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 Three
Images and Imagining
In this session we focussed on Jean-Paul Sartre's view of the phenomenology of looking at images and of imagining. In his stimulating book The Imaginary, Sartre investigates the experience of experiencing images - ranging from mental images to photographs.
As a phenomenologist, Sartre was very interested in giving an accurate and detailed account of what experience is actually like, what, in this case, it feels like to imagine something that isn't present, or to look at a photograph of a friend. This interrogation of his own experience was at the heart of Sartre's existentialism, and, when successful, is what makes it so appealing (unlike, in my view, the prickly abstractions and re-using of Hegelian and Heideggerian jargon, which make his writing so hard to follow for the uninitiated - and probably for the initiated too). But it would be wrong to see Sartre as obsessed with introspection: for him consciousness is smeared across the world - when we think, we always think about something (this is the special meaning of 'intentionality' in this context - thoughts are intentional means thoughts are always directed at something beyond them), and our consciousness is filled with the world, not with a little internal picture gallery representing the world.
For 17th and 18th century thinkers like Locke and Hume, experience creates images which we somehow view internally. Sartre rejects this model completely. Even when we experience a physical representation, such as a photograph of a friend, our experience isn't straightforwardly of that depiction.
For Sartre, the act of experiencing a depiction is that of animating an analgon (a representation). If I look at a photograph of Pierre, after a while I no longer experience the photograph as a physical object, but am carried beyond the physical object the photograph - my conscious experience isn't of a photograph, but of Pierre, and not just Pierre snapped for 1/100th of a second, but Pierre himself. He is experienced as absent, though.
Another important aspect of Sartre's descriptions of consciousness is the way in which what is not present can be part of our experience. If you go to a café looking for a friend and that friend isn't there, then you perceive the friend's absence, even though there is no physical stimulus corresponding to that.
If you are interested in questions about imagination and mental images, then I recommend Colin McGinn's very readable and stimulating book (which discusses and builds on some of Sartre's ideas) Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning:
In the gallery we looked at Giorgio de Chirico's 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' - as an experiment considering it as a painting that dealt not just with what was depicted, but also with absences, the absence of people in imaginary spaces that look as if they should be inhabited - a source of the uncanny mood of the painting. We also considered two sculptures that, unlike most of the works we examine in this course, were probably directly influenced by existentialist thought: Germaine Richier's 'Diabolo' - which, with its strings tying the figure to the ground, hints strongly at themes of freedom and constraint - and Water (this suggesed questions about the images others project on to women, activity and passivity). Both sculptures, like many of the quintessential existential artist Giacommetti's, are single figures apparently alone - indeed the subjective starting point of the individual forced to make choices in a world without pre-existing values 'condemned to be free' is typically expressed artistically through lone figures. For Sartre we are all alone without excuses - and alone in the sense of 'abandoned' by God (meaning 'God is dead', non-existent)...and in our interactions with others we are frequently on the brink of falling into positions of sadism or masochism - in the words uttered by a character in his play 'N0 Exit': 'Hell is other people'
For other work directly influenced by existentialism and on the cultural impact generally of French existentialism, see this catalogue Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-1955: