Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An answer to our reader

One of the main reasons Reid and I wanted to start a webpage like this was that we thought a more thoughtful and philosophical discussion about art and film was severely lacking from many of the film sites we visit. This is not to say that we wanted to do anything overtly or overly academic or pretentious, simply that we wanted to engage in a kind of dialectic about the nature of film and art interspersed with more light-hearted (and perhaps sometimes frivolous) material.

Our reader e. recently sent in a very thoughtful response to my earlier post about the films of Agnes Varda. His questions were so thought-provoking I wanted to provide a more extensive discussion than the comments section will allow. I am therefore posting his questions here and my attempt at a response. Hopefully other folks will join in the conversation.


Nice post.

I'm curious if you would consider yourself a romantic when it comes to truth. I mean, the concept of it, of coming in contact with it, seems to sweep you up (which I'm not arguing is bad... in fact, I like that about you). And, like a good romantic, you seem to keep your distance from definition; that is, although you speak of truth as something which is identifiable and quantifiable, namely, found in one work of art more than another, you stick to vague terms like "our condition," or "what is truly real," when speaking about truth, which come across as some form of tautology, or rather, as lacking valuable construction for direction should one want to spend more time with "good" art that has "more truth, more of the case, more of what is really real, truly true, the is of the is, the authentic."

All these phrases seem to indicate more of, or make more space for, a subjective pull towards what resonates with you as truth, rather than as setting up an argument for a particular type of art to universally (or least generally) unveil more truth than another.

Finally, and this is a bit of an aside from the argument above, if you're viewing art as a clearing or potential for unveiling, then all things are stamped with the title 'art' or 'not art' depending on the viewer's perspective, which seems contrary to your intent (correct me if I'm wrong). Everything, even a lie, even the "inauthentic" reveal something that is the case, at least broadly, should the viewer be open to seeing such, for instance that a lie suggests what is behind it and shows that lie exists as 'truly' a lie.

If you move towards potentiality or the concept of a clearing, that is, some sort of possible delivery system for unveiling truth that is better than simply living and observing, then what would you do with, as Camu says, truth that hits you at the most absurd time, walking out of a phone booth perhaps... does that act of walking out, if indeed "truth is unveiled," become art? And if a dense one finds they can't stand a Bergman film, 'it's so boring,' are they no longer in front of art?

I failed out of philosophy, as you know, so... perhaps you could illuminate the solutions to my issues gently, that is, with as little Heidegger terminology as possible. 

Hi e.

Thank you for your rather wonderful question. It is very rich so forgive me if I ramble on.

First of all, I am absolutely in no way a romantic when it comes to truth or art. I think driving your question may be two distinctions which are deeply embedded not only within Western philosophy but Western culture and both of whom I would deny.

The first distinction is between subject and object. Since Descartes, at least (and probably as early as Augustine) Western thought has done its very best to remove study and understanding from lived experience and put it firmly within the realm of the purely conceptual. The apotheosis of this is Descartes cogito, ripped apart from any lived reality, a disembodied "consciousness" whose only access to the outside world is first through mathematics and geometry and then through indirect representations. This, of course, in turn epistemologically grounds the natural sciences.

I think driving your comments about my writings on art as being vague and ambiguous is something deeply rooted in this distinction. You are, it seems, asking for a more analytic approach, perhaps one centered on necessary and sufficient conditions for art. The problem with such an approach is that it would be an entirely derivative and secondary mode of speaking about either art or truth, one which eventually ends up denying any lived meaning since our discourse would entirely center around refining said definitions. This is why I think analytic philosophy ultimately always ends up in a kind of nihilism. This is not to say that definitions, rigor and argument are not only good but essential to philosophical discourse but once removed from lived experience they become not only useless but obfuscating.

A much more useful approach is one centered on lived experience. My thoughts on truth and art are primarily informed by a kind of phenomenology, trying to point towards a deeper understanding in conversation (with smart people such as yourself) about something I deeply experience. But we need to be very aware that the experience in question can never, ever be fully encapsulated within concepts or abstractions. There is a kind of mystery and ambiguity to reality, something that both analytic philosophy and the natural sciences either ignore or deny. To touch upon these mysteries, to unveil, little by little, that which deepens our understanding of one another and the world is the object of our discourse, not to manufacture detailed definitions that are so abstract they no longer have anything to do with what we experience.

The second distinction is between emotion and reason, two faculties of the human person that finally and ultimately become ripped apart in the so-called Enlightenment. Romanticism was primarily a response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment but emphasizing emotion over reason is just as ignorant as emphasizing reason over emotion. The two are deeply ingrained. One can see this split not only in art but in cultural discourse and in religion, especially in Christianity. It seems that much of Western Christianity is either entirely focused on sentimental emotionalism (e.g. the "charismatic" movement in Protestanism) or discursive rationality (e.g. certain strands of Calvinism; scholastic Roman Catholicism).

I would say that my view of art is primarily defined by a more Eastern worldview, one first informed by Zen and then my practice of Eastern Orthodoxy. In both these traditions the focus is on reintegrating the various elements of the human psyche and body. Reason, emotion, spirit and the body are all fully aligned to enter into an experience that transcends any one of these elements.

Finally, there is the issue of Western epistemology focusing almost entirely on discursive rationality (dianoia) over and beyond other ways of knowing and seeing. When we speak about art it is, of course, useful to analyze, conceptualize and define. But is not our experience of art something that transcends this, something that moves beyond the realm of the conceptual? This is what Plato pointed towards with his wondrous divided line passage in the Republic, the fact that we have a faculty - the nous - which is an intuitive, poetic awareness of the highest truths of reality, something that is way over and beyond discursive reasoning. This poetic, intuitive awareness is most fully active in spiritual pursuits but it is also our primary mode of seeing and understanding art.

This is why I think writing about art is primarily an invitation, a way of opening up horizons and possibilities within the work that beckon out to other viewers. One cannot give conditions for what "good" and "bad" art is but rather one must cultivate one's sense of the beautiful by immersing oneself in the care and craft of art. This allows one to recognize beauty and to offer it to others.

And this also touches on why not any experience (walking out of a phone booth) constitutes art. Any lived experience can, indeed, convey truth (even, as Camus correctly points out, the most absurd of experiences). Yet art and the poetic are realms where human beings, through their craft (techne) attempt to deliberately unveil something essential about what it means to be human, to open up our experience of the world and other people in such a way that our understanding and our communion is deepened. Such an unveiling has to be deliberate. This is why there is a distinct difference between the kinds of truths unveiled through our experience of nature (which are, of course, deep and profound) an those unveiled through art.

Thank you again for your thought-provoking question. It would be great if you could share some of your own thoughts and experiences on art with us on these pages. Failing that, I look forward to your next visit to Milwaukee where these matters can be discussed properly, i.e. with a drink in hand.



Haukur said...

All this talk about truth and lies....

....makes me want to watch True Lies (!!!)

agust symeon said...


Awesome movie. I haven't seen that forever. Why are all of Cameron's movies so dreadfully overlong, though? Aside from the first Terminator, of course, which is nearly perfect. And Aliens comes pretty close too. Darn that Carter Burke.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking..... thanks