thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

World without end

with 7 comments

Eleventh in a series beginning with Art in the family.

Rembrandt: Self portrait

Rembrandt: Self portrait

I said last time there was one last avenue I wanted to explore. This is about the ‘specialness’ of art – perhaps to redress the balance after all the talk about dry scientific things like Darwinian selection.

The question could be asked like this: if we reject the assumption that there must be ‘something beyond’ which artworks, or at least the greatest artworks, ‘point to’, why do we make so much fuss about art? Why do we count the greatest works of the greatest artists among the greatest things the human race has achieved?

I think we have already have bits of an answer, but they need to be pieced together.

There is for example the idea that art ‘tells us something’. Artworks seem to contain something which is something like ‘knowledge’, if it is not exactly knowledge itself. Related to this is the idea of artistic ‘truth’ – that an artwork imparts ‘truth’ to us, or at least something like truth, and very often something at least as valuable as truth.

Comparison with science might continue to be useful. In science we have validation and falsification by experience. We have methodologies articulating the relationship between scientific statements (laws, theories, and predictions from hypotheses – which are all the artefacts of science) and empirical evidence. In art the place of the scientific artefacts – the scientific description – is taken by the artwork itself. So what takes the place of empirical evidence? What do artworks get ‘validated against’? What do they ‘correspond to’?

Some obvious differences between science and art will get us on our way. For a start, science needs to hang together as a whole, whereas art does not – and possibly cannot. Every scientific law and theory must be compatible with every other scientific law and theory. Every artwork is a law unto itself.

NGC 5189 nebula

NGC 5189 nebula

Related to this, there is the reality which science corresponds to and is validated against. This is, or at least is assumed to be, one single ‘objective’ reality. There is not one reality for relativity, another for astronomy, another for chemistry and another for biology. Different domains of science address different domains of that one reality. They do not address distinct and independent realities.

Art is different. Different producers and consumers of art may assume they share a reality, and assume the various artworks address or respond to that same shared reality. But this assumption is not necessary to the artistic enterprise. It is up to the individual artist to decide to what extent the reality he or she is responding to is a shared reality – or indeed to ignore the issue completely. Similarly each consumer of art can decide to what extent he or she sees an individual artwork as a response to a shared reality or part of it; as a response to a separate reality; or as no kind of response to any kind of ‘reality’ at all.

Each artwork can therefore ‘decide for itself’ what domain of reality (if any) it is a response to, reflection of, or simply ‘about’. Its domain is, generally speaking, independent of the implicit or explicit domain of any other artwork. If it is a ‘response’ it can be independent of any ‘response’ represented by any other artwork.

Continuing the theme of whether art ‘tells us anything’ – and continuing the comparison with science – we can compare the ‘knowledge’ which an artwork may contain with the knowledge contained in a scientific description.

Dame Ellen Terry as Katherine of Aragon in Shakespeare's Henry VIII

Dame Ellen Terry as Katherine of Aragon in Shakespeare's Henry VIII

If a scientific description tells us something about the world, about reality, what does the artwork tell us about, if it tells us anything? At a fairly obvious level, a representational artwork can tell us about the thing represented. A landscape painting can tell us about the landscape; a portrait can tell us about the sitter; a history play can tell us about the events portrayed. But that is only true of representational art, and only true to an extent. The landscape and sitter may have never even existed. The historical events may have been very different from the events the play portrayed.

If we have access to and understand a scientific description, it will give us knowledge about an aspect of reality. If we have access to and understand an artwork, can we similarly say it gives us knowledge about an aspect of reality?

One obstacle is what we have said about art not necessarily reflecting a single shared reality. But if not factual knowledge exactly, is there a kind of knowledge – or something like knowledge – in our appreciation and understanding of an artwork?

I would like to suggest a possible approach involving a kind of ‘knowing’ which is not to do with knowing that. If I know a person, that means I have met the person, I would recognise the person. Philosophers tend to call this knowledge by acquaintance as opposed to knowledge by description. Knowledge by acquaintance might entail knowing facts about the person known, but this is not intrinsic. We can say a baby or an animal knows a particular person, without that baby or animal knowing, or being able to express, any facts about the person. This kind of knowledge is to do with recognition.

I want to suggest that recognition, or something very like recognition, may be at the core of our appreciation of artworks as artworks. And interestingly the recognition seems to be a two-way street. I might feel I recognise something in a Beethoven string quartet. I might also feel the Beethoven string quartet recognises something in me. It is as if the string quartet knows something about me (not about me personally, but something about what I am), and it is this knowledge that I recognise in the string quartet.

This might sound far-fetched. But put a friend in the place of the string quartet. If I know someone as a friend, I recognise the friend and the friend recognises me. I know something about the friend and the friend knows something about me. More than that: I know the friend knows me and knows about me. I know the friend knows I know him or her, and vice versa, and so on.

This links to something I said when Looking down on a rain forest:

To see a created object or event as a work of art is, generally speaking, to see it as something intentionally created as a work of art, and to recognise that intention behind it.

The artwork is not a person, but it is intentionally created or enacted by a person (or more than one person) as an object or event which is to be seen and experienced as an artwork. That is to say it is created or enacted with the intention that it should communicate something to someone.

If this seems too prescriptive, consider an extreme case of an artist who wants to create something which specifically communicates nothing at all to anyone. We can imagine someone seeing the work and, in defiance or ignorance of the artist’s intentions, taking it as communicating something. Alternatively we can consider a more ‘percipient’ person who genuinely sees the work as fulfilling the artist’s intention. Surely the consumer must have at the very least received that intimation – so the work must have communicated something. In order to guard against someone receiving even that minimal intimation (regardless of that fact that it would, ironically, have been in line with the artist’s intention!) the extreme artist’s only recourse would be to lock the work away from view. Not only that – the artist would have to ensure that no one ever found out about it.

But the artist him- or herself would know about it, and would know that the intention had been fulfilled. By keeping the artwork locked away and secret the artist would have succeeded in communicating that success to his or her only possible target audience. The only way to break this would be for the artist not to have had the original intention. In that case (in terms of the laboured analysis articulated here) it would not qualify as an artwork. This is because we have said an artwork is something intentionally created or enacted by one or more people as an object or event which is to be seen and experienced as an artwork.

The example is deliberately absurd. It was to show the immense difficulty – I would say impossibility – of intentionally creating a work of art which does not communicate at least something to someone.

Degas: Dancers in blue

Degas: Dancers in blue

When I spoke about the string quartet recognising something in me, and knowing something about what I am, I was not implying the string quartet itself is alive and conscious. (Some artworks are alive and conscious: plays, ballets and music in performance for example. Others, like novels, poems, paintings and recorded music are not.) But the listener listening to music, the visitor looking at a painting, the reader reading the novel, are all alive and conscious. They must be. So the experience of the artwork is alive and conscious. That is what does the recognising, at the same time as being recognised.

These are strange words but they do not have to be strange thoughts. An ‘artwork’ locked away in a box, unseen, unheard, is at most a piece of matter or energy. A person ignorant of the artwork, unaware of it, is not undergoing a relevant experience. But join the two together, and in that personal experience and appreciation there can be what is best described as a recognition – the person experiences the object not as just a lump of matter (if it is a physical object), but as a thing intentionally crafted to communicate something. And that communicated something can be about – can express its recognition of – what it is to be a person; and/or what it is to be a piece of the universe; and/or what it is to be a lover; and/or what it is to be a living thing; and/or what it is to be conscious; and/or what it is to be mortal; and/or what it is to be afraid; and/or what it is to suffer; and/or what it is to be alone; and/or what it is to be alive in the 21st – or any other – century.

This, for me, is getting some way towards an explanation of why art is special. To create a work of art is not to do magic, but it is to create a work of humanity and meaning. I do not think it points to an existence beyond, or to any mystery – if mystery is construed as a substantive thing, like heaven hypostasised as a projection of our ignorance. But the greatest works of the greatest artists can be among the greatest things the human race has achieved.

This is why we have artistic canons. But each of us has the right to reject any artistic canon if we have good reason. And we could be right.

I’d better stop there.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

21 April 2010 at 7:19 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Perhaps you are right. So I can continue to enjoy the wow without worry.



    27 April 2010 at 10:34 pm

    • Terry,

      For some reason that enigma variation reminded me of an old joke – I’m sure you’ve heard it.

      A linguistics professor was lecturing about double negatives. He said there were two groups of languages in the world. There were ones like Latin and English where two negatives make a positive. For example an English person might not be unmoved to learn that the Latin for ‘some’ is nonnullus – literally ‘not no’.

      Then there were languages like Afrikaans and French where two (or more) negatives still communicate a negative. For example Ek praat nie Afrikaans nie is Afrikaans for ‘I do not speak Afrikaans’, not ‘I do not not speak Afrikaans’. And in French Je ne peux plus jamais lui parler means ‘I can never talk to him again’, not ‘I can’t never talk to him no more’.

      But, continued the professor, there are no natural languages where two positives make a negative.

      There was silence, and then a quiet voice from the back said, ‘Yeah, right.’

      Thanks again, Chris.

      Chris Lawrence

      28 April 2010 at 9:04 pm

      • I’ve heard this story before but it is good enough to still be funny second time round. The version I’d heard also didn’t include the illustration from Afrikaans – which made me wonder if the Dutch use of the double negative is where the phrase “speaking double Dutch” came from.

        Afro-Americans also use double negatives. As in “I ain’t done nothing.” I think, actually, the more negatives one adds, the more negative it becomes. As in “I ain’t never doing nothing for her no more.”

        I asked Google if the etymology was originally from Europe or Africa. She says the earliest identification of the phrase “double dutch” came from the Welsh in America. Chaucer used double and even triple negatives, but this usage began to die out in the 17th century. So I guess the source is European.

        I’ll stop, or you will never dare tell me another good joke.

        Thank you. Terry


        29 April 2010 at 12:21 pm

  2. I had a rather surprising experience yesterday which is relevant to our recent exchanges. I was discussing with a friend whose background is fairly consonant with mine (traditional Roman Catholic etc), and we both agreed we’d given up belief in the relevant doctrine decades ago. Having dismissed the concept of god and the accompanying supernatural world, we began to explore our mutual sense of mystery, of something more than the world accessible to scientific study or rational analysis.

    He began to use words like “spirit,” and “the sacred,” and “transcendant” and I found myself practically shouting “Not something substantive!”

    OMG, I thought, this is what Chris Lawrence means.

    And so this is just to say thank you. You have helped make this universe more truly my home. When I die, I’m not going somewhere else. Whatever happens, whatever form emerges after I die, it is going to continue to be part of this universe. I’m not going somewhere else. I’m already where I belong. (I don’t know what other term to use besides “I,” though I do not expect that my consciousness of myself as it now exists will continue. In any case, I’m not using the term “I” as a kind of closet word for soul.)

    For some reason, I find this conclusion that this is where I belong hugely exhilarating.

    Again, thank you. (Unless, of course, you’d rather not be party to such a conclusion. In which case, I certainly don’t hold you responsible.)



    26 April 2010 at 4:33 pm

    • Wow.

      Chris Lawrence

      26 April 2010 at 4:41 pm

      • Of everything I have read on your blog, I must say that “wow” is the most enigmatic. (Or should I keep with tradition and say “insubstantive”?)

        Not sure whether thank you is exactly the right response, but I did extract a great deal of bemused enjoyment from your single word.



        27 April 2010 at 3:53 pm

        • It wasn’t deliberately enigmatic. To be honest I felt both flattered & humbled – so I thought the least said the better! 🙂

          Chris Lawrence

          27 April 2010 at 4:14 pm

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