Monday, June 26, 2006

Artistic Truth and the Hierarchy Revisited

I must thank reader George of FutureModern for replying to my post concerning a possible hierarchy of the arts. Whereas he was clearly responding to my call for anyone with greater expertise to aid me in my defense of the visual arts, I fear that his arguments have actually served to undermine my own. At the time, I believed I had hit upon a solid defense. Now I am left bewildered.

Before anything, I’d like to address his question as to why one might propose such a hierarchy in the first place. Playing devil’s advocate for such constructions (in reality, I am undecided as to their value), I would make the following argument: Provided that there is one type of thing that we can call “artistic truth”--which might be used analogously to the way we use the term “scientific knowledge” to encapsulate various branches of scientific inquiry--then the hierarchy would be quite helpful in determining how any given art form might be related to it. Think of how the hierarchy of the sciences gives us insight into what constitutes genuine scientific knowledge (physics is a “harder” science than biology, which is a “harder” science than clinical psychology). I would suggest that a hierarchy of the arts could provide the same help in understanding what constitutes genuine artistic truth, provided there is such a thing.

But George argues that my friend’s characterization of painters as “more likely to work from instinct and taste and less likely to call their beliefs into question” is a mere assumption and ought to be disregarded. Now, this is indeed an assumption, and my friend even admitted it was merely a generalization, but I must say that I have often found this to be the case (though perhaps I too, being merely a devotee of the visual arts, am here working more from instinct than knowledge). We are faced with a problem here that wouldn’t necessarily come up in informal conversation. How could we possibly establish this or refute it? Survey results would be based on suspect self-reporting. Surveys of second-hand impressions would be even more suspect. At best, it is a questionable claim. But if it were true, it would play an important role in the discussion. To simply disregard it also undermines my response meant to vindicate the visual arts: that visual artists work more from instinct because they have a sharper and more immediate artistic insight.

George further agues that it is incorrect to call paintings “static” insofar as they represent a record of decisions made over time (and thus, he implies, my friend’s claim that they have a tendency toward superficiality is without foundation). I would have to disagree here in that the experience of a painting is clearly static in a quite important sense (when compared to music and literature especially). Our experience of it takes place in time, but it (the painting) does not change (except when we shift the angle from which we view it, but still the object itself remains the same). There is something apparently superficial about a painting, though I would tie this into the more immediate revelatory nature of the visual arts. The fact that it simply “is what it is” may be painting’s advantage over music and literature, insofar as the experience of either of the latter arts involves a great deal of interpretive mediation, even in the simple mechanics of our experience of the work.

Now, the final point of interest is George’s connection of truth to hiddenness (I presume he has Heidegger’s treatment of the ancient Greek notion of aleitheia in mind here). He writes, “For the sake of simplicity, I won't argue over the ‘truth’ and will assume that if something ‘hidden’ is revealed, it is a truth.” But I find this approach to serve simplicity at the expense of precision. If an 18th Century portrait reveals to the viewer that a certain dress was worn at the time (at least that once), this would, on George's provisional definition, constitute a truth. But this is certainly not what we have in mind when we speak of artistic truth. This is why I feel compelled to reiterate my original argument that the kind of truth uniquely revealed by a work of art lies on the opposite end of the “knowledge spectrum” from the kind of knowledge sought by scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. If this holds, we would expect to find that artists least concerned with these latter kinds of inquiry might be more open to the exploration and “expression” (and I mean this in a heavily qualified sense, and in no way do I mean mere “personal expression”) of artistic truth. How often does a great scientist or philosopher produce great art? I think we rightly suspect (in general) that they would be particularly unlikely to do so (and history supports this supposition).

Now, parallels are commonly drawn between high literature and philosophy, and between art music and mathematics. Visual art is commonly tied to a kind of immediate aesthetic awareness, a “different manner of perceiving” found in a certain sort of person. Although George will object that I’m again relying on common opinions, I believe that my readers will have sufficient backgrounds in the arts (George included, I presume) to see that these connections are not arbitrarily drawn. According to the counterarguments I presented to my friend, all of this suggests precisely the inverted hierarchy I proposed, wherein it is the visual arts that ought to be considered paradigmatic in any discussion of artistic truth.

3 Comments:

Blogger George said...

Think of how the hierarchy of the sciences gives us insight into what constitutes genuine scientific knowledge (physics is a "harder" science than biology, which is a "harder" science than clinical psychology). I would suggest that a hierarchy of the arts could provide the same help in understanding what constitutes genuine artistic truth, provided there is such a thing.

While there may be something akin to a "hierarchy of the sciences" they might only be loosely classified by their abstractness. Mathematics is the most abstract form of human thought, it's symbology and rules transcend the spoken or written language. Regardless, the question of "harder" again makes a judgmental assumption about the difficulty of engaging in the topic, which in many cases will vary from person to person based on the variation of some innate abilities.

In the sciences, one major factor has come into play over the last 100 years as the various fields have advanced significantly. A contemporary physics graduate (BA) probably knows more about the field than the best scientists did 100 years ago. The real issue here is not specifically difficulty, but specialization. The fields of science have become so complex that most individual scientists end up specializing in specific areas.

To simply disregard it also undermines my response meant to vindicate the visual arts: that visual artists work more from instinct because they have a sharper and more immediate artistic insight. (it being "more likely to work intuitively.)

I did not mean to undermine your argument, in principle I agree that a major aspect of creative thought (regardless of the field) is often based upon intuition, often a process which often is not the result of logic or linear thought. I suspect that a creative person in any field also may have quite extensive knowledge in other areas as well or not. I think the difficulties of creativity or intuitive insight are not limited to any particular field of investigation but are only localized within the field in question. I do agree that the arts may require a deeper application of the intuitive process since there are fewer ways to test the result.

George further agues that it is incorrect to call paintings "static"
You are correct in questioning this, indeed a painting is "static", my remark was poorly worded and your remarks which follow are closer to what I was thinking.

The question of the "truth" in a painting is a vexing one. Let's skip over the question of "hiddenness", which admittedly on my part, was only a semantic argument.

This is why I feel compelled to reiterate my original argument that the kind of truth uniquely revealed by a work of art lies on the opposite end of the "knowledge spectrum" from the kind of knowledge sought by scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. If this holds, we would expect to find that artists least concerned with these latter kinds of inquiry might be more open to the exploration and "expression" ...

Ok, so let's consider painting in its broadest sense, painting from all ages and cultures. What is generally defined as "style" constitutes a method of distinction, a way of defining and distinguishing the visual differences between paintings of one artist, era or culture from another. One might also say the same thing about the subject, the image, the signifier or "picture" itself. In both cases we find there are great differences between one artist (era, culture etc.) and another. Yet I would suggest that the qualities of these differences are finite, and with research innumerable.

The case of the subject matter and style itself is more often than not part of an historically localized "taste" and an extension of the previous historical references. I would suggest one could make a psychological distinctions between the way one artist or another, approached the process of making a painting itself. For example, even in highly codified styles there is evidence that one artists approach is "looser" than another's. (in the sense of say, Ingres vs. Delecroix)

In my view, one thing which makes painting interesting, is its history, the record of how other artists over the last 20,000 years have used the pictorial to record their thoughts and perceptions. I do not believe that there is "progress" in painting, in the sense of progressive evolution where one would suggest "this is better" in the scientific sense.

Taken together, the above would suggest that your notion of "exploration and expression" of (some) "artistic truth" has merit.
One of the problems one might encounter is that the "truth" is potentially more difficult to define in this context.

I have been thinking about another way to approach this question. You remarked, If an 18th Century portrait reveals to the viewer that a certain dress was worn at the time ... would constitute a truth. I want to start with this idea, accepting your implications, and introduce another way of thinking about the "truth" (or meaning etc) in a painting by introducing the idea of resonance. Two things are "resonant" when they mutually reinforce one another and dissonant (or non-resonate) when they cancel one another. So if an aspect of a painting is resonant, it is perceptually and experientially amplified, stronger for the viewer. When it is non-resonant, it is deprecated or minimized.

Using "that certain dress" as an example. In the context of the period the painting was made, the "dress" was locally temporal, part of the era, and as such it would have some degree of recognizablity and "resonance" with the viewer. As viewed today, removed from its original context, the "dress" is now categorically different, potentially resonant in the sense of "period dress" While this is a trivial example, over time, it will always be true as time moves away from the original cultural context.

Yet, we are still moved by masterpieces from another era even though they are constantly being recontextualized, why is this? I am suggesting that great painting achieves great resonance which is not temporally localized. It may use styles and subjects which are imbedded in a historical period, temporally localized, but it also contains qualities which are more universally resonant. We might say "beautiful" but even the concept of the beautiful is contextual but the actions of the painter, his expression or passion towards the beautiful are universal (in the context of all humankind, not just an era)

The problems of making, or even viewing a painting must deal with this question of resonance in both its temporally local (the present) aspects and in its universal aspects. The two are linked, the first shapes how the painting comes into existence, the second is what I think you are interested in.

Regarding scientists making art. Durer published the first book in German on Mathematics, Leonardo, etc, but it was a different less specialized era. I suspect that a "scientist" could make good art but not without devoting ones efforts to the field, I would agree.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

When I say "harder" I mean to bring to mind the distinction between the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology--this last one some physicists have actually questioned as a genuinely hard science) and the soft sciences.(psychology, sociology, anthropology). The distinction implies a hierarchy of scientific certainty within the sciences as a whole (and has nothing to do with difficulty). The three examples I've given, physics, biology, and clinical psychology are generally agreed to stand in the order I've indicated.

12:44 PM  
Blogger George said...

OK, I misunderstood what you meant. I agree with the distinction.

1:00 PM  

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