Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The work of art transforms our fleeting experience into the stable and lasting form of an independent and internally coherent creation. It does so in such a way that we go beyond ourselves by penetrating deeper into the work.

 - Gadamer1

When we look at an artwork, we immediately adopt an attitude quite distinct from the normal, everyday one.  It is different from, for example, reading a newspaper, watching the news on television, spectating at a sports event, or even viewing an entertaining film or video. This attitude involves a certain expectation: we expect to engage with the work in a particular way that – whilst quite open – may well excite an unusual interest, involve our visual or aesthetic awareness and judgement, and perhaps challenge our intellect. Very often, especially today, we might also expect in addition to all of these to encounter challenges to our accepted beliefs, personal views and tastes, and any fixed ideas we may generally have about life itself. In addition, and perhaps over all, we most likely will have the feeling that we are in the act of engaging with a ‘work of art’, and that this act involves some, or perhaps all, of the above. We thus create a space in our attention wherein we are fully prepared for something to happen, and are usually willing to accept with equanimity the fulfilment or not of this expectation as part of the whole experience.

In doing this, in submitting to this attitude and creating this ‘space’, we are already in fact in an altered state of what – for want of a better word or phrase – we might call perception, or perhaps better still, perceptive awareness.  We have crossed, if only tentatively and to a limited degree, a threshold. Now, every threshold (limen) marks a line, a limit or boundary between two spaces: inside and outside; rooms in an interior; discrete spaces that serve specific purposes and functions such as activity and rest, cooking and eating, public and private, sacred and mundane. And also in some instances they mark a point of departure or return, as between home and abroad, or land and sea or air. We could also draw metaphysical parallels such as thresholds between the inner and outer life, life and death, wakefulness and dream, dream and deep sleep, or the everyday world and the world of the imagination. Of course, these thresholds, especially the metaphysical ones, are not always strictly or clearly marked or defined; and it is sometimes possible, and indeed natural and normal, to slip between one domain and its other without noticing either the threshold itself or much apparent change in our surroundings.

In the last article, we touched briefly upon Gadamer’s view of hermeneutics. We saw that in his approach the interpretation of the artwork is very much a sharing of subject and object, the viewer and the work, each mutually affecting the other. From our observations so far, I think we can safely say that in this ‘space’ we have created to receive the artwork, and in the communication between it and us, the imagination is at work. Through the imagination we bring to the artwork all kinds of thoughts, ideas, concepts, images, reflections, and possibly meanings which correspond - indeed can only correspond - at best approximately to the ‘real’ meaning of the work. In other words, the so-called ‘real’ or definitive meaning is not actually there - at least not exactly.

There is, after all, a gap between us - the audience - and the work as regards its actual being, and therefore its meaning. Neither the ‘intentional fallacy’, nor objective science can give us the truth of the art-object qua meaning: whatever intends in the hermeneutical sense seems to be the only truth open to us in that respect. This gap that prevents its possession through knowledge, but at the same time reveals the work’s possible meaning might also be seen as a ‘threshold’, a boundary between two distinct but interrelated worlds. But nevertheless we can readily see - if we ‘connect’ well with the work, even though the natural gap between it and us makes it impossible for us to possess its exact essence - that it can offer us a sense of meaning and fulfilment. Now that gap, or we might say threshold, may be extremely important. It causes us to observe, to recognise, the disconnection that actually separates us from the object, in other words the gap itself.2

Through it we recognise, although usually quite subliminally, that the artwork is autonomous, and that we are too: but at the same time, by a strange paradox, we freely commune with it through the imagination. We thus somehow identify with the work through our consciously created space of difference from it, a space that allows us to suspend as irrelevant any conceptual knowledge, or use, to which an object might be referred, and therefore our ability to know it objectively as such. And, in the same movement, we accept that the artwork’s meaning is not extrinsic, but intrinsic: we assume that the work is self-contained in its possible meaning, or meanings. In this way we feel a communion with the work that springs from a similar centred-ness, and its own possibilities of meaning, somewhere within us.

Now, when trying to define a practical use for art - a perceived need that arose during the Enlightenment, and persists to this day - many candidates can be found from the therapeutic to the industrial and economic, the cultural to the recreational, the social and political, the educative, the decorative, etc. I will not include the aesthetic here, as that is not really a practical use except insofar as it is seen as a basis for cultural, and therefore economic, academic, and educational structures: and inasmuch as this meaning of ‘aesthetic’ arguably differs from a more authentic aesthetic experience, which is perhaps something quite different. But in fact, art has no need for justification in that kind of practicality. In a world in which we struggle to find meaning, where perhaps our most pressing, or one might say ‘real’ needs are in finding a purpose to our existence, a solution to our seemingly endless crisis of identity and our endemic alienation from any real fulfilment, art is highly practical. In the imaginative oneness that true art engenders is the basis for a new - although timeless - manner of engagement with the reality that surrounds us, and with ourselves. What could be more practical?

Imagination is the capacity to see the world in the way that it might be, and possibly already is - and therefore a reflection of our own existence, created freely at every new moment: free, that is, from whatever narrow thoughts bind us, and from our own - largely self-imposed - limitations. We are free to create our lives according to the flow of imagination, which pervades both the inner world and the outer world. That is, we are absolutely free in the only way possible or desirable: to become one with the larger Self of the imagination.

An odd paradox: In self-containment could reside true oneness and universality. This may be what we can glimpse through the attentive, and contemplative, space we create for art - a threshold that unites two distinct worlds, the inner and the outer, as one.


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. 53.

2  This may sound like, but is actually quite different from the idea of ‘direct’ perception, or realism, since it allows freedom to both subject and object. There is no material way that a discrete being can directly know another any more than it can become, or truly possess, another. The very word ‘perception’ implies ultimately a difference and a physical distance between subject and object, a threshold that cannot be materially crossed without annulling the very ability to perceive. The knowledge gained by direct realism is only an approximate knowledge, and cannot claim to know totally and objectively, or possess in essence, the true existence of objects, or beings, in the world. That truth - the truth of unity - is perhaps, then, forever beyond the objective mind, and marks a threshold that can only be crossed through the creative imagination, and the feeling of oneness.


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