Should we talk about Art?

(my thanks to Wayne redhart, whose comments on But is it REAL? Is  Art a Joke? Five Funny Things stimulated this response)

Let us suppose two people – for ease of storytelling, we’ll make them a man and a woman, though that is not significant. They have become acquainted in the virtual world of social media and found a considerable commonality of feeling and outlook. Now they are meeting for the first time in the flesh, in an art gallery on the man’s home turf.

As they go round, we can observe a growing apprehension in the man, which he does his best to conceal, though it is evident in the tensing of his fingers and the covert looks he casts at the woman as she looks at the pictures. As they enter a particular room, his apprehension peaks. There is a painting there, and while the woman looks at it, the man looks at her, anxiously. The woman takes time to study the painting, then all at once, her face lights up, and she turns to the man with an expression of delight. His anxiety vanishes. He smiles and nods in affirmation, his expression a reflection of hers. The two return their attention to the painting, rapt. No words are spoken.

The painting, of course, is an old favourite of the man’s, that he sets great store by, and he is worried that the woman will not ‘get it’ – but she does.

The original theme of this piece was to have been whether we should judge a work of art on its own merits – on what is contained within the frame, so to speak – or with reference to something outside itself (and I should make clear that I use ‘art’ in an inclusive sense here – not just paintings and sculpture, but music, poetry, stories, dance and so on) but on reflection I realised that this was bound up with another matter, namely how we talk about art and what we can say about it.

The key thing about the man and the woman in the gallery is that no words are exchanged, yet they come to an understanding – each knows what the other is thinking; you could say that they are of one mind – each recognises that the other ‘gets it’.

But in that curious expression – which I think we perfectly understand, though might struggle to explain – what is ‘it’ and how is it ‘got’? If you asked a group of people to mime ‘getting it’ and ‘not getting it’ I imagine there would be a considerable consistency of response: faces lighting up, smiles and affirmative gestures – nodding, for instance – on one hand; on the other, puzzled looks, head shaking, throwing up of hands, shrugging. An interesting variant might be where one party gets it and the other doesn’t.

The image of whether we should stay within the frame or stray outside it is a useful one – a significant boundary we should think carefully about crossing. Within it, we can only look, and look again (if it is a painting or anything visual) or read and reread, or listen and listen again – the only thing we can vary is how often we go back, and what we do in between, which may be very important – an obvious example is something that we could make neither head nor tail of in our youth – we just didn’t get it then – but which we come back to in later years and find that we do, now.

If we cross the boundary, step outside the frame, our tongues are loosened. This is a natural enough reaction, and in some respects the question I have used as a title is a fatuous one – should we talk about art? Try stopping us! try stopping yourself! If we see or hear or read something that impresses us profoundly the natural response is to tell someone – your friends or indeed complete strangers – such is the pressure that you feel the need to express.

And it is here that complications arise, and I trace them back to my pet theme of Language*, and how it has come to dominate our thinking and all other forms of expression. Those of us who have had children or remember what it is like to be one will recognise the behaviour that comes in the wake of some great experience – the urge to give an account of it in every detail, generally at high speed, the words tumbling over one another into incoherence; the struggle to find words that are adequate to the huge wonder and marvel of it all, so that there is a succession of attempts that break off as a new and possibly better one occurs, only to be discarded in its turn; sometimes, indeed, the right words just cannot be found, and the child is, or becomes, speechless, and just grins and runs around.

All that strikes me as the right and proper human response to anything that impresses us in this way – a sort of incoherent joy which nevertheless sends a very clear message, sometimes summed up in the parent’s laconic response, ‘well, that was good, wasn’t it?’
In other words, all that we are seeing here is an extension of the wordless expressions of delight in the art gallery described above. The words are attempts to convey the magnitude of that delight which succeed, paradoxically, by their failure to express it adequately (and of course that is a formula we use when we are deeply moved, whether to joy or grief or gratitude – ‘there are no words to express how I feel’).

The problem is that while we allow children to run around babbling incoherently, we are less indulgent to adults. When the concert hall audience debouches into the foyer and there is great buzz of people all talking at once – ‘amazing passion!’ ‘superb orchestral technique!’ ‘I loved that passage with the horns’ ‘it’s such a vivid piece, you can see it like a picture in your head’ ‘I adore Sibelius!’ ‘it’s so strenuous – in a good way, I mean’ – it is important to see that they are all really saying the same thing: ‘well, that was good, wasn’t it?’ and that their babble of talk is just an extension of the applause they gave the orchestra, continued by other means; the actual words do not matter.

But we have been brought up in the strong belief that language should be articulate, that it should express meaning coherently and precisely, that it should be something better than an incoherent exclamation of delight (that is part of the problem – we rather look down on incoherent exclamations of delight and reserve them for watching football and the like). So we try to find ‘an adequate form of words’ – and some people become rather good at it, and end up as critics in newspapers and magazines. And these articulate accounts create a false relation with the works of art they relate to: they come to be seen as a necessary adjunct to them, a learned explanation, to which ordinary people should have recourse if they wish to understand the work. To some extent, they become a substitute for  the work itself, and the critic replaces the artist as an authority – he is the one who decides what is good and what is not, what is admissible (to the salon, the gallery, the concert hall, the theatre, the syllabus) and what should be excluded.

Being able to speak (and write) about Art in a particular way becomes the mark of authority that others seek to imitate and go to university (NB not Art College) to learn (I speak as a veteran of Aesthetics and General Philosophy 1 & 2 at Edinburgh University). Unfortunately, this way of speaking is often associated with ‘cleverness’ (a greatly overrated trait) and can easily become a means of making people who have not learned it feel stupid and inadequate, afraid to open their mouths for fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or embarrassed when their initial splurge of joy expresses itself in naive terms which some ‘clever’ person makes mock of (and the classic victim here is the person who tries but fails to imitate what they think is the right sort of thing to say, rather than the one who says ‘ken whit? that wis pure fuckin brilliant!’ or simply gives an inarticulate roar of joy).

Now I do not mean to condemn criticism out of hand: it can be informative, entertaining and educational. It can be (though it is not always) a delight to be with someone who can place a work of art in a tradition and make connections with other works and help you see or hear or read it better, get more out of it; but there is a real danger here, and it is deep-rooted.

I would put it like this: Language* is by its nature antithetic, indeed inimical, to art. It is like a foreign conqueror who bans the native tongue and insists that his own be adopted for all official and public use; if the native tongue is used at all, it must invariably be accompanied by a translation into the state language.

To understand why, we need to go back to the fifth paragraph:
‘The key thing about the man and the woman in the gallery is that no words are exchanged, yet they come to an understanding – each knows what the other is thinking; you could say that they are of one mind – each recognises that the other ‘gets it’.’

This is the point where a lot of philosophers will walk away, shaking their heads; I fancy that I might have, in my youth. ‘How can he know what she is thinking?’ they will protest. ‘Well, by the way she reacts – the look on her face. It is the same way that he reacts.’ This will not satisfy them. ‘But how can he be so sure that her look has the same cause as his? she might be thinking something completely different.’

The temptation here can be to insist – with a hint of asperity – ‘well, he just does.‘ ‘O, by intuition I suppose,’ sneers the other, ‘sort of like telepathy, you mean?’

At which point you either have recourse to violence, and ‘cause him to be knocked down with blows,’ as Rabelais would put it, or else retreat, as Myles na gCopaleen would say, in that lofty vehicle, High Dudgeon.

But there is a better answer, though you might be as well to pin the philosopher against the wall, to ensure that he hears you out. So, seize him by the shoulders of his ill-fitting jacket, hoist him off his feet, press him against the wall and say,

‘Because they are human.’ (At this point you should probably lower him to the floor again, otherwise your arms will tire).

‘He is human and so is she. In the presence of the picture he experiences a particular feeling of delight, an emotional uplift, similar in kind to others he has felt, in the presence of Nature, or listening to music. He recognises that in some way the picture is the external corollary of this inner sensation and through it he feels connected not only with the artist but with everyone else who has looked at the picture and recognised the same thing – which includes the woman beside him’.

Now that the threat of immediate danger has receded, the philosopher is emboldened.

‘Ah, I see – now you are talking about feelings, but to start with you said that he knew what she was thinking. But you still haven’t convinced me that he knows that she feels the same – it’s a guess at best. He can’t be certain till she verifies it.’

‘And how do you suggest that he does that?’

‘Why, he should ask her.’

‘And what should she do?’

‘Give him an account of her feelings, of course. Though perhaps he should write an account of his own first, without showing it to her, so that they can make a genuine comparison.’

At this point, you should probably let him go, though you might just want to ask him if, when someone kisses him passionately, he asks ‘what did you mean by that?’

Wittgenstein asks somewhere the interesting question, how we know when we are imitating someone, e.g making our face wear the same expression; we don’t do it by looking in a mirror. I would say we do it because, as far as our fellow humans are concerned, we can infer the inside from the outside, and vice versa.

I’m not sure how well I have made my point, but I do notice that I have had to resort to telling a story latterly – a sort of non-Platonic dialogue – and I think that is part of what I am trying to say about the terms in which it is possible to explain something – the woman in our art gallery story might respond to the man’s painting by sending him a particular poem, to which he might reply with a passage of music, then she with a short story – and this might be a deeply enjoyable and intimate conversation between them, without any words of explanation from either side.

Like General MacArthur, I will return – but for now, enough.

*Language here means the literate form that is the basis of our thought and discourse. It is characterised by having a written form which dominates its spoken form.

Stone-sucking, or what matters

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If you read this page aloud it will strike you that there is nothing in your speech corresponding to the white spaces on the page that separate the words. Word separation is not a feature of every script – some Asiatic ones do not use it even now – and it has been accomplished in different ways at different times; the Romans used dots or points (puncta – the origin of ‘punctuation’) the Greeks I think used none originally, and even at one time wrote boustrophedon (literally ‘ox-turning’, or in the manner of ploughing a field) – i.e. the lines run alternately from left to right then from right to left, perfectly logical in terms of eye movement:

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Word division, then, is plainly an aid to reading, an adjunct of the written form, with no counterpart in speech; and this raises interesting questions about words themselves. We might incline to think that we need no word division in speech because we ‘already know’ how to distinguish words, because, well, we know the individual words, which are stored in our vocabulary (or word-hoard, as the Anglo-Saxons called it) like so many building blocks or components ready for use whenever we wish to construct a sentence.

There may now be an element of truth in that, because two and a half millennia of literacy (interrupted by the Dark Ages in Western Europe, but continuous further East) has schooled us – literally – in the ways of educated speech, which is heavily influenced and indeed dominated by the written form. We are used (or at least my generation was) to learning other languages in a way that brings out their rule-governed nature – we have verbs laid out in tables that show the variations from first to third persons, and from singular to plural; we analyse individual words into roots that remain the same and endings and beginnings – prefixes and suffixes, or inflections – which vary according to case and so on; we learn rules for the order of pronouns (me te se before le la les  before lui leur before  y before en before the verb, if I recall). And of course we accumulate lists of vocabulary, learning individual words and their particular meanings.

All of this encourages us to think of language as a system of building blocks or individual components – words – which can be assembled in a variety of ways according to certain rules – grammar. Yet a little reflection will tell us that this analysis only became possible – or indeed necessary – with the development of the written form.

When speech was – as I have suggested before [Plucked from the Chorus Line, The Disintegration of Expression] – only one mode of expression among many (and quite likely not the most important) – then we had neither the means nor the need to analyse it in the way we take for granted now. We did not have the means because there was no method of giving speech objective form so that it could be studied and analysed; that only comes as a by-product of the invention of writing [as discussed in The Muybridge Moment]. A by-product, because we must remember that writing was not primarily devised as a means of transcribing speech, a need which our ancestors would not have felt – after all, we had been transmitting our culture orally (and by other means of expression) since the dawn of time, for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years.

The accidental nature of the whole concept of a written language and all that it entails – literacy, books, systematic text-based education, the whole basis of our modern way of life – is worth emphasising, to remind us that we managed for a long time without these things and did not feel in the least deprived or impoverished: it is perhaps the most significant example of what I have called an ‘elective indispensable’ something we have managed very well without, then reoriented our way of life to make living without it inconceivable.

Before we were able to analyse language by studying its written form, we may have followed rules, but we did so unconsciously, by instinct, much as (say) indigenous Amazonian tribes will appear to observers to engage in rule-governed speech but would not (I guess) be able to say much about the rules they were following, or offer a grammatical analysis of their own tongue in the way that the observers (trained to look at things that way) could.

‘Trained to look at things that way’ is a key expression there. Do the observers see something that the native speakers overlook? That is a complex question, worthy of close attention. To walk with a trained geologist through a landscape is to see it with fresh eyes, and to learn a new and different way of looking at it; and to walk with an indigenous Australian through the landscape where he is at home would be similar, though the two would see quite different things. One way of putting it would be that they would see themselves as in two different stories about how they related to and understood the landscape; what strikes one as significant might be quite different from what strikes the other, so who is overlooking what?

What that comparison brings out is the extent that we bring things to our analyses, rather than finding them there. An analogy might be to going out equipped with a box divided into compartments of different shapes and sizes – the things you find to put in the different compartments are ‘already there’ but you have brought your system of categorisation with you; your principles of selection are decided beforehand. If you came instead with a number of equal-sized boxes but each lined with a different colour sample which you sought to match, you would end up with a wholly different selection and arrangement of things ‘already there’.

The underlying question is whether your system of categorisation corresponds to something objective, something we might be inclined to call ‘reality’. This seems to me a – or possibly the – fundamental philosophical question, and it reminds me of something that might at first seem wholly unconnected. I wonder if you will follow my leap?

What my mind leaps to – or leaps to my mind – is a passage from Samuel Beckett, in Molloy. I must thank my friend Stephanie Peppard (her blog, The Woman on a Yellow Bicycle, is worth a visit) for drawing it to my attention. I strongly commend reading it in full –

or indeed you can hear it here (in a slightly varied text):

The gist of it is that Molloy, on visiting the seaside, lays in a store of pebbles, which he calls ‘sucking stones’. He likes to suck each stone in turn and is considerably exercised by how best he should arrange them about his person in order to facilitate this. Having four pockets and sixteen stones, he first considers an equitable distribution of four in each, so that when he draws from his ‘supply’ pocket (which we can call the first) for a stone to suck, he transfers a stone from the next, second, pocket to make up the deficiency, and so on, with the sucked stone eventually taking its place to make up the depleted numbers in the fourth pocket.

However, he soon hits a snag:
‘But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.’

In order to guarantee his principle of sucking each stone in turn, he tries various permutations, only to find that he has to sacrifice another cherished principle, that of having the stones in balance across his pockets:

‘Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads. Such things happen. But
deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and forewards. And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end
of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little store, so as never to be without. But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any. And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed …’

This passage strikes me as a profound – and profoundly funny – insight into human behaviour: it captures the absurd rigour with which we observe self-imposed conventions, while all the time being aware ‘deep down’ that none of it matters, or rather only matters because we choose to make it matter. That last distinction is important: to read this as a commentary on the pointlessness of human behaviour is, I think, too bleak; it is more that what we do is self-validating – it matters because we make it matter. The underlying message is not that nothing matters, but rather that something does – though what that is, exactly, we are not sure; which is why we go on searching – or just go on.