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Art and the 'Object Mentality'

by Jürgen Lawrenz

It's been some time since last I saw, with my own eyes, an authentic work of art by one of the elect. The occasion was an exhibition of drawings by Rembrandt and the effect (on me) of a kind to which words barely do justice. Possibly the most astounding revelation was their size: to a beholder accustomed to large-scale reproductions in books, it was quite a shock to be confronted with these minuscule pictures. Indeed, their very smallness was telling in one respect for which nothing could have adequately prepared me: it was such as to evoke an instantaneous sense of fragility — of how these delicate miniatures accomplished their miraculous survival in the teeth of all-corroding time, as well as to convey with just a few pencil strokes on a few square centimetres of space a unique sense of spiritual aura: spontaneously, vibrantly, as seemingly alive as myself standing there gazing at them and suddenly lost to the world or, better put, translated into another 'world' from where the other seemed to be receding like a second-hand reality.

Need I explain this antiplatonic impressionability? Perhaps not, for we no longer accept Plato's ingenious, but deeply fallacious conception of artistic mimesis and his consignment of its products to the bottom tier of reality comprehension — as of a mirror reflecting another mirror, as of its images as "poor children of poor parents". Even in antiquity this notion incurred censure, Cicero protesting that Phidias did not sculpt a representation of Zeus, but "drew from his own soul an ideal of beauteous godlike form"; and western philosophy between Hume and Schopenhauer turned it fully around in its conception of artistic creativity as primarily the mediation of just those eternal ideas which Plato's philosophy is inclined to posit as the ultimate, metaphysical reality of things.

If the principle italicised above could be said to enjoy universal currency, there would be nothing to cavil with in aesthetic literature. However, this is not the case, for we have meanwhile become enslaved to a notion even more pernicious than Plato's mainly moral misgivings. An ever more widespread and almost unquestioned presumption among us holds that works of art are primarily objects — indubitably so in the case of the pictorial arts, sculpture, architecture; less obviously but by extension arguable for music, poetry, drama, fiction, ballet. It may seem a harmless enough prejudice and the ire manifest in my use of the expression 'pernicious' unduly severe. Yet consider that such an attitude not only encourages the debasement of these 'objects' to the status of a commodity, but in doing so also enforces an estrangement from what is quintessentially art (as opposed to the merely 'artistic') by pre-empting any real confrontation with the heart of the matter — the "mediation of eternal ideas" — which entails, however, that the communication of such values speaks for an intrinsically object-less nature.

There is indeed a long-standing critical and philosophical struggle with the 'object mentality', sign of a deep-seated unease with criteria which testify to the inordinate difficulty involved in the demand for discrimination between functional (ergonological) and aesthetic entities. The analytical mind finds itself incapable of cleanly resolving the dilemma that a very abstract, 'ineffable' notion of value may be associated with one, but not the other; and this turns on the aesthetic 'value' being invariably fringed by a metaphysical halo such that monetary, exchange commodity and ownership 'values', in spite of their hard reality, are still perceived as somehow 'incidental'.

Let me exemplify this claim in relation to artworks that are objects in an indubitable sense, paintings. Self-evidently the bartering of Rembrandt pictures for millions of dollars is not based on its labour or material content, nor on the belief that it serves as a unique adornment of a gallery wall, nor indeed on its status as an icon of self-identification of the cultural groups who disburse such sums. Consider the meaning communicated by, say, the 'Polish Rider' or 'Aristotle contemplating the Bust of Homer' in today's context of saturation immersion in imagery of high technology, space exploration, sport, consumer advertising. The incongruity is such as to seemingly preclude any association whatever. Yet consider also that of these four industries, the last-named has arrogated the title of 'creative industry' to itself, and then put the question: what notion of 'creativity' prevails here, in this industry which serves in the main a throw-away consumer culture and produces ephemera that live and die with the flavour of the month? A notion, I would say, that sanctifies the objects of this kind of creativity on the same scale of deficient value-cognisance as informs the 'object mentality' that operates in the field of real art, from where indeed it derives its justification.

Let me thrust a new term into the discussion, "entropy-intensive". I'll come back to it later; presently I simply wish to point to where it applies, namely to industrial output and consumption. A poster may well have cost a six-figure sum to research, design, print and display and may even reflect the most intense awareness of the aesthetic predilections of masses of the population. Yet all the same we seem to prefer a run-of-the-mill Dutch still life and take inordinate care to preserve it from decay, whilst disregarding this marvel of artistic and technological sophistication. Indeed it furnishes a peg on which to hang a rhetorical comparison: why do we bother with Toulouse-Lautrec, 100 years after the event, while our contemporary poster-art, weighing in at untold tonnes per annum, is "found wanting"?

I'm going to put forward a radical proposition. What these few arguments (capable of infinite multiplication) put into focus is a fundamentally flawed attitude to the concept of 'ART'. They seek to highlight a dilemma that afflicts wide strata of critical and philosophical thinking: namely, that an understanding of the idea 'WORK OF ART' which begins with a conception of it as an object, is bound to flounder at the instant when criteria of value heave into sight. For it is then obliged to dissect what criteria determine value and how and why some objects fall under them and others not. But it can do this only if there is a commensurate theory of meaning, function, purpose, syntax, semantic field, heuristic intent, aesthetic impact and symbolic integrity, and you will be pleased to note that none of these are object criteria. In short, in accepting a prima facie object status for works of art, we are closing doors they intend to swing open and embroil ourselves in desiderata pertinent to an 'object-like' perspective on created values. But if the philosophical concept of art that I am here defending has the relevance I claim for it, then the material forms which works of art are obliged to adopt do not comprise them, but are their object-like tokens, or intermediaries; and from this it follows that works of art do not depend for their existence on a specific material constitution, but that this is in great measure a question of cultural idiosyncrasy.

This point is brought home to any unprejudiced observer by noting that, for example, the art of rhapsodes and bards is an inherently mnemonic performance; that in the rendition of a pianist in a concert hall no artwork-qua-object is visible; that in the heyday of Chinese aquarelle the preferred medium was the flimsiest of all materials, silk; that dance relies on a mere scribbles for its 'objective correlate'; and so on. A comparison may help; it is not fortuitous: for there is a close analogy here to the "spirit become flesh" of religious lore. The divine substance clothing itself in human vestments does not reduce the god to an animal; any more than the value which may inhere in a picture or block of marble acquires object status by its instantiation in matter. But as many futile arguments on the 'objective correlate' of music show, confusion is rampant on the question, Where in such arts may the 'work' be discovered? But the situation is altogether identical in poetry; let me go 'through the motions' to answer this question.

What is a poem? No-one could seriously maintain that the ink on paper 'is' the work, nor the book, which may contain all sorts of other things as well. But equally the words themselves are in nothing remotely 'object-like'; after all, they would still 'exist' in the absence of a paper to hold them. Consequently a poem does not make an immediate appeal to the senses as a picture does. Rather, it is the instance of an invitation to the beholder to articulate and vivify an implicit form by appropriate translation of these abstract marks into the sounds which they encrypt. Hence it would be more to the point, if anything, to call their written-out appearance an 'instruction manual'.

The crucial issue is now in focus. A creative, inventive personality, having prior to this undergone an intellectual and/or imaginative experience, finds a suitable manner of encoding it by way of an appropriate techne so as to place that same experience at your disposal. In part, this techne serves to transmute the imaginative structure into form, so as to facilitate what Susanne Langer's terms 'logical congruence' with the affective-volitional constitution of the mind so involved. But from this it also transpires that the formal encoding, as the conveyance by which the recipient is enabled to recreate the imaginative experience, is not an object in any primary sense, but the medium of transmission from one mind to another.

In poetry, however, this medium requires an additional material correlate (unless the poet prefers memorisation, a very limited avenue towards dispersal): now let this by all means be a book. Yet plainly the book is not the work, though it may contain the work; but then this work is not an object in the object-sense even while printed in the book, for it requires, as above, recreation in order to become an imaginative experience. Therefore in a profoundly philosophical sense, the concept of 'existence' related to a work of art eludes object-material issues altogether, for it can be said to 'exist' in no other sense than the metaphysical.

In short, 'form', 'work', 'object' and other such terms fulfil their duty as vocabulary apt to enable rational discourse on a created 'something'; but it is a sorry mistake to infer from this that resolute attention to its object-like aspect has any genuine explanatory power. That nonetheless we do just this, habitually, is the source of most of the empty prattle which infests the culture industry and blocks access to what it is necessary to know about art. For we need do little more now than to examine the difference — the intrinsic difference — between a poem and a painting to see that fundamentally similar criteria hold:

(a) In my reading of the words I take note of certain clues and triggers implicit in their formal disposition. I say 'implicit' in order to emphasise that this form is by no means an external imposition, but rather an 'enclosure' in Langer's sense, to establish an internal relational and symbolical context and to inhibit the 'leakage' of elements into this form from unwanted contexts. These clues, such as rhyme, rhythm, alliteration etc. are placed by the poet so that I, as a reader, by means of whatever skill I may bring to bear, will recreate in my mind what may have been in the poet's mind, his/her imaginative landscape and experience.

(b) In my contemplation of a painting, I take note (often subconsciously, because it is partly an involuntary performance) of the visual clues and triggers contained in it, such as certain colour values, the incidence of light, the suggestion of movement etc. These are placed within the relational and symbolic enclosure of the picture to ensure their inner coherence, so that I, the beholder, may without distraction enter the imaginative context and see in the picture not merely the 'similitude', but the vibrancy of the light, the quivering of lines and curves, the balancing of weights and stresses, thereby to have an imaginative (rather than 'mimetic') grasp of eyes, smiles, gestures, attitudes, moods etc. and allow them to rouse an echo in my mind of how these often commonplace elements connect to the larger canvas of the whole of humanity and its entanglement with temporality, mortality and the root experiences which comprise the basic texture of human lives.

For the time being, bearing present space constraints in mind, this must suffice; although I believe there is enough here to warrant re-examining sundry key notions in aesthetic and critical literature which have hardened into cliche and prejudice. Let me offer a few conclusions as pointers towards a more adequate involvement with the subject of art than continued reliance on a model of 'artworks qua objects'.

1. Works of art are embedded in an imaginative dimension: as such, they are tokens of human creativity which is not a material characteristic, but part of our mental/ spiritual sphere.

2. Accordingly the structure given to works of art, irrespective of their modality, is such as to facilitate recreation in the imagination of their beholder.

3. It is not unexpected or exceptional that imaginative structures require embodiment in a material medium. Excepting person-to-person communication, all cognitive and imaginative human discourse requires some such medium for its transmission.

4. As a consequence of our sensory constitution, only cognitive states are (presumably) dispensed from nerve conduction. Therefore it is (again) not unexpected to find works of art being accommodated to the various sensory modalities which also serve us for pleasure-and-pain oriented perceptions.

5. The specific context of Point 4 invites us to note the diabolical confusions engendered by the term 'aesthetic'. As commonly used, it claims the hedonic function as primary and thus leaves itself out on a limb with respect to meaning. But the foregoing suggests that this a back-to-front perspective: that 'meaning' is primary and the hedonic/aesthetic component part of the transmission circuit. (Cf. Postscript, below).

In a recent article on Death (Philosophy Pathways Issue 57) I made a claim for human creativity in terms of 'metaphysical rebellion' against the entropical constitution of the matter universe. Imaginative structures, brought into being as creations of the mind and capable of continuous existence as mind structures across many generations, are 'entropy free', i.e. they do not consume energy or raw materials and are not therefore part of the matter in the universe. On the other hand, decorative and derivative work (recall the poster example) are 'entropy-intensive', because they are made of matter and for matter purposes, caught in the phrases 'amusement', 'embellishment' and 'consumption'.

This argument leaves us with a definition of works of art as metaphysical objects, namely as embodiments of such values as truth, beauty, faith, justice, love etc., all which are denizens of the metaphysical partition of universe and thereby exempted from membership among the clan of objects qua objects. Works of art are objects because we need some vessel to hold an imaginative vision together and facilitate its recreation from time to time; but this does not allow us to infer that this object status touches its inner core.

We are today, all of us, deluged by images: all of them objects and in their sheer quantity guaranteed to blunt our sense for whatever little meaning any of them may possess. To rescue the imagery of art from this cataclysm is no small matter, and this is to my mind as good a reason as any to be as severe with ourselves as we can in the resolution of the dilemma which I have discussed in the foregoing. For there is no doubt whatever, as I hope to have shown, that the 'object mentality' which we habitually bring to bear on our interaction with the arts, is inimical to genuine understanding and therefore provides a smoothed-out path for its descent into perdition. As long as we cling to this 'aesthetic', we will be gazing at works of art as at strangers in our midst, with hardly an advantage over the Martian who may justifiably fail to comprehend what we see in these funny splotches of colour on strips of ordinary canvas. We may indeed need to ask ourselves whether we really know ourselves?


To pre-empt a possible accusation that I purposely ignore the powerful sensual impact of works of art to push this barrel of mine, I append here the subsidiary point that all art forms ultimately derive from the impulse for beautification, which is unmistakably alive in all of us and has been ever since the days of Homo Erectus, in the dimmest reaches of prehistory. Accordingly, at whatever juncture in this evolution the spirit of art began pressing for an outlet, it was possibly a foregone conclusion that it would 'hitch a ride' on the same existing and functionally adequate sensory modalities. It can safely be admitted, without contradiction from any of the foregoing, that desire for beauty is a close kin to passion; but passion has in addition to its sensual also a cognitive dimension, exemplified in the 'passion for truth', which may drive us into the arms of religion or philosophy... or art. While therefore I readily acknowledge the importance of a sensual component among the values of art, it can be said that it is an aspect well appreciated — too much perhaps, for it is readily subsumed under an 'object mentality' and therefore apt to block appreciation of those aspect discussed here.

© Jurgen Lawrenz 2003