THE WORK OF ART: TRUTH AND INTERPRETATION
by Silvia Soannini
The topic of the relationship between the viewer and the work of art cannot pass unnoticed by someone who writes about philosophy in a magazine dedicated to art and its contemporary anomalies.
The unquenchable longing for an audience, for someone who looks at you, for an external perspective on what you have created is one of the reason that feeds the artist’s desire to expose his/her life to the world and to people’s judgement, at the cost of experiencing the bitter taste of failure and derision. The artist often feels the need to explain his/her work to the audience, and so the need for a “critical” artist-audience relationship.
Many of us have experienced the situation of going to an art exhibition and having to decide whether to opt for a guided tour or just following our instincts, our personal taste, running the risk of ‘understanding nothing’. Some of us discussed the relationship between the work of art and critics with our teachers at school: shall the relationship with the work of art take precedence over the study of art criticism, or vice versa?
The way an art critic looks at the work of art is different from the way a viewer looks at it. This doesn’t mean that the art critic isn’t a viewer, before passing his/her judgement; and that the artist isn’t viewer as well, contemplator of his/her work. Neither does it mean that all those viewers who are not art critics are simpletons lacking a critical approach to art. And yet, simple sight and critique are separated in their essence, in other words, what identifies them more intimately is what makes them different, although they can exist in the same person.
In human history there has always been a debate between those who favour a direct experience with the work of art and those who believe that a previous “explanation” is necessary. Especially since the 20th century art criticism has gained a leading role and its importance has grown along with a radical transformation in the Arts: new possibilities of expression and totally different proposals of use in comparison to the past have made clarifications increasingly essential. As the language of art has become more complex, moving away from the classic idea of representation and reproduction of reality as it is, the intervention of an intermediary between reality and artistic expression has become more and more vital. This go-between, which we call “criticism” for convenience, is language. Logos, as the ancient Greeks called it, literally means: discursive thought, thought turning into language. Art criticism is therefore the language that explains the work of art, maybe even the words of the artist who elucidates the meaning of his/her work and commitment.
Before dealing with the issue of the relationship between simple sight and art criticism we must ask ourselves a more radical question, and not providing a satisfactory answer to this question would render this job meaningless. The reason why there is the need for clarification of this relationship at a time when art and thinking have become something for selected groups of averagely cultured people is that this relationship hides and at the same time shows another relationship, which is even deeper and thornier: the relationship between art and truth.
What type of relationship do works of art have with truth? Do art and its “useless” products tell us any truth about the reality of our time? And in this case, do we need this truth that they proclaim? Is it actually of some use? In a world which constantly struggles to cope with much more concrete and tragic issues such as migrations, wars, economic and labour crisis, what purpose does art serve? It is an obvious fact that today museums and art exhibitions are increasingly less frequented, novels and non-fiction books undergo the same destiny, only cinemas are still — though partially – crowded.
Art seems to be reaching a sort of final stage, it has been replaced by the new media, the social networks, which have nothing to do with it but which are progressively displacing art, both in terms of time we dedicate to them and in the role they have taken as new tools for the interpretation of the world. Furthermore art and thinking — the so called scientific and academic literature — are being stifled by the way these cultural expressions are disseminated: they are trivialized or turned into something incomprehensible due to technical rigidity and terms and, as a result, the audience is rejected and excluded from a genuine use of the work of art or performance, thus marking their own condemnation.
And yet art, the arts survive: they resist, trying to find new ways — after all, isn’t cinema itself an attempt to renew and survive? — and new forms of expressions; they survive even if they run the risk to perform in front of an audience of ten people, tenaciously clinging to those remaining eccentric niches of enthusiasts and always hoping for a large audience again. Why does art still demand a place in a world that has pushed it to the margins of our society?
What remains, what amazes us about people, also about those who don’t read any book or don’t visit any museum, is the inexhaustible demand for truth: which we share, if not all, many of us. Wherever we go, on the streets, on the shapeless and bawling virtual networks, whatever suspicious questions we ask in the corridors of power, we want the truth to be told.
But what is the truth if not calling a spade a spade? We demand that we be given a word, an image, a sound, which can explain us the facts, which heads towards reality in order to reveal it in its truth. We are perhaps less capable of recognizing the truth, but our need for it still remains: the need not to be misled is human, deeply human. We teach our children to always tell the truth, don’t we? And what about those adults who forget this lesson? Where have they gone?
How is it possible that the kingdom of illusion par excellence, of the creation of worlds, of the seemingly obvious uselessness for people’s lives, tells the truth? I am convinced that every genuine artistic proposal meets and matches the viewer’s need for truth, in a specific manner, which is different from that of the “facts” of reality.
All works of art — we decided to refrain from mentioning the typical Western approach which obsessively distinguishes between true art and what is not art -, each of them in a different way, have a direct effect on a specific part of the viewer, a deep part of him/her, always true to itself but at the same time always in the process of becoming: emotionality.
The sight, the first impression about the work triggers new emotions thus revealing us the sense of the world and of our existence. Sometimes, if you are lucky enough, the meanings that the work reveals to us lead us to an idea of innovation, to a desire of change and to the action that goes with it: revolution of ourselves, of the world around us, be it small or large. Some other times the effect of the aesthetic power and meaning of the work of art takes us back to ourselves, to the understanding of ourselves and of the world, without generating that miraculous and unique moment of courage that impels us towards revolution. But even if we spend our time just trying to understand, it will never be wasted time.
First of all the impact of a work of art produces what Heidegger called ‘Stoss’ in his The Origin of the Work of Art(1): in plain English this means an emotional shock. Through this emotional shock and the thoughts that follow it we are changed from within and so we can understand the meaning of our existence and life — as a matter of fact recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience(2) prove that emotions and thoughts are not in conflict with each other: every thought is emotionally coloured and every emotion stimulates thoughts.
Even if art triggers emotions and thoughts, it is not a “subjective” fact, as we often want to believe — we do not like every work of art and this doesn’t imply that art is a subjective fact — precisely because our emotions and thoughts are not subjective: what belongs to the deepest part of a human being, male or female, defines who we are hence it cannot be considered as a subjective fact in a reductive way, the subject, obsession of the Western Thought.
The capacity to deeply love — and hate — our fellows, the intimate and irreplaceable understanding of our beloved partner which cannot be replaced by a mere objective and rational acquaintance of a person; the understanding of the other which gives us empathy, that is the ability to understand how someone feels because you can imagine what it is like to be them: this cannot be a subjective fact, this defines who we are, first of all as human beings, and then in our peculiarity. I personally love these people, I could imagine what it was like to be these other people, but I felt nothing for some other people despite their love for me. Love and hate, emotions and lack of emotions, define us, describe who we are and how we interact with the external world and with others.
Therefore emotions aren’t subjective since they define us; and art is not subjective, precisely because it is capable of triggering our deepest emotions enabling us to understand our life and existence.
For this and for many other reasons art is not at its end, even if its end always seems to be near.
Can humans exist in the future without the work of art? The answer is yes, they can. At least they will be able to survive.
But if this is the case, we will cut off a piece of us, a piece of what we were and still are, because there is a part of our need for truth which cannot be fulfilled by a genuine policy, by clear working relationships, by pure relationships with our fellows, this need can only be soothed by a specific object: the beautiful work of art with its absolute meaning interacting with us who are first of all its viewers and then also the critics.
The experience of the emotional shock, of being deeply moved in front of the work of art brings us back to the opening issue, and we are now able to give a proper reply to the questions: Are guided tours of museums strictly necessary? Is a previous description/clarification needed? Is it essential that the artist expounds on his/her work before we approach this work?
My theory, guided by the theory about the truth of art, truth of the aesthetic, emotional, moral and intellectual shock, is based on the essentiality and inevitability of the direct relationship with the work of art: before any mediation, before any word aiming at explaining and clarifying. This ‘before’ shall not be understood in terms of time: there is nothing wrong in visiting a museum with the help of a museum guide. What we mean here with ‘before’ only refers to the inextinguishable importance and meaning of the direct experience, as the truth of that work (be it a picture, painting, novel) can reveal itself only through it. We shall stand in front of the work, or next to it, or we shall simply listen to it and let it talk to us, no matter if there are images to see or sounds to listen to: on that very moment there will be only us, standing there alone with the work of art.
The “guide” will always be necessary in order to nourish our awareness, to emphasize those meanings that we have not caught and that perhaps we would never understand by ourselves. For sure the guide will never be able to replace or to create that experience ex nihilo, that experience which is a gesture of truth and revelation and, for this reason, something intimately unique and personal.
The direct view of the work of art needs courage: the courage of fools, the courage of those who give up the Known and even their most solid knowledge to start a journey without knowing what they will find and whether their courage is enough to find that truth, to experience that deep strong emotion that only art gives us and that, for some, even leads to the Absolute. This attempt must be personal and direct, hence every go-between by the critics shall be understood as the supplies the traveller takes with him/her in order to survive till the final destination, and it can never replace or create the act of vision and listening, the revelation of truth that the work claims for itself, even beyond the conscious intentions of those who created it.
(1) Martin Heidegger The Origin of the Work of Art in the collection Off the beaten track (Holzwege). Cambridge University Press, 2002.
(2) See Antonio Damasio Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. (Penguin Books; Reprint edition (September 2005)); Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Harvest – 1 edition (December 2003); Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Vintage -Reprint edition (March 2012).