“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/ Ye know on earth and all ye need to know”—“Ode on a Grecian Urn”– John Keats
From the earliest cave paintings to contemporary performance installations, art and questions about the nature of beauty and taste have been fundamental to humankind. Changing modes of valuation – from Plato’s mistrust of poets to Kant’s theories on judgment through to post-Modern theories of art – have led to changing views of both what is considered artistic and beautiful and of the role of art and artists. But there has been insufficient reflection on the work of art itself and on the question “What is art?”. Students often have strongly held subjective viewpoints on taste and artistic merit across a broad spectrum of artistic forms, including television, music, and cinema. This writing will, hopefully, give students an opportunity to ground those judgments in a more questioning philosophical context.
By exploring the Western philosophical tradition as it relates to aesthetics (from the Greek ‘aisthesis’ which relates strongly to ‘sense perception’), students also have opportunities to expand and revise their own theories and beliefs. Students are encouraged to put art in the context of other Areas of Knowledge and to reflect on the manner of the ways of knowing in both the Arts and those Areas of Knowledge. The current view of the Arts and their judgements is what is known as “aestheticism” and it occurred simultaneously with the viewing of the world as “object”.
The arts are diverse: their content, forms and methods are often dissimilar, and the understanding and appreciation of them may possibly be more subjective than objective, but this view of art focuses on the artist and the audience rather than on the questions “What is art?” and “What is the work of art”? The students will be asked to reflect on the Greek word for the artist (‘techne’, ‘technite’) and question how ‘technology’ has come to mean the unity of ‘knowing’ and ‘making’ and towards the unity of the arts and sciences within the technological world-view. The questions in the section, taken from older TOK guides, invite discussion of the ways in which the arts may affect individuals or groups, and the ways in which they embody and communicate knowledge; but the focus is on the work of art itself and how it ‘works’.
Although what is meant by ‘the arts’ may itself be a topic of discussion, the field considered here includes, at the least, a broad field of literature, such as is encountered by the IB student in Group 1 of the Diploma programme, and the visual arts, music and theatre encountered in Group 6
Scope/Applications: The Arts, Humanities and the Natural Sciences:
When students have finished their IB Programme and wish to pursue studies in the Arts and Humanities in university, they will find that these studies are dominated by “research”. What does this mean and what knowledge issues and questions present themselves to us as thinking human beings when this is the case?
If you have been following the thinking that has been occurring throughout the materials presented here in this blog, you will see that knowledge in the arts and humanities is dominated by a particular account of knowledge, and this account lies in the relation between a particular aspiration of thought and the effective conditions for its realization (this is what is called a “paradigm of knowledge” and it is closely related to Aristotle’s account of causality). The account of knowledge or what deserves to be called knowledge in the modern is in modern physics with all the beauty given in the discoveries of that science. Our account is that we reach knowledge when we represent things to ourselves as objects, summonsing them before us so that they give us their reasons for being as they are. This is what is referred to as the principle of reason. This requires well-defined procedures. Those procedures we call “research”. What we now mean by research is not then something useful for some ways of knowing and not for others. For us, it belongs to the very essence of what we think knowledge is because it is the effective condition for the realization of any knowledge. Research and team research have produced and will continue to produce extensive results in the human and natural sciences as well as in the arts.
What happens when the procedures for ordering objects before us to give us their reasons becomes dominant in the study of humanities and the arts? The very procedure of research means that the past is represented as an object. But anything in so far as it is an object only has the meaning of an object for us. When we represent something to ourselves as object, we stand above it as subject—the transcending summonsers. We therefore guarantee that the meaning of what is discovered in such research is under us, and in a very real way, dead for us in the sense that its meaning cannot teach us anything greater than ourselves (this is the core problem in our study of history, also, due to history being an “art” as well as a “science”).
This subject-object distinction and their relation is at the core of the belief that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But what then is “beholding”? Our be-holding is the stance that only sees “otherness” as object and this ‘seeing’ comes from the technological stance of framing which establishes the procedures for “re-search” (the “knowledge framework” and the “methodology” which it establishes are inseparable). The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, has shown this most clearly: the place that experiment plays in the human sciences is taken into the humanities and arts by “research” in the form of a critique of historical sources including biographical sketches of the artists’ lives.
Previous scholarship and study of the past was a waiting upon the past so that we might find in it truths which might help us to live in the present. Research scholarship in the humanities and the arts cannot wait upon the past in the same manner because modern research represents the past to itself from a position of its own command. From that position of command you can learn about the past; you cannot learn from the past. The stance of command necessary to research therefore kills the past as teacher. What is strange is that the more the humanities and the arts have gained wealth and prestige by taking on the language and methods of the human and natural sciences, the less significance they have in the societies they inhabit. The Greeks wept when the Romans robbed them of their art. Is there anything about our art which would cause us to weep for its disappearance?
The arts and humanities research that is being conducted at today’s universities is quite different from the traditional universities of the past. It comes from the mating of two untraditional partners: the post-Nietzschean 19th century German university and American capitalism. That students do not wish to engage in studies of the arts and humanities is not surprising: there is nothing living in the study of humanities and the arts…what is really living for them, the real culture is all around them in the pop culture. But there is no relation between the culture of the humanities and the popular culture. The first sterilizes the great art and thought of the past; the second is democratic but at least it is not barren. Why this has become the case can be attributed to Jean Jacques Rousseau and to Rene Descartes, and we need to try to understand what their thought is saying: that there is a realm of being called ‘history’ and we need to try to understand what the science of that realm was supposed to teach us.
Issues in and for the Arts:
Our modern technological world-view greatly increases the difficulty of understanding the languages of the Arts. By restricting knowledge to the demonstrable regularities we discover by holding objects at a distance from ourselves for our questioning, we ‘subjectivize’ whatever intimations we may have of the beauty and goodness of the world. (“Beauty is in the eye in the beholder”.) In treating everything as if it were simply an object for our inspection and analysis, we obscure its inherent beauty or goodness, suffocating whatever tendency we may have to love it. Our appreciation of works of art that have been created to enthrall us with their beauty—beautiful plays, poems, or musical compositions—can suffer from the stifling tendency of academic critics to hold them away from themselves (and ourselves) and treat them as objects for specialized explanatory research. In the end, this objectivising stance can gradually sap even the basic term good of any definite meaning, for it comes to be seen as a deceptive way of referring to what really are just our own preferences or tastes. And if we should try to discover these ‘values’ by turning in on ourselves, rather than outward, we find ourselves guided by no better standard than our own fluctuating tastes and opinions (most of which are created by the critics: what we call our shared knowledge). We can only learn of a work’s beauty or from its beauty only as that work stands before us in some relation other than the objective. All human beings can achieve these moments, but one has to concede that they are rare.
Modern science (and thus technology) has this obscuring, stifling, suffocating effect because it implicitly denies the possibility of understanding things through the conception of purpose. At the inception of modern scientific research four centuries ago (Descartes and Bacon), the denial was explicit in the attacks on Aristotle’s philosophy, particularly Aristotle’s teleology (telos=purpose) and ontology (ontos=being). Their identification of thought starting from and originating with doubt undermined the traditional understanding of what is good as what any being is fitted for. If, as Descartes, Bacon and Newton suggest, our real knowledge is limited to temporally organized sequences of publicly observable events (experiments, the scientific method) without any conception of an overall purpose (final cause), then we cannot know what any being is really fitted for, since ultimately there is nothing knowable within which anything should fit. We are left with subjective answers to what is due other beings and this ‘subjectivism’ and its confusion is demonstrated clearly in the Areas of Knowledge Ethics and in the Arts.
The idea of a traditional understanding of the natural order as an eternal framework within which human actions can be measured and defined is necessary for conceiving of any being (entity/thing) being “fitted”. To the extent that we accept the modern understanding of nature as the product of necessity and chance—that is outside any idea of purpose—such a statement will have an untraditional meaning. Giving to the world purpose and meaning will serve to be our own goals rather than anything that we have been given. Within the limits of modern scientific and philosophical language, little or nothing can be said about the ultimate cause of being and certainly not enough to believe in Plato’s affirmation that it is ultimately good. Nor does modern science hold out any promise that we will discover the right use of our power of choice, our freedom, by extending the frontiers of scientific knowledge. This has given rise to what has been called the fact/value distinction. To affirm, as Socrates does, that our height as human beings is somehow our knowledge of goodness and that the absence of such knowledge is not ignorance but madness, or the loss of our distinctive nature as human beings, is to place oneself outside all modern assumptions.
Key Terms/Concepts in the Arts:
What is art? What is the work of art? Who is the artist? Does the artist make the work or does the work make the artist? How are judgements made in the arts? What distinguishes great art from that which is not so great?
What is a work of art? It is not present-at-hand like a rock or a tree, nor ready-to-hand like a broom or a car, yet it has features in common with both. Like a rock and unlike a broom, it has no specific purpose and essentially contains conspicuous natural, ‘thingly’, materials. Like a broom and unlike a rock, it is made by humans, but the artist’s creativity has an affinity to the creation of nature in that it appears, like nature, that the artist (and we are speaking only of great art here) is unaware of the processes that are going on within the project (see, for example, the letter of Mozart on the origin of his music).
We might like to consider art in terms of the artist’s choices, a choice of this theme rather than that, of this material, of his pigment, etc., but he does not. The work of art is more like a project, which sets up a world in which choices can be made. Truth, the revelation/unconcealment of being, is ‘set into the work’ and ‘set to work’, illuminating the world of Human Being and the earth on which it rests. As Human Being is thrown in its own project and understands itself in terms of this project, so the artist is originated or becomes an artist by the work of art. The point is not simply that no one is an artist until he/she creates a work, but that the artist is not in control of his/her own creativity. His/her only choice is whether to create the work or not as it is for the audience to enter into the world created by the artist’s work or not. Beauty is the drawing force (eros) for this entry, but the entering and the unconcealing remain the mystery.
Art, as the unconcealment of truth, is an impersonal force that uses the artist for its own purposes. A work is to be understood in terms of being and the world, not of its author or maker. A work also needs an audience, or rather ‘preservers’ and ‘preservation’, which means: ‘Standing in the openness of beings that happens in the work’. A rock is what it is apart from any onlookers; the purpose of a broom is imminent in it, and in any case a broom, like any equipment in good working order, is essentially inconspicuous even when in use, let alone when stored in the cupboard. But a work needs preservers (an audience) to bring out its meaning and to receive the light that it sheds on their lives. As an audience, liking or disliking a work of art is quite irrelevant: either one enters into the world of its truth or one does not. How great that world of truth is distinguishes between art that is great and art that is not so great. Taste is a matter of the they-self or the Great Beast in the Platonic analogy and is determined by the opinion makers.
The focus in the modern is on aesthetics, from the Greek aisthesis, ‘perception’, since it focuses on the audience and their ‘subjectivity’ at the expense of the artist and the work, and on the superficial, perceptible beauty of the work: ‘The aesthetic […] turns the work of art from the start into an object for our feelings and ideas. Only when the work has become an object, is it fit for exhibitions and museums’. (Heidegger) It is not coincidental that our understanding of art as ‘aesthetics’ arrives simultaneously with the thinking that is found in Descartes and Newton or the unfolding of the principle of reason. The work embodies truth first of all, and sensory beauty is what draws us to this truth; this beauty leads us to the truth of the work and allows us to act (and wish to act) as preservers. The work, or art itself, is primary: it generates artists and preservers as a river fashions its own banks in the words of Heidegger. Both the audience and the artist engage in the happening/occurrence of truth and in the preservation of truth.
The Modern View of Art: Nietzsche
To understand how we moderns have come to understand art, we need to examine the German philosopher Nietzsche’s view of art and try to relate it to the theories of truth (correspondence, coherence, pragmatic, and unconcealment) that we have studied. Nietzsche believes that:
- Art is the most transparent and familiar form of the will to power. 2. Art must be understood in terms of the artist. 3. Art is, on an extended concept of the artist, the basic happening of all beings; so far as beings are, they are something self-creating and created (empowering, empowerment). 4. Art is the distinctive counter-movement against nihilism. 5. Art is the great stimulant of life. 6. Art is worth more than truth.
Nietzsche’s (and in using Nietzsche, I should also be using the royal ‘we’ since his view is what dominates our view) views of art remain focused on the Cartesian separation of mind and body, subject and object. Nietzsche ignores the primacy of the work and focuses on the artist as creator. Truth, for Nietzsche, is the accurate portrayal of the current state of affairs in the arts in terms of rigid categories and concepts. Art ‘transfigures life, moves it into higher, as yet unlived possibilities, which do not hover “above” life, but rouse it from itself anew into wakefulness, for “Only through magic does life remain awake” (George, “The New Realm”)’. Although both truth (and knowledge) and art are required for life, art is superior to truth in Nietzsche’s sense of truth. But Nietzsche’s notion of truth is traditional, and he retains Plato’s contrast between art and truth. Strictly, or ‘originally’, truth is not correspondence with fact, but what Nietzsche says art provides: the disclosure of a realm of new possibilities.
The aesthetic view of art stems from the human-centred metaphysic of modernity, and coheres with the conception of beings as what is ‘objectively representable’. My own states (emotion, comportment), the way I feel in the presence of something, determines my view of everything I encounter. Hence art is in danger of becoming a device for the provision of ‘experience’. This is abetted by the view that a work of art is a thing, a crafted thing, with aesthetic value superimposed on it i.e. the art as an artist’s technique, etc. Despite the Greek use of techne for both ‘craft’ and ‘art’ (since techne means bringing forth beings, whether by craft or by art, into truth or unhiddenness), the origin of a work of art is not a product of craft, let alone a thing, with beauty added. It is where truth is sheltered, the truth that enables beings to appear as beings and craftsmen to produce their artifacts. Overcoming aesthetics and its ‘subjectivity’ is an integral part of overcoming metaphysics. Whether art will decline into an ‘instrument of cultural policy’ (as it has essentially done here in Singapore) or will set the truth (in) to (the) work once more is a matter for ‘decision’ (Heidegger); the outcome for the arts in the technological age is uncertain, but not hopeful .
Art is ‘the letting-happen of the arrival of the truth of beings as such’. This means that all art is essentially ‘poetry’. But how is this so?
Is the work of art a Thing?
‘Thing’, is a distinct ‘thing, (subject-) matter, affair’. The Latin res, originally denoted a legal case or a matter of concern, and it is in this ‘case’ that it is related to ‘judgement’. A ‘thing’ implies something present-at-hand, an object of neutral contemplation, in contrast to ready-at-hand equipment and to human beings. It is especially associated with Descartes’ view that the self is a res cogitans, a ‘thinking thing’. We have distinguished five senses of the word thing: 1.the physical: the ‘present-at-hand’: the things of nature (our plants in the classroom); 2.things as phenomena: the ready-to-hand as understood as instruments or equipment: pliers, clock, whiteboard marker, eraser, etc; 3. Things as chromata: a wider sense that includes stones, plants, etc., those things we view as ‘resources’ or anything that we have a use for; 4. Things as pragmata such as events: ‘plans, resolutions, thoughts, temperaments, deeds, the historical’ i.e. things associated with human doing; 5. Things as ‘mathemata’: the things in the widest sense as anything which is ‘learnable’ or ‘teachable’ which includes 1 and 2, but also anything that is ‘a something not nothing’: the number 5, luck, courage, a mathematical formula, a computer.
We examined various accounts of the thing: the physicist’s account of a sunset and a table; a thing as the occupant of a certain spatio-temporal position; Leibniz’s view that a thing is a ‘particular this’ independently of its spatio-temporal location; a thing as the unity of a manifold of perceptible qualities (the thing as a ‘one’); and as a form superimposed on matter (our discussions of Plato’s forms and ideas). The most natural view of the thing is that it is a bearer of properties. It fits with the correspondence theory of truth. An assertion involves a subject and a predicate, corresponding to a bearer and its property: ‘the structure of the thing coheres with the structure of the assertion’: the coherence theory of truth.
‘The “natural” is always historical’, however, for we who are moderns. We have come to see that we view what the Greeks understood as the ‘natural’ view is an old prejudice originated by Plato and Aristotle. But we would need to ‘bring into play the whole of Greek existence, their gods, their art, their state, their knowledge, in order to experience what it means to uncover the like of a thing’. For the answer to the question ‘What is a thing?’ is not a proposition, but ‘the beginning of a change of our former attitude to things, a change of questioning and assessment, of seeing and deciding, in short: of Human Being in the midst of beings’. This great change (paradigm shift) begins to flower in that age we call the Renaissance.
In the 1960s, our street slang referred to our being in the world as ‘our thing’: “It’s your thing” was a very popular saying among us. In this sense, to thing meant ‘to assemble, gather’, and takes a thing to be something that ‘assembles’ the ‘fourfold’, earth, sky, gods and mortals. ‘The cup is a thing not in the Roman sense of res, nor in the sense of an ens as the medievals represented it, nor in the modern sense of a represented object. The cup is a thing insofar as it things’, according to the German philosopher Heidegger. By thinging, it detains a while earth and sky, the divinities and the mortals: that is, it creates a world; by detaining, the thing ‘brings the four close to each other in their distances’. The question ‘What is a thing?’ brings a whole world into play: some thing that ‘assembles’ the ‘fourfold’, earth, sky, gods and mortals.
Once again, the judgement that we place on the ‘value’ of a work of art is determined by how great a world it ‘opens’ for us and how much light it provides into that world. All things provide an ‘opening’; some are greater than others. What we call ‘personal knowledge’ is how we relate to the things of the world: not all things are precious to us; for some, the simplest objects hold a great value to them while they would hold little or no value to others. This relationship to things (and works of art especially) has come to be misunderstood as ‘subjectivity’. What is called ‘subjectivity’ relates to ‘possession’. The proper experience of a work of art is not one of ‘possession’; it is more of liberation.
If the work of art is a thing, what kind of “thing” is it?
Why we have come to View Art as “Subjective”:
To attempt to understand what the essence of art is, we need to speak about subject and object and to question the popular belief that “All art is subjective”. Object comes from the Latin objectum, literally “what is thrown (jacio) or placed against (ob)”. In our being-in-the-world, we encounter the beings/things/entities that encounter us within the world. Beings come up against, en-counter, confront us, as they stand over against us.
Object has come to have many meanings: 1. a real object, 2. an intentional object, an object of a subject or of an intentional attitude such as knowledge, love or curiosity. A real object (e.g. an undiscovered island or planet) need not be the object of any subjective attitude, and an intentional object (e.g. the unicorn I dream about) need not be a real object. Every object is an object for a subject, and not every being/thing is an object, since e.g. natural processes occur without being objects for a subject. The category of “object” was alien to the Greeks. In its place stood pragma ‘a thing done, deed, thing, etc.’, that with which one has to do and deal – what is present for concernful dealings with things’.
Subject comes from the Latin subjectum, literally ‘what is thrown under’. Originally it differed little in meaning from substantia, lit. ‘what stands under’. Subject is ambiguous, meaning: 1. the underlying substratum or subject of predication, inquiry, e.g. “The book is green”, 2. the human subject. The Greeks knew nothing at all about human being as an I-subject. How did a word that originally applied to everything come to be used especially for the human being? In the West, with the new freedom following the decline of traditional Christianity, human being becomes the centre around which everything else revolves and thus the subject, what underlies, par excellence (what has come to be called humanism). The human subject may be a disembodied I, whose certainty determines what there is. But it need not be: Nietzsche’s subject is embodied and governed by desire and passion more than by thought, but still Cartesian in that it is the arbiter of being and value.
Perhaps what we have come to take for granted as art is based on a misguided philosophical theory and is a central feature of our fallen modernity. The subject-object model: 1. ignores the world that is a precondition of our encounters with objects or beings as such: ‘”World” is something in which one can live (one cannot live in nor can one love an object)’. 2. It implies that the subject and the object have the same mode of being, are both present-at-hand, or things. 3. It ‘thematizes’ entities, makes them conspicuous, neglecting what we see out of the corner of our eye, what we are vaguely, unobtrusively aware of. 4. It suggests that our primary mode of access to things is cognition or theoretical knowledge based on the principle of reason. 5. It implies that the subject is separated from the object by a gulf or barrier (like a snail in its shell), and its access to the object is mediated by a representation or framework/grid. 6. It suggests that a person is primarily an I or ego, detached from the body, the world and the They, and that one is aware of oneself by reflection on the I (personal and shared knowledge). In fact, it states that what Human Being is primarily aware of is itself in what it deals with (all things are pragmatic, and all things are equipment or tools and their value is determined by their ‘usefulness’ to me and to the society of which I am a part).
Modern human being is not simply mistakenly regarded as an “I”/ the subject. An “I” is a subject, and to that extent he/she is not Human Being. This ‘subjectivity’ is descended from Descartes’ quest for an ‘absolute and unshakeable foundation’, but it has gone beyond Cartesian confines. The subject is no longer an individualized I: it is embodied human being, even collective human being. It is no longer restrained by a barrier; its dominance of producible and manipulable objects is unrestrained. Objects are still represented, but this means not that human being has a mental picture of them but that it is human being that decides whether and what they are (“art”, for instance). Everything is an object for this subject: there are no unexplored areas or aspects of the world beyond human beings’ theoretical and practical reach. Subjectivity, and the ‘objectivization’ it involves, may go so far that ‘subjects’ disappear in favour of a comprehensive utilizability or ‘usefulness’, and humanity becomes a ‘human resource’ to be managed and exploited like any other material.
The subject-object model has given rise to the contrast between subjectivism (idealism) and objectivism (realism). Both alternatives are mistaken, since 1. The subject-object model is misguided based on the points mentioned above, and 2. Subject and object are correlative: a subject has an object that stands on its own two feet, and an object is always an object for a subject. The distinction between the objective and the subjective is relative and shifting. Thus whenever the question is raised whether e.g. time, world, art or being is subjective, the replies are that 1. They cannot be, since Human Being is not a subject, and 2. If they are subjective, they are also objective, indeed ‘more objective than any possible object’, or ‘earlier than any subjectivity and objectivity’.
Art as Representation:
The manner of our seeing in the arts (and aesthetics comes from the Greek aisthesis which has to do with sense perception with a predominant emphasis on sight) has come to be primarily determined by our understanding of representation. If we look at the word ‘re-present-ation’, we can see that it means “that which is responsible for or occasions the making ‘present’ before us”. There are many ways that we can make something “present” before us. A representation is a performance, presentation, introduction, an idea, conception, imagination, etc., and each of these in some way makes some thing ‘present’ for us.
The views that are commonly asserted regarding the essence of art (and these are captured in the knowledge framework provided by the IB) is that it involves all of the ways of knowing that we are considering in the TOK course. Art, as is commonly understood, is a 1.representing; 2. judgement; 3.involving interest, emotions, etc. with emphasis on both the artist and the audience rather than on the work itself.
Representation is a letting something be seen, not something that is itself seen, like a picture or a painting. Seeing a painting or a picture, and seeing something in a painting or a picture, are quite different from seeing things in the flesh. Our Facebook walls, for example, open up a world for others on ourselves, but it is a quite shallow world. The page cannot convey the primary experience of the thoughts, emotions experienced in the capture of the moment of the picture. The Wall closes down the experience of the real world and, we could say, operates in an opposite or opposing way from the work of art. With Facebook (or any other social media) there is both a simultaneous ‘hiddenness’ (hiding, concealing) and ‘unhiddenness’ (revealing) going on, but this concealing/revealing is much like the shadows in Plato’s allegory of the Cave.
Our seeing or “beholding” (and notice in the word ‘be-hold-ing’ that there is a grasping that makes something ‘be’ or become ‘present’ for us, or determines some thing ‘being’ or what some thing is, taking “possession” of something) is permeated by the language and categories of representation: We do not so much primarily and originally see objects and things; at first we speak about them; more precisely we do not express what we see, rather we see what one another say about the thing or matter. Our ‘personal knowledge’ is primarily a ‘shared knowledge’ for in the ‘sharing’ is determined how we will understand the matter or thing. There is a close affinity between the representational theory of perception and the correspondence theory of truth: both involve representations in the soul (or mind) copying beings outside.
Representation goes with a view of the self as a subject: in the German philosopher Kant ‘the I was forced back again to an isolated subject, which accompanies representations in an ontologically quite indefinite way’, according to the German philosopher, Heidegger. Heidegger rejects this because it misrepresents our being-in-the world, and because Kant’s view does adequately represent our human-centred attitude to the world.
Representation can also mean ‘to make something stand (fast) in advance before us’. Art expresses how what we call ‘truth’ brings chaotic becoming to a standstill, converting it into a ‘static constancy’. We can also speak of ‘representation’ as meaning ‘to bring before’ a court, or a standing in for something or someone else (empowerment or empowering). Then it suggests that human beings are the judges who decide what being is (‘be-hold’) and what qualifies as beings, who lays down the law and applies it to beings; what art is and what qualifies as art i.e. our ‘subjectivity’ expresses the ‘value’ of some thing. To be is, then, to-be-represented, to be presented before the bench of ‘judgement’. This is Descartes’ main achievement, not that he regarded the ego as a thing, but that he equated being with being-represented by a subject. It does not matter whether the subject is a pure ego or embodied ego or self. What matters is that everything comes to human beings for judgement. The two central features of modernity are that human beings are the centre of beings as a whole (what has come to be given to us in humanism), the subject to which they are all referred, and that the beingness of beings (what some thing is) as a whole is conceived as the being-represented of the producible, explainable, and the useful.
‘To produce’ is to ‘lead or bring forward’ and is a type of ‘revealing’ that is often linked with representation to suggest the relationship of Cartesianism and technology. Two features of representation help to put human beings at the centre. First, representation means ‘to represent something’ in the sense of ‘to count, stand for something, to cut a fine figure’. Second, the reflexive representation stresses the subject: ‘every human representing is by an easily misinterpreted figure of speech a “self-representing”. This converges with Descartes’ view that whenever I think about anything I also think that I think. In Representation the representing and the representer are always co-represented as well. From this we can discern why “art is subjective” is the commonly held view.
Representation gives a new sense to the equation of being with presence. For the Greeks being was ‘presence’. Greek presence concerns the ‘presencing of beings into the realm of the unhidden. The closest Greek counterpart to representation is noein, (to think, etc.): ‘dwelling in the unhidden’, receptive rather than intrusive, and was concerned as much with the whole, unhiddenness as such, as with individual entities. Representation is the autocratic interrogation of and jurisdiction over all things i.e. it determines what will be defined as art, for human subjectivity has come to represent the whole.
Poetry and the Imagination: The Distinction between Poetry and Prose
Poesie, comes from the Greek poiesis, ‘making, fabrication, production, poetry, poem’, which in turn comes from poiein, ‘to make, to do’. Aristotle distinguishes poiesis, ‘making’ – which essentially has an end-product, a poiema – from praxis, ‘action’ – which does not. That the Greeks gave this inherently general name to poetry in particular is ‘evidence for the pre-eminence of this art within Greek art in general’ (Heidegger). Poesie has a narrower meaning than poiesis, applying especially to verse in contrast to prose.
Our idea of prose comes from the Latin dictare, ‘to say repeatedly, dictate, compose’. This has a wider meaning than Poesie or ‘poetry’. It applies to all creative writing, including novels, not only verse. The verb has the flavour of ‘to dispose, order, and shape’ and our works of prose ‘say repeatedly’ (what James Joyce indicates in his novel Finnegans Wake). In the wide sense, our understanding of ‘prose’ means ‘to invent, create, project’, but it is distinct from ‘untrammeled invention’. For the essence of art, it happens that art in the midst of beings clears an open place in whose openness everything is other than before’. Art changes the way we ‘view’ the world; and this involves not only ‘sense perception’, but also our disposition or comportment (emotion as a WOK) toward beings/things and world. It is the area of the overlapping between our personal and shared knowledge. It is more than merely “experience”.
The birch tree looks different in different seasons, weathers and perspectives, but I take it to be the same tree, not by elaborate comparisons of and inferences from its changing aspects; I have ‘always already’ taken it to be the same tree. Since the self-identical tree is not strictly given to me, the ‘positing of something “like” is thus an invention and fabrication. This inventive character is the essence of reason and thinking. So before we think in the usual sense, we must invent, using both intuition and imagination. Kant ‘was the first to specifically notice and think through the inventive character of reason in his doctrine of the transcendental imagination. Even our words for sense-impressions – ‘red, green, sour, etc’ – depend on the fabrication of a likeness, sameness and constancy that are not given in the throng of sensations. ‘The categories of reason are horizons of fabrication (and its association with a making), a fabrication that first clears for what encounters us that free place, in which it is set up and from which it can appear as a constant, as a standing object. All thinking is ‘inventive’, but not all thinking is ‘poetic’, nor is it all ‘thoughtful’. (Heidegger)
‘Language itself is invention, writing, composing verses in the essential sense’ (Heidegger, OWA, 61/199). That is, language ‘first brings the entity as an entity into the open’ by naming it. It is ‘projective saying’ and this saying is invention, writing, composing: ‘the saying of the world and the earth, […] the saying of the unhiddenness of beings’ (OWA, 61/198). Hence ‘Poesie, invention, writing, composing verses in the narrow sense, is the most original Invention, writing, composing verses in the essential [i.e. wide] sense. […] Poesie happens in language because language safeguards the original essence of Invention, writing, composing verses. Building and forming by contrast happen always already and always only in the open of the saying and naming’ (OWA, 61/199). Poesie, art in the form of language, is prior to the other arts – architecture (‘building’) and painting and sculpture (‘forming’) – since they operate in the realm already opened up by language (understood as conventions). Creative language, language that names things for the first time, in contrast to language as a means of communicating what is already disclosed, is Inventing, writing, composing verses in a narrow sense, i.e. poetry. (See Shakespeare’s coining of the word ‘assassination’ in Macbeth: it is coined because Macbeth is unable to say the word ‘murder’ in Act I sc. vii).
The German poet Hölderlin plays a crucial role in the recovery of being for Heidegger. Hölderlin was torn between two loves: Greece and its gods, Germany and its God. He was a poet’s poet, concerned about the nature of poetry and the poet’s place in the cosmic order. Five of his sayings about poetry as interpreted by Heidegger are considered here:
- Inventing, writing, composing ‘is the most innocent of all occupations’. Poetry is play with language, inventing a realm of images to inhabit, with no decisions that incur guilt.
- ‘Language, the most dangerous of all goods, is given to man so that he can testify to what he is’. Language opens up beings, and makes world and history possible. Humanity testifies to its central position by the worlds successively created and destroyed throughout history. By opening up beings, language exposes us to danger from them. Language is simplified to become our common possession; a message from the gods is diluted for mortal consumption: hence language puts us in danger of delusion (c.f. the play Macbeth and the many implications of this).
- ‘Much men have learnt. Have called by their names many of those in heaven/Since we have been a conversation/And able to hear from each other.’ (Hölderlin) Language is essential to human beings, and language is essentially conversation, which involves both speaking and hearing. A single coherent conversation requires the identification of stable beings that persist through the flux of time. When we name things, and name the gods, a world appears. Naming the gods is a response to their claim on us. Our response is a fateful act for which we take responsibility.
- ‘But what is lasting the poets found’. Poets name, and thus invent, beings, bringing order and measure (i.e. being) to the measureless onrush of time and thus grounding human existence in the ‘lasting’.
- ‘Full of acquirements, but poetically man dwells upon this earth’. (Heidegger) Poetry names beings/things and grounds human life. Poetry makes language possible. Poetry endangers the poet: “… fellow poets, us it behoves to stand/Bare-headed beneath God’s thunder-storms,/To grasp the Father’s ray, no less, with our own two hands/ And wrapping in song the heavenly gift,/To offer it to the people” (Hölderlin). The apparent innocence of poetry disguises the danger. The poet’s free creativity has two constraints: the ‘hints’ of the gods and the ‘voice of the people’, the legends/stories that he has to interpret. The poet is a ‘medium’ between the gods and the people, standing in the Between where it is decided who humanity is and where humanity is to dwell. (Notice the allusion to Shakespeare’s King Lear in Hölderlin saying on the poets.)
Hölderlin does not give us the eternal essence of poetry. He says what poetry must be in the ‘impoverished time’ between the departure of the old gods and the arrival of the new god. The attempt drove him mad. What he said of Oedipus applies to himself: ‘King Oedipus has an eye too many perhaps.’
From A Letter of Mozart’s:
“The question is how my art proceeds in writing and working out great and important matters. I can say no more than this, for I know no more and can come upon nothing further. When I am well and have good surroundings, travelling in a carriage, or after a good meal or walk or at night when I cannot sleep, then ideas come to me best and in torrents. Where they come from and how they come I just do not know. I keep in my head those that please me and hum them aloud as others have told me. When I have that all carefully in my head, the rest comes quickly, one thing after another; I see where such fragments could be used to make a composition of them all, by employing the rules of counterpoint and the sound of different instruments etc. My soul is then on fire as long as I am not disturbed; the idea expands, I develop it, all becoming clearer and clearer. The piece becomes almost complete in my head, even if it is a long one, so that afterwards I see it in my spirit all in one look, as one sees a beautiful picture or a beautiful human being. I am saying that in imagination I do not understand the parts one after another, in the order that they ought to follow in music; I understand them altogether at one moment. Delicious moments. When the ideas are discovered and put into a work, all occurs in me as in a beautiful dream which is quite lucid. But the most beautiful is to understand it all at one moment. What has happened I do not easily forget and this is the best gift which our God has given me. When it afterwards comes to writing, I take out of the bag of my mind what had previously gathered into it. Then it gets quickly put down on paper, being strictly, as was said, already perfect, and generally in much the same way as it was in my head before.”
The following Wallace Stevens’ poem illustrates some of the points which have been made in this consideration of the Arts:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.