19. Gadamer’s Communication

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“That ‘something can be held in our hesitant stay’ – this is what art has always been and still is today.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer citing Friedrich Hölderlin

In Aesthetics and Hermeneutics, Gadamer had another stab at an idea we first saw in his thoughts on prejudices:

“We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said… A kind of anticipation of meaning guides the effort to understand from the very beginning.”2

So, for understanding to happen an “anticipation of meaning” is constructed whereby we place ourselves in a position of readiness to absorb what is being given to us. To illustrate, we have all experienced the situation where we believe that we know already what will be stated or given when a friend or colleague announces ‘I’ll tell you what I think’. Such a necessary pre-cursor to understanding however, all too often, follows through during the giving procedure and actually overrides what is given, due to the strength of what was first anticipated. In the example of the friend or colleague we quite often continue our anticipated meaning internally and miss what they actually say. Gadamer’s implicit claim being that any “anticipation of meaning” can potentially block new meaning and understanding from occurring because it can prevent what is said from being heard.

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The importance of Gadamer’s thought here is that when we block something/someone from speaking to us, we effectively stop ourselves from having new, real, experiences and subsequently gaining self-understanding from those experiences. Looking back to his thoughts on art, and reminding ourselves of the importance he gave to art and its ability to have a personal impact, we can begin to trace this new route in his thinking:

“The work of art that says something confronts us itself. That is, it expresses something in such a way that what is said is like a discovery, a disclosure of something previously concealed… To understand what the work of art says to us is therefore a self-encounter… the experience of art is experience in a real sense.”3

The experience of art for Gadamer, as we have learned in previous posts, has the capacity for generating self-understanding due to its ability to unlock or provide potential thoughts, ideas or emotions that can be absorbed by us. There is a difficulty, though, as Gadamer perceives because our “anticipation of meaning” might follow though or dominate so as to block what the work of art is able express or unlock within us. Such an impasse needs, obviously, to be overcome if we are to actually experience the work of art and not sabotage our potential understanding. For Gadamer, a ‘locksmith’, which I shall call ‘openness’, arrives in counterpoint to his notion of “anticipation of meaning”.

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The way that such a counterpoint operates is for us, quite simply, to be present when we are experiencing something new. Essentially, openness is required when experiencing, as in this case a work of art. The production or requirement of openness, however, is something that comes from us. We must produce and manufacture our own openness in counterpoint to the other production we generate: “anticipation of meaning”. For us to experience and thereby understand something new our openness must succeed in overriding our “anticipation of meaning.” Therefore, As Gadamer summarises in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics the onus is upon us “and what we will allow to be said” because “understanding does not occur when we try to intercept what someone wants to say to us by claiming we already know it.”4 Being open and overriding “anticipation of meaning”, though, is not easy. Gadamer recognised this problem and tackled it within a later essay of entitled, The Relevance of the Beautiful. In lieu of an easy entrée into this text I want to present you with a charging rhinoceros.

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In terms of our instinct-led need for survival, evolution has spent considerable time tuning us so that we are able to recognise that a charging rhinoceros is a very real threat and that we need all the time we can get to run away. Dithering about, trying to recognise if the wild beast accelerating towards is a threat or not will quickly eradicate the species Homo Sapien. Consequently, over many generations, it may be safe to assume, evolution has gifted us an ability to recognise objects swiftly and to anticipate meaning. In this case, the object to recognise is a charging rhino and the meaning to anticipate is that it would not be prudent to stick around and see what damage 1,500 kilograms of rushing muscle, bone and gristle might do to us with a long, spiky, horn up front.

Gadamer’s proffered instance in The Relevance of the Beautiful is perhaps more pertinent, if a little less exciting:

“It is the case that when we look at non-objective art, we can never escape from the fact that in our everyday experience of the world, our vision is oriented towards recognising objects. We also hear the concentrated expression of music with the same ear with which we otherwise try to understand language.”5

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Less exciting it might be, but Gadamer gets the message across. However, he also takes the thinking a stage further by recognising that the notion of aesthetic appreciation is hampered, because of its reliance on senses that are tuned to more primary qualities of recognition. Gadamer shows that survival instincts and evolution have hard-wired us to use our senses in order to understand and recognise first before any supplementary appreciation in the aesthetic dimension can unfold. The validity of such Gadamerian pseudo-science is of course highly questionable, but the likelihood remains that Gadamer might just have a point. So, let’s try and see it.

I think Gadamer recognised that there is a difficulty that presents itself when we try to allow ourselves to be receptive to our surroundings and subsequently play with or appreciate them, such as when we look at a work of art. Taking the Gadamerian idea for a walk a little further, it seems as though we need a secure environment within which to overcome our survival based sensory approach to the external world in order to allow those same senses to be tuned towards aesthetic or playful criteria. The summation being that we cannot come to a work of art with anxiety hanging over or around us, our senses simply won’t let us be capable of being open to it. Can one really get their aesthetic on if they are anxious, nervous or stressed? Such inward priorities for our mind are evolution’s way of ensuring that we are kept alive. Charging rhinos might not exist for many of us as a day-to-day problem but our ‘evolved’ coping mechanisms still need to flex their muscles and this flexing puts all other mental activity, such as aesthetic appreciation, firmly into the position of runner-up. There is, of course, as with most of Gadamer’s illuminations, the passing sweep of light on a darkened corner that really deserves a longer study and deeper focus. However, such study and focus must fall to others, because it is not within my particular gift to carry out such interesting and potentially rewarding work when, as we stand today, there is as yet no actual acknowledged space that has been cleared in readiness for the commencement of such activities. So, this primary duty is my charge, which I gleefully accept, scythe in hand.

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In addition to the need of coming to something/someone with inner anxieties (which I use in a broad sense to cover all mental pre-occupations) held at bay, I’m prompted to realise that when we converse with one another there are a whole raft of other potential adrenaline/hormone fuelled possibilities that can leap to the fore-front of our being. The potential experiences that we allow to permeate through our primary-function-tuned hearing and sight senses also have to run the gamut of our physicality being tuned to the fight or flight of adrenaline induced reactions to situations or people. Just as primitively, we can also find ourselves caught up within hormone led situations of sexual desire or otherwise, whereby our ability to relax and focus with a calm and open persona can be severely compromised.

Evolution, as Gadamer suggested, has spent a long time ensuring the survival of our species and concentrated that effort in a multitude of ways to prolong our existence. Consequently, by being physical endowed beings we might not always approach one another neutrally with the philosophical purity of intent to engage at a meaningful level. Sometimes we are just base creatures and cannot get over that simple fact. The task for our aesthetic side, of course, is to try and quieten this base side when it is not required and to listen to what is being said by the other. And this listening is not to be ring-fenced to only aesthetic appreciation because as Gadamer said in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics “Whatever says something to us is like a person who says something.”6 The ethical dimension of listening to what is said to us by someone else is just as much an endeavour as ‘listening’ to the work of art.

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Drawing his findings to a close in The Relevance of the Beautiful, we can imagine Gadamer coming near to the end of his voyage and steering into what looks like a familiar harbour as we observe him turning, somewhat implicitly, to Heidegger:

“To sum up the results of these brief reflections: in the experience of art we must learn how to dwell upon the work in a specific way. When we dwell upon the work, there is no tedium involved, for the longer we allow ourselves, the more it displays its manifold riches to us. The essence of our temporal experience of art is in learning to tarry in this way.”7

‘Gadameidegger’ as the philosophical synthesis might be, recommends that one learns to ‘tarry’ or ‘dwell’ within the experience of art so that it becomes “a question, therefore, of allowing what is to be.”8 However, as if to distance himself, at this moment, from Heidegger and also demonstrate exactly what he contributed, Gadamer makes crystal clear his thinking on the subject of “allowing what is to be”:

“But this ‘letting be’ does not mean the repetition of something we already know… The work of art transforms our fleeting experience into the stable and lasting form of an independent and internally coherent creation. It does so in such a way that we go beyond ourselves by penetrating deeper into the work.”9

In such an experience of a work of art, whereby we go beyond ourselves and allow ourselves to grow experientially, the statement by Gadamer concerning the work of art having its “true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it”10 can finally begin to resonate meaningfully within us. Turning off his torch and bringing us smoothly to the quayside, Gadamer cites Hölderlin: “That ‘something can be held in our hesitant stay’ – this is what art has always been and still is today.”11

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Having docked us back to dry land, after a providing a thrilling Gadamerian journey that enlivened much philosophical thought within us, I’m aware that there could possibly be confusion as to where we intended to land and where we now seem to be. Didn’t we buy a ticket, which had as its destination other people and don’t we now appear to find ourselves alighting at the port of art? Fear not weary travellers because although your sleepy heads may feel slightly woozy and light, you yourselves know that you have been brought to where you needed to go. However, a little explaining as to why the ticket and arrival point don’t appear to match would be nice, would it not? A friendly Gadamerian is required. Gerald Bruns, a hidden gem among critics and engagers of philosophy, is our chap because his is an all too rare voice of understanding regarding the importance of Gadamer’s wisdom. However, before Bruns has his chance to shine, I want to take us next to Hell, courtesy of an old friend of mine called Jean-Paul.

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References

  1. Gadamer, ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, 53.
  2. Gadamer, ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 101.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 102.
  5. Gadamer, ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, 58.
  6. Gadamer, ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 101.
  7. Gadamer, ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, 45.
  8. Ibid., 49.
  9. Ibid., 49 and 53.
  10. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 102.
  11. Gadamer, ‘The Relevance of the Beautiful’ included in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, 53.

18. The Marriage of Figaro

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“Madly scurrying strings and a fruity bassoon, the twang of a fortepiano cutting through the orchestra at the end of the first phrase of the overture, and a crisp, explosive burst of energy and adrenaline with the first loud chord: right from the top this Figaro feels as though it’s going to be fun.”1
Andrew McGregor

So, in the last post we saw that Gadamer wanted us to realise that works of art can have a personal communication because they can be regarded as possessing contemporaneity – a timeless presence:

“The reality of the work of art and its expressive power cannot be restricted to its original historical horizon, in which the beholder was actually the contemporary of the creator. It seems instead to belong to the experience of art that the work of art always has its own present.”2

Hopefully, this can be easily understood, but just in case, I want to convey what Gadamer means through the medium of art. So, we could examine Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault. We could even read W. H. Auden’s Stop All The Clocks or Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

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Paintings and poems seeping with death, possibly saying more about me than Gadamer, and works of art that seem to flood our minds with their image or words. They capture us completely within what Gadamer described as “a mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being.”3 Even though I’m sure that each could make a perfect example, instead, I want to listen to some music. Ludwig Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Ode to Joy could be explored or even Sergei Rachmaninoff’s notorious Piano Concerto No. 3. However, the piece I want to focus on is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, because it has recently caught me within its grasp.

Premiering in Vienna in 1786, ‘Figaro,’ as an opera, was commissioned by the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II and the Imperial Italian Opera Company. Its libretto (words/lyrics) was written by Lorenzo da Ponte whilst Mozart handled the musical score. The resulting opera blended the two individuals talents to give the world an unforgettable milestone in culture. My interest, however, is in the four-minute overture or, sometimes denoted, ‘sinfonia’, that precedes the actual opera. Those four minutes are purely Mozart and should be listened to before reading further. In some ways I could just stop here and let Mozart take over in order to drive home the point of contemporaneity. However, that would be rather lazy and not the done thing. Although, it must be declared, I will lean a little on others who have managed to put into words, far better than I ever could, the magic and impact that Mozart provided eternity within this fantastical tour de force of composition.

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In 1921, the deeply respected author of the definitive biography on Mozart, Hermann Abert, had this to say about the overture:

“The piece – which is all about movement raised to its highest potential–steals in as though from a distance in its famous seven-bar opening phrase, needing two attempts to get under way. But now it stirs in every quarter, laughing, chuckling and triumphing, with new watercourses opening up as the floodtide rushes past, before the piece as a whole races toward its jubilant end in a bacchantic torrent entirely in keeping with Mozart’s basic conception of his subject, an apotheosis of an untrammelled life force that could hardly be more infectious.”4

Now, not having read the rest of Abert’s biography and close scrutiny of Mozart’s music, I perhaps shouldn’t venture the following point, however, it is hard for me to conceive that Abert would be able to be as exuberant and applauding of Mozart all the way through his three volume magnum opus without self-relegating his work to the dusty shelves of hagiographies. So my, albeit semi-ignorant, sense tells me that the overture to The Marriage of Figaro is a significant work in the canon of a significant artist. Hopefully, then, I have selected a worthy choice of subject from which to illustrate Gadamer’s thoughts on contemporaneity.

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Respecting that different orchestras have diverse set-ups regarding their components, the instrumentation could be seen as rather a challenge in terms of its constituent parts. Mozart, though, as one might expect, was a diligent composer and clearly labelled and drew up respective elements in his score. So, we know that he required the following instruments to perform the overture: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn, trumpet, timpani, and strings, violin (first and second), viola, cello and bass. The most modest rendition of the work has two of each instrument, saving the timpani, giving around twenty-four musicians in a truncated orchestra, if one includes the fortepiano, Mozart’s known driving position for the opera. Indeed, ‘Mozart Orchestras’ are known for being smaller than the full-blown symphony ones with seventy members, plus. An apparently smaller size, though, doesn’t reduce the impression one gets from immersing oneself for four minutes in the company of the overture, something that Andrew McGregor bears out in his BBC review:

“Madly scurrying strings and a fruity bassoon, the twang of a fortepiano cutting through the orchestra at the end of the first phrase of the overture, and a crisp, explosive burst of energy and adrenaline with the first loud chord: right from the top this Figaro feels as though it’s going to be fun.”5

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So what is it about the overture to The Marriage of Figaro that strips away nearly two hundred and thirty years to make us hear a personal communication from Mozart via his work performed by a modest orchestra? But maybe I’m jumping the gun here and possibly the overture leaves you cold or doesn’t ring your bell as much as another piece by Mozart or A. N. Other composer. Maybe classical music isn’t your bag? It certainly wasn’t mine until a few months ago. You could so easily have been reading about the Young brother’s guitar work in that delightful Scottish/Australian ensemble called AC/DC. Perhaps art or poetry is more up your street? Or, do you prefer Puff Daddy, Smashing Pumpkins or Bob Marley? The point being that it really doesn’t matter what piece of art has a personal communication for you in your current state of play, but that you have at least one. To all those who don’t, scatter, scram and scuttle and only come back when you have found your joy, your delight, your bliss, your enlightenment because until you do, you are not quite human!

Supposing that I am now conversing solely with humans and not hollow humanoid shells, I shall continue. It should be noted, though, that what follows is the personal communication I receive from the overture and that this is relayed to you through the abomination of my imperfect and laboured prose; language being a very unsatisfactory medium for conveying the experience that one feels when listening to the overture from The Marriage of Figaro. Language, though, is the only medium that we share, so we shall just have to make do and you shall have to realise that what I set down regarding my feelings and experiences are but the wafts and scents left behind from the powerful and fully present saturation of my entire being as it was surrounded by harmony, melody, rhythm, note and thunder from Mozart’s genius. Hopefully, something of what I write will resonate with you.

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Beginning with the telling musical speed setting of ‘presto’ the scores buzzes immediately with strings and bassoon producing fast paced bars of sawing notes punctuated by a series of silent thuds or rests that get increasingly stretched until the soft toned winds lilt a couple of triplet based phrases ahead of fortissimo (very loud) introduction of the full orchestra for a dramatic few bars of rumbling timpani accompaniment. The whole then begins again with a few subtle changes to differentiate, such as the flute and oboe delicately soaring above the buzz of the strings at the start. However, then comes a real hook that captures one utterly if not already caught by the interchange of strings to full orchestra. Mozart shifts gear and sends in a flurry of descending violins that seem to have minor explosions at the end of their eight to ten note phrases before they ascend to a series of accompanied staccato brass patterns on the trumpet, French horn and even bassoon. The pattern gives way to a plateau of triumphant full orchestration for the next few bars before edging into a strings only softening that retains the pace and rhythmic shape that flows into a eight note trill, first from the oboe and then the flute.

I could go on, but as fun as it is to write down a description of what I think is the flow of the overture I’m aware of two problems:

1. The words are so ineffective at conveying the music.
2. The words are equally as ineffective at conveying the grip that the music holds over me.

Assuming that I shall have no disagreement regarding the former, I would like to attend to the latter. It is recorded that Mozart wrote this overture in Vienna just two hours before the first performance of the opera on 1st May 1786, a time and place to which I’m positive that even if I spoke Italian and German would be completely alien to me if I were to be magically transported there by a time machine. And yet, Mozart, a man of his time and place, speaks so powerfully and clearly to me through his medium of music that it is impossible to feel disconnected to him when I listen to the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. There is no historical placement of Mozart within his time and place and me within mine when I listen to the overture. My listening exists in a timeless space in my mind, where place has no meaning, but music can wash over everything, drenching and saturating as it fills every neurone, every synapse and every part of me capable of feeling anything. And once doused in such a way, a residue always remains even when the music is over: the melodies, the rhythms and the momentum of the sounds surging and waning, bubbling into one another flit and burst across my memory. Most of the time these echoes are scattered or mashed together in a thoroughly unsatisfactory manner that jostles and pushes me to listen once again to the real thing.

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Maybe Mozart heard the music in his head when he focused upon it, or at the point of writing? Maybe conductors and musicians can hear it too when they read the score? Can musicians do that, especially when there is a full orchestration? For me though, it is the ‘hit’ of hearing the work in the flesh that captures me so completely and shows up the poverty of my pitiful attempts to remember the sound and feelings Mozart achieves. Being non-musically trained the ‘hit’ comes to me pure and untarnished because I can barely tell the individual instruments apart, however, I believe that this helps me hearthe music as opposed to listening to the instruments or the performance. And, not for the first time I’m grateful for my ignorance because it enables the raw sound to enter without an academic or trained filter being applied that might interrupt the joy of hearing the overture. There’s a lot to be said for innocence/ignorance, in the right places.

What I must say about the overture, though, is that its use of repetition, which has slight changes in instrumentation with subtle length variations on certain phrases, somehow works on me to produce delight. However, the overarching enchantment that Mozart holds over me in this piece comes with his virtuoso control of structure and how he manages to pace and deliver the crescendos. The flow of the themes in the work as they surge seemingly unstoppably onwards only to ebb away briefly before the next, entices my expectation and then exceeds it. This is Mozart’s timeless magnificence.

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So, yes, Mozart’s work may be deconstructed, annotated or analytically mapped to somehow build an understanding of his work as some of my text has fallen into the trap of attempting. However, what is always missed in any such exercise is the joy, the feelings of euphoria and pleasure that I, and others, get from hearing his overture to The Marriage of Figaro because joy cannot be deconstructed, annotated or analytically mapped. And, this is where I think my abortive efforts at description meet with Gadamer’s sense of contemporaneity, because I now realise that it doesn’t matter what, when, where, how or who created the work of art when it is received with joy, or another emotional response. The person receiving the work, in this case hearing it, is filled with something of which we cannot speak without succumbing to the brutality of the Victorian butterfly collector who killed his specimens in order to try and understand them. There is danger in lurking amongst the tales of musicologists and art historians that can steal away one’s innocence and joy. Instead Gadamer’s thoughts on contemporaneity protect us as we side step such pitfalls, if we can just pause hear to the music.

As Wittgenstein enigmatically said at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”6 Precisely what we cannot speak about is a little unclear, although in one of the preceding paragraphs he does state, “it is clear that ethics cannot be put into words”7 with “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same”8 following immediately. So for Wittgenstein it appears that ethics and aesthetics cannot be spoken of which gives me good cheer that I’m in the right kind of company when I say that art is received emotionally in a manner that cannot be conveyed via language with its components of vocabulary, grammar, verbs, adjectives and nouns. Language brings, along with the butterfly collector and his pins, the wrong tools for the job. Art, when it is ironically termed ‘meaningful’, goes beyond the capabilities of language into a wholly other part of ourselves because it can exist outside of time and be inside the mind of every one of us.

Mozart, our maestro, play on into eternity you shining star of contemporaneity.

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References

  1. McGregor, A., Mozart The marriage of Figaro Review, BBC, 2004, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/85gb/
  2. Gadamer, ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 95.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Abert, H. W. A. Mozart, 935.
  5. McGregor, A., Mozart The marriage of Figaro Review, BBC, 2004, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/85gb/
  6. Wittgenstein, L., Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 7, 74.
  7. Ibid., 6.421, 71.
  8. Ibid.

17. Contemporaneity

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“The reality of the work of art and its expressive power cannot be restricted to its original historical horizon, in which the beholder was actually the contemporary of the creator. It seems instead to belong to the experience of art that the work of art always has its own present.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

In his 1964 essay, Aesthetics and Hermeneutics, Gadamer returns to the problem of aesthetics to reinvigorate of some his themes and, in particular, address again how we experience a work of art. The beginning of the essay starts with an interesting philosophical set-up that prima facie separates the essay’s two protagonists, aesthetics and hermeneutics:

“If we define the task of hermeneutics as the bridging of personal or historical distance between minds, then the experience of art would seem to fall entirely outside its province.”2

But, hold on people, this is Gadamer, the aesthetics champion, the guy who brought you the conclusion that “the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time”3 and that “we learn to understand ourselves in and through it.”4 So, looking again, let’s notice his use of the word ‘seem’ when he starts his essay, because all the way through he is going to make the case that things aren’t what they ‘seem’ and that actually the experience of art falls quite nicely, thank you very much, within the reach of hermeneutics.

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As I said, an interesting philosophical set-up, however, also note the description applied to hermeneutics: “the bridging of a personal or historical distance between minds.” Isn’t that just so clear and also so telling? Hermeneutics is the bridge between minds, the bridge between two people and, as I have always been insisting, it is given shape by aesthetics as its template. Gadamer’s work on the experience of art is there to provide a role model, a beaten track, or a starter to our main course, for understanding ethics and how we can treat each other. Positioning preliminaries aside, let us return to Gadamer’s essay:

“Of all the things that confront us in nature and history, it is the work of art that speaks to us most directly. It possesses a mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being, as if there were no distance at all.”5

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In Truth and Method, Gadamer previously articulated this “mysterious intimacy” in terms of a mode, a mode that he called ‘presentation’, to which we can now see that he adds a new component, the dimension of longevity:

“That which presents itself to the spectator as the play of art does not simply exhaust itself in momentary transport, but has a claim to permanence and the permanence of a claim.”6

However, there is quite a Gadamerian bundle contained within these terse lines. So, let us go slowly and unwind the bundle carefully to see what it contains.

Remembering Gadamer’s thoughts on play, whereby “play reaches presentation (Darstellung) through the players,”7 one can see that ‘presentation’ is the realisation or success of an enterprise, in one case play but equally with art, such as when the spectator engages with the artwork in a way that they start to become absorbed by it and, perhaps, even to understand something new about themselves. ‘Presentation’ seeps through the mental atmosphere created by a mind genuinely working (and not just regurgitating old formulas and patterns of understanding) and the ‘bridge’ starts to form. The fusion of horizons, as previously seen with Gadamer, between one mind and another or an artwork is the bridge, the bridge of understanding whereby two entities start to work in harmony, creating a common language and seeing further than they were capable of seeing when on their own.

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However, this is only one part of the bundle because Gadamer introduces a notion of longevity through a new concept, the idea of a ‘claim’, which arises if the work of art’s mode of being is presentation. By which I understand that if a work of art begins to form a bridge to our mind and ‘presentation’ is reached then the effect doesn’t just vanish from our mind, but rather it can linger indefinitely. We have all experienced this when walking around an art gallery or listening to the radio. Amidst the plentiful supply of what we perceive of as banality all of sudden there appears before us a work that has a “mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being” and stands out from the crowd as the one we must face directly and spend time with, there and then, but also we feel compelled to reminisce in our minds afterwards. We want to mentally linger with it, trying to recapture the immediacy it had when we encountered it. However, I’m following Gadamer’s lead here because classically, rather than dealing directly with what the actual claim consists of, by way of its content, Gadamer instead approaches it tangentially by examining its form: “A claim is something lasting… Because a claim lasts it can be enforced at any time.”8 The idea being that a ‘claim’ is something that is held on or over someone or something.

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Next, though, the dimension of longevity turns twists and turns around in Gadamer’s mind and he recalls an idea of a predecessor. Because ‘presentation’ has the quality of ‘lasting’ and the possibility of enforcement at any time it maps to a notion given life by a different philosopher for a very different reason over a hundred years prior to Truth and Method. Let’s let Gadamer explain:

“For Kierkegaard, ‘contemporaneity’ does not mean ‘existing at the same time.’ Rather, it names the task that confronts the believer: to bring together two moments that are not concurrent, namely one’s own present and the redeeming act of Christ, and yet so totally to mediate them that the latter is experienced and taken seriously as present (and not as something in a distant past).”9

Such Kierkegaardian associations give power and depth to Gadamer’s use of contemporaneity, which otherwise might get lost in his Heideggerian phrasing, with such expressions as: “contemporaneity belongs to the being of the work of art. It constitutes the essence of ‘being present’.”10 Perhaps realising this potential opportunity for clarity, Gadamer develops the theme of contemporaneity in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics and rephrases the ideas initially set forth in Truth and Method:

“The reality of the work of art and its expressive power cannot be restricted to its original historical horizon, in which the beholder was actually the contemporary of the creator. It seems instead to belong to the experience of art that the work of art always has its own present.”11

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Whether borrowing from Heidegger or Kierkegaard, it is without question that Gadamer wants to bring the full force of the experience of the artwork directly into the present. From such a platform it could resonate meaningfully to each and every spectator and not be restricted by its own history and become solely an artefact. As with Kierkegaard’s sense of contemporaneity, though, there is also the claim that the artwork holds upon us, it lingers and reverberates even when not actually present before us. It leaves a lasting impression that changes us.

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Ever vigilant to the prospect of succumbing to the allure of prior conceptions, Gadamer is, as always, quick to insist that such qualities do not automatically catapult the artwork into the universal status bestowed upon it by an aesthetic consciousness, where everything else is ignored that does not relate to the purely aesthetic, because his focus is on the capacity for understanding that the work brings forth. And with the introduction and necessary consideration of understanding, per se, Gadamer brings hermeneutics explicitly into the discussion:

“The claim of historical hermeneutics is legitimated precisely by the fact that while the work of art does not intend to be understood historically and offers itself in absolute presence, it nevertheless does not permit just any forms of comprehension.”12

The understanding, which Gadamer believes could be gained from the experience of a work of art, is one that is communicated “to each person as if it were said especially to him, as something present and contemporaneous.”13 This form of understanding, as a personal communication from the work to each potential spectator, as well as being a direct translation of Kierkegaard’s thought concerning the contemporaneity of Christ’s redemptive act, is there to be seriously considered because isn’t this actually how we should engage with art? I use ‘should’ as a philosophical agent provocateur, because such words are never normally allowed, due to their openness to abuse by those wishing to persuade through subjective opinion. My insistence upon its placement within our discussion is grounded, however, in the knowledge that experiences and encounters with art do speak and connect directly with those who stumble upon them, even many years after they were first created. And, this is, arguably, a criteria that needs to be met if something is to be classified as art at all.

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Argue if you will that this is still my subjective opinion, but then please put this stop reading, because those who prioritise logic and form over creativity and content are the rocks of ruination that have smashed potentially bountiful ideas generation after generation. Before leaving, though, maybe observe that Gadamer’s insistence regarding understanding is, as he described, a personal communication from the artwork; something, which is of course rooted in experience as Erfahrung, as something subjectively undergone, rather than something which could be objectively possessed by anyone. A personal communication is just that, personal and subjective. It is not something that can be felt by all manner of person or goat. For objective experiences one need only turn to numbers, facts, logic and grammar, not art.

The time for remonstrating is over for those who want to label experiences with the moniker ‘subjective opinion’, because there is a new yearning that wants to understand subjective experiences, such as the personal communication with an artwork, and recognise their philosophical importance. The hallowed hallways of the kingdom of philosophy are no longer inadmissible. It should go without saying, of course, that there must be no confusion here between subjective experience and subjective priority, the latter being that cursed affliction that in the majority of cases prevents the former.

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So, what have we learned? Hermeneutics, the study of understanding, can, it would seem, include aesthetics but only if by ‘understanding’, as Gadamer insists in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics, we mean the “self-understanding of each person.”14 The personal communication of art can stretch across distance of time and form a bridge that reveals what was once unfamiliar to us. Vitally, though, this is not knowledge of a history that once surrounded the artwork at its moment of creation, instead it is “mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being” and leads us to self-understanding that was once beyond our reach. In addition, the work of art, as Gadamer states, is saying “something to each person as if it were said especially to him” and its saying is “present and contemporaneous” because the work as well as being personal “occupies a timeless present.”15 And, just like Kierkegaard’s use of contemporaneity to describe the permanence of the claim that Christ’s act of redemption holds over his believers, so too does the work of art hold such a permanence of a claim once presentation has been achieved. Once bitten by an artwork the scar will always remain as a reminder of our personal journey of understanding through life.

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Unfortunately, the magician’s hat from which Gadamer pulled idea after idea upon our theme is yielding up its last few surprises and so, casually changing metaphor mid sentence, we enter the final leg of our Gadamerian odyssey. Having cast aside all doubters and time wasters, navigated through treacherous waters to unexpected lands, we find ourselves homeward bound plotting a secure course with clear skies above and steady breeze behind. And, being confident in our learning and knowing where we have been, it should come as no bolt from the blue to discover that Gadamer decided to do what he does best and spring a surprise: the re-examination of the notion of openness to communication. But first let’s listen to some Mozart…

References

  1. Gadamer, ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 95.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 97.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Gadamer, ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 95.
  6. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 126.
  7. Ibid., 103.
  8. Ibid., 127.
  9. Ibid., 127-128.
  10. Ibid., 127.
  11. Gadamer, ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Philosophical Hermeneutics, 95.
  12. Ibid., 96.
  13. Ibid., 100.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 96.

16. Art as Kidnap

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“In these days of fast moving technological advancement, we seem to find ourselves all too often content in our flighty attitude of continuous-partial-engagement; that uninspiring residence of stupidity that is constantly on the alert for the next sliver of gratification.”

Following on from Jeanette Winterson’s recommendation that artists need to smuggle their art across unsuspecting audience’s horizons to prevent the usual slaughter at the gate, we come across another problem: the attention span of the audience. It seems these days that even if an artist can get their art onto the doormat of the audience’s mind they still aren’t guaranteed to make an impact. So even though the ‘must have’ item on the list of personal abilities, cherished by the chattering classes is knowledge about culture, there is the decidedly annoying problem of getting them to pay attention.

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Whether culture is gathered by watching a TV series in easy-to-manage chunks, or by buying a ticket and sitting down to witness a contemporary jazz version of ‘120 days of Sodom,’ we desire the experience of something outside the mundane, which we can later relay to our nearest and dearest. Sometimes, it is as if we need to stock up our larder with cultural tit-bits in case unexpected guests arrive and need entertaining. At others, it is because we fear being judged that we haven’t kept up to date enough with current trends. Reliance upon anecdotes from glorious days past, before the children stole our lives when we used to strum a guitar in a ‘band,’ will undoubtedly bore our friends / acquaintances / boss and drive them from our door. Rarely, then, are the activities we pursue ends in themselves. Instead, our pursuits on the eternal pitch of culture are quite trivial, trite and transparent. Being there and fully imbibing the unique treat that we have before us, is unfortunately something peculiarly alien to most of us.

In these days of fast moving technological advancement, we seem to find ourselves all too often content in our flighty attitude of continuous-partial-engagement; that uninspiring residence of stupidity that is constantly on the alert for the next sliver of gratification. So, rather than turning off our tracking devices and giving ourselves over to the spectacle in view, we gaze absent-mindedly at the portable devices of addiction and long for an interruption via text or social media. Then we, in turn, can interrupt our friends with it as well in a bizarre attempt to upstage Don Giovanni. Humility and patience do not sit well with coffee-fuelled frenetic sloppy thinking. Consequently, trying to get anyone to ‘sit down and enjoy the show’ is a deeply troublesome and unrewarding task.

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In the face of such a futile and seemingly thankless undertaking, it’s not hard to notice that certain artists have got wise to the fact that their once thoughtful and emotionally susceptible audience is probably now going to send a text, take a selfie or laugh at the latest item trending over Twitter, whilst standing in front of their life’s work. (Inside, one’s heart beats perceptibly slower as this blight shadow embraces our so-called ‘cultured masses.’) Some artists, indeed, seek to rally themselves and resist the creeping miasma of contemporary dull-headedness and actively fight back with high explosive counter measures and a range of consciousness disorientating techniques to prevent such disinterest, vapidity, and moronic behaviour as we, their dubious audience, fumble in our pockets and bags to mute or answer pointless phone calls. No real weapons are employed, but all the same within the space of a couple of vibrating cricket chirps, we are kidnapped.

One such kidnapping took place in Colchester, Essex, where originally an artist had been commissioned to install a video piece within the town’s new art gallery; a second generation lottery project. However, due to capital project delays, the decision was taken to install her piece in a very different space. Influenced by the work’s content, a contemporary response to the 16th Century historical figure, William Gilberd, who is reputed to have discovered magnetism, a more fitting location emerged: the empty and no-longer-active church where Gilberd was buried. Holy Trinity Church as a space had not been opened to the public for fifteen years, even though its central position in the main shopping area had thousands of people trawling past its padlocked gates everyday.

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Opening for just two weeks in September 2009, time was in short supply to transform the dusty, hidden shell of a once flourishing and sanctified building into a public venue. Marketing and promotional activity was galvanised to publicise the exhibition but more interesting from our perspective the building, conceived many centuries past to allow the maximum amount of light into its otherwise cold, damp, and dark enclosure, had to be ‘blacked out.’ When visiting the site prior to the installation of her work Kathleen Herbert realised, along with the gallery’s curatorial and technical team that her low lit, dark palette, film would be compromised by streams of daylight pouring in from the many arched windows of the gothic space. Consequently, in an effort to allow the film to be seen, black self-adhesive plastic needed to be cut, trimmed, and placed over every window, stained or not. Scaffolding to the ready and armed with sheets of plastic the interior of the church was gradually cast into the permanent dead of night.

Arriving as a member of the audience meant first gaining access to a previously locked cemetery within the town’s centre and then edging along a small path to the main entrance of the church. Bespoke wooden doors filled the stone arch in which they are set, but allowed entry into Holy Trinity’s portico. From here, an invigilator was positioned to inform you of what was to be expected inside the church; make you aware of health and safety matters; open the inner doors to grant you access; and then finally closed the inner doors behind you. Unbeknownst to you, of course, partaking and agreeing to all the preceding activity has swiftly delivered you into the kidnapper’s grasp. Every movement and interaction that went before has led you to a place that could not be walked away from with any simplicity or ease.

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Unlike standing in front of a painting in a museum and then moving on to the next without a moment’s thought, a trap silently awaits your entrance and then quietly closes behind you just at the moment when you begin to grapple with the realisation that you are in an extremely dark space and have no real knowledge of where you are. At first you can’t even make out your own hand in front of your face and you have to wait for your eyes to acclimatise in the darkness so that you can meekly shuffle forward across the smooth cold stone floor, which gently undulates beneath your feet. The artist due to the diligent execution of their kidnap plan has triumphantly gained your attention and you are effectively blindfolded whilst you agree to their demands. Once inside the church and having taken a few faltering steps toward what you dimly perceive as the film screen, your commitment becomes total. You will now watch the film and not simply walk away as you would from a painting in a museum.

Image by Doug Atfield for firstsite
Image by Doug Atfield for firstsite

Congratulations and full marks, of course, to the artist in terms of kidnapping you and ensuring that their art is seen and respected and not just gazed at absent-mindedly whilst you contemplate the next interaction with your handheld bundle of lights, wires and plastic. Capturing the culture-dabbler physically is certainly a way to ensure that one’s work is examined on its own terms. So, hats off to Herbert for her ‘full body kidnap’.

There are, of course, many other types of kidnap. Tate Modern’s Unilever series of dramatic works that filled the Turbine Hall specialised in such kidnaps with works such as Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas, Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, Carsten Höller’s Test Site and Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds to name a few, all acting to immerse the spectator completely within the presence of their art. The artist, though, can kidnap the audiences’ hearts or minds just as conveniently as their full body. It purely depends on the type of environment the artist creates around, through, or with their work. In addition to hearts and minds, wallets and trust can also be added to the range of kidnap methods. The list is probably endless, but to build a fuller idea of the power employed it is perhaps worthwhile exploring one further illustration in detail.

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Sometimes, it is only through example that one can comprehend the measure of someone else’s thoughts and the gravity that they might have. So, with swift abandon, let me coax you into an orbital position from where you may gracefully circumnavigate my thoughts.

In February 2005, New York City found it’s much beloved Central Park the subject of intense activity over the course of a few months prior to a grand unveiling which, as the saying goes, ‘the like of which had never been seen before’. Two artists, the husband and wife team that was Jean-Claude and Christo, finally managed to activate a long held ambition for the city of New York and, contrary to their more ‘usual’ practice of concealing national landmarks, put into place a spectacular artwork that stretched the length and breadth of the city’s largest park, spanning 843 acres with 23 miles of footpaths. The installation of The Gates, Central Park, 1979 – 2005 was an immense tour de force, which, as its title highlights, took 26 years in the making, from conception to completion.

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Gaining permission from the city of New York, via the Mayor, at the time Michael Bloomberg, on the 22nd January 2003 acted as the re-animation point for a project deferred for over twenty years. From that date on the realisation of Christo and Jean Claude’s overdue desire to give something back to their adopted home could finally move from concept to installation. Mobilising manufacturers across New York and neighbouring states and even procuring fabric from Germany, the artists project managed a Herculean task to fulfil their dream. 7,500 gates, each twelve feet tall with a five foot saffron coloured fabric panel hanging beneath a cross bar attached to two uprights posts, would be spaced at ten to fifteen foot intervals throughout Central Park’s winding pathway system. Because each gate would be free-standing and not penetrate the park’s surface at any point, over 5,000 tons of steel were needed to make the base plates, each individually weighing between 750 to 835 pounds depending on the individual gate’s crossbar span, in order to provide the necessary inherent stability for the structure. Fitting in-between low lying branches, tree root surface penetration and the different widths of footpaths meant that there were twenty-three different widths of gate, ranging from six to eighteen feet. To manufacture the five inch square uprights and crossbars, 60 miles of saffron colour-matched vinyl had to be extruded through bespoke moulds to create the 22,500 poles needed to assemble the gates. 15,000 steel upper corner sleeves were made to connect the two vertical poles to their horizontal counterpart. A further 15,000 steel sleeves were manufactured to connect the uprights to their base plates, with over 165,000 bolts and self locking nuts provided to secure the ‘goal-post’ frame to the base footings. 119, 556 miles of saffron thread were woven in Emsdetten, Germany, to make the 1,092,200 square feet of recyclable rip-stop nylon fabric.

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A wall plan eight feet high by thirty feet long was drawn up with precise architectural drawings which divided Central Park into 73 sections to aid the visualisation and project management of this undertaking. Finally, 650 installation workers were employed to install the base plates, connect the uprights to their horizontal partners, and then erect all 7,500 gates for their unveiling for their all too brief lifespan of sixteen days in what would be a picture postcard, snow covered, winter for Central Park. To ensure that their dream was actually a gift from themselves, absolutely every component and wage for the entire project was financed by Christo and Jean-Claude through the sale of drawings, originals and lithographs: perhaps the most remarkable fact in this array of remarkable facts.

However, admiration in terms of scale, technical ability, and generosity need to be rested on the side-lines because on 12th February 2005, after all of this activity, Christo and Jean Claude’s audience trickled through the many entrances to the park and began to walk among the gates themselves. Their experience was akin to being eight years old, waking up on a cold winter’s morning to discover that it had snowed deeply outside. Getting one’s coat, boots, hat and gloves on and then running out to see and touch the dreamlike landscape that had been magically transformed overnight and take in every tree, rock, and surface as if they had never been seen before is the idealised memory cherished from one’s youth and, as soppy as it is to say it, the gates provided this feeling afresh. To wander through those gates on that first day and discover how their vibrant colour and shape re-animated the already beautiful park was breath-taking. The feat of engineering and project management had yielded its payoff and delivered to thousands an experience that changed the most hard-nosed and cynical native New Yorker into a wide-eyed child, once again filled with wonder, curiosity, and the possibility of hope.

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A few days later Manhattan, as well as the rest of New York State and most of the Northern Eastern Seaboard, succumbed to a recent vogue for deep snow in February and the magic was doubled. Any park in snow is a special place that disrupts the normal grind of daily routine, but to have the gates intertwined within such a setting was a unique encapsulation of beauty and it induced child-like wonder in all. However, getting lucky with the snow in no way should overshadow the achievement of the gates upon their audience. The experience of the gates themselves in their execution was awe-inspiring, and it is this quality that belongs solely to the artists because they managed that rare thing of kidnapping hearts.

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Shameless subjective emotive writing is, of course, to be despised and should be left in the ‘Disneyfied’ assembly line for plots that is the genre of romantic comedy. However, gushing at the resultant experience that the gates affected is required because we need to grasp the context of this form of kidnap. Just as with the ‘full-body kidnap’, the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ inducing art-forms that capture hearts is one that doesn’t easily let you go. Instead of physically impeding your exit, the ‘heart kidnap’ infects you with positive emotional responses designed to overrule all other cognitive / critical / cynical outlooks. One is taken over, just as completely as the mere thought of Christmas overtakes a small child going about their usual daily activities: all other thoughts are put on hold whilst a period of euphoric dwelling and reverie ensues.

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Gates, then, aren’t all bad. As well as being smuggled past they can be artistically used for widening audiences experience, perception and understanding. Placing aside my wordplay, I like to think that Gadamer would have approved of Jean-Claude and Christo’s use of play within their installation because it worked. It got audiences to engage, to forget their usual ways of understanding the world and it got past their barriers, their internal gates.

Our aesthetic interlude is over, however, and in the next post we shall return to Gadamer.

15. Jeanette’s Gate

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“In a conversation with an interesting person, we endeavour to get at his fundamental ideas and feelings. We do not bother about the words he uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath necessary for speaking them, nor the movement of his tongue and lips…”1
Wassily Kandinsky

In this post and the next we shall take a pause from Gadamer and take a tangential aesthetic interlude.

In Part II of Concerning The Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky discussed a pre-occupation with interpretation, that sought to discover the ‘meaning’ of a painting. Against this pre-occupation he hoped that future artists might be allowed the freedom to paint without such a burden:

“The spectator is too ready to look for a meaning in a picture… Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or ‘connoisseur,’ who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message. Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for ‘closeness to nature,’ or ‘temperament,’ or ‘handling,’ or ‘tonality,’ or ‘perspective, or what not…”2

Kandinsky’s point being that one should learn to stand beside the work of art and allow a flow to emanate from it rather than trying to contain the painting within a previously learnt system of concepts and theoretical constructs. Of course, there is our ever-present ethical lesson to be gained when thinking about how we regard, and react to, works of art because there is a parallel to be seen in terms of how we regard, and relate to, each other. As if to highlight that parallel, Kandinsky shone a light, but from the other direction than the one we usually take. His flow was from others to art as opposed to ours that flows from art to others.

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“In a conversation with an interesting person, we endeavour to get at his fundamental ideas and feelings. We do not bother about the words he uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath necessary for speaking them, nor the movement of his tongue and lips, nor the psychological working on our brain, nor the physical sound in our ear, nor the physiological effect on our nerves… We should have the same feeling when confronted with a work of art. When this becomes general the artist will be able to dispense with natural form and colour and speak in purely artistic language.”3

Now, if we were speaking in logical terms it could be levied against me that my use of Kandinsky leads to a circularity of argument. To explain; if I use our relation with others to prove how we should be with art, which, in turn, I then use to prove how we should be with others, my argument would be circular and therefore illogical. However, logic be damned, because what is at stake here is not logical proof but that there exists similarities and lessons that can be absorbed from one set of circumstances to another. Our experiences with art can inform, rather than prove, our experiences with each other and vice-versa. As always, I am not looking for proof, but for clues. There is a marked difference to be aware of here and one that will persist throughout our time together, because ethics is not a science. However, neither is it an art. It is an endeavour. But we shall say more of this much, much, later. For now, we must get back to Wassily.

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Whether Kandinsky was looking forward to the kind of abstraction and pure artistic language found in the mature work of artists like Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still is something we could speculate upon. Instead, though, Kandinsky’s importance at this particular moment is determined by the focus he brought to the mode of spectatorship, because he asks us to reassess how we look at and encounter our world. In so doing, Kandinsky places under question, within an aesthetic context, the hegemony of rational enquiry: a radical and innovative manoeuvre.

Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation, takes a no-nonsense approach to this hegemony: “In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.”4 By saying so, Sontag begins to indicate where her allegiances lie, and then she goes for the throat:

“Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”5

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The point, made extreme in this case, being the neutering effect that interpretation can have upon its subject, the ever-silent work of art. Beware the false voice of the ventriloquist. Any potential that a work might possess is covered over just as if it were swiftly and surgically removed, by the intellectual cut and thrust of interpretation, to leave a docile and ineffectual shell. Hence, Sontag refers to interpretation as the taming of art: “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”6 In addition, such ‘taming’ can be seen as demonstrating and touching upon potential issues of fear within the spectator: fear that the work might unsettle the balance of power that they have achieved in their life and overturn their safe, comfortable existence.

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Jeanette Winterson, in her essay on Gertrude Stein in Art Objects, exposes this issue by presenting a thought experiment in which a writer tries to create something genuinely meaningful, and not just bland and repetitive:

“Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions and yet fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?”7

How does an artist get past this ‘conservative’ fear and demand for art to be subservient? How does one re-enchant the world of the child who, in a Kandinskian allegory, learns and acquires knowledge about the fire that once captivated his imagination? Perhaps, the answer to both these questions lies latent within art such as Rothko’s and Still’s because they seem to submit to no intellectual interpretation and yet hold our gaze as we stare in to their worlds? Briony Fer, in her discussion of Jackson Pollock helps show the way:

“What Pollock makes visible in ‘Out of the Web’ is the spectator’s failure to master the visual field. We can wish it were different by attempting to restore a subject matter to the picture, or by maintaining an ideal viewing position, or even by focussing instead on the ideological cargo of cold War-mongering that came to be identified with Abstract Expressionism; but these are just so many compensations for the damage done, not only to the surface of the painting itself, but also the spectator’s field of vision.”8

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Although, discussing ‘the cut’ of this work by Pollock, Fer’s words on the spectator do resonate with the classic work of Pollock and his chums, Rothko and Still. In these works, the spectator has their ‘mastery’ taken away and hopefully something other than their post-primitive intellect engaged. Maybe it is their imagination? Maybe it is their feelings or deep emotions? The point is that their way of seeing has been confronted and their ‘mastery’ questioned in order that something other might be presented before them. The content of this other, of course, in order to preserve its power over the spectator, must remain unspecified. There has to be a forever unknowable dimension to the work if the spectator’s ‘mastery’ is to be removed. However, the stability of this requirement is fragile, due to the nature of that which we use to attempt ‘mastery’ constantly seeking to regain control of the situation. Our ever-restless minds chew, churn and chomp in desperate attempts to wrestle understanding from the paint and canvas before us. It can feel like a test that we must persevere at or risk walking away empty-handed in a gloom of despondency at our lack of intelligence. But this chewing, churning and chomping is wrong. We do not approach a car with a knife and fork trying to decide where best to take our first slice and neither should we approach a work of art trying to carve it up into bite sized portions for our meagre intellects to digest. Instead, we are being asked to do something else by the classic works of Pollock et al.

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It seems that in order to enable the possibility of new experiences in the spectator one must be an artist of the subversive and conjure manifestations that resist intellectual categories. The point being that if something can be categorised and explained than it becomes dead and no longer capable of rendering new experiences to anyone. This is the terrible curse of the mind, as Kandinsky’s ‘grown-up’ child makes clear. Mystery and the unknown are chased and harried into the far corners of existence, as the light of enlightenment emblazons upon the world massacring the shadows of the nameless. Wonder is eradicated and replaced with certainty and confidence.

Thinking back to Gadamer and his regard for the importance of play, in that it is representative of experience as something undergone. We can see the contrast with certainty and confidence being representatives of experience as something one has; a distinctly lesser form of experience in his eyes. One needs to play with art and not stand before it processing it in such a way that one can later say ‘Yah, I absolutely get Rothko. His sublime rectangles of fuzziness, nesting one on top of another, remind me of a shop window display of Burlington socks… all those colours, yah.’ Gadamer, please save us from pontificating, witless, imbeciles who will insist in placing works, such as Rothko’s or Pollock’s, within their own tiny worldview. Art is there to open doors, not to have them slammed in its face.

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Perhaps, though, we should go back to Winterson for assistance because she has got a point regarding smuggling. Sometimes, if one is going to create a work of art that is going to afford a future spectator the opportunity of play, it has to be smuggled past the gate and the machine-gun turrets set to kill. The problem is that a lot of people just can’t entertain the idea of anything too radical because we are scared. Consequently, we want to stick to the safe comfort zones we have constructed for ourselves, reading straight-forward genres of fiction, listening to tried and tested classics and pausing in front of representational art when mooching around galleries. As Winterson describes “we can feel safe with facts. You can introduce a fact to your mother and you can go out at night with a proven fact on your arm.”9 The implication being that you daren’t introduce you mother to Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange: far too risky. “Bring on the Trojan Horse,”10 is Winterson’s rallying war cry, and this is exactly what she discovered in Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which deliberately obscured the boundaries between fiction and reality due to Stein making “all the people around her into characters in her fiction.”11

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By daring to blur the factual lines between fiction, biography and autobiography, Stein smuggled with stealth and ingenuity, only revealing what she had done in the very last paragraph. (You’ll have to read it yourself). Suffice to say, that for Winterson, “the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an act of terrorism against worn-out assumptions of what literature is and what form its forms can take.”12 Crucially, what Winterson found, in Stein’s black leather glove slap to the face of Literature, was that the form of the art mattered most. Alter the form and you’ll confront people, upsetting the narrow-minded and enriching the open-minded. The hope being, of course, that the art will find the open-minded ones and give them something that they never had before: new experiences, feelings and thoughts. As Winterson said, “The riskiness of art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking.”13 However, new ways of thinking don’t come cheap, and there is often a cost to be borne, normally by the artist who gets misunderstood, ignored, or branded a charlatan. Sometimes, though, the cost is borne by the spectator or reader who realises the importance of what they have just witnessed, encountered or read. This is a worthwhile cost, though, because it helps them alter, broaden and shift their way of thinking, seeing or being and in doing so, one hopes, they become wiser for it.

As ever, there is the transferable lesson that can be applied to ethics if we can only learn from these thoughts upon art and our engagement with it, because why shouldn’t an encounter with another human offer just such the same possibilities for personal growth?

Perhaps, though, the last words should be Winterson’s because in them she shows how far the possibilities of opening up could go: “When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves.”14

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References

  1. Kandinsky, W., Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 48.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sontag, S., Against Interpretation, 7.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Winterson, J., Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, 49-50.
  8. Fer, B., On Abstract Art, 97.
  9. Winterson, J., Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, 49.
  10. Ibid., 50.
  11. Ibid., 51.
  12. Ibid., 50.
  13. Ibid., 52.
  14. Ibid., 60.

14. 1938: Jazz at Carnegie Hall

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“With a quick roll and flash onto the rest of his kit, Gene Krupa creates space for Harry James to work in a trumpet solo with just the drums and piano in accompaniment. In just over a minute, James performs a solo that flourishes with such virtuosity that, arguably, he can claim the right of achieving the pinnacle moment in the whole concert. His musical brilliance and sense of feeling are both at their peak as he allows his supreme talent to let loose his genius.”

Sunday, January 16, 1938, is etched into Jazz history. On this momentous day Benny Goodman brought his swing orchestra and several guest soloists in front of a capacity audience of 3,800 expectant Jazz enthusiasts to the concert venue in New York City: Carnegie Hall. Jazz was a relatively new introduction to this ‘Holy of Holies’ of classical music. Having had a few jazz try-outs, ‘swing music’ had never made an appearance until Benny Goodman’s band played that Sunday night in mid-January.

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The event is especially remembered for the racial harmony in performers and audience that were present in the hall. Black performers from both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, such as Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Count Basie, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Cootie Williams sat side by side with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Harry Goodman, Vernon Brown, Jess Stacey and the other white members of Goodman’s own orchestra. Goodman himself also employed black performers who appeared on the Carnegie Hall roster, such as Lionel Hampton. Numbers and names of the audience members are lost to history, save to say that there was no segregation and not one single problem caused by such integration. Racial discrimination was held in abeyance in New York City for those historic two and a half hours.

Gene Krupka, Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, Vernon Brown, Johnny Hodges

The importance of the concert for us, though, is in the manner that it allows a multitude of ways to grapple with Gadamer’s idea on the experience of play. We’ll look at the audience of the time and also what one can expect listening to the concert over three-quarters of a century later, but first we shall start with the artists themselves who produced the music.

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Hard-wired into Jazz is a deep respect and insistence upon improvisation and going with the flow of the music so as not to be rigidly confined by compositional scores. Musicians are positively encouraged to give free reign to on-the-spot creative outbursts within the framework of the song they are performing. However, the degree and overall direction of the latitude for such open creativity is given and judged by the bandleader, in this case Benny Goodman. Catherine Tackley, who examined the 1938 concert inside out, quotes Goodman from 1939:

“The most important element is still improvisation, the liberty a soloist has to stand up and play a chorus in the way he feels – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but as an expression of himself, rather than somebody else who wrote something for him. If you want to put it this way, it’s something that is genuinely American, because it’s the expression of an individual – a kind of free speech in music.”1

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Casting aside the pro-American rhetoric, one can sense in Goodman’s words the personal connection that an improvising performer can reach with their art form if they are allowed to play with it. Two perfect instances of such play come out in the iconographic number by Louis Prima called ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ Both Harry James’ impassioned trumpet solo work and Jess Stacey’s cool hand over his piano solo demonstrate the artistic summits which can be reached when play is allowed to occur.

From the outset of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ there is Gene Krupa’s rumbling fast and loud jungle beat on his floor tom, with accompanying bass drum, plus accentuated snare and hi-tom strikes, to set the rhythm alongside his hi-hat pulses and cymbal crashes. Then, after a few seconds, in comes the brass. First, the trombones play a steady triplet hook, and then the trumpets arrive after a couple of seconds with a blaring and deliciously dirty counter line. Next it’s the saxophones, with a swinging melody that works a smoother phrase to Krupa’s pounding tempo. Goodman’s clarinet, after a minute of pace setting rhythm from Krupa and the brass section, enters the fray with punchy high notes interspersed with space for the drums to get highlighted in brief breathing spaces where the wind players catch their breath before ploughing through the routine again and again.

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Goodman split this show stopping tune into two parts. The first delivered the theme, as drawn up by Louis Prima, which in its own right stands as an unforgettable swing standard. However, Goodman’s genius is made apparent in the second section. There is a musical return to the main theme that culminates in a surging groundswell in the trumpets and brass, which broods alongside his clarinet to crank up the tempo and work up the scale to produce a musical invocation of monsters threatening to descend from the shadows in ecstatic dance. Suddenly, a tension release appears when everything pares back leaving Krupa’s hypnotising floor tom work. However, with a quick roll and flash onto the rest of his kit, Krupa creates space for Harry James to work in a trumpet solo with just the drums and piano in accompaniment. In just over a minute, James performs a solo that flourishes with such virtuosity that, arguably, he can claim the right of achieving the pinnacle moment in the whole concert. His musical brilliance and sense of feeling are both at their peak as he allows his supreme talent to let loose his genius. The phrases are punched out in harmony with Krupa in such a way that one can almost feel the confidence within James swelling. After scene-setting his command over this section, he slides effortlessly into a pseudo Rimsky-Korsokov moment, where shades of Bumblebees flight are aired, just before belting out a declaration of intent through staccato bursts, that climb ever upwards in an unstoppable run to triumphantly smash through to a new, as yet, unreached level of powerhouse swing that brings the rest of the orchestra back into play. The sensation’s cast in that extended minute are guaranteed never to leave the attentive listener. James reigns majestically and performs to such a level that his life would never be the same again. Less than a year later he would leave Goodman’s orchestra and create his own orchestra on the back of the heights reached at Carnegie Hall.

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However, there is a darker side to his performance, which touches on Gadamer’s ideas around play. Tackley quotes James from the Jazz writer George T. Simon’s tomb The Big Bands and shows the after-effect that the Carnegie Hall ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ solo had on James:

“I don’t think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing, and it was all built around ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I’d been sick; they gave me some experimental pills… Well, they wigged me out… as I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I just couldn’t make it. I fell back on my chair… It happened again another time, too, so that every time the band played ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ I’d get bugged and scared it would start all over again… I tried to explain it to Benny and I’d even ask him to play ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ earlier in the evening, so I could relax for the rest of the night. But of course that was his big number, and so I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hold off. Finally I just left the band. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. At least with my own band I could play the tunes I wanted to play.”2

Tackley interprets James’ obvious psychological problem as “the negative effects of a piece that initially represented collective creativity but had become a standardized arrangement.”3 Thinking this through Gadamer’s idea of play; James in the Carnegie Hall concert had got himself to a pitch where he was in ‘play’ with ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. The techniques and craftsmanship that he had diligently learned over the years of studentship with the trumpet were now matured and absorbed sufficiently so that he could now stop thinking about how to play and could focus wholly, instead, on giving over his fingers and breathing to the music so as to unleash the art. The extent to which he was responding, there and then, to the rhythm and themes of the song, taking risks and improvising on the hoof, allowed him to reach the heights of creative genius. The flow of his talent with the trumpet combined with the energy and raw power of the tune seem to vibrate in his performance giving a whole greater than the sum of their parts. However, subsequently, being asked to capture and repeat such a unique rendition every time the orchestra played ‘Sing Sing, Sing’ – sometimes a daily task – filled him with trepidation. One just can’t be brilliant on demand, and each time he played the solo and tried to take similar risks to those he took when in ‘play’ at Carnegie Hall, he would always have the pressure of living up to that one spotlight performance, which was actually given only a few weeks after he joined Goodman’s band. The arrogance of ignorance would have helped him play at Carnegie Hall in a way that he could never emulate again, because that performance would forever be cast in stone as a crowning achievement never to be duplicated or bettered.

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Jess Stacey’s piano solo in ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is also the epitome of Gadamer’s sense of play, it is wrought with risk too, but has an understated wisdom to it in a way that James’s spectacular solo doesn’t. Which is not to diminish James’s solo but to realise that Stacey brings another dimension entirely to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Tackley draws out the difference in a wider comparison of the four major performers:

“Stacy’s approach to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is completely different from many of the other solos in the concert, being reflective not only in mood but in content… Krupa and James use the piece as a vehicle for projecting their Jazz personas, but Goodman and Stacy’s improvisations instead draw the audience in and encourage them to listen.”4

Stacey ‘plays’, though, just as much as James, in his piano solo. Starting with a jaunty bounce, he soon starts weave different melodic lines which ebb and flow from each other and lead into high octave watery drops splashing softly and delicately, all within a few bars. Drawing in the audience, as Tackley describes, by gently rolling notes in a high register, Stacy effortlessly shifts gears once more and riffs in the mid-range but drops in low minor chords which he then uses to form the next improvised bars before ascending up the piano deftly to return to the high octave once more. It’s a beautiful performance that leaves Goosebumps where James left racing heartbeats.

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Rather interestingly, from a Gadamerian perspective, Tackley spends some time covering the birth pangs of swing before Goodman brought it to Carnegie Hall and identifies a critical element to its reception by audience members. The issue at stake being whether music like Goodman’s was for dancing or listening to.

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In 1934 Goodman began broadcasting on a radio programme entitled Let’s Dance,which obviously swayed the balance at the start towards dance. However, when playing at the Chicago Rhythm Club in 1935 Goodman stated “there was tremendous enthusiasm all through the programme – the few people that tried to dance were booed off the floor.”5 Tackley notes that there was also a shift taking place at this time in preferred venues. Jazz in its swing variation started to wander from ballrooms and set up shop in theatres and in doing so physically communicated to audiences that Jazz was to be listened to. No more was it background music for dancers. The ‘play’ when the audience experienced swing, by the time of the Carnegie Hall concert, was one that happened aurally not bodily. Notes, melodies, rhythm, riffs and phrases were there to be heard by their audiences who, in turn, gave their full attention and appreciation by listening and allowing the music to ‘play’ with them and take them where they knew not.

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Even today, over three-quarters of a century later, one can listen in the comfort of one’s own Ikea Poäng and be irresistibly carried away. The brilliance of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’s’ composition in the hands of Goodman, Krupa, James, Stacey and friends is there to be felt, to be heard, but most of all to be played with by every new pair of ears that comes across it. The ‘once in a lifetime’ performance is caught, but not preserved. It is given life. It is given an infinity that it deserves, as it is eternally performed again and again. The ‘play’ engaged by the main orchestra members is forever as fresh as when it was given at Carnegie Hall. Their skill and dexterity when they played with Louis Prima melody and rhythm all those years ago, as they swung and improvised under Goodman’s watchful eye taking risks and yearning to forget all the technicalities of their performance in the pursuit of merging themselves absolutely with the music, will always be there. As individuals they gave themselves up completely to achieving the very best jazz they could that night and that only happened when they let go of the logic in the printed notes on the pages in front of them and started to explore where their fingers, breath and talent could take them. Harry James might have felt that he could never reach the great heights again of his performance whilst he was alive, but in the eternity provided by the recording his ‘never-to-be-repeated’ play has been given immortality. The only question that remains, of course, is whether we, as listeners, can give that same dedication and really listen and play with their unique creation so as to give justice to their combined achievement. Maybe its time, if you haven’t done so already, to switch on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, close your eyes and allow your ears, mind and body to become filled with the music. Just make sure it’s the Carnegie Hall version though!

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References

  1. Tackley, C., Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, 150.
  2. Ibid., 153.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 100.
  5. Ibid., 10.

13. Play

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“When everyone else around you is doing the same thing it reinforces your comfort that you are prioritising the right thing. It is only when a dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete.”

Recap – Last time we looked at Gadamer, we were paddling with him across deep water and he was describing the inadequacies of a type of experience called Erlebnis.

Gadamer didn’t like Erlebnis because he found it limited, in that it always pushes any experience down the dead-end street of being something that is possessed by someone. Plus, it seemed to Gadamer that the Kantian priority of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, based upon Erlebnis, submerged any notion of self-understanding or self-identity under its enormous weight. For this reason, and others, Gadamer wanted to reject Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics, plus he wanted to explore how a work of art might possess truth.

Before continuing, though, we might also do well to remind ourselves that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we build a template for how we could engage with one another. This is because, as I mentioned in the last post, all Gadamer’s work on aesthetics has an implicit ethical lesson.

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Onwards – As far as Gadamer is concerned, if we can “learn to understand ourselves in and through”1 a work of art then aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. The basis of this assertion, however, resides in a different mode of self-understanding. And this new mode of self-understanding relies upon the continuity of someone through time, the continuity of their history, and the continuity of history itself.

To reach this new mode of self-understanding Gadamer introduces a second manifestation of experience to replace Erlebnis. Erfahrung is described by his translators, Joel and Donald, as “something you undergo, so that subjectivity is overcome and drawn into an ‘event’ of meaning.”2 This second form of experience as “something you undergo” is explicitly distinct from Erlebnis as “something you have.” The priority of the subject is taken away, and replaced by the priority of the event. When Gadamer, once again, directs this mode of experience back to the experience of art, the impact of his introduction of Erfahrung becomes apparent: “a genuine experience (Erfahrung) [is] induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.”3

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The introduction of experience as Erfahrung also subsequently enables Gadamer to reformulate his epistemic question concerning art:

“Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it? And is not the task of aesthetics precisely to ground the fact that the experience (Erfahrung) of art is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind, certainly different from that sensory knowledge which provides science with the ultimate data from which it constructs the knowledge of nature, and certainly different from all moral rational knowledge, and indeed from all conceptual knowledge – but still knowledge, i.e., conveying truth?”4

The re-emergence of the question of art having a claim to truth through the vehicle of Erfahrung, as opposed to the rejected Erlebnis, allows Gadamer the opportunity to reconsider what it is to experience a work of art and how one might gain truth from such an experience. If Erfahrung is experience as “something you undergo,” with the priority of the subject replaced by the priority of the event and, also, the importance of self-understanding, then Gadamer can begin to radically re-tune our approach to aesthetics.

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Thus far, Gadamer’s work in the arena of aesthetics has yielded a rejection of the Kantian model of subjectivisation with a clear rationale as to why it has been rejected, courtesy of the comparison between experience as Erlebnis and experience as Erfahrung.

The next step for Gadamer, then, has to be a tangible demonstration of what it means to seek out experience as Erfahrung. And, such a demonstration of Erfahrung needs, of course, to bring its buddy of ‘self-understanding’ along. Now, not to give the game away too much, but possibly to help it get off to a good start Gadamer states, “understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself.”5 And, in this statement we can see a switch of priorities: the priority of the encounter replaces the priority of the subject doing the observing. Rather unhelpfully, though, Gadamer refers to the priority of the encounter in a Heideggerian sounding phase: “the mode of being of the work of art itself.”6

Placing to one side the Heideggerian connotations of such an obscure turn of phase, and somewhat relying on trust, we need to proceed undaunted in order to appreciate what lies beneath the Heideggerian obscurification, because within the concept of “the mode of being of the work of art itself” Gadamer employs perhaps his most innovative contribution to aesthetics: a re-evaluation of the term ‘play.’

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After first having to deal with all the uses of this term employed by previous thinkers such as Kant and Schiller, who gave it subjective application of course, Gadamer begins by setting out the criteria that play has, in his own thoughts.

When one is solely used to walking sedately from room to room and observing all those around conducting themselves in a like manner, it comes as quite a shock when a confident dancer glides, swoops, spins, and shimmies their way through the same building. The priority given to the subject in ‘pre-Gadamerian’ thought is akin to walking in this illustration. When everyone else around you is doing the same thing it reinforces the comfort you have that you are prioritising the right thing. It is only when a dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete, if they were ever considered the sole way of comporting oneself. Once the dancer arrives and is seen, then all methods of locomotion can be ushered in from running to cycling to skateboarding. Gadamer, in this instance, is obviously the dancer because he realises that one can actually distance oneself from subjectively orientated phenomenon and discover other modes of being. One can dance, one can skate, one can hop, skip and jump, one can play. Importantly, as Gadamer explains, such ‘play’ only comes about if the subjective manner of experience is pushed aside: “Play fulfils its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.”7 Now, point to note. This is new.

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Swooping and gliding, Gadamer looks at the world differently from how he was taught and saw the possibility for dancing if one can let go of the priority of the subject. Letting go is difficult though, especially if you have the many shackles of philosophical history weighing you down. However, if you can do it, it is fantastically exhilarating and refreshing. Indeed, Gadamer must have felt this as he wrote about the player losing himself or herself in play, because in a way he too was playing with philosophy. Gadamer’s personal enjoyment, though, is not the current topic.

The priority upon play, Gadamer understands as the players losing themselves in play. However, he also realises that by the players losing themselves, in this sense, they also enable play to come forward: “play reaches presentation (Darstellung) through the players.”8 Play needs players. Although, when discussing an example of a type of play such as ‘to-and-fro movement’, Gadamer notes that “it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.”9 The subject encountering play, importantly, has no necessary priority in the mode of being of play for Gadamer. Overcoming this priority, though, is quite a challenge because, as Gadamer remarked, we have become “accustomed to relating phenomena such as playing to the sphere of subjectivity.”10 In order to assist in over coming the challenge, Gadamer draws our attention to another facet of play that complements the loss of subjective priority: the loss of any kind of target for play:

“It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose but also without effort. It happens as it were by itself… The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.”11

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Play then, if undertaken without a goal, has priority over the subject and incorporates the latter within itself in such a manner as to relieve the subject from existential concerns whilst they are at play. Self-conscious thoughts about whether one is any good at the game become lost, as do minor worries about what to cook for the evening meal, or even major ones such as where is my life going. The player gives himself or herself over to play and becomes part of an event, if the game is entered into with commitment and seriousness, and not in the mode of a spoilsport. In this way one presents themselves open to the risk of being ‘outplayed’ and the possibility of embarrassment. However, by the same token, one also allows the possibility of new experiences that were not even on the horizon of expected outcomes: “The player experiences the game as a reality that surpasses him.”12

Bringing it back to aesthetics, Gadamer reflects once more on the subjectivisation of aesthetics after Kant and his desire to overcome the priority of the subject with its aesthetic consciousness filling art objects with its unique and special meaning:

“If art is not the variety of changing experiences (Erlebnisse) whose object is filled subjectively with meaning like an empty mold, we must recognise that ‘presentation’ (Darstellung) is the mode of being of the work of art. This was prepared for by deriving the concept of presentation from the concept of play, for self-presentation is the true nature of play – and hence of the work of art also.”13

The concept Gadamer has of play, therefore, creates a framework to re-work aesthetics so that one isn’t trapped or locked into following its subjectivisation and epistemological separation.

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Because play effects a surpassing of the subject, epistemological prospects become altered, as Gadamer concludes:

“My thesis, then, is that the being of art cannot be defined as an object of an aesthetic consciousness because, on the contrary, the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself. It is part of the event of being that occurs in presentation, and belongs essentially to play as play.”14

The presentation of play makes the “being of art” more than can be known by aesthetic consciousness, or said in a slightly different way, aesthetic consciousness is insufficient when attempting to capture the “being of art.” Perhaps we need to step back from the Heideggerian “being of art” for the moment to really grasp what is at stake here?

When looking at a work of art we normally try to understand it, appreciate it, or interpret it. So, we meet with it as ourselves with all of our experience, or inexperience, knowledge and taste, as Kant would argue, to assess the work. Then, after a period of application and potential revelation as to what the work might mean for us we move on: our aesthetic consciousness has done its job. The issue for Gadamer is that this explanation of an encounter with an artwork is insufficient and misses the point because everything is so wrapped up in the subject, and the subject’s ability to attend to the work. Such a perspective invariable limits the work, reduces its potential, and sucks the life right out of it and kills it, dead. Rushing up, Gadamer performs emergency resuscitation and breathes new life into the work by realising that for art to operate and function as art it must be allowed the opportunity of perplexing the viewer; it must be allowed to penetrate deeper than the viewer could have at first perceived; it must be allowed to be more to the viewer than just another aesthetic judgement or contemplative study. For such a shift to happen, of course, an attitude of play needs to be brought to bear whereby an easy too-ing and fro-ing takes place between the viewer and the work. This way the work will that not be subsumed by the viewer’s ability to exercise taste or their desire to assess the object before them.

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Consequently, as well as altering the epistemological prospects of a work of art, by postulating the concept of play as that which forces ‘presentation’ as the mode of being of the artwork, Gadamer also introduces what he regarded as the ‘true’ mode of being for the spectator. If one is to be a Gadamerian spectator then one must participate and be present within the play that surrounds the work of art’s presentation: “being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate.”15 Participation is a huge concept for Gadamer and we shall have to work up to it over the next few sections. Good to know what’s on the horizon, though, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, let us not forget that, as far as Gadamer is concerned, what we are doing is learning “to understand ourselves in and through”16 a work of art so that aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. However, more importantly, residing in this different mode of self-understanding is something new and something vital. A continuity of someone through time begins to surface and make an appearance. By being in play with a work of art we allow ourselves to undergo experiences that help give definition to ourselves beyond the usual two-dimensional descriptions of unconnected snapshot moments in time. We become fuller, richer and more rounded as we play with the artwork and allow the play to take us new unanticipated directions.

References

  1. Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 97.
  2. Gadamer, Truth and Method, ‘Translators’ Preface’ by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 14.
  3. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 100.
  4. Ibid., 97-98.
  5. Ibid., 100.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 102.
  8. Ibid., 103.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 104.
  11. Ibid., 104-105.
  12. Ibid., 109.
  13. Ibid., 115-116.
  14. Ibid., 116.
  15. Ibid., 124.
  16. Ibid., 97.

12. Magritte

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“We need to understand that Magritte can be a cypher for how we can relate to an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre. His work demonstrates the power that any art can have on us, in that we can be changed by it, if we let it. The question is can we let ourselves be affected by a work of art?”

One hundred and fifty years before Kant wrote his Critique of Judgement, the results of which Gadamer could not abide, Diego Velázquez painted his portrait of ‘Pope Innocent X’. Ever since, art connoisseurs have revered the work, for example, Hippolyte Taine described it as “the masterpiece amongst all portraits.”1 If Kant had wanted to ingratiate himself with the Pamphili family, Innocent X’s descendants, and viewed the portrait, perhaps he might have had much to say. Switching between thoughts on how beautiful the work was and how his subjective taste was entranced, I’m sure he would have rhapsodised in his own way and held Velázquez’s work in high regard as consummate proof of his ideas on the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Undoubtedly Kant would have regarded Velázquez as a genius, if pushed to make such a comment, but then he also would have added, “Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given.”2 Thus reminding us of his separation of rules, (and implicitly facts, truth and objectivity), from aesthetics.

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Kant becomes gloriously unstuck, though, when one imagines him looking at a different painting altogether. Three hundred years after Velázquez, Francis Bacon painted several variations on Velázquez’s original work and managed to create a total reformation and a new icon within the history of art. ‘The Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,’ affectionately known as the ‘Screaming Pope’, is a work that Kant would have surely dismissed as devoid of any aesthetic quality whatsoever. However, the tide has turned on Kant because, as we know, there are many respected art critics and aestheticians who venerate Bacon’s work and consider it a triumph of genius. Robert Hughes said, “once you have seen two or three of Bacon’s screaming popes, you can’t get them out of your mind.”3 And this is it. This is Gadamer’s point. Some art “has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”4

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Perhaps, its as well now to make clear and bring completely in focus that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we are building a template for how we could engage with one another. Make no mistake, all Gadamer’s work on aesthetics has an implicit ethical lesson. Sometimes when trying to understand one thing we need to look at another and, even more importantly in this case, critically examine and pay great attention to how we are actually doing the looking. However, let us continue onwards.

Bacon’s portrait of a screaming Innocent X is unforgettable in a way that possibly, dare I say, Velázquez’s might be. The power of each to haunt us is palpably present, however, Bacon’s shocks, disturbs and engages us intellectually as we are caught staring at it trying to comprehend what on earth is happening. It seduces us and, at the same time as imprinting itself on our minds, causes a shift in our way of understanding what art can be. When one sees the ‘Screaming Pope’ for the first time one comes away changed. The experience of it alters our perception of what painting is. Somehow the work invades our mind, sets up shop, and makes us slightly different from who we were before. And this power, Gadamer understood, is the “true being” of art: the power to change “the person who experiences it.”

Bacon’s visceral and shocking imprint produces an emotional outcry from some as they see the silent scream of a forever-transfixed pope. However, one can also experience the mental outcry that yearns to understand and make sense of what it is seeing. Explanations zip rapidly across our minds as we filter information surrounding the painting, such as when it was produced, in case a clue might be gleaned. Or, if we know that Bacon was a lifelong atheist and beaten by his father to try and rid him of his homosexuality, we start conjecturing and pontificating. Desperate attempts to quantify the work come thick and fast. It’s a visual representation of the death of God, a reflection upon the Nuremberg trials where Nazis were questioned inside a glass box, or the ultimate figure of authority suffering the retribution of tortured son. Bacon himself was keen to always avoid and evade any such explanations in order to allow the visual to represent itself rather than being overlaid or smothered by words. Consequently, because of his evasion and the work’s internal resistance to categorisation it blocks neat definitions and ensures that the gaze of the spectator is held and never really released as it continues to linger in the mind as an ever-present visual question that cannot be answered.

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Whilst Bacon’s work scorches and sears our mind with its image, another artist working at the same time was doing something similar. Although both would have strenuously denied any cohesion between their activities beyond that they were both painters. Rene Magritte, working in Belgium, but with strong intellectual ties to Surrealism, had been pursuing his artistic project that sought to disrupt traditional notions of how art can be perceived and, indeed, what it can provide. In stark contrast to Bacon, Magritte’s temperature was cooler and somehow more distant. Arguably, too, Magritte’s painterly ability was in a minor key compared to Bacon’s absolute, but always disrupted, major one. Magritte’s style was more along the lines of the illustrative as opposed to the grand master. His work was always about the idea rather than the display of artistic virtuosity. However, let’s us get back to the theme.

In 1868, Édouard Manet painted one of his iconographic scenes of the bourgeoisie at rest, ‘The Balcony’, containing friends and family as the main figures in an homage to Francisco Goya’s ‘The Majas at the Balcony’. The work’s reception at the 1869 Paris salon was, typically for Manet, far from appreciative, with his work being described as “discordant.”5 Maybe, because he didn’t insert female nudes into ‘The Balcony’ as he did with his 1863 and 1865 salon entries ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’ and ‘Olympia’, the criticism was more restrained than outraged. Possibly of more interest to us is that, wittingly or not, Manet establishes an unusual aura in the figures of ‘The Balcony’, as they each seem to be wholly isolated and independent from each other. I say, “possibly,” because there is an argument that Magritte in his ‘homage’ to ‘The Balcony’ manages to unify them.

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A confident and self-assured Magritte painted ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ in 1950. The work is an exact reproduction of ‘The Balcony’, except that each of the figures is replaced, or encased, by a coffin shaped to match their posture as depicted by Manet. Unified by death, the figures have been resolved under Magritte’s hand – is how an art historical analysis could begin. However, what interests me is the evidence of the same power to shock and disturb as we saw with Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’.

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Viewing Magritte’s work alters one’s understanding of what a work of art can be and how we are to engage with it. Again, as with the ‘Screaming Pope’, Kant would have dismissed ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ as some kind of nonsense, because his understanding of aesthetics is simply short-circuited by Magritte. Magritte forestalls Kantian notions of beauty and taste, because he was not interested in merely replicating nature on canvas, his priorities lay outside of such a restrictive view of aesthetics. Magritte’s views on his art are his and have an interest in their own right. However, as always we must keep to our topic and in this instance look to Gadamer.

Gadamer’s ideas, as we know, rotate upon a new axis of engagement: one that demands we consider that the spectator can be a malleable figure. The work of art has its “true being” or, perhaps switching things around, the work can truly said to be art, if it changes the person who experiences it. When regarding Magritte’s work, and possibly this happens the first time, do we not come away altered? Are our sensibilities and understanding of aesthetics not dashed to the floor, or at least mildly jostled, when we stack up ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ against the long line of ‘traditional’ art with its litany of landscapes, portraits and figurative permutations upon religious tales of yore? The sight of coffins so obviously taking the place of figures, even if we were ignorant of Manet’s original, forces a pictorial confrontation that seems to wilfully disobey the very text of how we should refer to death. It instantly unsettles and provokes and the question to ask becomes, do we ever come away from something that has unsettled and provoked the same as we were before we had the encounter? I suspect not, but then I would wouldn’t I, because I’m a Gadamerian rather than a Kantian. Let’s look at some more Magritte’s and see if we can further grasp what Gadamer is trying to tell us.

Magritte-Clairvoyance

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Some works like ‘Clairvoyance’ or ‘Day and Night’ are cunning creations that appear to be almost visual gags. They appear as visual incarnations of ‘what if’ ideas. However, other works impact in a more profound way.

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‘The Great War,’ for example, works to continually irritate us because the hydrangea is precisely in the way of where we want to look – the Edwardian costumed lady’s face. We don’t cope too well when faces are covered up, obscured or removed entirely. Perhaps instinctively we are upset and disturbed by this. The face is after all where we direct our gaze when regarding each other and it is always our first port of call when examining portraits, the surroundings are forever secondary.

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In ‘Not to be Reproduced’, Magritte plays further with this unsettling theme by giving the work the sub-title – Portrait of Edward James – a device he repeats in ‘The Pleasure Principle.’

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Both works deepen our sense of being unsettled because the solitary protagonist is actually named and the work is expressly presented as a ‘portrait’. Our expectations, therefore, become visually and textually distressed by Magritte, courtesy of his visual decisions and titling. Magritte continues throughout his work to explore the idea of stunning our expectations with yet more ways of interrupting our usual ease of regarding portraits. ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Lovers’ both continue to disturb our gaze by removing or altering our understanding of what we expect to see.

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As with all of Magritte’s work, each painting has its own semantic and interpretive possibilities, however when seen together from ‘The Great War’ onwards there can be seen, within Magritte’s work, a vein of deliberateness that seeks to strike at the very foundation of what we want to see when admiring a portrait. The strike in each case leaves an indelible impression in our minds that, once seen, cannot be erased. Just like Robert Hughes description of Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ you can’t get Magritte’s works out of your mind. Working with an un-masterful painterly technique or not, Magritte’s art hits home and does its Gadamerian work: the spectator walks away changed by the experience.

Incidentally, as one opens oneself up more to the work of Magritte, one starts to see a language taking shape through the re-working of different yet similar ideas. However, it is not an objective language, because we each establish with Magritte’s works a unique understanding that functions as a ‘common language’ solely between the works and us. What I see and understand is going to be different to what you see and understand. There might be some shared cross-over points, but if we are to truly engage with the works themselves and allow them to ‘speak’ back to us rather than be ‘translated’ by another third party, we need to direct ourselves to the works themselves. When conversing with Susan we don’t really want Nigel to interlope and speak on Susan’s behalf. Likewise, when ‘conversing’ with Magritte go to the primary source, his works, not to your friend, an art historian or Daily Mail columnist.

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Finally, though, we need to understand that Magritte can be a cypher for how we can relate to an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre. His work demonstrates the power that any art can have on us, in that we can be changed by it, if we let it. The question is can we let ourselves be affected by a work of art? Are we able to stand in front of something that we know could push us, change us, re-shape our boundaries, redefine our customs, and tinker with our deepest thoughts and emotions? Because what I hope to have shown with Magritte and Bacon can be found, and should be found, in the whole gamut of art. After all, one person’s Magritte is another person’s Miró, Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Goya, or even Velázquez or Manet.

References

  1. Bosky, Bernadette Lynn, “Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine”, Cyclopedia of World Authors, Vol. 5, page 1971.
  2. Kant, I., Critique of Judgement, Section 46, 175.
  3. Hughes, R., Francis Bacon: Horrible, Guardian, 30th August 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/aug/30/bacon.art
  4. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 102.
  5. See Castagnary, J.-A., Balcon (Le), in Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siecle, Vol. 16, 281. (Actual phrase is more like, “This contradictory attitude disconcerts me”).