Saturday, 3 August 2013

My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing.

- Gadamer1

There have been several conferences in recent years concerning art and philosophy, that have attempted to define both a new philosophy and a new direction for art. Exhibitions have resulted, in which artists have identified with a certain emerging philosophical movement.2 Some critics and commentators say that a new direction in art ought to follow, or will follow naturally, this exciting and parallel new movement in philosophic thinking. It all has to do with the great subject/object dichotomy in which, to the consternation of some and the delight of others, the new philosophy is apparently tearing apart the fabric of human understanding by questioning the assumed special place of the human subject. Put very simply, according to their advocates, the new philosophy and art claim to be redressing the traditional balance more in favour of the object, across a spectrum ranging from greater respect for the other (for example, nature and the environment) to recognising the impenetrable noumenon (the philosophical notion of the 'thing in itself') as indicating a real, almost tactile being, accompanied therefore - it would seem - by a legitimate claim to inalienable rights.

But art essentially has never adhered, and will never be able to adhere to a prescription provided by philosophy. Why? Not because it does not wish, and has never intended, to do so: we can readily recall a great number of artists and movements that have been influenced by philosophic thought, or have actively expressed a particular mode of philosophy through art. And there is nothing wrong, indeed everything right, in doing that: art may give expression, consciously or unconsciously, to many thoughts and feelings, and an artwork might indeed even be viewed as a form of tacit philosophy in its own right. But the truth is - and here our ‘truth’ is more of an observation than a proposition - that even while earnestly engaging with a mode of thought, politics, philosophy, religion, or any other human activity, ultimately the value of art is that it reveals something more, and always unexpected. What is that something more, and where does it come from? It arises somehow within the artistic transformation of that very activity beyond its quotidian reality, through its suspension in the creativity of the imagination. This transformation somehow encompasses the very thing we are trying to express, while at the same time it goes beyond it. In this beyond, the extra space created by and through art, we catch a glimpse of the real nature of things: not as mere objects, nor as extensions of a subject, or as presentations or representations to the mind, nor yet as the elusive noumenon or ‘thing in itself’, but - and containing all of these - the way that things play in our consciousness, as experiential events that when transcended hold a real significance for our sense of existence. It is only through a certain kind of open and energetic passivity, within which we suspend the stasis of partial judgement we otherwise exercise almost automatically by way of our life-conditioning, that we can catch a glimpse of this. This passive movement - it is a positive action, a willingness to step back - is what in Phenomenology is termed the “phenomenological reduction”.3 However, it is not essential for artists to know anything about Phenomenology. They tend to practice something very similar quite naturally and intuitively, without reifying it in a philosophic system or recognising it as such.

An effective philosophy is thus always aligned to both reason and intuition. It is also a critical one, where ‘critical’ means employing both our reason and our intuition in one detached movement. But who is the subject of this philosophy and this critical movement?

We are engaged all the time in the play of our thoughts, our emotions, our motivations, our deeds: in short, our lives. The one who experiences these events is undoubtedly what we customarily call the ‘subject’: although common sense will tell me that I am not, and cannot be, the only subject. I share my subjectivity with others - in what we may call intersubjectivity. This idea is formed through my deduction from experience and intuitive feeling that other beings inhabiting this world of mine partake of the same essential consciousness, perhaps to a greater or lesser degree; and it is also strongly linked to the ideas of interdependency and interaction. By projecting my imagination into the world, and by noting the discoveries of science and indeed the whole nexus of human culture, I can clearly see that my world - this world - is also that of countless others: our interaction to a large extent forms my sense of self, and our discrete selves are more similar than not, sharing the same drives and functions, essentially the same life-pattern, the same birth and death.

But all of this is apprehended by a conscious ‘self’, through its own efforts and also by assimilating the discoveries of others. It is at this point that science becomes confused and somewhat limited, because in the pursuit of knowledge the idea of the self is reduced, or subsumed, to an object within the scope of knowledge. On the one hand this is good, but on the other the problem here is that the science is actually performed by that same object/subject, and the wider ramifications of this are overlooked by the scientific method we have inherited from preceding centuries, which also affects philosophy.

The actual seat of the ‘subject’ is essentially a very old question that has become increasingly germane to philosophic and critical discourse, and it is inextricably tied to the search for truth: but the method used in discourse - which adopts a scientific paradigm - has tended to inadvertently mask the truth whilst attempting to identify it. This problem has been marked by some post-structuralist writers such as Gadamer4 and engaged by Derrida, who turned the difficulty towards its own resolution. What emerges is the sense of a different kind of ‘truth’ that is immanent to and at the same time beyond discourse, while not necessarily demonstrated by it. This is famously a disappointment to those seeking a definitive and evidential result in the scientific or philosophic sense, but nonetheless it is very close to the kind of outcome that we might experience in an artwork, and that is what is of interest to us here.

I am aware that my own sense of self, of subjective being, and my sense of the world at large vary and fluctuate: they are not static, while paradoxically they both appear to retain an overall quality of stasis. Perhaps as a result - and not, I hope through some emotional or mental deficiency - I perceive the world to be replete with uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox. However, as an artist, I tend to see these as opportunities, rather than obstacles, and I find that through the essential uncertainty, paradox and ambiguity of art I can go some way towards learning more about the true nature of both my self and the world, as they participate in what I surmise to be an immanent, and perhaps infinite, consciousness. Beyond this, there is only the light and knowledge of experience, to be gained through continued personal effort involving both my reason and my intuition, and to be confirmed by a form of truth which I increasingly find to be essentially self-revealing, both within and beyond my best efforts to discover it.

I do not expect that this will constitute a philosophic system, or crystallise art and philosophy in a new movement; a unique value of art5 is that it can open up a fresh relationship involving both my self and the world, subject and object, where they have the role to reveal, and ‘I’ to humbly observe - along with my fellow travellers in spirit - their integral nature and the unfolding truth of their play and interplay. The better my observation, the fuller my understanding, and the more fulfilling my participation.


1 Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method (London: Continuum, 1989), p. xxvi.

2  The movement in philosophy is variously known as ‘Object Oriented Philosophy’, ‘Speculative Realism’ or  ‘Speculative Materialism’, although these also vary in philosophic content.  An overview of these and related art exhibitions may be found in S. Bromberg’s article at < > (I’m indebted to J. J. Charlesworth for this link).

3 The terms “phenomenological reduction” and “intersubjectivity” are contained in Edmund Husserl’s Ideas I and Cartesian Meditations respectively. The phenomenological reduction, sometimes called the “epoché” or “bracketing”, began with Husserl, and although its construct has been critiqued by others - for example Merleau-Ponty in The Phenomenology of Perception - the basic idea is to suspend the object of consciousness along with our conditioned form of judgement, within the space of a possible larger understanding.

4 Hans-Georg Gadamer, op. cit.

5 It is important to add here that, of course, there is ‘art’ in discursive writing, and in philosophic discourse.

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