Truth In Art

In this day of “false news,” alternative facts, and countless untruths told by our sitting president, it seems appropriate to turn once again to the age-old question of whether there is any truth in (of all things) art. At the very least it might help us recall that there is truth (and falsity) and that at times it hides its face but remains there for those who wish to take the time and trouble to look for it.

There are three ways in which something can be said to be true. In all three cases there must be corroboration by others. A statement can be said to be true if it corresponds with a fact. Thus “The president tells porkies” is true if, in fact, he does so. (And, as we all know, he does.) A statement can also be said to be true if it “fits in with” a body of known facts. Thus the statement that “humans and chimpanzees descended from a common ancestor” is true if it accords with a body of known facts — based on such things as the fossil records. This is known as the “coherence” theory of truth. And the third way in which something can be said to be true is if it is intuitively clear. We “see” it with the “mind’s eye,” as it were. This is the sense in which there is truth in the fine arts, including literature. Intuitive truth, which tends to be a bit subjective, must accord with common sense and be plausible.

To begin with literature, a good novel tells us a  great deal about the human condition — its strengths as well as its foibles. I just finished William Dean Howells’ short novel about The Rise of Simon Lapham, for example, and he does a skillful job of depicting the pretense of blue-blood Bostonians and their tendency to look down their noses at all who are beneath them — which includes all who are not to the manor born, not themselves several generations of Bostonians. The novel tells about Simon Lapham’s attempts to be accepted by the more “cultured” Bostonians. He has become very wealthy but his money cannot buy their acceptance. He eventually goes bankrupt and this is the start of his “rise.” As the narrator tells us, in one of those flashes of insight that marks the exceptional novel (there being so many more important things than mere wealth):

“Adversity had so far been his friend that it had taken from him all hope of the social success for which people crawl and trickle, and restored him, through failure and doubt and heartache, the manhood which his prosperity had so nearly stolen from him.”

In painting the artist seeks to show us the soul of the person whose portrait she paints or the hidden beauty in the ordinary landscape we are presented with on the canvas. The dancer seeks to show us the grace of human movement while the actor draws us into the world of another to enable us to know ourselves and our fellows on a deeper level. Even the raised middle finger of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, who placed a urinal in a museum, reveals our own pretense as we wander through art galleries and museums and glory in our self-importance — instead of acknowledging our own ignorance.

In a word, the artist who creates is intent upon showing us our own world in a clearer and more detailed fashion. She opens our eyes to the world around us and takes us out of ourselves — at least for a brief moment. This is a good thing in a world in which we tend to get lost within ourselves and preoccupied with our own small selves. We need to be reminded that our world is a world of tender beauty along with the mess we have created with our attack on the earth, our crass business models, and our dirty politics. There is considerable truth in the works of the poets and novelists as well as the painters, actors, and even in the music that is created to open our ears to the sounds around us and quiet the storms within. We need simply to open our eyes and ears.

In a world in which truth has been reduced to subjective opinion and annoying facts are dismissed as fictions, it is good to remind ourselves that there is, indeed, a deeper truth available to us in the works of genius that are readily available. Those works abound and the truth they reveal is undeniable and lends the lie to the notion that all is whatever we want to make of it. Truth in art is not always pleasant, but it commands our assent if we simply attend to what the artist has to say.

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What Makes Art?

“From the eighteenth century onward, enlightened opinion has held that art plays an important part in the life of the individual and society, some would say a decisive part.” (Lionel Trilling)

It has been said that if four artists were to sit down on a hillside and paint a landscape the result would be four entirely different paintings. The reason, of course, is that each artist interprets what she sees differently. I would argue that it is precisely the interpretation that makes art. The artist does not merely copy what she sees (as Plato would have it), she creates an entirely new work each time. It’s what makes art art and not, say, craft. The two differ in that one respect.

There are craftsmen who can reproduce what they see in exact detail. Some of their works are more accurate than a photograph. With rare exceptions, what they produce are not works of art. There may be artistic elements in the craftsman’s work — the determination of what to copy, the arrangement of the items in the work, and the like. But the work as a whole usually lacks the truly creative element and this is what is essential: art is so much more than a mere copy.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In performance, the artist creates a new work every time she performs a work. I recall in college when we were discussing Bach’s “Goldberg’s Variations,” we listened to a performance recorded by Wanda Landowska — regarded at the time as one of the very best harpsichordist in the world. The tutor who was leading the discussion — himself a performing artist (and a Jew who had been sent to a Nazi prison camp where he had his fingers smashed so he could no longer play the piano. That’s what they did.) — continually noted that Landowska was repeating and/or playing slower than Bach had indicated in the score. The tutor did not regard this as a fault. Rather, he insisted that this was the mark of the true artist as performer: taking the work as written and interpreting it in her own individual manner. This was the creative artist performing the work of a creative genius.

Many years later I recall listening to a recording of a Bach organ piece I was familiar with played by a friend of mine in which he played the piece much, much slower than anyone else I had ever heard play the piece. He admitted it was much slower than Bach had even intended. But it was the way he thought the piece should be played. It was his interpretation: it was his work of art — courtesy of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The dancer interprets the music she dances to and the actor interprets the character he plays on the stage. No two dancers will dance the same dance the same way — and the same dancer will likely dance it differently each time she performs the piece. So also with the actor. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Willy Loman is unique. The element of interpretation is the creative element which makes each performance a work of art. The music on the sheet or the lines in the script are in themselves works or art — or they can be. But the performance is a new creation each time it is performed.

The craftsman, as mentioned, can reproduce an exact copy — at times with exceptional accuracy. Norman Rockwell regarded himself as an “illustrator,” not an artist. He worked from photographs and the results were remarkable in their own way. But they were not works of art — with a few rare exceptions. The element of interpretation was missing almost always as Rockwell simply chose to reproduce what he saw. And he did this with remarkable skill. His works are highly treasured as the works of a man who could present us with scenes from ordinary life that generated strong sympathetic responses. But those responses are the same that we might feel if we were to see a photograph of the same scene, or reflect back on scenes from our childhood. They are not the responses that a truly sensitive person feels when regarding a work of art; they are not aesthetic responses . The spectator, in the latter case, responds to the mysterious element of creativity, that sudden expression that suggests the artist’s interpretation of what was seen.

In art, therefore, we have three different elements: the artist herself who paints, sculpts, composes, performs, or plays; the work itself which must contain the element of creative interpretation; and the response of the spectator who also interprets. Each work is unique, as is each performance and each response. It’s no wonder, then, when no two people agree about the same work of art — because no two people see the same thing and the object itself is highly suggestive, rich with possibilities.

This does not mean we cannot discuss art, of course. There is still something “out there” that we respond to in our own way. The person who is practiced in viewing art will often be able to point out features that another might miss and there may be features of the work that have yet to be uncovered and that we can come to see or hear if we open ourselves to it and to one another. But the point is that there is something to discuss and agree or disagree about. It’s not all a matter of opinion. Not by a long shot!

And it is one hellovalot more interesting and enriching than the toys we have become fascinated with.

Cultural Pluralism

At the end of the nineteenth century, James George Frazer published a twelve volume study of various cultural practices from ancient times to our own. The book was titled The Golden Bough and was later brought out in a single volume, much edited, and has had a profound influence on cultural anthropology. Indeed, many regard it as a classic. I recently began to peruse the volume and found the following rather startling passage regarding the treatment of young women in primitive tribes:

“When symptoms of puberty appeared on a girl for the first time, the Guaranis of Southern Brazil, on the borders of Paraguay, used to sew her up in a hammock, leaving only a small opening in it to allow her to breathe. In this condition, wrapt up and shrouded like a corpse, she was kept for two or three days or as long as her symptoms lasted, and during this time she had to endure a most rigorous fast.”

This is only one of the practices enumerated by Frazer; several so-called “primitive” cultures did whatever necessary to seclude these young women from other members of the tribe until they had outgrown their “malady.” This includes the example of young women being secluded for as long as seven years in small tent-like buildings raised off the ground — until it was determined that they were safe to be among the other members of the community. Such passages are among the many Frazer includes by way of enlightening us about the way people have behaved over the centuries. And we might include in this list the ancient practice of Sati in which the husband’s wife is thrown on the funeral pyre at his death. Or it might include clitoridectomies in young women performed by a number of primitive tribes — with no anesthetic and with dull tools — to assure that those women become less promiscuous in their adult years. The list goes on and on.

In our day a postmodern army has taken over the universities and is intent on instructing the young about the crimes that have been committed in the name of Western Civilization; it makes a point of insisting that our civilization is rotten at the core and that, in the name of “cultural diversity,” students should learn about the superiority of other cultures. And all other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own, it is said. I dare say, Frazer’s book is not on the reading list. Nor is any mention made of the practices of the Guaranis. Nor, in all likelihood, are the other practices mentioned above. The idea is to make a point and that point is that Western Civilization is the main, perhaps the only, source of the many ills that have befallen humankind. It is only we, in the West, who are capable of unconscionable behavior to our fellow humans.

I am as aware as anyone else of the atrocities that have been committed — and indeed are even today committed — by our culture. I am aware of slavery and the abominable treatment of women and children for so many years; I am also aware of the genocide that was practiced against the native people of this continent in order to bring “civilization” to the New World. I am aware of the atrocities that are committed, even today  in the name of capitalism and “freedom” that have resulted in the widespread poverty of millions of people in this country alone in order that a few can become terribly wealthy. I am, in general, aware of the sins committed by Western Civilization as it spread across the globe in an attempt to “civilize” the rest of the world.

But I am also aware that capitalism has made it possible for many to have so much more than they would otherwise have; that Western medicine has prolonged life and made us healthier than humans ever were before. I am aware of the beauty and the magnificence of the cathedrals that tower far into the sky in the name of God and “peace on earth,” and of the hundreds of thousands of beautiful works of art that are displayed around the world. As noted, I am also aware that the things we have done in the name of civilization are in many cases unconscionable. And it is this awareness, which applies to our own culture no less than it does to others equally barbarous, that is the result of the lessons that have been learned as Western Civilization was aborning. That includes the awareness of human rights — the rights of ALL humans. It also includes the awareness that such practices as Sati and clitoridectomies in young women are barbaric and violate universal moral principles such as the rights of all humans not to suffer needlessly. Finally, this awareness has raised moral outrage to a fever pitch in this country over the forced separation of children from their parents who seek asylum, forcing our would-be dictator to rescind his order and alter his plans — or so he says. That is to say, the awareness itself is the major prize of Western Civilization.

If we are going to teach young Americans to be more aware of the shortcomings of their own culture, it behooves us to also teach them of the strengths of their culture along with the shortcomings of other cultures. There is no such thing as “cultural superiority.” No culture on earth is without its errors, blunders, and atrocities. Ours is not unique in that regard.

The Death of Mind

Years ago, when I was hired to start a philosophy department and direct a required course titled “Ideas In Flux” at a new state college in Minnesota, I was struck by some of the jargon that passed as a “philosophical” statement of purpose for the college. There was much talk about the “psychic-emotional” complex of the student which was to be the focus of attention for those who taught. There was a great deal of experimentation going on — this was the late 1960s — and the brand-new college was supposed to combine the liberal arts and the technical in new and amazing ways. But the notion of the “psychic-emotional complex” was entirely new to me. And it remains a mystery to this day, since no one could really say what the hell it meant at the time. I came to suppose that the college was expected to focus attention on the “whole student” because that was the jargon that was in the air at the time and which I came to hear much about in later years.

The 1960s were troubled times in the fight of traditional liberal arts programs struggling to survive the attacks of the SDS and other outraged young people who targeted the “establishment” and pretty much all tradition, including history, they regarded as “irrelevant.” The liberal arts were presumed to be “elitist” and rejected by a host of those who were in the process of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Doubtless, there was much about what had been traditionally done in the name of education, and indeed much of what was referred to as the “establishment,” that deserved to be jettisoned. But the process was never really thought out and much damage resulted from what some convinced themselves were needed improvements in the bastion of the Ivory Tower and in society at large.

In a sense, the liberal arts are “elitist,” because they focus attention on the human mind and seek to help young people become as intelligent as possible. Some succeed and some fail. In a world that prized (and still prizes) the commonplace, the ordinary, the average — a society that seeks to leave no student behind– any process that seeks to help one person to rise above others is suspect (except in sports!).  Or so it was to a great many people who preferred instead to focus attention  on the “psychic-emotional complex.” At the time I thought if colleges and universities sought to develop the “whole student” they would fail. It made more sense to me to focus attention on what could be done and done well rather than to try to deal with the entire complex person, seeking not only to develop intelligence but help build moral character as well. I thought then, and I think now, that this cannot be done. Educators might succeed if they narrowed their focus, but if they took a shotgun approach to education they would miss all the targets and simply confuse the young who were supposed to leave college more intelligent than they were when they arrived. Most of the evidence I have seen since that time suggests that the shotgun approach has indeed failed. Students today leave the colleges and universities relatively unchanged by the experience which has been confusing and confused for more than a half-century.

At the time I thought, and said publicly, that the Church and the family were the two institutions that should focus attention on character, the emotional and moral  development of the child seeking to become an adult. Let the schools, said I, focus attention on the mind and on mind alone. That way something important might happen while the student passes through twelve or sixteen years of schooling. But it was not to be. The Church was, and is, too busy trying to repair the roof and keep the pews filled with satisfied customers, and the family has pretty much become dissolved into fragments that tear the young person in several different directions at once, leaving him or her bewildered and disappointed — even a bit frustrated.

In a word, the schools have killed the mind. Intelligence has disappeared behind the charge that any attempt to develop it is “elitist” and therefore not acceptable in an egalitarian society, a democratic society, in which no one is any better (or any worse) than anyone else — or dare not presume to be. This is a sad state of affairs indeed. It marks the end of any notion that intelligence matters and that in some sense we all ought to try to become as smart as we can in those few years we spend in school.

After discussing the problems I have touched on here, Lionel Trilling, in a 1972 essay, bemoans the fact that the professors in our colleges and universities have ignored their duties. As he notes:

“Surely it says much about the status of mind in our society that the profession which is consecrated to its protection and furtherance should stand silent under the assault, as if suddenly deprived of all right to use the powers of mind in its own defense.”

In the end, he worries that

“. . . .  mind at the present time draws back from its own freedom and power, from its own delight in itself.”

Instead, we seek to develop the “whole person,” the “psychic-emotional complex” that which we take to be the whole person. And in the process we become care-givers rather than educators and fail to develop the minds of the young. In doing so we fail the young as whole persons and the society at large. Ironic.

Good People Doing Good Things — A Bunch!

It’s the little things that good people do that often go unnoticed. But not by the eagle eye of Jill Dennison. This is one of her weekly posts about good people doing good things.

Filosofa's Word

Every Wednesday morning I go in search of good people, people who are helping others or working to preserve wildlife, the environment, or something humanitarian.  I never have trouble finding those good people, and this week was no exception … in fact, I already had a few tucked away from last week!  Sometimes the good people I find are doing huge things, helping hundreds or even thousands.  But at the end of the day, it’s the little things, I think, that mean the most.  And so today I present you with some people who are giving of themselves in small ways, yet with huge hearts!


Herman-Gordon-2 Herman Gordon is a much-loved custodian at the University of Bristol (that would be England, not Tennessee) .  The students say he is always happy and upbeat … Herman-Gordon Herman and his wife are originally from Jamaica and have not been able to afford a trip…

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Looking Back

One of the standard comments one hears when listening at keyholes is that old farts like me pine for a golden age and waste their time on this earth wishing those times would come back. I hasten to disagree. Heartily! As one of those old farts who looks at current events somewhat askance, I can say with no fear of contradiction that there never was a golden age and that I, for one, do not wish that days gone by would return.

At the same time, those of us who level criticism at current events have a legitimate concern that something precious has been lost in our notion that progress is invariably a good thing and restraint is a burden. At times they are not. Take the Victorian age, if you will.

I am perfectly aware that the Victorian age in England, to focus exclusively on that country, was an age of terrible suffering for a great many people. Poverty was rampant, child labor was commonplace, as was the lowly esteem in which women were held. Many were the woes of the period that Virginia Wolff and others in her Bloomsbury Group  were quick to note — as was Charles Dickens. Still, there was something there beneath the surface that was worth preserving and it has been lost. I speak of the restraint of many people and the sense of the obligation that a great many of the wealthy felt toward those who depended upon them for their livelihood. We stress rights without regard to the fact that rights, except in the case of children and the mentally challenged, necessitate responsibilities. In the Victorian age this was not the case: rights took a back seat, for a great many people, to the responsibilities that they felt for their fellow humans and their determination to help realize the “common good.” There was about that age a sense that the future depended on the good behavior and the accordance with duty of those who lived in the present.

In a word, I look back not to pine after a golden age that never was, but to try to see what it is that we have lost and to determine whether it is even possible that some semblance of that sense of what truly mattered can still be salvaged. In the process I take comfort in the fact that the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb spent her life studying the Victorian Age and concluded many of the same things I have concluded while I merely skimmed along the surface of knowledge about an age she knew so well. It’s not so much that she agrees with me, but that I find myself agreeing with her. She must therefore be right. It follows, does it not?

In sum, looking back can be justified only if it helps us to see things more clearly and in the process also enables us to understand ourselves and our age a bit better. There was never a golden age. But there were times when certain things that no longer matter mattered a great deal — and had we not tossed them aside  those things might have made us a better people, not to mention also a happier people, than we are at present.

In any event, those who know nothing of the past, and especially those who think the past somehow “irrelevant,” are not in a position to criticize those who look back in order to see more clearly what lies around them. And they shouldn’t dismiss out of hand those of us who think that much that is going on around us could be so very much better if there remained a semblance of those values that were held dear in the distant past. Progress may or may not be a good thing. But it happens. What matters is that we measure it carefully against what is being lost in the process. I don’t want to live in an age of slavery, child labor, debilitating illnesses that can now be cured with a pill, or an age that fails to allow that women are entitled to the very same things as men. But I don’t like living in an age of chaos and violence that centers around a shriveled-up self and takes no account of others or the responsibilities we all have to our fellow humans. It’s a question of keeping one’s bearings and finding a balance.