Saturday, 4 May 2013

The art of earlier ages only comes down to us filtered through time and transmitted through a tradition that both preserves it and transforms it in a living way.   - Gadamer 1

In the previous two articles we touched briefly - regarding the paintings of Vermeer - upon the way in which the work of a particular artist can be overlooked for a long period of time, perhaps centuries, until one day it 'speaks' to an audience now ready - so it would seem - to see and understand it. It will mean something to that audience that perhaps it did not, indeed could not, to one of an intervening time and culture, or will carry within it an  aspect or nuance that somehow chimes with the current times. A good example of this might be the popular interest, in recent decades, in the less well-known works of Charles Dickens, such as Little Dorrit, Bleak House, or Martin Chuzzlewitt. Before the late nineteen-eighties these stories were virtually unknown to television or cinema, compared to, say, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. Although this interest could be due to their comparative novelty, some critics have attributed their recent popular appeal to the stories' perceived relevance to a modern audience that does not identify so much with the comparatively straight-forward life-romance of a character or characters (such as, for example, in David Copperfield), than with their hopeless embroilment in the troubling vagaries and complexities of finance as an overarching, ineluctable and seemingly inescapable mover of life and fate: a recurring theme that they share, and a sign of the times, perhaps. Indeed, in a recent television production of the classic and better known Great Expectations, the emphasis was more upon that aspect of the story than in earlier productions. The feeling that emerges is the utter horror and social disgrace (as, according to this production, it would have been perceived in Dickens' time; and even if this were exaggerated, that in itself may tell us something of our own interpretative conditioning) of discovering one's financial benefactor to be a common criminal. Furthermore the human issues involved in this and the now popular, previously lesser known works, seem less clear-cut; they are more complex, subtle, and obscure, with multiple shades of grey.

These instances of a shifting of emphasis within, or a re-reading in a different light of, a text or image, are exemplary of what - according to Hans Georg Gadamer - is the true meaning of hermeneutics. That is to say, that hermeneutics has not so much to do with interpretation qua a means of discovering the definitive truth of a text, as it has to do with the movement of interpretation itself. That interpretation is always constituted within the life-circumstances of the interpreter, and enhanced or obscured by numerous reflections back and forth through time, place, culture and context. This means that the object of interpretation may remain more or less the same, but its subjective apprehension will move and slip, change and vary, develop or diminish, according to not only the perceived cultural-historical-artistic context of the work in question, but also to precisely how that context is perceived by the subject who is himself a product of a similarly unique life-situated context; and hence to how much and to what extent both subject and object will perforce naturally and reciprocally act upon and influence each other. In the above-mentioned case of Great Expectations, in the modern production the dark emphasis upon the social horror and disgrace implicit to Pip's realisation of the source of his financial well-being, may or may not be exaggerated by a modern perception of Victorian morals and social standing: but it is perhaps more germane to wonder why we should now - in our own times, with their putatively quite different outlook - seek to amplify that particular theme and find it so compelling. Is it because we find it a somewhat quaint reminder of nineteenth-century morality as it (reputedly) was; or do we have a newly awakened, curious fascination for the destructive abyss of social and financial insecurity, which was hitherto assumed to be a thing of the past, but more recently - with social welfare under increasing criticism, the earnings gap expanding, and the moral failure of banking - appears as a very real and growing threat?

Discounting what we have come to recognise as the 'intentional fallacy', this slippage in meaning raises the question of what the truth of the art-object actually is, but at the same time implies that it may in fact have no definitive truth, or at least none that can or does stand outside of what we are able to perceive, where perception is an exchange between audience and artwork such as described above. But this only applies if we are seeking a defined 'truth' that is once-and-for-all-time, fixed, or propositional. This kind of 'truth' is what in post-structuralism is termed a 'transcendental signified', and is more apparent in science than in philosophy, although both of these belong to the same epistemological tradition. That tradition tends to assume that its method of arriving at the truth is a 'truth' in itself, and strangely overlooks the fact, as if hidden in plain sight, that it cannot - by dint of its very own ground and method of empirical and evidential enquiry - make such an a priori assumption.

Like any human product, the material art-object - whether a text, painting, sculpture, film, or anything else - even if overlooked, neglected, and unrecognised for many years, will nevertheless still hold, as it were, a possible latent meaning capable of being unlocked by someone approaching it with the required perceptive awareness, an awareness which is itself acquired through inhabiting a specific cultural and historical context. This of course could also be true of, say, a scientific tool of some kind - for example, a Greek astrolabe. The difference between an art-object and the astrolabe is its specificity as art, but that in itself is an attribute that is not easy to pin down, since our modern idea of art’s specificity is largely a product of the last two hundred and fifty years. Unlike the astrolabe, however, an artwork can be seen as effective even if its purpose - as defined in its religious or social function - is no longer extant or relevant: its specificity depends upon its power to move the percipient in a particular way, and that way is to refer not principally to an external use, or truth, but to itself and to whomever it addresses. Arguably, then, art has always served an end that is more to do with feeling than with thought, with intuition more than rationality. But here intuition is not irrational - far from it. In fact, if anything it is the fulfilment of reason through reason’s own capacity to transcend itself.

The way that the work of art is - its ‘truth’ - is immanent to both the way that it is made and the way in which it is seen. This truth, therefore, is not an exact communication of a specific being as a known or knowable quantity, but something that arises from within the communication itself, and involves a particular attentiveparticipation of both subject and object, through consciousness.

We shall look at this kind of attention, and the ‘space’ that it creates, in the next article.


1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, trans. N. Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge  University Press, 1986), “The Relevance of the Beautiful”, p. 52.

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