Blog powered by Typepad

« My laughter has suddenly turned shrill and fearful | Main | Be afraid, be very afraid! »

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The Bastards had removed it but it's back. Enjoy it while you can.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaGZrq5S3QA

Sublime! Simply sublime!

Can I refer you once again to Schopenhauer whose thinking on art and the function of art underlies my attitude to this discussion. Schopenhauer (quoted by Bryan Magee in his “Confessions of a Philosopher”) wrote that “Philosophy has so long been sought in vain because it was sought by way of science instead of by way of the arts”.

This is not the forum for, nor am I capable of, producing an encapsulation of S’s philosophy which, in turn, drew on that of Hume and, particularly, Kant on which I am even less able to comment. Furthermore, I’m sure there are those who would disagree with me concerning my understanding of S’s work. Suffice it to say that Kant’s great discovery of the division of “reality” into the worlds of the noumenal and the phenomenal (“phenomenal” here meaning the world as we experience it; the world where science holds sway) was the grounding of S’s explanation of art as that which gives us insight into the noumenal. I should add that we have no idea what the noumenal comprises nor indeed what “it” is: we only know that it exists and that we know some of its characteristics. However, S considered that the only road to experiencing the noumenal was through art.

It’s this consideration which convinces me that “Art” exists but it is only “Art” if it allows us some peek into the noumenal world. S thought that music was the highest of the arts because it gives a direct – unmediated – experience of the noumenal. Your point concerning the similarity of emotion engendered by your experience of Beethoven or Shostakovitch and others’ experience of Jagger is a good one. Nevertheless, does the music of the Stones or Beethoven tell us anything, reveal anything except that we are all creatures of feeling and emotion?

I would say that Beethoven or, since I’m citing Schopenhauer in evidence, Wagner are greater artists than Jagger because I consider that B’s and W’s music gives us, not only an emotional charge, but tells us something (which cannot be put into words) of the “truth” of reality – an insight into the noumenal. Jagger’s music might do the same but the insights gained are, if present at all, minuscule. IMHO his music – and pop music generally - is sheer emotionalism without any content.

This is not to criticise Jagger’s music or those who enjoy it but pop music is not written (as I believe and you imply) to express anything beyond some basic, instantly accessible sentiment which, in many cases, it does very well indeed. Even so, the emotion engendered by a Stones concert has the same roots as that engendered by attending Parsifal but that’s as far as it goes. Of course, it may be that enjoyment of Wagner or Beethoven also goes no further than that although I would contend that there’s far more to B’ and W’s music than just its emotional content. In the same way, coming to your earlier posting and the comment thread resulting from it, Hitler’s paintings can be enjoyed as pleasing and decorative illustrations, as can Hopper’s, but I don’t believe that Hitler’s artwork (even if possibly superior technically as craft to Hopper’s) gives us any insights at all.

'Bongers', you lead me into deep waters so forgive my floundering!

I am deeply suspicious of this whole idea of 'the thing in itself'. As applied to one's re-action to 'Art', I suspect that it springs from a desire on the part of some highly sensitive people to explain the feeling of near 'ecstasy' they experience when faced with a work which they, personally, would call 'Art'. Perhaps the word 'ecstasy' overstates the feeling but certainly I for one do experience from time to time an extremely heightened emotional response to a piece of music, or a picture, or a sculpture. Such is the stength of this feeling that there must be a temptation to ascribe to it some inner attribute even if that 'thing in itself' cannot be described or defined.

I take a more pragmatic view. For some reason, which the Darwinists have yet to explain (along with several others!) humans are endowed with an aesthetic sense. In music, at the simplest level, we all respond to rhythm and melody. Classical music takes these, and other elements, and combines them in a higher level of complexity requiring a more perceptive listener to appreciate them - but the essentially emotional response is the same at any level, in my opinion.

Similarly, in painting, certain combinations of colour and form can produce an emotional response but I can't go along with your theory that somehow the artist is exposing a 'Truth' (I give it a capital 'T' for the same reason that I give 'Art' a capital, it implies my gentle scepticism.) For example, Paul Klee's so-called 'magic squares':

http://en.easyart.com/scripts/zoom/zoom.pl?
pid=134723&fs=1&affiliate_id=997&keyword=134723

These have been variously described as representing the beginning of life, as being similar to looking into a flower bud that has not quite opened fully, and so on. Apart from the somewhat prosaic fact that Klee spent most of his life struggling to work out the intricacies of colour and form, I have no idea exactly what he was trying to express. I only know that when I first saw one his 'squares' on the cover of a little book back in 1958 - I loved it on the spot even though I had no idea who Paul Klee was. (I bought the little book, price 2s/6p, and I still have it!) Now, there is a temptation for me to try and explain that extraordinary re-action, which I still remember vividly, as somehow being more important than it actually was, but the fact is that it was simply a pesonal, aesthetic response to an image that other people would find unremarkable.

So, I say again, there is no such thing as 'Art', only art!

DD

This is a very exalted discussion and, to try to get matters clear in my own mind, I’d like to go through my basic understanding of the discoveries of Kant and Schopenhauer. I should note that their insights are difficult to take on board. K particularly, although probably the greatest philosopher since Plato, had no gift for easy communication. OTOH S’s masterwork (The World as Will and Representation) - although difficult – is a delight to read. In all modesty, I’m not convinced about my ability either to understand, let alone convey, the philosophy of K and S. After all, some of the keenist minds in the last 200 years have misunderstood it. Again, I would refer you to Bryan Magee’s “The Philosophy of Schopenhauer” for a masterly, but not uncritical, analysis of S and, by reference, K. Magee (as well as S himself) considers that the philosophy should be thought of as that of Kant-Schopenhauer rather two as separate philosophies.

As I understand it, K-S’s crucial point is that we can only understand and experience reality through our senses; that everything we know about reality is subjective and mediated through them. We cannot know – we will never know – what else there is beyond what our senses tell us. But it is certain, unless you believe that, by some amazing coincidence, our senses have developed to allow us to experience everything there is, that there is “something” beyond what we are capable of experiencing. Indeed, since our senses have developed to ensure our material survival on this earth, their powers are limited by that very fact. I cannot understand – although there are those who would disagree – how anyone could maintain that our senses are so all-encompassing that there is nothing left out of their purview.

An example to illustrate this limitation is the impossibility of a man who has been blind from birth being able to “know” sight and seeing. He can know that such a thing as vision exists and have some idea of what is entailed in the mechanics of seeing (involving, for instance, the chemical effect of light on the retina and the brain’s interpretation thereof etc) but he has no knowledge of “sight” although, and this is important, he has a knowledge about sight. In the same way, we have knowledge of the material world – the phenomenal world as K called it – which we experience through our senses. However, and setting aside the highly improbable situation that our senses are capable of sensing the whole of reality, there is another part of reality which we cannot know but only “know about”. This is K’s noumenal world. Accordingly, there is no reason to believe that our experience of, say, an object comprehends all that that object comprises and, moreover, this argument also applies to ourselves as objects and individuals. S considered that the phenomenal world is a manifestation of the noumenal, but that it is not all the noumenal. (contd.)

contd

Turning to art, Magee writes that “S . . . believed that art was primarily a mode of cognition which gives us knowledge of the inner nature of things – by contrast, shall we say, with science, a mode of cognition which gives us knowledge of what is observable. The two are not in conflict because they function in different realms. Science increases our understanding of the world of material objects in space and time . . Art, by contrast, gives us glimses of something timeless and spaceless that is somehow ‘behind’ or ‘within’ (and in either case veiled from us by) . . the world of our ordinary experience.” It’s invidious, even so, to assert (in an appeal to authority) that “Art” exists just because S or Conrad or Tolstoy or Wagner say it does. I believe it exists because my response to certain works of art (mainly drama and music) goes, in some inexplicable way, beyond mere emotionality. To me it’s the inexplicability of what happens which is the key.

There is no better example of what I’m seeking to convey than what you have described. Your reaction to Paul Klee, which you describe as “. . simply a personal, aesthetic response to an image that other people would find unremarkable . .”, is a profound illustration that a work of art can change you and/or appeal to something in you at a deeper level than you can explain. What Klee has revealed and how you have responded are literally inexplicable (in words) even to yourself (and, I would add, to Klee). Although you tend to dismiss your emotional reaction as “personal [and] aesthetic” I would contend - and forgive me for possibly assuming too much – that your response was a recognition at some deep level in you of a truth about reality which was revealed to you by and through art. That you still have the book and, still, I guess, when you look at it for the umpteenth time, get an echo of that first stab of emotion, says more about Klee as an artist – and the power of Art – than anything I am able to write. That “other people would find [the image] unremarkable” does not detract one iota from the effect Klee’s art has on you: it has a truth and authenticity for you and that is what’s important.

Thanks, Bongers, a very clear, and if I may say so, elegant, exposition of your views, especially given the complexity of the philosophy involved. Alas, today was a grass-cutting day in the Churchyard so I am too knacked to reply tonight, and tomorrow 'SoD' arrives with girlfriend - and hopefully also the memory stick to fill this shiny new computer with all my information from the old one, so computer use may be restricted until Sunday evening. Actually, it will give me time to ponder my response which, as you have probably guessed is likely to be more than somewhat sceptical. Still, let me think on't, as they say, and in the meantime watch this space!

Alas, 'Bongers', I remain doubtful concerning your, and Mr. Schoppenhauer's, notion of 'the thing in itself', a sort of exemplary essence that lies hidden behind the objects of the world which we experience through our senses. Apart from any other consideration, I don't quite see the point of anything that "is beyond what our senses tell us". Sorry to be so pragmatic, but if that is how it is then what is it for? Apart, perhaps, from forming the basis for metaphysical musings on the part of various philosophers! If these 'things' are beyond sensory perception and cannot therefore be investigated the musings are thereby cut somewhat short.

Returning to 'Art', or even, art, I think that my explanation, that certain examples of it produce a heightened emotional response in some people and that this response is entirely psychological, is a more accurate description. I suggest, kindly, that perhaps the sheer force of that emotional response in your, and others, minds prompts you to demand a higher or deeper explanation than just the psychological effect of, say, certain colour combinations, or the arrangement of keys and chords in a particular piece of music.

It's worth remembering that any 'Truth' worth the name must have aspirations to be universal, but the re-action of people to 'Art' is usually exceedingly variable, ranging from the ecstatic to total indifference. If there is any 'Truth' in 'Art', I suggest that it is extremely personal and entirely subjective. Anyway, I shall be interested to read what any of my readers think of the 'magic squares' I have posted up above.

DD

The magic squares do nothing for me I'm afraid but they obviously do something for you. Now, why would that be?

When Schopenhauer discussed the work of Spinoza (who Schopenhauer admired enormously) he, nevertheless, considered that Spinoza's identification of the universe with God took philosophical argument no further forward other than to provide yet another (and redundant) word to describe the universe. In the same way it seems to me that your description of your reaction to Klee’s work as "entirely psychological" is, analogously, a less than enlightening description of something occurring in and to you (and me) which I find entirely mysterious. Ascribing your reaction to Klee as "psychological" takes us (well me) no further forward by way of explanation. It doesn't begin to answer the question as to why your "psychology" (whatever that is) translates into an emotional reaction when faced with some coloured squares on canvas.

I believe, and I consider that Kant reasoned correctly, that there's more in the universe that our senses can perceive. Moreover, it irks me that there is no (and can be no) scientific explanation as to why (rather than "how") things - even in the phenomenal everyday world - work in the way they do or, more to the point, why they even exist. It's possible to live with that. Many people do. You appear to. I can't. However, choosing not to address matters which science cannot explain - or describing them as "God" or "psychology" - puts a limit on any possible further understanding of (or even thinking about) the world. Even if we can never "know" the noumenal we can "know about" it and maybe push back the boundaries of what we can know.

You may say - actually you strongly imply – that, since we can never know what our senses can't tell us, we should put out of consideration anything we cannot experience through our senses. To me, though, the essence of the mystery of the world lies outside what we can experience mediated by our senses. The only unmediated knowledge I believe we can have is through the arts and, most of all, through music. However, if you choose to consider solely sense-mediated experience as being the whole of reality, you would miss one of the major philosophical insights stemming from the nounenal/phenomenal distinction. This insight is that not only is there a limit to human knowledge but that certainty (in a Cartesian sense) is not possible. Moreover, (and this is something even Schopenhauer didn't appreciate, living as he did before the overthrow of the Newtonian world) the uncertainty of the universe is also manifested in the uncertainty of the bit we are able to sense. From this stems Popper’s revolution in the philosophy of science. Apparently one of Popper's favourite phrases (which echoed Socrates) was "we don't know anything". Even so, this didn't prevent – on the contrary it probably helped - his becoming (arguably) the greatest philosopher of the 20th century: certainly the greatest philosopher of science of the 20th century (or possibly any century).

I'm not sure if the above is a convincing argument - or even if it's an argument at all. But I would say that human reaction to works of art argues (to me) in favour of a belief that something quite fundamental reveals itself through art and something in us responds to this.

Is it something fundamental about the world that is revealed by art, and to which we react? Or is it more that artists are aware of something fundamental within us that they have the keys to activate?

There are, clearly, limits on how subjective the effect of art is, and I think the least so with music. Is there anyone who hears a minor chord as happy, and a major one as sad?

The mystic Gurdjieff spoke often of an almost-lost system of "objective art": art created with a real understanding of the human machine, which would purposefully evoke the same response in everyone. It was considered simply another form of explanation; such art was used as a kind of a textbook to communicate that which could not be put into words, to drive the beholder willy-nilly into inner states from which growth and understanding might result.

'Bongers':

"Ascribing your reaction to Klee [or any other artist] as "psychological" takes us (well me) no further forward by way of explanation. It doesn't begin to answer the question as to why your "psychology" (whatever that is) translates into an emotional reaction when faced with some coloured squares on canvas.

Well, I would suggest that it is a rather more hopeful line of investigation than a search for something ('the thing in its self'?) which you admit is beyond our senses. At least psychology, rough and ready though it be, is capable of being investigated.

"I believe, and I consider that Kant reasoned correctly, that there's more in the universe that our senses can perceive.

I'm not sure I would call it "reasoned", surely it can be no other than a speculation, or even, dare I suggest it, a guess! Anything beyond our senses, by which I do not mean for example sub-atomic particles, but some mystery or mysteries outside of our experience can only be a pure hypothesis. However, I personally am happy to face up to the possibility, especially when science appears to have (for teh time being?) apparently hit the buffers. Darwinism is a perfect example which, whilst it explains somethings, leaves other things dangling in the great unknown. If someone wishes to hypothesise on the existence of some spiritual force as the prime mover in the creation of life, I would give him a polite hearing. I find the notion of God as much of a possibility as your notion of the noumenal. Both appear to be beyond the reach of science but that does not, to me, preclude the possibility of their existence. It was Popper, of course, who drew the line between scientific and religious (noumenal?) belief by pointing out that a scientific proposition is, and always must be, capable of undergoing a trial possibly leading to falsification. However, the statement "God exists, and its negative can neither be proven or falsified. That doen't make them untrue, only non-scientific.

As for 'Art', or art, the few re-actions I have received to Klee's picture up above indicates that whatever one's re-action is to any particular example of art, it is not universal!

Malcolm, good to see you over here at D&N. I'm not sure that real artists (as opposed to the poodle-fakers who stick dead sheep in formaldehyde!) ever do what they do for a reason. I think they simply follow the good advice offered by the late, great John Wayne and simply "do what a man has to do"! The fact that after the event sufficient people respond to it to give him fame and fortune is entirely co-incidental. If your Mr. Gurdjieff ever discovers this mystical 'objective art' which would evoke the same response in everyone he should sell it to the advertising industry, they've been looking for that for years!

DD

"I'm not sure I would call it "reasoned", surely it can be no other than a speculation,"

Kant's philosophy is admirable because his arguments are reasoned. He starts from the only evidence which is common to all of us (the evidence of "experience" as mediated through our senses) and through the exercise of reason ends up in his division of reality. For example: that Kant-Schopenhauer through a process of such reasoning ended up concluding (100 years before Einstein) that the universe consisted of energy manifesting itself partially as matter is (in my opinion) a spectacular achievement. Of course, all philosophising is "speculation". Indeed (if you go along with Popper - as do I) all science is "speculation" or, as Popper would have it, "conjecture". I don't think we disagree that there are matters which are amenable to science and others which aren't. Popper's work on the demarcation of what is and what is not science is incredibly illuminating but his work on the philosophy of science is only ultimately relevant in the phenomenal world. His work - as you imply - says nothing about "why" but says a hell of a lot about "how".

My problem with your arguments is that "psychology" as a solution to (what is to me) a mystery takes me nowhere. Worse, such a portmanteau expression shuts off enquiry into reality and drives us down a cul-de-sac into the trendy world of "philosophy" as practised in most of the hitherto great universities of the world. It is similar to those who, pointing to the mystery of existence, assert that it's God's work. As I think I've commented before on your site, Freud said "ignorance is ignorance": our ignorance [of what the noumenal world is] is not an excuse to erect whole belief systems which are incapable of scientific proof but which have enormous purchase in our everyday lives. I would add that, in the same way, those who assert that that which we experience is all there is are leading us into another cul-de-sac of unreason. It took more than 2,000 years from one great philosopher (Plato) to an equally great one (Kant). It might well take another 2,000 years (or only 6 months) for another philosopher to enlighten us further as to the limits of the phenomenal world and the possibilities of insight into the noumenal one.

BTW I am not accusing you of being ignorant in a pejorative sense. Actually we're all ignorant including (and particularly) me! One of the more fruitful admissions that anyone can make is that "I don't know". The world is littered with the destructive effects of those who claim to "know" be it representatives of organised religions or politicians.

MP

I think that those artists who (contrary to DD's opinion - I think) give us a glimpse of a world normally hidden from us have as little knowledge about what is happening as (non)artists. Artists do what they do in the way that they do it because that is the way they are somehow compelled to do it. My disagreement with DD concerning his reaction to Klee is that I believe that Klee conveyed to DD (but, in this case, not to me) something about reality which can only be expressed in the way that Klee expressed it. If Klee could have put that "something" into words he would have - or maybe DD could have. The very fact that DD's emotions were engaged on viewing Klee's work and is a reaction he cannot satisfactorily explain (and Klee, were he around to be asked, could also not explain) says to me (but not to DD) that Klee is telling DD something which bypasses DD's senses and appeals to something more fundamental in DD concerning the world in which we and he live.

Sorry, Bongers, but I think we have reached an impasse. Your (and Messrs. K and S) proposition seems to me to be as follows:

a: My re-action to certain works of Art is of such a profound nature that it defies any attempt to explain or define it except in noumenal terms.

b: By definition, anything noumenal cannot be sensed by human beings.

c: Nevertheless, like the committed Christian who can state his belief in the existence of the Holy Ghost, I state my belief in the noumenal.

At which point, of course, the conversation ends because the man who does not believe has nothing further to say. I am not a believer but that would not tempt me to deny the possibility that you are right, it's just that I cannot prove that you are wrong and neither can you prove you are right. I would only add that on the specific subject at hand, one's re-action to Art, and the undoubted fact that sometimes, to some people, it produces a profound effect, I would say that psychology, which is discernible by our senses, offers a more encouraging line of investigation than conjectoring on the noumenal.

I always become edgy when anyone paraphrases my argument so feel free to correct me sternly if I have misrepresented yours. IN any event, I leave the last word to you.

Since it took Schopenhauer over 1,000 pages to explain one idea it's a subject which, in all humility, I cannot confirm that I have understood in all its complexity, let alone been able to convey satisfactorily. However, I still think that "psychology" as an explanation of why you are emotionally affected by Klee's work leaves us (well, me) no further forward. Let's agree to disagree - if that is in fact where we are! As a last word though - and to repeat what I wrote in my last comment - Kant reached his division of reality into phenomenal and noumenal by an exercise in reasoned argument, not by an assertion of belief. It may be that we cannot through our senses know the noumenal but I would contend that through Klee's work you have been given a glimpse of the noumenal unmediated by your senses.

Thanks, Bongers, and I will look out for that Magee book.

The comments to this entry are closed.