In the midst of the banal
and over-eager,

find the art that speaks
directly to you.

Let it linger,
let it nourish.

Once bitten
by an artwork,

it marks and changes you,
as time ages wine.

When walking around an art gallery we can experience the onset of a phenomenon. Amidst the plentiful supply of what we might perceive as reams of banal works, there can appear a work that has a “mysterious intimacy that grips our entire being.”[1] It stands out from the crowd as the one. We face it directly and spend time with it. We also feel compelled internally to reminisce about it afterwards. We want to mentally linger with it, trying to recapture the immediacy it had when we were with it.

However, there is more here for Hans-Georg Gadamer than just a lingering afterglow. There is a claim. “A claim is something lasting… Because a claim lasts it can be enforced at any time.”[2] The idea being that a ‘claim’ is something that is held on, or over, someone or something. And, because a claim has the quality of ‘lasting’ and the possibility of enforcement at any time, it maps to an idea given life by Kierkegaard. Gadamer explains:

“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).”[3]

Such Kierkegaardian associations give power and depth to Gadamer’s use of contemporaneity, which otherwise might get lost in his somewhat Heideggerian phrasing: “contemporaneity belongs to the being of the work of art. It constitutes the essence of ‘being present’.”[4] Perhaps, realising this potential opportunity for clarity, Gadamer developed the theme of contemporaneity in Aesthetics and Hermeneutics and rephrased 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.”[5]

The experiences and encounters we have with art do speak and connect directly with those who stumble upon them, even many years after they were first created. And, arguably, we could say that this is a criterion to be met if something is to be classified as art at all.

Whether borrowing from Heidegger or Kierkegaard, it is without question that Gadamer wanted 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 to become solely an artefact. As with Kierkegaard’s sense of contemporaneity, there is the claim that the artwork holds upon us. It does linger and reverberate, even when not actually present before us. It leaves a lasting impression that changes us. And, once bitten by an artwork, the scar remains as a reminder of our personal journey of understanding.

[1] Gadamer, H-G. ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 95.

[2] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 127.

[3] Ibid., 127-128.

[4] Ibid., 127.

[5] Gadamer, H-G. ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 95.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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