Anguish, Absurdity, Death (Tate Modern, strictly by ticket only, sold out).
Monday evenings, Tate Modern, Level 7 East Room, 18.45 – 20.15 Followed by drinks in Members’ Room, Level 6, 20.15-20.50.
Week 1. Monday June 11th. Level 5 ‘Setting the Scene’, Turbine Hall ‘For the Love of God’
Week 2. Monday June 18th. Level 3 Damien Hirst, rooms 1-10
Week 3. Monday 25th June. Level 3 West, ‘Poetry and Dream’
Week 5. Monday 9th July. Edvard Munch
Notes from Session One
Aims of the course:
- To think about and discuss some key themes in existentialism
- To view works in Tate Modern (especially by Damien Hirst and Edvard Munch) from an existentialist perspective
What is Existentialism?
A philosophical and literary movement that emerged from Paris in the 1940s and is particularly associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The term 'existentialist' was probably first used by Gabriel Marcel of Sartre in 1943 (Sartre then rejected the term, but later accepted it). Sartre was very influenced by Martin Heidegger and by Soren Kierkegaard and to some extent Friedrich Nietzsche, all of whom have subsequently been declared existentialists retrospectively (at least in some aspects of their works). Other prominent existentialist thinkers who were contemporaries of Sartre include Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
What do existentialists have in common? Not necessarily very much (you might want to see it as a 'family resemblance term' - digression: a brief summary of what Wittgenstein meant by 'family resemblance term').
Here's what Sartre said, though, in a famous public lecture 'Existentialism is a Humanism' (mysteriously translated as 'Existentialism and Humanism') given in October 1945: what existentialists have in common is that they believe that for human beings 'existence precedes essence'. (For an explanation of this and more discussion of this lecture/book download this short article Existentialism). Sartre was an atheist and didn't believe that God had created human beings (we are 'abandoned') - so, unlike with a penknife (his example) - there is no pre-existing essence of what it is to be a human being. We find oursleves 'thrown' into existence, and only then define what it is to be human (he rejected the idea that there is such a thing as 'human nature' that shapes how we have to be, or that biology defines humanity). We are free - far freer than most of us realise, according to Sartre. We choose even our own emotions. The brute facts of the world (where and when we were born, who our parents are, etc. he describes as 'facticity', but we transcend this through our thought). The anguish of existence is that we have to create values for ourselves, choose them, rather than discover what they are. Add to this his belief that a human being is simply the sum of what he or she actually does, not what he or she might have done, and we see that there are no 'mute inglorious Miltons' in his world. We have to commit to doing something - inaction is still something we are responsible for. But this anguish is intensified, according to Sartre, by his belief that 'In fashioning myself, I fashion man' (i.e. humanity). In choosing for myself I create an image of what a human being should be like. If I choose not to choose (which for him is still definitely a choice) and accept a life 'off the peg' as it were, that is a form of Bad Faith (self-deception that involves a denial of my own freedom). We can't seek help outside of ourselves because any help we get about how we should live still needs to be interpreted and chosen or rejected: 'we are alone without excuses'.
For a general introduction to Existentialism listen to this short interview with Mary Warnock, who is no longer particularly sympathetic to the Sartrean philosophy: Mary Warnock on Existentialism
For a discussion of Sartre's concept of Bad Faith, listen to Sebastian Gardner on Sartre on Bad Faith. Gardner discusses the theme as it emerges in Sartre's book Being and Nothingness, which has been described as the bible of existentialism (it is, unfortunately, though, a difficult read, with occasional lucid novel-like passages among pages of jargon-laden prose - if you plan to read it, you will probably want to read it alongside a commentary, such as the one Sebastian Gardner has written, or Joseph Catalano's).
There is a useful overview of Existentialism here (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - a generally reliable source).
For those interested in learning about Jean-Paul Sartre the man, the documentary 'Roads to Freedom' (49 minutes) below is one place to start:
In the Gallery
In the gallery we first visited 'Setting the Scene' (Level 5) and looked at 3 works: Liliana Porter's 'Forced Labour ll', Deimantas Narkevicius' 'Never Backwards', and Dexter Dalwood's 'Situationist Apartment, May 1968'
We then visited Damien Hirst's 'For the Love of God' see video below. This was a prelude to next week's discussion of the theme 'My Death' in relation to the Damien Hirst exhibition.
'Every art work that has ever interested me is about death' Damien Hirst (from the video below)