“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”1
OK, so we’re going to need some definitions for this one because, like it or not, we need to refer to Immanuel Kant and this section might be tougher than your driving test or accessing your online account with a utility provider when you have forgotten your password. But, hey, let’s not be pessimistic, in the next section it’ll all be explained with some art.
Aesthetics – is concerned with questions of taste and beauty
A priori – is reasoning that occurs before experience
Epistemology – is the theory of knowledge
Ontology – is the study of being, existence, stuff, or what there is
Subjectivisation –is Kant’s way of saying something relates to a subject and not to truth or facts (objective things)
Universal – is true for anyone
So, when we last saw Gadamer, we left him leaping out of a lake of epistemology into a stream of aesthetics. All because he decided to ask two questions:
“Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge?”2
“Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”3
The tantalising waters of aesthetics have long been found easier to navigate away from epistemological concerns. However, being that wonderful oxymoron that he was, a careful revolutionary, Gadamer decided to abandon such conventions and sail them both. Good for him, I say.
Starting by addressing his own questions, a standard philosophical technique, Gadamer posited the following statements and by doing so encapsulated his revolutionary fusion of aesthetics and epistemology:
“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.”4
Excusing the fact that the translation has managed to provide us with the word ‘experience’ four times in two sentences, there are three neat mini-revolutions contained within this terse prose:
- First, there is the explicit challenge to accepted models of understanding in both aesthetics and epistemology. In both disciplines, the standard criteria for the experiential subject is to be static and stable, and not as Gadamer proposes dynamic and changeable.
- Second, the statement regarding the work of art’s ‘true being,’ the attainment of which is predicated upon its ability to alter the spectator, acts to license the judgement of the work in a radical manner. The judgement being determined by whether or not there is a perceivable effect upon the viewer.
- Finally, the third mini-revolution, in contrast to the malleable spectator, sees the work itself remaining constant. Which opposes those who like to see art changing according to the circumstances or time period in which it is viewed, listened to, or read.
Isolated into their separate constitutive parts all can be investigated within their own debates. From the dynamic spectator, to judging an artwork by its ability to produce a change in the spectator, or the work remaining constant, each will undoubtedly provide a lucrative boon to any researcher so inclined to separate, split down and analyse them. For Gadamer, though, they all strode together to act as a central thesis. A thesis with no sense of shame as it threw the contents of its glass into the face of the most important dignitary at the party: Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics.
Gadamer, being the diligent philosopher that he was, didn’t randomly throw his wine in the general direction of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics; he first undertook reconnaissance in order to assess the true nature of his target:
“In his critique of aesthetic judgement what Kant sought to and did legitimate was the subjective universality of aesthetic taste in which there is no longer any knowledge of the object.”5
The effective result of such legitimisation removed any possibility for knowledge, and consequently truth, from aesthetic objects and dictated that they be bound together with the empire of the subjective. The whim and fancy of the individual subject was emperor and beauty, in its standard resident position, would be forever in the eye of the beholder.
Hence, Gadamer conceived Kant’s third critique as that which separated aesthetics from epistemology. Taste, beauty and the sublime were divorced from truth as far as Kant was concerned. This, of course, would be of minor concern if Kant were just an everyday down-at-heel philosopher trying to make an honest buck. However, Kant was no such mortal, because as Gadamer knew all too well, “The radical subjectivisation involved in Kant’s new way of grounding aesthetics was truly epoch-making.”6 Epoch-making because every succeeding generation studying aesthetics was left with the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation, and they either had to adopt it or at the very least address it. As Jean Grondin, a close chum of Gadamer’s wrote, the subjectivisation of aesthetics, for Gadamer, was “the great impasse of aesthetics, if not the whole of modernism.”7 Such an impasse, however, made Gadamer doubt its authority and decide to confront the yawning problem of an epistemological absence.
By asking his two initial questions, Gadamer stood up to his full height, rolled up his sleeves, and held Kant squarely in his sights as he set about dismantling the subjectivisation of aesthetics.
Armed with a monkey wrench and set of spanners, Gadamer took to his task and began investigating Kant’s work on aesthetics by examining what he called Kant’s Doctrine of Taste and Genius:
“In taste nothing is known of the objects judged to be beautiful, but it is stated only that there is a feeling of pleasure connected with them a priori in the subjective consciousness.”8
Aesthetically then, nothing can be said to be a ‘truth’ about a beautiful object; there are no objective aesthetic ‘facts’ to be agreed upon as to why the object is beautiful. All that can be said is that the object appeals to an individual’s sense of taste. This feeling, as Gadamer acknowledged, however, is not wholly ring-fenced to the subjective individual per se, because it can be communicated universally and as such gain validity. By looking at a piece of Edwardian furniture I might get a feeling of pleasure in my ‘taste’ zone which you would also make sense of and understand because my love of Edwardian furniture is ‘universalisable’ to everyone.
Consequently, Gadamer believed that Kant situated taste between the merely sensory and universal rational rules: “it imports no knowledge of the object, but neither is it simply a question of a subjective reaction.”9 Ultimately, however, because the universal element to taste is only in its communicability and not in the form of epistemic certainty, taste falls short of the requirements for objectivity and truth, and is relegated to the default status of the subjective. For Gadamer with his screwdriver in hand, having just stripped down this first component of Kant’s authority, it certainly appeared “impossible to do justice to art if aesthetics is founded on the ‘pure judgement of taste.’”10
Working ever onwards, Gadamer took out his oxy-acetylene torch and applied it to Kant’s doctrine of genius, and speedily discovered problems due to the interconnections that Kant drew between the two concepts of taste and genius. Without going into detail, Gadamer was left in no doubt that Kant’s mechanically designed aesthetics was constituted inadequately and by default found itself rooted in subjectivisation; a complete category error as far as Gadamer was concerned.
Fundamentally, then, it appeared that the justices Kant and Gadamer sought to bestow upon aesthetics were at odds. According to Michael Podro, one of Kant’s epoch respondees, “Kant’s primary purpose” was to indicate an “alternative mode of perceptual fulfilment.”11 The focus for Kant was not to find truths within aesthetics, as it was for Gadamer, but to understand a different mode of perception. This was because Kant followed up his previous two critiques on Pure Reason and Practical Reason with a third, on Judgement, that held at its core the same notions regarding a priori conditions – our mental hardwiring. The first critique was concerned with uncovering a priori conditions for “making objective, universally valid empirical judgements, both ordinary and scientific.”12 The second critique then “discovered a priori conditions for making objective, universally valid moral judgements.”13 The third critique, Gadamer’s current chosen critique of choice, then followed by finding a priori conditions for creating judgements based on pleasure, which are obviously subjective.
In a virtually blasphemous nutshell then, Kant’s project was locked into an enquiry that prioritised the workings of the mind in terms of sensibilities, intuitions, imagination and the understanding. The Gadamerian question of a work of art possessing truth simply was of no interest to Kant. A situation that left Gadamer very frustrated, as a chap called Kai Hammermeister neatly expresses when thinking about ontology (what there is):
“Kantian aesthetics leaves us strangely unsatisfied when viewed from a different perspective, namely, when questioned about the ontological status of the work of art… Kant does not answer the ontological question at all. The aesthetic judgement does not relate to the object, but is merely the expression of the pleasurable subjective state of the free play of imagination and understanding.”14 (The ‘free play’ stuff being the whim or fancy of the individual again).
The separation is absolute, aesthetic judgements have no ontological status for Kant. As Hammermeister notes, “matters of art and matters of knowledge must not be confused.”15 An erroneous position, of course, for Gadamer who was deeply convinced that art can possess truth and can also be discussed in terms of knowledge.
Going head-to-head against Kant and his three critiques, though, was never going to be an easy task. So, even having established that Kant’s legacy was problematic and one-sided. Due to the ontological question being omitted and the priority given to the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Gadamer still had to find a way of demonstrating the profound wrong-headedness of such a legacy and, of course, clearly identifying his recommended alternative.
Returning to his more natural habitat, tangential modes of thought, Gadamer pursued the task by focusing his attention on the form of experience of those in an aesthetic encounter. Gadamer sought a way forward by applying his mind to the actual term ‘experience,’ which he discovered was once almost solely determined by one particular manifestation called Erlebnis:
“what is experienced is always what one has experienced oneself.”16
The translators of Truth and Method usefully pitch in at this point to aid Gadamer by describing the concept of Erlebnis as “something you have,” and stating that it is always “connected with a subject.”17
Armed with the knowledge that Gadamer was almost certain to dislike this mode of experience it should come as no small surprise that he pitilessly set out how he thought an aesthetic experience of a work of art would operate under Erlebnis:
“What it ignores are the extra-aesthetic elements that cling to it, such as purpose, function, the significance of its content. These elements may be significant enough inasmuch as they situate the work in its world and thus determine the whole meaningfulness that it originally possessed.”18
For Gadamer, these ignored and distinctly ontological elements could start to give the work meaning and possibly truth. But as art, in the traditional (or Kantian) sense, “the work [of art] must be distinguished from all that.”19
An aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis, therefore, differentiates the ‘purely’ aesthetic from that which surrounds the artwork; a separation that Gadamer could not endorse. As a process, he designated it as the adoption of an ‘aesthetic consciousness.’ Such a stance isolates the experience of the artwork, as Erlebnis, from what it regards as incidental circumstance with no influence upon the aesthetic experience. As far as Gadamer was concerned, the consequent outcome of such “aesthetic differentiation” was two-fold. On one hand, “the work loses it place in the world to which it belongs insofar as it belongs instead to aesthetic consciousnesses,”20 And, on the other, the artist loses their place in the world because they are peripheral to the aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis. Hence, aesthetic consciousness, as a direct result of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, subsumes all works of art and artists: “Aesthetic consciousness has unlimited sovereignty over everything.”21
As well as the fault of establishing a false hierarchy, Gadamer also took issue with the resulting destructiveness of the Erlebnis-driven aesthetic consciousness. Following a very simple progression, if the aesthetics of a work are only significant in terms of the spectator’s experience, in the manner of aesthetic consciousness, then there is no aesthetic unity to the work because the aesthetic content resides solely in the variety of spectators who view it. However, not only is the aesthetic unity of the object destroyed, so too is the identity of the spectator employing aesthetic consciousness. Citing Kierkegaard’s work on the aesthetic stage of existence, Gadamer reminds us that a life led in the “pure immediacy” of aesthetic pleasure is “untenable.”22 By continually ignoring the non-aesthetic elements to a work of art, as a method of experiencing and pursuing a policy of aesthetic consciousness, one is doomed to a fragmentary life without continuity or coherence. One floats meaninglessly from one aesthetic experience to another.
Ultimately, because of the destructive nature of the aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer regarded its position as unviable, to the point where he realised an imperative:
“Since the aesthetic stage of existence proves itself untenable, we recognise that even the phenomenon of art imposes an ineluctable task on existence, namely to achieve that continuity of self-understanding which alone can support human existence.”23
For Gadamer, then, the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics was built upon quicksand, with its core principle of aesthetic consciousness comprehensively destroying all the components within the experience of art: the aesthetic unity of the object, the artist’s place in the world, and even the identity of the spectator. By working through the problems of aesthetic consciousness, in particular the disintegration of the spectator’s identity, Gadamer realised the necessity for an experience of art that allowed a development of one’s identity, not its destruction. This realisation produced the imperative that one should achieve “continuity of self-understanding.”24 One’s experience of art, then, should perpetuate this self-understanding and keep one’s identity alive:
“Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self, and includes the integrity of the other. Since we meet the individual artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual artwork, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it.”25
Gadamer is taking us into deep waters here, which we shall have to continue exploring another time, but only after we have looked at some paintings that just might make everything a little clearer.
One hundred and fifty years before Kant wrote his Critique of Judgement, 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.”26 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 and seen Velázquez’s work as consummate proof of his ideas on the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Undoubtedly, Kant would have regarded Velázquez as a genius, if pushed to make a comment. He would have also certainly added, “Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given.”27 Thus reminding us of his separation of rules from aesthetics.
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.”28 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.”29
Perhaps, it’s 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 critically examine how we are actually undertaking the looking.
Dare I say that, possibly, Bacon’s portrait of a screaming Innocent X is unforgettable in a way that 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, imprints itself on our minds causing 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 image 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.
Whilst Bacon’s work scorches and sears our mind, 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 painters.
Rene Magritte, working in Belgium, but with strong intellectual ties to Surrealism, had been pursuing an artistic project that sought to disrupt traditional notions of how art may be perceived and, indeed, what it may 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.”30 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 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.
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 a possible 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’.
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. 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 the spectator as a malleable figure. The work of art has its “true being” or, switching things around, the work can truly be said to be art, if it changes the person who experiences it. When regarding Magritte’s work 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 ‘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 us so that the question to ask becomes, ‘do we ever come away from something that has unsettled us the same as we were before?’ I suspect not, but then I would, wouldn’t I? After all, 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.
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.
‘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 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.
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.’
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.
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.
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 is 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 on 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 head. 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. However, if we are to truly engage with the works and allow them to ‘speak’ to us, rather than be ‘translated’ by a 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.
Finally, though, we need to understand that Magritte can be a cypher for how to 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.
- Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.
- Ibid., 41-42.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 41.
- Grondin, J. The Philosophy of Gadamer. Translated by Kathryn Plant, Acumen, 2003, 39.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 45.
- Podro, M. ‘Kant and the Aesthetic Imagination’ included in Art and Thought, edited by Dana Arnold and Margaret Iverson, Blackwell, 2003, 63.
- Crawford, D. W. ‘Kant’ included in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic M. Lopes, London, 2002, 52.
- Hammermeister, K. The German Aesthetic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 39.
- Ibid., 40.
- Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 61.
- Weinsheimer, J. and Marshall, D. G. ‘Translators’ Preface’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 13-14.
- Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 85.
- Ibid., 87.
- Ibid., 89.
- Ibid., 95.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 97.
- Bosky, B. L. “Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine”, Cyclopedia of World Authors, Vol. 5, Salem Press, fourth rev., 2003, 1971.
- Kant, I. Critique of Judgement, Section 46, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana, 1987, 175.
- Hughes, R. Francis Bacon: Horrible, The Guardian, 30th August 2008, [viewed 20 January 2018]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/aug/30/bacon.art
- Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.
- See Castagnary, J.-A. “Balcon (Le)”, in Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siecle,Vol. 16, 1877, 281. (Actual phrase is more like, “This contradictory attitude disconcerts me”).