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.

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