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Chapter 2 - The Imperative to Create Art Objects
The object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.
Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic
“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known,” (1) Oscar Wilde asserts. Every individual, balanced, and fulfilled human life includes significant elements of it, both as participant and creator. “Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have.” (2) “Without bread, one dies of hunger. But without art, one dies of boredom.” (3) “Art…liberates the individual self, yet subjects it to the chastening discipline of an order larger than itself.” (4) “Good art…is like good society: it obliges us, in the most pleasing way, to recognize form and limitations like those which govern our being.” (5) “Art is about life—there isn’t anything else.” (6)
Whatever enriches the adult imagination, whatever complicates consciousness and thus corrodes the clichés of daily reflex, is a high moral act. Art is privileged, indeed obliged, to perform this act; it is the live current which splinters and regroups the frozen units of conventional feeling. (7)
Art encompasses a vast realm, one that extends well beyond literature and the novel. Those who practice music may be counted among the most fortunate. George Steiner asks, “Can music lie?” (8) And while it may be that, “Music is the oldest universal language, intelligible to all people, and yet impossible to translate into any other idiom,” (9) has anyone truly explained the nature of music and what it means to humanity? Even when great thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard seriously discuss music, and what it means to them, they fail to provide a convincing explanation as to its meaning. The arch-objectivist, Ayn Rand, who teaches the rational basis for all emotion, thought and action, admits to enjoying her ‘tiddly-wink’ music without understanding the nature of that enjoyment, an open admission that she cannot explain the pleasure she receives from such trivial tunes.
It is the particular—and formidable—privilege of music to awaken feeling without provoking reflection and to summon us to a depth which is not that of obscurity. (10)
It could be that no art form, no form of verbal or imagistic expression, matches music and melody for its mystery and charm, and those who traffic in its creation and performance stand perhaps closest to the aesthetic center of human existence. While many people in the world today, and in past times, have lived without philosophy, literature or science, “No society on earth, however ‘primitive,’ however underprivileged economically or ecologically, exists without music.” (11)
People who successfully render their dreams and visions on painted canvas or sculpt them out of wood, stone, or steel, also reside within an aesthetic Arcadia. “Vermeer…paint[s] silence.” (12) Who among ourselves can do that? These artistic endeavors require years of technical training, and while certain skills can be cultivated and developed (as we will argue later), it seems likely that some people are born with natural talent, while the rest of us, even if we can fully appreciate the aesthetic results, find it difficult to practice these specialized arts with the success necessary to provide minimal personal satisfaction. Direct participation is crucial, as C. Wright Mills indicates, because “you cannot ‘possess’ art merely by buying it; you cannot support art merely by feeding artists—although that does help. To possess it you must earn it by participating to some extent in what it takes to design it and to create it. To support it you must catch in your consumption of it something of what is involved in the production of it.” (13)
It is in the great works of man, as embodied in philosophy and art, that we come across the active creation of humanity. (14)
Walter Benjamin recognized a general lack of aesthetic sensibility when he watched people “moving about a picture gallery show[ing] ill-concealed disappointment that only pictures hang there.” (15) Regardless, many of us, even without the proper sensibility, tools or talent, choose to engage in some form of artistic activity, even if friends and family don’t fully understand the compulsion. Jeanette Winterson writes:
The twentieth century, in the footsteps of the nineteenth, has difficulty with the notion of art as ecstasy. Yet that is the traditional notion and I believe it is the right one. It is quite easy to live at a low level of sensibility; it is the way of the world. There is no need to ask art to show us how to be less than we are. Art shows us how to be more than we are. It is heightened, grand, an act of effrontery. It is a challenge to the confines of the spirit. It is a challenge to the comfortable pleasures of everyday life. There is in art, still, something of the medieval mystic and something of the debauch. Art is excess. The fiery furnace, the freezing lake. It summons extremes of feeling, those who denounce it and its makers, do so violently. Those who fall in love, with that picture, that book, do so passionately. Once encountered, art will get a response. (16)
For those of us musically challenged, or unable to draw a simple circle, perhaps our best opportunity to creatively express ourselves remains the written word, as any literate person can write a novel, with the appropriate levels of practice and effort, just as any child can draw a cat. With the power to craft a sentence and structure a novel, no limits remain beyond the individual imagination. “Not everything is possible, but the semblance of everything is.” (17)
I’m no Pablo Picasso but there’s no harm in straining. After all, the charm of any activity is in the trying and so rarely in the finished article. (18)
How such a realized work ranks as literature remains unimportant. The commitment to making the aesthetic effort will bring, in time, its own rewards. And with this statement we mark a fundamental point, in that “all encounter with the language of art is an encounter with an unfinished event and is itself part of the event.” (19) Every true individual desires to participate in such an aesthetic event, and their full actualization requires it for completion.
This is not to say that crafting a sentence, structuring a novel, or seeing it through to completion is easy, because it is not. Doing so requires perseverance, patience, study, discipline, extensive practice and re-work. And while Malcolm Cowley reminds us of the penalties we pay for being average in writing prose (and he would know first hand), we begin at least with the fundamental skills (language) in which we will create. And with that basic capability, we must practice it, polish our poetry and prose, and then proceed to construct our personal aesthetic monument: lay a sturdy foundation, build it up stone by stone, carve a unique façade, provide the finishing touches, and then stand back and admire the completed work. (Although someone once said that a novel is never really finished – the author at some point simply abandons it).
“What [Dostoevsky] does,” Rene Wellek writes, “is to make life, insofar as man can do it, to be a poet and to give experience the form and intelligibility required by the whole mind, by the intellect and by the will. Without this primary organization life would either be chaos or instinctual routine. Men can live without philosophy, and not unsuccessfully, and history and anthropology show that for the most part they do. But without poetry human life is not possible.” (20)
Art as Experience
It is important to understand that art extends beyond specific items or events, and in fact, encompasses far more, including the experience for both those who enjoy specific art objects and those who create them. When Heidegger asks “What, and how, ‘is’ art? Is art in the creation by the artist, or in the enjoyment of the work, or in the actuality of the work itself, or in all three together?” (21) we answer ‘all three together.’ His student Gadamer agrees when he writes that “art cannot be defined as an object of an aesthetic consciousness because, on the contrary, the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself. It is a part of the event of being that occurs in presentation, and belongs essentially to play as play.” (22)
“A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience,” Susan Sontag writes, “not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world.” (23) As George Steiner points out, “In a wholly fundamental, pragmatic sense, the poem, the statue, the sonata are not so much read, viewed or heard as they are lived. The encounter with the aesthetic is, together with certain modes of religious and of metaphysical experience, the most ‘ingressive’, transformative summons available to human experiencing.” (24)
The work of art creates a unique bond between two people:
Nietzsche understands the aesthetic state of the observer and recipient on the basis of the state of the creator. Thus the effect of the artwork is nothing else than a reawakening of the creator’s state in the one who enjoys the artwork. (25)
But the impact of an art object is not limited to a semblance of the ‘creator’s state’, as it’s quite possible for people to respond in very different ways to a profound work, and occasionally the response will differ significantly from what the artist intended. New meanings are commonly attributed to art works, unexpected readings derived by discerning critics. “You found implications which I had missed,” Faulkner writes to Malcolm Cowley. “I wish that I had consciously intended them; I will certainly believe that I did it subconsciously and not by accident.” (26) But Faulkner remains unsure that his intention ever exhausts or fully includes the various readings that can be made of his work, surely an important aspect of his appeal.
Art calls for a response, a reaction:
The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us: ‘change your life’. So do any poem, novel, play, painting, musical composition worth meeting. The voice of intelligible form, of the needs of direct address from which such form springs, asks: ‘What do you feel, what do you think of the possibilities of life, of the alternative shapes of being which are implicit in your experience of me, in our encounter?’ The indiscretion of serious art and literature and music is total. It queries the last privacies of our existence. (27)
In some cases, particularly in literature, it is possible to fully experience an alternate existence when we immerse ourselves within a particular work. No better example exists than In Search of Lost Time, as those readers who lose themselves within this massive work find, in the end, that they have lived every nuance of the narrator’s sensitive existence. In reading the work, they intimately experience his loves, jealousies, philosophies, social encounters, and his unending encounter with the aesthetic: “Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves,” Proust writes.
To know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance. (28)
Which brings the discussion back ‘round to the center of our concern: the literary novel, and the imperative to write one. According to Terry Eagleton, what the novel “reflects most importantly is not the world, but the way in which the world comes into being only by our bestowing form and value upon it. The novel on this view is most deeply realistic…because it reveals the truth that all objectivity is at root an interpretation.” (29) This view supports the notion that our particularly individual lives owe their unique existence to that which we have created. Eagleton does not consider this particularly good news:
If the only world we know is one which we have created ourselves, does not all knowledge become a pointless tautology? Aren’t we simply knowing ourselves, rather than a reality independent of ourselves? Don’t we only get back what we put in? Anyway, if form is what we impose, how can it have authority? The fact that I help to bring the world into existence makes it more precious; but it is also what threatens to undermine its objective value…. (30)
Terry Eagleton has revealed the nexus, the fundamental core, the salient point of this entire discussion, as the moons of consciousness and spirit revolve in a frighteningly tight orbit around the solid planets of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, the only substantial entities within the human universe. Eagleton goes on to say,
If value and meaning reside deep inside individuals, then there is a sense in which these things are not really ‘in’ the world at all. This leaves value arbitrary and subjective. It also reduces [actuality] to a realm of objects which have been drained of meaning. But if the world is drained of meaning, then human beings have no place in which they can act purposefully, and so cannot realize their value in practice. And the less they can do this, the more they begin to disintegrate from the inside. As [actuality] is bleached of value, so the human psyche begins to implode. What we are left with is a human being who is valuable but unreal, in a world which is solid but valueless. Meaning and value are driven from the public world, which is now just a soulless expanse of neutral facts, and thrust deep into the interior of the human subject, where they all but vanish. The world is thus divided down the middle between fact and value, public and private, object and meaning. (31)
This divide creates “the alienated condition of the modern age, which the novel reflects in its inmost form.” (32) And the novel not only reflects this condition, the writing of one acts as a potent antidote to the fundamentally nihilistic nature of actual existence:
Alienation is the condition in which men and women fail to recognize the objective world as their own subjective creation. Yet the very act of writing a novel offers an alternative to this condition, since a novel’s ‘objective’ vision of the world is one rooted in the subjectivity of its author. The act of writing crosses the border between subjective and objective. The novel is one of the few objects in a reified society which manifests in its every detail the subjective freedom in which it was born. In this sense, its very existence can be seen as an imaginary solution to the social problems which it poses. (33)
Or, to turn Eagleton’s coin over and view the flip side, it might be said that the actual writing of a novel can be considered as a real solution to our imaginary social existence.
The Essence of Art
Walter Benjamin meditated extensively on Art, and once wrote that “art of every kind and every work of art contain something that causes perception to accumulate, and this is the essence of the artwork’s form.” (34) For William Blake, “Art can never exist without Naked Beauty displayed.” (35) Brecht keeps coming back “to the fact that the essence of art is simplicity, grandeur and sensitivity, and that of its form coolness.” (36) John Berger believes that “Art mediates between our good fortune and our disappointment. Sometimes it mounts to a pitch of horror. Sometimes it gives permanent value and meaning to the ephemeral. Sometimes it describes the desired.” (37) Nietzsche places Art a bit higher in the order of things, when he writes, “What is essential in art remains its perfection of existence, its production of perfection and plenitude; art is essentially affirmation, blessing, deification of existence.” (38) Ayn Rand, an unacknowledged intellectual and artistic descendent of Nietzsche, puts it succinctly—if not with her usual precision—when she says that “Art is the technology of the soul.” (39) In the wake of the destructive 20th Century, Adorno asserts that “Hegel’s thesis that art is consciousness of plight has been confirmed beyond anything he could have envisioned.” (40)
According to Braque, only one thing counts in art: “what one cannot explain.” (41) George Steiner relates a commonly held view when he says that “Art is not…an imitation of the real. It is the more real.” (42) John Berger tends to agree: “Art does not imitate nature,” he writes, “it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes simply to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered nature.” (43) Oscar Wilde writes that “Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.” (44) Goethe insists that “Art is creative long before it is beautiful.” (45)
Ultimately, “art is an expression of our sense of the inadequacy of the given...” (46) and “a revolt against man’s fate.” (47) Proust indicates how art relates to our private essential self, as
art exactly reconstitutes life, around the truths to which we have attained inside ourselves there will always float an atmosphere of poetry, the soft charm of a mystery which is merely a vestige of the shadow which we have had to traverse, the indication, as precise as the markings of an altimeter, of the depth of a work. (48)
The Purpose of Art
Art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake. (49)
The search for truth occupies many lives and countless commentaries, and yet consensus as to its fundamental nature continues to elude those who consider such things. The reason for this is simple: truth, in its most accepted form, doesn’t exist for humans. Even the statement, ‘Truth doesn’t exist’ is not ‘a truth’, but simply an example—pace Steiner—how language can be used to state anything.
‘Absolute’ metaphysical truth may be the aim of individual philosophic speculation, but the public truth to which civilized activity as a whole is anchored is at once more concrete and more arbitrary. (50)
Instead of truth, humans require ‘meaning’ and ‘significance,’ and this art provides. “For a philosopher to say,” Nietzsche writes, “‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly.” He follows with the nine most significant words in the English language:
We possess art lest we perish from the truth. (51)
Richard Schacht places Nietzsche’s perspective in context, when he writes:
Nietzsche’s insistence upon the continuity of life and art is worth taking seriously in both directions; and of all the points he seeks to make none is of greater interest and importance than his contention that art is the clue and key to the possibility of discovering a way beyond nihilism, and a new ‘center of gravity’ – a new respect for ourselves and estimation of life, ‘redeeming existence’ in the aftermath of the collapse of old illusions. (52)
Proust writes that “the supreme effort of the writer as of the artist is partially to lift the veil of ugliness and insignificance which leaves us without curiosity about the world.” (53) Robert Hass, speaking of Rilke, adds that “the project of poetry, then, was to find, in art, a way to transform the emptiness, the radical deficiency, of human longing into something else.” (54)
“Art,” Oscar Wilde writes,
even the art of fullest scope and widest vision, can never really show us the external world. All that it shows us is our own soul, the one world of which we have any real cognizance. And the soul itself, the soul of each one of us, is a mystery. It hides in the dark and broods, and consciousness cannot tell us of its workings. Consciousness, indeed, is quite inadequate to explain the contents of personality. It is Art, and Art only, that reveals us to ourselves. (55)
The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself. (56)
John Updike relates Henry Green’s proclamation of the purpose of art: “To produce something alive…with a separate, and of course one hopes, with an everlasting life on its own.” (57) Dostoevsky’s intention was “to portray a truly beautiful soul.” (58) Adorno insists that “From time immemorial, art has sought to rescue the special…” (59) He writes elsewhere that
Whoever concretely enjoys artworks is a philistine; he is convicted by expressions like “a feast for the ears.” Yet if the last traces of pleasure were extirpated, the question of what artworks are for would be an embarrassment. Actually, the more they are understood, the less they are enjoyed… (60)
If we accept Adorno’s assertion, we must accept the appellation ‘philistine,’ given the endless and shameless pleasure we take in art objects. And he is correct: if we drain all emotion from our encounter with art, we emasculate any purpose or justification from the object altogether, and might as well spend our time in the company of a mute ugly stone. So, as privileged ‘observers,’ we take our pleasure from art objects without apology, and live all the better for it.
What Art Does
Look up. A hundred billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Unconcerned with me, that confidence of stars, light offerings, two thousand years old. If they are anything to me they are jewels for my shroud. I cannot know them. I cannot even know myself….What can balance the inequity of that huge space, which never ends, and my bounded life? Perhaps this: The beatland of my body is not my kingdom’s scope, I have within, spaces as vast, if I could claim them….[Art] never concerns itself with the actualities of life, neither depicts it as we think it is, nor expresses it as we hope it is, and yet becomes it. Not representations, but inventions that bear in themselves the central forces of the world, and not only world. Art ranches the stars. (61)
So what then, does art actually accomplish? “Does [art] not praise? glorify? choose? prefer?” (62) Nietzsche, the psychologist asks. He goes on to say that “[Art] is intended to ward off discomfort, boredom, the half-clear conscience for hours or moments and, if possible, transform the mistakes of their lives and characters into mistakes of the world’s destiny.” (63) “In Benjamin’s thought,” Rainer Rochlitz writes, “the importance of the beautiful and of art is justified by the fact that doctrine is beyond reach: In every age, it is art alone that presents a ‘definitive’ image of the world.” (64) For George Steiner, “In all substantive art-acts there beats an angry gaiety…” (65) And Robert Musil suggests that “no word can be uttered [or written, I would add] twice without changing its meaning.” (66)
According to Schopenhauer, “Man is more beautiful than all other objects, and the revelation of his inner nature is the highest aim of art. Human form and human expression are the most important objects of plastic art, just as human conduct is the most important object of poetry.” (67) His most prolific intellectual descendent writes,
Art as freedom from moral narrowness and corner-perspectives; or as mockery of them. Flight into nature, where its beauty is coupled with frightfulness. Conception of the great human being. (68)
Philosophy, Science and Art
All professed philosophers are the mortal enemies of all poets. But those rare ones who make genuine and sustained attempts to ring the truth from the hard things that surround them—such rare philosophers are making the same attempts as the poets. And so they are, to some extent, kindred spirits. (69)
There are many ways to divide up the Human Universe, a multitude of approaches that can be used to distinguish one category from another. C.P. Snow provides a well known example: he famously arranged things within two cultures, one of scientific/rationalistic discourse, and the other dominated by artistic expression. He felt qualified to make the distinction as he had operated more or less successfully within both: as an engineer/technician on the one hand, and as a published novelist on the other. He argued that the two realms knew little of each other, and society suffered from this structural ignorance.
While Snow’s distinction may have merit at a high level of abstraction, with perhaps more application to Great Britain than elsewhere, it turns out that if you consider the question closely, you will find that many cultures exist, most of them with overlapping contours and countless facets that impact individuals and society in multiple ways. The cultural situation is not as simple as he originally made it out to be.
Even so, Snow’s assertion called attention to something of genuine interest, sparking vehement discussion and sometimes violent reaction, most notably from F. R. Leavis. While Leavis’s attack seems overly personal and unnecessarily vicious, the substance of his response merits serious consideration. What is the relationship between science and art? Is one necessarily ‘better’ than the other?
Science and art (along with philosophy) share a common foundation: they address elements of the human universe that never change. “Nothing is more enduring and immortal than books,” (70) Walter Benjamin asserts. A dialogue from Plato, the Mona Lisa, and Newton’s laws remain meaningful regardless of what else takes place. “Only the most advanced art of any period,” Adorno writes, “has any chance against the decay wrought by time.” (71)
While specific scientific theories evolve and change or are discarded completely, that to which the theories relate remains constant. The scientist is interested in ultimate explanations of actuality, an actuality that presumably doesn’t change over time.
Even though critical opinion concerning specific art objects—and more generally, the boundaries of art itself—shifts over time, discarding some works from the canon while embracing others, the Iliad remains unchanged and of lasting significance, and speaks in its unique manner to each new generation:
Artworks were always meant to endure; it is related to their concept, that of objectivation. Through duration art protests against death; the paradoxically transient eternity of artworks is the allegory of an eternity bare of semblance. Art is the semblance of what is beyond death’s reach. (72)
The triumvirate of general subjects worthy of sustained interest (Science/Philosophy/Art) contrasts sharply with those things that change constantly: fashion, technology, politics, the daily news, sports events, social arrangements, and idle entertainments. The value of contemplating these topics remains limited in time and scope: they are typically good for immediate purposes only. Their ephemeral nature provides no lasting interest, other than perhaps to the cultural historian (Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project may be the best example of what can potentially be made of this material). As Dirda writes, “Biography, politics, and sociology are ultimately only the servants of aesthetics.” (73)
Within the triumvirate, however, graduated distinctions remain possible. Safranski writes that
Schopenhauer eventually describes philosophy as intermediate between art and science: with the aesthetic it shares the mode of experience, and with science it shares its concepts; it has not, therefore, won its truth from concepts but has merely ‘laid it down in concepts’. This view divides Schopenhauer from Hegel and from an entire philosophical tradition before and after him. There, concepts occupy the top rank; with Schopenhauer it is viewing, contemplation, that holds it. With the others, art—no matter how flatteringly approached—is ultimately only an imprecise expression of truth. For Schopenhauer it is the other way about: concepts are an imprecise expression of truth; art is nearer to truth. (74)
Schopenhauer, then, provides a modern intellectual foundation that places art at the pinnacle of human interest, explicitly setting it apart from science:
But now, what kind of knowledge is it that considers what continues to exist outside and independently of all relations, but which alone is really essential to the world, the true content of its phenomena, that which is subject to no change, and is therefore known with equal truth for all time, in a word the Ideas that are the immediate and adequate objectivity of the thing-in-itself, of the will? It is art, the work of genius. It repeats the eternal Ideas apprehended through pure contemplation, the essential and abiding element in all the phenomena of the world. According to the material in which it repeats, it is sculpture, painting, poetry, or music. Its only source is knowledge of the Ideas; its sole aim is communication of this knowledge. Whilst science, following the restless and unstable stream of the fourfold forms of reasons or grounds and consequents, is with every end it attains again and again directed farther, and can never find an ultimate goal or complete satisfaction, any more than by running we can reach the point where the clouds touch the horizon; art, on the contrary, is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it. This particular thing, which in that stream was an infinitesimal part, becomes for art a representative of the whole, an equivalent of the infinitely many in space and time. It therefore pauses at this particular thing; it stops the wheel of time; for it the relations vanish; its object is only the essential, the Idea. (75)
Nietzsche follows closely upon Schopenhauer in placing art far above the common sciences:
[The artist] fights for the higher dignity and significance of man; in truth, he does not want to give up the most effective presuppositions of his art: the fantastic, mythical, uncertain, extreme, the sense for the symbolic, the overestimation of the person, the faith in some miraculous element in the genius. Thus he considers the continued existence of his kind of creation more important than scientific devotion to the truth in every form, however plain. (76)
In his characteristically cruel and uncompromising manner, one that leaves no doubt as to his place in the discussion, Nietzsche writes:
The nature of scientific man…contains a real paradox: he behaves like the proudest idler of fortune, as though existence were not a dreadful and questionable thing but a firm possession guaranteed to last for ever. He seems to be permitted to squander his life on questions whose answer could at bottom be of consequence only to someone assured of an eternity. The heir of but a few hours, he is ringed around with frightful abysses, and every step he takes ought to make him ask: Whither? Whence? To what end? But his soul is warmed with the task of counting the stamens of a flower or breaking up the stones of the pathway and all the interest, joy, strength and desire he possesses is absorbed in this work. (77)
While Nietzsche languished mindlessly in an asylum, Oscar Wilde put things in his usual enigmatic way: “I have solved the riddle of Truth,” he claims. “A truth in Art is that whose contrary is also true.” (78) A few decades later, Braque made this distinction:
Art is meant to upset people, science reassures them. (79)
Wittgenstein insisted that “Man has to awaken to wonder—and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.” (80) Contemporaneous with Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin roamed the European realm of culture, art and politics, and dwelled in particular on the relationship between art, technology and humanity’s quality of life. While ‘mapping’ Benjamin, Joshua Feinstein points out that
Today, the very goal of a harmony between consciousness and technology seems absurd. The power of science has grown, but so has an awareness of its limitations. Few people expect technology, even by some circuitous or dialectical route, to fulfill the millennial promise of utopia. Late-twentieth-century fears of cultural conformity and the uniform sterility of modern life have given way to anxieties about the shattered, ineluctably parochial nature of existence. Perhaps this explains the enduring vitality of art. Something has to present the tangible premonition of what no technology can effect: a harmony of the universal and the particular, the triumph of Hegel’s spirit, a higher meaning to it all. (81)
This realization must have proved particularly challenging for a Marxist committed to a socialist utopia based on materialist salvation. But then again, Benjamin never quite convinces us of his political purity, as he ranges far beyond the boundaries of orthodox Marxism, constantly trying Adorno’s intellectual patience. We find in Adorno, though, one of the more comprehensive and sustained discussions pertinent to the topic. He maintains that genuine art consists of far more that can be directly and immediately understood:
Artworks that unfold to contemplation and thought without any remainder are not artworks….[A]rtworks are enigmas. They contain the potential for the solution; the solution is not objectively given. Every artwork is a picture puzzle, a puzzle to be solved, but this puzzle is constituted in such a fashion that it remains a vexation, the pre-established routing of its observer….Those who peruse art solely with comprehension make it into something straightforward, which is furthest from what it is. If one seeks to get a closer look at a rainbow, it disappears. Of all the arts, music is the prototypical example of this: It is at once completely enigmatic and totally evident….Understanding in the highest sense—a solution of the enigma that at the same time maintains the enigma—depends on a spiritualization of art and artistic experience whose primary medium is the imagination. (82)
These artistic ‘enigmas’ must be illuminated by disciplined intellectual effort in order to be fully appreciated:
The truth content of artworks is the objective solution of the enigma posed by each and every one. By demanding its solution, the enigma points to is truth content. It can only be achieved by philosophical reflection. This alone is the justification of aesthetics. Although no artwork can be reduced to rationalistic determinations, as is the case with what art judges, each artwork through the neediness implicit in its enigmaticalness nevertheless turns toward interpretive reason….Artworks, especially those of the highest dignity, await their interpretation. The claim that there is nothing to interpret in them, that they simply exist, would erase the demarcation line between art and nonart. (83)
Adorno goes on to point out the risk and weakness of some modern approaches to art, ones that potentially leave out aesthetic substance:
The truth content of artworks is not what they mean but rather what decides whether the work in itself is true or false, and only this truth of the work in-itself is commensurable to philosophical interpretation and coincides—with regard to the idea, in any case—with the idea of philosophical truth. For contemporary consciousness, fixated on the tangible and unmediated, the establishment of this relation to art obviously poses the greatest difficulties, yet without this relation art’s truth content remains inaccessible: Aesthetic experienced is not genuine experience unless it becomes philosophy. (84)
While art then, according to Adorno, requires philosophy, he and Horkheimer recognize that art objects transcend the effort to study them and their significance:
As an expression of totality art lays claim to the dignity of the absolute. This sometimes causes philosophy to allow it precedence to conceptual knowledge. (85)
Paul de Man put the case more definitively when he wrote that “Literature turns out to be the main topic of philosophy and the model for the kind of truth to which it aspires….Philosophy turns out to be an endless reflection on its own destruction at the hands of literature.” (86) This is because
However firmly philosophical statements might cohere into an argument, there seemed no way of dispelling the radical question that had arisen as to the “value” of the terms composing the statements, no way of restoring a vast loss of confidence in the verbal currency in which philosophical arguments had been transacted. (87)
Terry Eagleton provides an excellent summary of the enigmatic relationship between philosophy and art:
For how can philosophy learn from the aesthetic if the whole point of the latter is to be strictly untranslatable into discursive thought? The aesthetic would seem to offer itself as a paradigm for a thought into which it refuses to be translated back. Art shows what philosophy cannot say; but either philosophy will never be able to articulate this, in which case the aesthetic is of dubious relevance to it, or it can learn to express the inexpressible, in which case it may no longer be theory but a form of art. Art would thus seem at once the consummation and the ruin of philosophy—the point to which any authentic thought must asymptotically aspire, yet where it would cease to be in any traditional sense thought at all. (88)
“There is no true creation in philosophy,” Cioran writes. “Whatever depth and originality it achieves, thought always maintains itself at a derived level, this side of Being’s movement and activity; art alone rises to that height, art alone imitates God or substitutes for Him. The thinker exhausts the definition of the incomplete man.” (89) “The philosopher cannot move nations,” Allan Bloom writes, “he speaks only to a few. The poet can take the philosopher’s understanding and translate it into images which touch the deepest passions and cause men to know without knowing that they know....This desire to depict the truth about man and to make other men fulfill that truth is what raises poetry to its greatest heights in the epic and the drama.” (90)
“Art treats appearance as appearance,” Nietzsche asserts. “Its aim is precisely not to deceive, it is therefore true.” (91) True in ways that neither philosophy – nor science – can be true, leading to what might be considered the foundational issue of modernity:
On the road to modern science, men renounce any claim to meaning. (92)
This is a key point, one that illuminates the cultural/political/ideological conflict of the past 200 years. How is such meaning to be attained/retained, while maintaining the forward movement of civilization, movement required to keep humanity from sinking into the quick-sands of time? Thus, Adorno would seem to agree with C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ argument, when he writes that “Art is not an arbitrary cultural complement to science but, rather, stands in critical tension to it.” (93) George Steiner agrees: “The myths which have prevailed since Descartes and Newton are myths of reason, no truer perhaps than those which preceded them, but less responsive to the claims of art.” (94) “The disease of enlightened man,” Steiner writes years later In Bluebeard’s Castle, “is his acceptance, itself wholly superstitious, of the superiority of facts to ideas.” (95) And finally, this: “But though they are of inexhaustible fascination and frequent beauty, the natural and mathematical sciences are only rarely of ultimate interest.” (96)
In a more recent book, Steiner situates imaginative literature within the realm of philosophy:
There is in Plato, in Nietzsche, an unmistakable music of meaning; the inward narrative and dramatizations in Hegel’s Phenomenology are strictly analogous to those in the epic novels of the nineteenth century. Reciprocally, there is little serious literature innocent of concerns, of formulations, of questionings of a philosophic sort. Aristotle’s famous preference of the concrete universality of the fiction over the evidential singularity of the historical fact, reaches further. It is in literature, in the poem, in the play, in the novel that philosophic models, that trials of abstract metaphysical and moral possibility, have been given the density, the enacted and existential weight....of felt life.
...The compelling affinities between the philosophic and the poetic modes, their twin inceptions in the primal impulse towards meaning, towards the attempt of human consciousness to find a lodging in the given world—an attempt which we call ‘myth’—have induced those conflicts of which Plato’s Republic remains exemplary. The status of the fictive within the ‘truth-values’ of analytic and systematic intellection, the status of the fictive within the ‘veracity-values’ of morality, have been a fruitful irritant to epistemology and to ethics. The irresponsibilities or, more exactly, the internalized autonomies of literary invention are perplexing and, in certain cases, repellent to philosophy....Literature is a voracious and anarchic beast. Loosed upon totality it threatens to ingest the provender, sometimes scarce, sometimes fenced in by an aura of solemnity and technical elevation, which metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political theory and even formal logic (witness Alice in Wonderland or the surrealist movements) would reserve for their own. (97)
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera asserts that “the novel has an extraordinary power of incorporation: whereas neither poetry nor philosophy can incorporate the novel, the novel can incorporate both poetry and philosophy without losing thereby anything of its identity, which is characterized (we need only recall Rabelais and Cervantes) precisely by its tendency to embrace other genres, to absorb philosophical and scientific knowledge.” (98) John Gardner makes it simple, when he writes “[A]t their best, both fiction and philosophy do the same thing, only fiction does it better…” (99)
Mikhail Bakhtin agrees:
Fiction of the right kind, pursuing the right tasks, is the best instrument of understanding that has ever been devised. It is indeed the only conceptual device we have that can do justice, by achieving a kind of objectivity quite different from that hailed by most western critics, to the essential, irreducible mult-centerdness, or “polyphony,” of human life. (100)
This line of reasoning suggests that literature may be the supreme human activity and accomplishment. Given that human meaning principally resides within language, that literature exclusively represents the linguistic aesthetic realm, then it would seem that the novel is humanity’s premier aesthetic form. This conclusion appears sensible, if not altogether unavoidable.
While scientists are limited by that which is, artists are limited by nothing at all. The physicist Steven Weinberg wrote “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.” (101) Art always, consistent with its fundamental nature, has a point, one of significant meaning to an identifiable element of humanity. And the novel is the most effective and comprehensive vehicle for expressing that significant meaning.
Paintings and sculptures are also new worlds, but confined by space; and if the artist wants many people to share them, he must
part with his works. What is written can be given endlessly and yet retained, read by thousands even while it is being rewritten,
kept as it was and revised at the same time. Writing is magic.
Walter Kaufman, Tragedy and Philosophy
Notes for Chapter 2 - The Imperative to Create Art Objects