Art as Personal
The main focus of this week’s session of 6 Ways of Thinking About Art (Tate Modern course, ticket only, sold out) was the tension between treating works of art as catalysts for subjective musing and the idea that they might (or should, to be any good) have definite objective meanings. These may not be mutually exclusive angles to take on art.
The Eighteenth Century philosopher David Hume, in his short essay 'Of the Standard of Taste' recounts the story of two wine tasters one of whom declares that the wine he is drinking tastes leathery; the other says it tastes metallic. When they get to the bottom of the barrel they find an old key with a leather thong, so they were both correct about objective aspects of the wine. We'd like to be able to anchor our interpretations and understandings of art in similarly firm objective ways, but this is impossible for a discussion of David Hume's responses to the idea that our assessment of works of art simply comes down to individual taste listen to this podcast interview with Mike Martin)
A key question is the degree to which works of art are like Rorschach inkblots: stimuli for projective interpretation, where autobiography, mood, and mental set of the viewer play a substantial role and the viewer projects his or her own feelings on to the works (NB Andy Warhol's 'Rorschach paintings' were based on a mistaken view of how Rorshach used inkblots - read about them here). Whilst it is naive to believe it possible to enter a gallery with an innocent eye, the mind cleansed of all associations and expectations, and plausible to think that seeing is, as the philosopher of science N.R. Hanson put it, 'a theory-laden activity' ('There is more to seeing than meets the eyeball' and our mental set, the expectations and knowledge we have affect what we see), there are still limits to interpretation. We can't see absolutely whatever we want to see - our interpretations are based on something out there even if they are idiosyncratic or whimsical. Nevertheless, context and expectation have a significant role to play, as they do in most aspects of our life (read this interesting discussion of the psychology of why we like what we like)
Many appreciators of the visual arts are content that particular works of art should simply stimulate a range of interesting responses, and believe that art should be open-ended. It is an orthodoxy amongst views of contemporary art that didactic art tends to be bad art - it is in ambiguity and the possibility of generating new interpretations that art's value lies. In contrast to this view, Alain de Botton has recently asserted in his book Religion for Atheists, that good art can and should be didactic, that it should teach us through sensuous beautiful creations, to be good and wise.
You can listen to a short audio interview I made with Alain de Botton which includes a discussion of his view of art here.
In the gallery we looked at works on Level 4 West 'Structure and Clarity', particularly miminimalist and abstract works. The idea of focussing on these often austere works was they at first seem resistant to personal interpretations. These included
Ellsworth Kelly's Méditerranée
Frank Stella's Six Mile Bottom
Jo Baer's Stations of the Spectrum (Primary)
and Donald Judd's Untitled (1972)
This last work is a large open-topped box made of copper and painted with a red cadmium bottom that is reflected in the internal sides of the piece. Judd’s work is declared to be about the material objects themselves, and is expressly not meant to evoke personal reflections (certainly that is the impression given by the captioning in Tate Modern: Judd’s art is not about representation or metaphor or suggestion, but rather presents the formed material objects themselves).
Yet the photographer Thomas Demand’s written reaction to the work in an extended caption is deliberately personal and subjective, describing the images the work evokes for him, well aware that this was not the sort of response that Judd would have hoped for... It is interesting in the context of an art gallery to have a contemporary artist legitimizing a highly personal, associative, and to some degree projective response to a work of art, one that goes against the known intentions of the artist.
Next week: Art as Form...(in particular we will be considering Clive Bell's approach to art).
21st June: Street Philosophy
Tuesday evenings from 4th September (6 sessions): Philosophy: the Basics