I have just started a new weblog Art and Allusion where I will be placing my posts about art and photography that aren't so obviously philosophical. I'll keep linking to them from here for the time being, but will eventually be splitting the content.
2) Thinking and gathering information can increase our chances of making particular kinds of mistake (e.g. overconfidence in our position)
3) In one of the few areas where it is easy to compare the results of laborious thinking with its absence, the field of fund management, active management seems to produce worse results on average than other options.
Which is not, of course, to say that hard thinking work is always a waste of time. But it doesn't guarantee anything; and, perhaps counterintuitively, it can produce worse results in some cases. The Protestant Work Ethic Fallacy is only a fallacy when it involves the assumption that longer and harder work always leads to better results...
If you want to get my widget (actually a blidget but who cares), i.e. an automatically updated mini-list of my recent posts that you can put on your site, you can get this widget here. Please let me know if this works. There's also a new option to subscribe to this weblog by email (see the last entry if you scroll down the lefthand column).
For this session we focussed on some of the ways in which artists present themselves through their work, both in terms of their actual and implied selves.
The philosopher Jenefer Robinson in an interesting paper called ‘Style and Personality in the Literary Work’ [Philosophical Review, vol. 94, p (1985) reprinted in Neill and Ridley (eds) The Philosophy of Art: Readings Ancient and Modern and in Lamarque and Olsen (eds) Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art ] suggested that individual style in art is a consistent way of performing artistic acts and that this expresses an implied personality. Implied, because, as she recognises, the actual artist’s personality may differ from that pointed to by the work. Interpreting works of art involves an examination of that implied personality.
Individual style on this view is the style of a particular implied persona (sometimes as, in the Chapman brothers, or Gilbert and George, two or more people may combine to make a ‘team’ persona, though this is not something Robinson discusses). It is contrasted with general style, such as Cubism or Vorticism. Individual style is also different from mere signature (in the metaphorical sense suggested by Nelson Goodman). Signature is simply that by which we recognise a work as by a particular artist: it needn’t directly relate to the implied personality, but is rather more like the identifying trademark. One question that it can be interesting to ask of any element of a work of art is the extent to which it is an aspect of an artist’s style or merely a signature device. This is clearly an evaluative issue.
Gilbert and George by declaring themselves works of art break down the distinction between art and artist. Their images appear in almost all their work. But perhaps all art, whether or not it includes self-portraiture or representation at all, is an expression of an implied personality. Interpretation of art may involve examining and exploring that personality as it develops (or sometimes disintegrates) through an artist’s oeuvre.
The social psychologist Erving Goffman analysed and described the act of presenting one’s self in a social context in his brilliant book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). He gave what he called a dramaturgical analysis of human interaction, by which he meant to take seriously the idea that ‘All the world’s a stage’. We play social roles enacting parts in particular spaces that we to some degree control, motivated by presenting in most cases an idealised role to the audience we think we are before. In this context non-verbal cues are controlled and manipulated, often in a pre-conscious way. For such communications to work we need to believe in the sincerity of the participants. The self is for Goffman a social construct: there is no single ‘true’ self, just a succession of overlapping roles that we play.
Applying some of these ideas to Gilbert and George’s work, particularly that in Room 10 of the current Tate Modern exhibition, we discussed what the implied personality of the artists was. Suggestions included provocative, abusive, celebratory, quasi-religious (in their apparently devout worship of what others might take as profane and profane attitudes to what others may see as sacred), homosexual and to some degree kitsch. The high production values and neat clean-lined prints behind glass contrasted with the recurrent imagery of bodily emissions: urine, faeces, sperm (Manzoni canned his own excrement; Gilbert and George present a stylised abstract image of theirs). Writing this now it occurs to me that Milan Kundera’s discussion of kitsch in The Incredible Lightness of Being as 'the absolute denial of shit' is pertinent here…Gilbert and George to some extent prettify or stylise it rather than deny it.
In the large work Life Without End (1982) Gilbert and George embody the attitude of devotion in the far left of the image, kneeling like the donors in a medieval altar piece, yet they are kneeling before young men who are presumably the object of their (sexual) devotion; at the right of the picture one of the pair makes a two-fingered gesture (to religion?). If we believe the stated intentions of the artists this is view of their heaven:
We wanted to dream a kind of paradise…[with] those brightly lit human beings that we compare to flowers. [G & G quoted in the exhibition leaflet]
Their unorthodox imagery is part of a general policy to ‘deshock’ the viewer. Like the Elizabethan poet John Donne (who used to be Dean of St Pauls - just across the river), they deliberately transpose religious and sexual imagery albeit for different ends. The implied personae from the evidence of Room 10 have a profound reverence for the profane and a desire to shock the viewer into different ways of seeing the world.
Many reviewers of this exhibition have been intrigued by the relationship between the implied personae and the real Gilbert and George (and this is perhaps analogous to the ideas of Jorge Luis Borges in his ‘Borges and I’). They want to know the degree to which the couple are simply performing a role, that may be at odds with their ‘true’ selves. Opinions of the group members differed as to whether it matters whether the real Gilbert and George endorse the values implied by their work; whether, in the most extreme view they are simply taking the artworld for an expensive ride. One view is that the implied joint persona presents a challenging subversion of many received opinions and when considering their work as art this is all that matters; the rest is gossip. From another perspective, if these artists are insincere, then their whole artistic enterprise is a fraud and of little artistic value.
In a recent article in The Philosophers' Magazine (1st quarter 2007, no.37, p.12-14) Ophelia Benson (recently interviewed for Virtual Philosopher), opens up with the question of whether weblogs are somehow incompatible with 'the rigour, discipline, and seriousness of real, grown-up philosophy?' To me this is a bit like asking whether ink on paper is compatible with philosophy - apart from Socrates, most philosophers have agreed that it is. I suspect in the next few years most philosophers will also recognise that blogs provide a good place to do philosophy and to communicate with anyone who might be interested in it.
I suspect Ophelia's opening angle was a reaction to her editor's parody blog that she mentions where he remarks 'Blogging would waste my time and yours. Go read something I or someone else has put some prolonged thought into.' Apart from the informal fallacy of assuming that more prolonged thought = better results (the Protestant Work Ethic Fallacy?), this seems confused. As I've mentioned in a previous post, one of the best ways of conceptualising blogs is as published commonplace books. Once you see them that way, anything goes - including philosophy of any kind. For an example of a philosopher doing philosophy on a blog, see Stephen Law's new blog with his ongoing discussions about relativism: the medium allows musings, links to articles, comments, responses to comments, and revisions...philosophy in action. Add to that the possibility of delivering files in all formats, images, and MP3s or webcasts...and it is hard to see why anyone might think that blogs are intrinsically incompatible with any content whatsoever. You could put a digital book as a downloadable file on one if you wanted.
I stand by what I said for her article about how they can also trigger new ideas:
'Instant publication of drafts of ideas can be stimulating: archiving of articles can be useful. I like blogs which give you leads to other interesting things on the same topic - so reading blogs can stimulate you to thoughts you might not otherwise have had and resources (and even people) you didn't know existed. What is great about a blog is that you can link up all kinds of things that might otherwise not be noticed.'
There's more on this topic from Richard Chappell here - not sure I completely agree with him though. He seems to ignore the fact that blogs can deliver book-length file, article-length files, paragraphs as posts, or aphorisms (not to mention audio and video clips) and that there is nothing about the medium that condemns it to be transient or brief.
I was on the train to London a few days ago when, as we were passing through a station at high speed, there was a disconcerting jolt … we went over something on the rails. The train carried on for a few hundred yards, and then stopped… and we waited. There had been an obstruction on the track, we were told, and we had to get clearance. An ‘incident’ had occurred. Nothing more specific. After an hour and a half of waiting, and learning that the driver had had to be replaced, most of us realised what had happened: someone had thrown themselves under the train.
At this point selfish concerns about being late for appointments evaporated considerably. Most people’s thoughts, I suspect, were with the train driver and with the friends and family of whoever had taken this desperate step. But not for too long. We had to get back to our lives despite having been unwilling accomplices in someone else’s suicide.
When we eventually pulled into Paddington, we bustled into the underground and got on with whatever we had to do. That’s what being alive is like.
It’s a cliché, but still true, that death is all around us, often painful death, but we are shielded from it most of the time. We rarely encounter death or even give it much thought. But perhaps we should.
As a philosopher I think it is something worth thinking about quite hard. I like the classical idea that philosophy should teach us how to accept death. But it can take a real death to focus the mind.
If, like me, you believe that death is the end of all experience, then there is great consolation in thinking that when it has happened there won’t be anything else. That’s it. Epicurus was surely right when he said: when I am there death is not, and when death is there, I am not’. As he pointed out, we don’t worry about the eternity before we existed, why be concerned about the eternity during which we won’t exist in the future?
Atheists often describe believers as indulging in wishful thinking when they claim that there is a wonderful afterlife to come. But from my perspective never-ending life would be a kind of hell that would remove meaning from everything I did, like an interminable piece of music that never reached its final chord. If wishful thinking is believing something that would be pleasanter than the truth, then this is a misnomer. I don’t want what the philosopher Bernard Williams called the sheer tedium of immortality - even if it were an option.
What is bad about death is what it does to other people: the ones left behind to grieve, and experience absence. Slow death, and pain in dying are terrible facts of the human condition. But death itself is nothing to fear. Paradoxically, death, like love, makes life worth living…
The main focus of this week’s session was the question, ‘What part should an artist’s expressed intentions play in our interpretation or critical evaluation of a work of art?’ I was not attempting to give a conclusive argument in favour of one or other stance, but rather to map out alternatives informed by philosophical aesthetics. And clearly one approach would be to maintain that pluralism, in the sense that there are many acceptable ways of interpreting works of art, is the best approach to take…
Anti-Intentionalists believe that no external evidence should be used to ground an interpretation. An extreme case of an anti-intentionalist is Clive Bell who in his book Art (1914) argued that to appreciate art as art requires us to concentrate on its non-representational aspects: in the case of painting this amounts to patterns of lines, shapes and colours. We are to ignore the subject matter when we are interested in the work as art rather than as illustration. Artists’ intentions are not relevant; nor is the historical context. Art is timeless. To appreciate art requires a sensitive viewer.
Wimsatt and Beardsley put forward a less extreme form of anti-intentionalism in relation to literature. They argued that to base a critical interpretation of a work on external biographical information about intentions was a mistake. What was needed was scrutiny of what was within the work. They coined the label ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ for this kind of mistake. As they put it
‘Critical inquiries are not settled by consulting the oracle’
The argument to support the idea that biographical information should not be drawn upon is that it is either misleading or redundant. It is misleading if it supports an interpretation that can’t be arrived at by consideration of the work in front of the reader/viewer. It is redundant if it simply re-iterates what is already visible in the work.
A related argument was used by Roland Barthes in his article'The Death of the Author' which promoted multiple readings unbound by original context and authorial intentions.
Intentionalists, such as the philosopher Richard Wollheim, argue that interpretation involves retrieval. The viewer of a work of art should attempt to understand how it came to be as it is. The point is to try to appreciate the artist as someone trying to communicate with viewers. This involves finding out about more than just intentions: changes of mind, historical background, relation to other works by the same artist, and so on, all have their part to play.
Virtual Intentionalists, such as Jerry Fodor , argue that it may not matter if the intentions attributed are historically accurate: what counts is that they can be plausibly attributed to the artist. The notion of an implied author may play a larger role in interpretation than that of the actual author.
In the Gallery Looking at Jacob Epstein’s Torso in Metal from Rock Drill (1913) as a series of forms and textures led to some observations about symmetries, asymmetries, rhythms, patterns, contrasts of material and so on. Most people agreed that the process of treating this work as a series of interrelated abstract shapes and forms was worthwhile. Scrutiny, though gave an incomplete account of the work.
Treating it as a representation led to a range of interpretations. Most people saw the embryo-figure in the abdomen of the larger figure. The contrast between the body armour and visor of the apparently male figure and the vulnerable embryo was also apparent.
This led quickly to more metaphorical interpretations of the consequences of industrialisation, the contrast between power and vulnerability, and a perhaps Kleinian vision of the inner child, and so on. It seemed reasonable to suppose that these sorts of interpretations were at some level intended by the artist.
However, most people seemed to agree that the additional information about how the torso came to be as it is, was relevant and important. Epstein had originally mounted the sculpture (which was then made of white plaster) on a tripod that was part of a secondhand rock drill, a high-tech device for smashing through rock. In 1913 it was radical to include a piece of real machinery as a major component of a work of sculpture. He even considered setting the drill in motion. As originally conceived the sculpture must have been both more imposing, because of its height and the implied power of the drill, but it would also have been more assertively male. Epstein’s preliminary drawings, and the reconstructions that have been made of Rock Drill suggest that the reading of the drill as a phallic image is not far-fetched. Epstein was on the margins of the Vorticist movement, and influenced by their focus on angularity and power, the power found in a vortex (like the Futurists, they were fascinated by mechanical power). The original Rock Drill was exhibited just once at the London Group show in 1915.
The revised version of the piece, though, plays down the forcefulness of the earlier work. The figure ceases to be a figure in action, and takes on a more passive role.
Epstein significantly altered the Rock Drill to its present form, putting the new work on display in 1916. This is usually read as a reaction to the First World War in which many of his contemporaries lost their lives or were maimed. He removed the drill; removed the legs of the creature; cut back its arms; cast it in bronze (yet the bronze is grey like the grey of gunmetal). The title of the work suggests that the artist wants us to appreciate this metamorphosis. It seems plausible as most critics have done, to read into this change and the resulting sculpture a comment on the destructive power of machinery turned to evil ends. Some have gone so far as to see it as an image of a creature maimed by battle…Knowing the history of how this sculpture came to be as it is could support an interpretation of it as disempowered.
The main point here in relation to the theme for the week – art as intentional - is that without the contextual information and knowledge of some of Epstein’s intentions, a reading of this work may be impoverished or superficial. Or at least incomplete.
Yet at the same time, the link with Epstein’s actual intentions has to some degree been severed and the work continues to exert a power that may go beyond anything he intended. New developments can potentially give it new meanings just as Le Brun’s self portrait in the National Gallery took on new life when viewed through the lens of feminism.
What is mysterious to me, though, is how an object created in 1913 can still look futuristic. Compared, for example, with the robot in Metropolis which looks like a dated vision of the future, Rock Drill could still grace a Ridley Scott film…and perhaps was even an influence on him. It is interesting that when Tate Modern commissioned the band the Chemical Brothers to respond to a work in the museum they chose Rock Drill, linking it to Techno music. This sort of reaction, it seems, is probably independent of (though it might coincide with) Epstein’s actual intentions. He himself in retrospect saw the work as ‘prophetic’ of the horrors of the First World War – not something that could have been explicit in his thinking in 1913. Were we to be invaded by armoured aliens from Mars, it might take on a new profundity as yet unimagined…
What I particularly enjoyed about this session in the gallery is that it has inspired me to go away and find out more about Epstein and the context in which he created Rock Drill.
Something we didn’t get on to: the question of whether discussion of artist’s intentions implies a misleading picture of what it is to do something intentionally. Many writers in this area describe intentions as if artists had introspectible mental events that are the precursors of and causes of their works. But is this so? What of R.G. Collingwood’s account of art (in his The Principles of Art) where he described the artist as beginning with an inchoate emotion that he or she makes clear to him or herself in the process of producing a work of art. On that picture (which rings true with many artists), the idea that an artist has a clear intention that precedes the creation of the artwork is implausible in most cases.
Further Reading Clive Bell Art (also my discussion of this in chapter one of The Art Question). Wimsatt and Beardsley ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ reprinted in my book Philosophy: Basic Readings 2nd ed. see also wikipedia ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ Roland Barthes ‘The Death of the Author’ in his book Image-Music-Text Richard Wollheim ‘Criticism as Retrieval’ supplementary essay in the second edition of his Art and Its Objects. Jerry Fodor ‘ It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again’ in Danto and His Critics.