere handicraft of painting or drawing in itself is a physical activity that soothes the mind. For another thing, especially if the patient is hopelessly insane, it is the most harmless way for him to spin on his fantasies in the process of insanity. Daydreaming accelerates the process too much, but by transforming the same process into the activity of drawing or painting, a delaying process is brought about that is much slower than thinking. And then, of course, the psychiatrist also wants to study the drawing or painting and to find out more about the illness from what is for him a mere illustration of the mental process.
Now in painting with both the child (in an innocent and sane way) and the insane person (in a possessed way) there is an identification of the person with the object and the object with the person. An insane person can only produce infinite artistic elements, never a work of art; a child by chance may produce a work of art if the form becomes united--but neither is an artist. Yet they, the child and the insane man, are the ones that the artist has always been supposed to be--but never really has been. The difference lies in the leading of this process into a productive process where the artist is the master, where he is not possessed by but possesses, where he is not controlled by but controls the process and by that produces works of art. But this basic experience of total identification, which is absolute in the child and insane man, still has to be preserved by the artist--though not in the same way. Why?
The immediacy of the answer given by a child who answers before any question is raised can only be explained by a basic metaphor. This child in being thrown into a world that he does not understand experiences existential fear (the fear of nothingness) which he tries to overcome by immediate action--and this is the main source itself of creative activity: suffering the full impact of the thing but overcoming it by having the courage to take the jump. When a small frightened boy starts whistling in the dark it means, philosophically speaking, that he has responded to the full impact of unknown reality by trying to re-assert himself in the very moment when he is about to lose himself. He tries to overcome this feeling of losing himself and to steady himself against the reality of the unknown by re-asserting himself--and by one of the best means there is: by making sound. To make sound in such moments--any kind of sound at first, a whisper, a cry, a gasp--is a great help, psychologically speaking, because it recomposes us by making us realize we are still there, that we are not so lost after all. The small boy in the dark who has re-asserted himself so far that not only can he make sound but can even whistle a tune has really created a very primitive work of art. In such cases we are setting against the reality of the unknown a building of our own that we have made and can rely on absolutely. This is the beginning of artistic activity and this too has to be regained.
Everyone is born with a dream: the child shows he has the dream, though by the time he has grown he has usually forgotten it; the insane person is caught by the dream and being devoured by it after having forgotten it; only the artist realizes the dream--and it is this process of realization that distinguishes the creative activities of the artist from the creative activities of others. This process of realization has to enter into the creative activities, this jump has to be made in order to place the artist above his own creative processes, in order to make him the master and not the slave of them.
Perhaps the double armor of Apollon--the bow and the lyre--might give us a further clue into art and into what artistic activity might be and what really might distinguish the activities of the artist from those of a painting child or insane man. Mythological things are kernels out of which everyone can build beautiful things--not the truth perhaps, but moving within the orbit of truth. In this sense the double symbol of Apollon, the bow and lyre, might have an indication for us in what these two opposites that are identified together as weapons of Apollon might mean in regard to the artist, art, and artistic activity--an indication related in general to a certain identity of opposites to be found in art and specifically to a very special identity at opposites to be found both in art and artistic activity. The artist, as the human being who can create art, must have the capability of building up essence by existence and building up existence by essence--which means the capability of building certain identities; the work of art itself must have certain identities (and ones that only a work of art has)--the identity of essence and existence, meaning and being, the identity of form and content, the identity of space and the spaceless, the identity in music of time and the timeless--and one other special identity that marks the work of art as well as the artistic process that brings about the work of art: the identity of thinking and doing in the work of art and in the process itself of the artist and the creation of works of art.
Now both the bow and the lyre are pieces of wood bent into a curve, both have strings. The one, the bow, is a symbol for extreme doing with no thinking; the other, the lyre, a symbol for almost doing nothing but thinking. So the double symbol of Apollon is a mythical symbol for thinking with almost no content but thinking itself and the establishment of relations with movement--both of which are indistinguishable in the work of art. As everything is given by the senses, no thinking is required, no task is set (as distinguished from metaphysical or fundamental thinking which does set a task). Everything is thought and done--the deed is the thought, the thought is the deed. This absolute unity of thought and deed given to the senses by the work of art must be given to the work of art itself, of course, by the artist--who enters into a process where he cannot distinguish between doing and thinking because they interchange so fast. But this does not mean that this process, which is the productive process, is an unconscious one; it only seems so because it is such a very fast inter-change of thinking and doing which by its very speed gets its unity. But, metaphysically speaking, the unconscious or subconscious is involved and once again we have to ask: Is it really a free activity of man or only a physical process going on that is given to him?
The artist is making a thing--and, as we have seen, in such a way that thinking and doing are indistinguishable both in the process of making it and in the work of art itself. The moment he would become conscious of the process he would jump into a stream at analytical thinking, reflecting on himself--which might give much joy but could never produce a work of art. He would also by doing this be jumping into the beginning of an insane process where he would become the prey of the metaphorical process which might destroy him. The worst thing in terms of being an artist is to want to be an artist--to try, so to speak, to approach being an artist backwards, to want, for example, as so many people seem to want these days, to be a writer. But a man can never become an artist by first wanting to be an artist. The conditions under which a work of art can be produced of necessity rule out that approach since it is only explicitly by force and discipline (though not consciously so) and by action that the artist produces. This rules out intellectual reflection because otherwise he would never get the speed between thought and action that finally become one. The productive process--which is not a state of reaction (even though it might be unconsciously motivated) but action--is what distinguishes the artist from the artistic man. The artist must go out of the creative process; he must rise above it, master and control it--which means that the artist must get above the stream of metaphorical thinking, that he must, so to speak, be able to build a boat so that he not only can row on that stream, but can row in a certain direction.
Now we have said that the type of thinking used in art is metaphorical thinking, and have been trying to find out what kind of thinking it might be--but what could the metaphor itself be? Is the metaphor really only a synonym, so to speak, for a symbol, as it is mostly taken to be--or does it have a special quality all its own that makes it possible for it to play the role it does in art? In philosophy in the past, as in science, as well as in aesthetics, we have come mainly to use the term as a symbol-- as something that stands for something else. The symbol is a very valuable tool, but since it is a means of communication, and essentially a scientific tool, it can be used in art least of all. A symbol can be used in art to create additional meaning, but it never creates form, and to think of the metaphor in those terms--as being a symbol only--not only means to very much underrate the metaphor, but to fail to understand it at all. Both the symbol and the metaphor stand for something else, but--and here is the essential difference between them--while the symbol only stands for something else, the metaphor also stands in itself. The symbol stands for something else, but never has any meaning in itself; the metaphor, on the other hand, while standing for many other things also, has meaning in itself. A symbol can be valid without its own meaning (as the symbol of numbers, for example) and can explain something else without being identical with it. The metaphor, on the other hand, when taken only in itself as a metaphor still must have meaning in itself--which means that the metaphor is a means of participation.
The metaphor is usually taken only as a figurative expression, but there must be much more to it than that if the metaphor is for all art production the only genuine means of art, if the metaphor is the means in art that can assemble other things metaphorically until a unity of metaphors is approached and brought about, a unity of metaphors meaning one thing. The role that the metaphor plays in art in itself would seem to indicate how very much we have underestimated the metaphor as a tool of the human mind--but there is another strange verification of the power of the metaphor and one that comes from the very thing with which the metaphor is usually confused: the symbol. If we take the symbol in its purest form, the mathematical form, then a very strange phenomenon appears. Mathematics, having developed into so-called free mathematics, with arbitrary symbols, can design a whole system of mathematics that seems to have no reality and that seems to have no value in itself except logically. Yet this same system of symbols--a theorem or a formula--that seemingly relates to nothing but logic will suddenly seem to relate to certain things in nature, to apply to a certain theory of action. There is only one thing that can account for the fact that human beings can create such symbols--completely arbitrary symbols developed into a system consistent only in itself that suddenly seems to have the power to relate to something in the physical world--and that is the metaphor.
But before we ask, as we have to ask: How is it possible that we can make a metaphor at all? and what are we doing when we make a metaphor, when we express a metaphor? let’s first take a look now at what the metaphor was able to do in relation to one of its most powerful forms of expression: the myth. Even after the real world of myth broke down and we entered into the world of metaphysics with its theological and cosmological approach, we still lived in a certain realm of myth that finally only broke down with the breakdown of the cosmological and theological approach itself brought about by Kant--at which time we did not, as we supposed, merely give up the old beliefs and with it myth, but started instead to replace myth with legends (and fine legends they were too!--the legend of history, the legend of society, the legend of nature). I am not suggesting that we go back to that world of myth, even if we could, but, I certainly do suggest that we with our legends do not dismiss quite so lightly that world of myth and what it could do for man. Living in myth was a strange and very creative experience and one that made possible the building of great cultures. And we have to ask: What is myth that it has this power? and what is the metaphor that it can create that myth?
An artist when he answers the impact of unknown reality by a metaphorical invention of his own creates a work of art which, as we have seen, has a reality of its own--the reality of an experience--but which is never taken as reality itself. The myth, on the other hand--and here is where the difference lies--is an artistic activity transformed into realistic relevance, where the myth answers to seeming meaninglessness by a genuine over-all meaning given to mythical figures. The general form for the myth has been given by art by the same means of art itself: the means of a metaphorical performance that springs from conscious or unconscious identification of outward reality with inward reality--with the one difference that while in art it is mixed in pure form given as identity, in myth it is just mixed.
The metaphor itself therefore, seems to take shape within the process of trying to identify inward and outward reality--which means that the metaphor as the very means of art must live in and spring from the same strange realm that is the realm of art itself: that strange territory of the senses, that no-man’s land, so to speak, that in-between land where the outward world meets the inward world and both realms overlap in such a way that they seem to become identical. Outward reality and inward reality meet and become a unity within the metaphor--which if it has been well done also becomes form and thus art (since a form-building element also is contained in the metaphor--one that is made possible because the experience of other human beings identifies with our own experience and has the same implication even though it has taken on another shape).