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.
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.
The main focus of this week’s session was the tension between treating works of art as catalysts for subjective musing and the idea that they might have definite objective meanings. I presented these two approaches as at opposite ends of a scale, though these may not be mutually exclusive.
Take Donald Judd’s ‘Untitled, 1972’, a large open-topped box made of copper and painted with a red cadmium bottom that is reflected in the internal sides of the piece. Judd’s work is declared to be about the material objects themselves, and is expressly not meant to evoke personal reflections (certainly that is the impression given by the captioning in Tate Modern: Judd’s art is not about representation or metaphor or suggestion, but rather presents the formed material objects themselves). If you want to learn more about Judd and his art, there is an interesting series of short webcasts made by Nicholas Serota on the Tate Modern Website (you will need RealPlayer to listen to and watch these, but they work well on a modem connection as well as broadband)
Yet the photographer Thomas Demand’s written reaction to the work (currently placed in the gallery next to the main caption in the 'Bigger Picture' series) is deliberately personal and subjective, describing the images the work evokes for him, well aware that this was not the sort of response that Judd would have hoped for...
Viewers of Joseph Beuys’ ‘The Pack’ 1969 in our group last night reacted in a variety of ways from feeling unmoved by the piece, seeing it as vaguely threatening when viewed from the front, to the more autobiographic reaction of being reminded of expeditions. Yet for Beuys there were very specific meanings attached to the content of this installation: the animal fat and neat rolls of felt on sledges allude to his alleged experience after a plane crash in the Crimea during World War Two when he was saved by Tartars who covered him in fat and wrapped him in felt. Although this story has been shown to be a fiction, it created a myth in which the materials of fat and felt became symbols with definite meanings, as is evident to anyone who has seen a range of his work. This is how Beuys put it (listen to Beuys saying this here on track 5):
“I didn’t take these stuffs only as a kind of immediately dramatic stuff because I was in a dramatic situation in the war, no, not at all. I wasn’t interested to take such things. But later on, when I built up a kind of theory and a system of sculpture and art and also a system of wider understanding – anthropological understanding of sculpture being related to the social body and to everybody’s life and ability - then such materials seemed to be right and effective tools to overcome, one could say, the wound of us.”
Once you know the key to his use of these symbols it is relatively easy to unlock this kind of meaning (which then may have a wider significance than Beuys’ personal myth, perhaps lined to care,compassion and nurturing). Without the key, it is just not possible to read off Beuys’ meaning, and we would be left with the personal reactions. One of the questions that was raised last night was whether the purely subjective and uninformed reaction to a work such as this has value; whether it is an appropriate and adequate response to a work of art.
The dangers of relying entirely on the reactions of someone uninformed about the original context of the work, the artists’ actual or presumed intentions, the rest of the artist’s oeuvre, and so on, is that the viewer may not truly appreciate what is front of him or her (particularly if you believe that there is more to seeing than meets the eyeball). It can result in a kind of aestheticism that relies heavily on an appreciation of visual beauty and form, often at the expense of other features of the work. On the other hand, many people derive great pleasure and interest from their subjective musings inspired by works of art (and perhaps having as their main source what the viewer brings to the work rather than what pre-exists in the work). It is even possible that most gallery goers treat works there in more or less this way…
Next week we will building on this discussion, focussing on how much weight to give to artists’ intentions as presented in their manifestos, interviews and other writing (which are always made in a particular historical and artistic context) and whether it even makes sense to say that we can know an artist’s intentions. If you want to think about this before next week, this entry on The Intentional Fallacy is a good place to start.
4 consecutive Friday evenings 1st June – 22nd June at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Exhibition Road, London.
Led by Nigel Warburton Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at The Open University
To introduce and explore some key themes from Surrealism
To discuss these themes in relation to philosophy
To examine these themes in relation to particular works in the Surrealism show
This course does not pre-suppose any prior knowledge of philosophy or Surrealism. There will be suggestions for further reading, but no obligatory reading associated with the course.
Method This course will be taught through a variety of interactive sessions. Students will be encouraged to discuss and explore the various themes through structured small group activities supplemented by short lectures and plenary discussions. Teaching will take place both in a classroom and within the exhibition itself. Students will be encouraged to engage both with philosophical ideas and with the objects on display.
The Themes (a provisional list) The themes below may need to be adapted in the light of the content of the exhibition.
1. CHANCE: The methods of surrealism include free association and other forms of automatism. In this session we will explore philosophical ideas about artistic intention and chance, fatalism, and interpreting the accidental.
2. DREAM: Dreams and dream-like imagery inspire many surrealist works. The second session of the course is devoted to an exploration of the relation between dreams and reality.
3. DESIRE: Sexual desire, its complications, sublimations and manifestations fuels surrealism. In this third session we will explore some of philosophical explanations of the nature of desire relating these ideas to works in the exhibition.
4. TABOO: Like many artists, the surrealists challenged the status quo, They did this most dramatically by confronting taboos. In this session we will explore the meaning of taboo, and philosophical questions about offence, and the limits of artistic freedom.
There are still some places available on my course 'Seven Ways of Thinking About Art'. The course is held on seven consecutive Monday evenings from 5th Feb. 6.30 p.m. - 8 p.m. and is followed by a free drink in the Tate Modern first floor cafe bar. The sessions consist of c45 minutes in a spectacular classroom - possibly the best classroom in the world - overlooking St Paul's and the Globe Theatre, followed by c45 minutes in part of the galleries after they have been closed to the public, applying philosophical ideas to specific works there. Each week, we will consider a different stance towards works of art (e.g. as expressions of their creators' intentions, as objects which invite unconstrained subjective reactions, or as part of the museum's rhetoric etc.). No prior knowledge of philosophy or art is needed. The people who've signed up for these courses in the past have been very diverse in their backgrounds and interests, and this has made for very interesting debate. My aim is to introduce some key philosophical ideas about our engagement with works of art, and to explore and discuss them in relation to particular works in the collection