7 April 2011

I learnt a new word today – taphonomy – have you come across it?  I heard it from an archaeologist who kindly spent a while talking to me this afternoon.  He says it’s to do with how a site is formed, but I haven’t got round to googling it yet,  so I remain fairly ignorant on the subject.  Hopefully not for long.  I love learning about this kind of thing, but I’m so tied up at the moment with finishing work for the degree show at the end of May that I’ll have to put this on the back burner for the moment.

Instead, Jason Gaiger is irritating me.  He has the nerve to pick a fight with Barnett Newman.  ‘Aesthetics and Painting’ pages 5 – 8.  Read it for yourself.  It looks as if he has had his nose put out of joint by Newman’s remark ‘I have never met an ornithologist who ever thought that ornithology is for the birds.’

The most annoying passage begins:  ‘Unlike, for example a propositional sentence whose content is intended to be directly communicable, a work of art does not explicitly declare its meaning.’ Bearable, especially in relation to abstract art.  ‘It is this very indeterminancy that makes art different from – and potentially richer – than conceptual thought. ‘  I like the idea that it could be a richer way of thinking and/or communicating.  ‘Philosophy needs art, since art expresses something that cannot be fully captured through rational argument.  However, without interpretation by philosophy, that is to say, without critical reflection upon its meaning and significance, art remains incomplete.’  And this is where I have to stop and think out why I disagree!

I’m not convinced that either philosophy needs art or vice versa.   I would be more sympathetic about the need for critical reflection (he doesn’t mean by the artist) without which ‘art remains incomplete’, but Gaiger doesn’t seem to mean what I originally thought he meant, because he follows this up by deciding that artists are unreliable witnesses of their own work: ‘While the writing of artists are clearly important, they do not provide an infallible guide to the meaning of their work.’

And this is where I find his position quite odd.  He seems to be saying that the philosopher has as much right as the artist to talk about the meaning of the artist’s work, and even that the views of the philosopher are more valid.  I can’t help thinking at this point of Georgia O’Keeffe, who had a continuing battle with art critics who insisted that her paintings were about a fixation with female genitalia, in spite of her constant statements that this was not the case.  The artist who made the work was considered to be less authoritative about her own paintings than art writers who didn’t know her personally.  How is this the case?  Have art critics, writers and philosophers taken over the role of language, and relegated the visual artist to the visual field without giving her credit for being able to use language as well?  Does this not sound just a tad patronising to you?

Most artists must surely find this exasperating, especially those who have gone to the effort of writing about their work, however misleadingly (Gaiger’s criticism of Newman’s writings).  And his position throws up a whole raft of related questions:  how important is the meaning of the work to the artist who made it?  How important is it to the artist that this meaning is successfully conveyed?  How important is it to the artist if a philosopher has opposing views about the meaning?  And why is it a given that the thinking of the philosopher about a piece of work he has not made must necessarily be more accurate, or truthful, than that of the person who made that piece of work?  I’m sure we would all concede that more is expressed in art than perhaps the artist intended, or is aware of.  But that is not the same thing as saying that what a non-artist says about it carries more weight than what the artist herself says about it.  See what I mean?

I also don’t understand how philosophy can be said to  need art, since the nature of art precludes it from the entire territory of philosophy, which confines itself to logical, systematic thought.  Much art, if not all art, comes from the instinctive, the unconscious, the subconscious and the unexpected, so it is not too surprising that the artist cannot always explain everything about their work.  But I would say that that is the business of art itself as a discipline, not  of philosophy, and therefore art has no need of the philosopher.  I also wonder if he isn’t implying that artists only splosh paint around, they don’t actually think about what they’re doing . . . .  I could say more on the subject, but to summarise, I’m with Barnett Newman!

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