Modern Aesthetics, a course at Tate Modern. Notes from the final session. Martin Heidegger 'The Origin of the Work of Art', a shortened version of which is reading 30 in the set book.
This is the toughest of the readings we have looked at in this course. If you are going to re-read the Heidegger essay, I recommend downloading Timothy Quigley's very clear notes on his New School, New York website here. Click on the > next to 'schedule' in the lefthand column. Scroll down to weeks 9 and 10 and click on the little > signs next to the files you want. The pdfs should download straight away (he has given permission to link to this page).
Heidegger's essay is about 'the thinglyness of things'- but what can that possibly mean?
We concentrated on Heidegger's tripartite distinction between an object like a stone which is 'worldless' (meaning something like it is not part of a community's shared human understanding), a piece of equipment (i.e. anything shaped for human use - the material vanishes as it is transformed into equipment), and the work of art (which Heidegger believes can reveal or 'unconceal' truth and actually create a world).
Van Gogh's painting of a well-worn pair of boots that Heidegger takes to belong to a peasant woman (but Meyer Schapiro claimed were the artist's own boots), provides Heidegger with a pretext for a passage of purple prose in which he imagines a somewhat romanticized version of the world of the peasant woman via the image of the boots. (Hints of the Nazi obsession with national soil are left in here, but I suspect in a much toned down version from the original 1930s lectures on which this essay was based).The painting discloses the equipmentality of equipment, in Heidegger's jargon, which roughly means that by looking at the painting we are jolted in to a different kind of understanding of the nature of the objects that form part of a human being's world. The boots themselves (the 'equipment' here) probably wouldn't produce this effect. As Heidegger puts it in his strangely contorted and often wilfully obscure language: 'Van Gogh's painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth This entity emerges in to the unconcealedness of its being.' (It is ironic then if these were in truth a painting of the artist's own shoes, and perhaps metaphorically about mortality rather than about peasant toil).
The material that is used up in making a piece of equipment, is itself foregrounded in a work of art in a way that is not either for a brute stone nor for any piece of equipment.
In the gallery we concentrated on several pieces by Roni Horn in the Roni Horn aka Roni Horn exhibition, contrasting them with the notion of a worldless stone, and exploring the question of whether they set forward their own material existence (unlike a piece of equipment that uses up its raw materials). For these works at least, what we extracted from the thicket of Heidegger's prose gave some insights into the particular pieces.
If you want to read Being and Time (Heidegger's major philosophical work), Hubert Dreyfus of U.C. Berkeley has a full podcast lecture course of over 20 lectures (free) on iTunesU in the UC Berkeley, Philosophy section. It is course Philosophy 185. This link to his first lecture might work if you have iTunes loaded. Poor sound quality, but Dreyfus is renowned as one of the clearer expositors of a notoriously difficult thinker.
The topic of this week's session of the Tate Modern course Modern Aesthetics was Walter Benjamin's famous and remarkably prescient essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. At the core of this is the idea that the comparatively new technology (he was writing in the 1930s) of photography had actually transformed the nature of art, democratizing it, moving it from the realm of ritual to the everyday. Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis, was passionately anti-fascist. In photography he saw the possibility of a democratic alternative to the aestheticization of politics characteristic of fascism: namely a politicization of aesthetics. In complete contrast with a thinker like Clive Bell, Benjamin saw that the art of his age could be intimately connected with the realities of daily life. Art for art's sake was the antithesis of what Benjamin stood for.
'That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura'. The aura of an original painting stems from its uniqueness - the fact that it is an object with a particular history, perhaps including wear and tear, different ownership and so on. True, students have always painted copies of great paintings, and the printing press brought about significant changes too (William M. Ivins jr. has written brilliantly on this in Prints and Visual Communication), but photographic reproduction has opened up new possibilities of automation and multiplication of images. Images can be viewed in different contexts, and by different people. Images that could once only be viewed by a rich elite, could be owned in reproduction by almost anyone. For Benjamin there could be no such thing as an authentic photographic print [for a discussion of whether there is a meaningful sense of 'Authentic' in the realm of photographic art, see Nigel Warburton 'Authentic Photographs', British Journal of Aesthetics, 1997]
In the Tate Modern gallery we looked at a range of still photographs and prints. Cy Twombly's series of prints 'Natural History' seemed to be playing with ideas about authenticity and reproducibility, mixing lithographic reproductions of collage with real collage and scrawled additions, teasing the viewer about which was which. In contrast, posthumously made prints from Eileen Agar negatives did not have any aura of authenticity. But the same is not necessarily true of all photographic prints - the case of John Deakin's famous photographic portrait of Francis Bacon which, as far as I know, exists only as a torn and battered unique print, might be thought an example of a photograph which despite Benjamin's claims possesses an aura in part because of the history of it as object (and even if it is not unique, this print has an aura due to its particular history of neglect).
Clive Bell's theory of Significant Form was the focus of this week's session of Modern Aesthetics. Bell, whose polemic Art was published in 1914, was a passionate advocate of Post-Impression. He did what Tolstoy described (on p.234 of the set book) namely worked backwards from art that a certain class approved of to a theory of what all art must be, though whether Tolstoy was right to be so dismissive of taking intuitions seriously is another matter (in politics John Rawls advocated what he called 'reflective equilibrium' moving to and fro between intuitions and theory).
For Bell it is obvious that art must have a common essence - something that makes all works of art art. If not, then when we talk about art, we simply gibber, he declares. The defining quality of art is Significant Form i.e. patterns of lines, shapes and colour (and he allows some depth) that give rise to a distinctive emotion felt only in the presence of art, namely the Aesthetic Emotion.
The beauty of a butterfly's wing is different from the beauty in art, he tells us (Sebastian, a character in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited disagreed absolutely with this - how do we say who is right?). To appreciate art we need bring nothing of life - art is a separate realm that has the power to move the sensitive viewer. Most controversially, he maintains that what is represented in representational art has no bearing on it as art. Art is timeless - the same qualities in ancient art move us today. Past artists move us for the same reason that present day ones do. We don't need to know art history to appreciate art as art. The main instruments needed are good eyes and sensitivity. Objects all around us stand charged with this power to affect us.
His is a theory that approaches art very much from the stance of the spectator (in contrast with R.G. Collingwood's creator-centred approach which we will be studying next week - Collingwood turns the viewer into a kind of creator).
Bell's theory is unashamedly subjective in that it begins with personal experience of the Aesthetic Emotion. That is the way we can tell that a work is a work of art. There is no criterion apart from this for discerning between mere form (everything has this in some sense) and Significant Form. In the section of his book called the Metaphysical Hypothesis Bell suggests that the reason Significant Form has such power to move us is that it gives us a glimpse of how the world really is, the world behind the veil of appearances (a view that mirrors Schopenahauer's account of music) - a stark contrast with Tolstoy's claim that art is a special kind of human communication.
As a theory of what art is, Bell's is open to numerous objections (I outline some of these in the first chapter of my book The Art Question
). For instance, defining art in terms of Significant Form and Significant Form in terms of the Aesthetic Emotion is highly uninformative - it is a viciously circular defnition because we have no independent criteria for identifying either of these things.
More directly, for most of us, the fact that Rembrandt's self-portraits are depictions of the artist is a relevant factor when assessing these as art (on Bell's account, what is represented is not relevant) - true, formal properties are relevant too, but it is going too far to discount representation altogether.
Similarly we might not even understand what an artist was trying to do if we know nothing of the history of the period and, in many cases, of the artist's other work, and expressed intentions. This does not mean that the artist's expressed views fully determine what a work of art means.
D.H. Lawrence (himself a painter as well as a writer) was scathing about the formalists' quasi-religious attitude towards Significant Form: He lampooned it in an essay about painting: 'I am Significant Form and my unutterable name is Reality. Lo, I am Form and I am Pure, behold I am Pure Form. I am the revelation of Spiritual Life, moving behind the veil. I come forth and make myself known, and I am Pure Form, behold I am Significant Form....Lift up your eyes to Significant Form, and be saved.'
In the gallery we looked at works by Rodchenko and Popova in the current Tate Modern exhibition. Whilst approaching these paintings and sculptures as potentially Significant Form was easy, because they are mostly non-representational, ignoring the circumstances of their production seemed a little perverse, particularly when, as the captions in the exhibition indicate, these artists working in the period immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, felt liberated to create new forms of art, and at the same time were no doubt limited in materials and scale by their straightened circumstances.
Friedrich Nietzsche's first book The Birth of Tragedy was written while he was still somewhat in thrall to Schopenhauer's ideas (though Raymond Geuss has suggested that contemporaneous notebooks indicate that he already saw flaws in Schopenhauer's system as he was writing The Birth of Tragedy). Although ostensibly about the decline of Greek tragedy, most readers take it to have far wider significance. At its core is Nietzsche's discussion of the Dionysian and Apollonian forces at play in art and life more generally. Dionysus, god of intoxication, corresponds approximately to Schopenhauer's notion of the Will. In a Dionysian frenzy the participants lose all sense of individuality and are immersed in the life force. In contrast the Apollonian provides form, rationality and order to balance the Dionysian. A purely Dionysian art would be unsustainable. But art with a substantial Dionysian element achieves a profundity unavailable to a predominantly Apollonian art. For a short time we can lose ourselves in unity with the Dionysian force, the equivalent of the Schopenhauerian Will.
You might also be interested in a talk I gave at a Tate Modern about the influence of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on Mark Rothko's late painting (details about how to download and navigate this audio file here.). Rothko wrote of The Birth of Tragedy 'It left an indelible impression on my mind and has forever colored the syntax of my own reflections in the questions of art' (in Writings, p.109, c 1954)
In contrast to the metaphysical theories of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (and for that matter, Plato), the novelist Leo Tolstoy's account of art in his What is Art? focuses on art as a communication between people. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche both believed that art put us in close contact with deeper levels of reality, Plato that it gave us misleading illusions at several removes from reality; Tolstoy believed that it allowed us to be infected with one anothers' emotions.
Not only was Tolstoy explicitly anti-metaphysical in his approach, but also resolutely anti-elitist. He believed that those who define art typically start from what a small subclass of society take as paradigms of art and then retrospectively conjure up theories that explain why these works really are art. Tolstoy thought this was going about things the wrong way. Instead he proposed to begin with a coherent theory and then apply it rigorously.
His theory: art is essentially a communicative act between people. Art begins from lived emotion, not from ideals of beauty or from an attempt to produce pleasure. The artist experiences an emotion and finds a way of communicating that emotion that affects the viewer by producing that same emotion. This is not simple contagion like one person yawning and others around doing the same. In Tolstoy's example, it is more like the boy who has been terrified by seeing a wolf communicating in words the situation and describing it in such a way that his listeners come to feel the fear he felt. Great art is art that evokes intense emotion, that is simple (accessible), expresses highly individual emotions, and, most importantly, is sincere. Tolstoy saw far more virtue in simple folk music than in sophisticated classical music. Indeed, he explicitly condemned the work of Beethoven and Wagner on the basis of his theory.
Ultimately, for Tolstoy, art that is great embodies Christian values. The brotherhood of humanity can be expressed and felt through art, making art a force for good in the world.
In the Gallery
We looked at work in Tate Modern, Level 3 East 'Contemporary Art' in particular asking whether the paintings and collages there could be understood in terms of sincerely communicated emotions. For many works, this was clearly not relevant. But for several it was, notably Chris Ofili's 'No Woman No Cry' (1998). This was explicitly about grief. The stylised image of an African woman, presumably a mother, crying. Within each of her tears is a tiny image of Stephen Laurence (the victim of a violent racist attack that left him dead and which was not properly investigated by the police at the time). Although an image of a woman in grief, the emotion in the picture could plausibly be seen as communicating the artist's own emotion about Stephen Laurence's murder as well as being symbolic of grief in general. The question of the artist's sincerity does here seem relevant to our assessment of it as art. There is every indication that the emotion is genuine, both in the way the image has been made, and in background knowledge about Ofili and his approach to his art. The simplicity of statement and the use of the motifs of folk art make this a far more accessible work than those around it in the Contemporary Artists gallery. There is also every indication that Ofili is attempting through the work to communicate emotion and his feelings about the murder while suggesting broader issues about the grief of a mother's loss (and knowing that he has painted similar images of Mary is relevant here).
The point of looking at this painting in this way was not to somehow prove Tolstoy correct, nor to suggest that paintings that did not match his account were somewhow less important, but rather to entertain Tolstoy's approach to art and to see what perspectives it might give on particular paintings.
Modern Aesthetics, Tate Modern, session one. We focused on Arthur Schopenhauer (reading 19 from the set book Cahn and Meskin eds Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology - this reading gets much easier to understand from section 34 - don't be put off by the daunting opening).
Schopenhauer is much-loved by artists, writers and lovers of art because, unlike most thinkers, he put art and our experience of it at the heart of his philosophy. His main work, The World as Will and Representation (first published 1819, sometimes translated as The World as Will and Idea) is, like most philosophy about appearance and reality. You can listen to a podcast I made about Schopenhauer here. This is based on a chapter from my book Philosophy: The Classics.
The Will (with a capital 'W') is the ultimate source of everything, the undifferentiated life energy that is behind every appearance. This is the true nature of the world - it is all Will.
The world we experience most of the time is the world as Representation. This is our experience of individual things, of what he calls objectification of the Will. This representation comes in different grades, different levels of removal from the Will.
Platonic Ideas are outside of space and time and are what Schopenhauer calls direct objectifications of the Will. [Those of you who didn't take Classic Aestheticsmight want to look at notes on Plato on the Forms or Ideas here and follow some of the links. Basically Plato believed that reality consists of these abstract entities - the chair you see is an imperfect copy of the abstract idea of a chair. If you find that hard to believe, think of how any real circle is always an imperfect representation of the Idea of a circle which has no imperfections. Plato famously denigrated mimetic or representational art because it was at several removes from reality - a picture of a chair is a representation of a representation, and not reliable about the Idea.]
will with a lower case 'w' is desire. Part of Schopenhauer's pessimistic outlook is that he believes that our desires, even when fulfilled, lead to further desires and that we are for the most part in torment constantly striving for things. The experience of art can give us temporary relief from this suffering, but is more important than this because it becomes a kind of metaphysics, particularly when the art in question is music.
[Click on the red text below to read the rest of these notes on Session One]