Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Art & Existentialism

Art & ExistentialismArt & Existentialism by Arturo B. Fallico
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Equal parts frustrating and fascinating. I admit that I am not entirely up to the task of a comprehensive review of the book, and am left with impressions born of a partial understanding. If you want a careful reading of some of the deeper details, check out Glenn Russell's outstanding review.

Much of the book, to be honest, was a grind. The reputation that philosophy has of being just so much navel-gazing is reinforced here in abundance. That's not to say that Fallico's insights are wrong, just that they are very difficult to follow without an extremely slow, highly concentrated read, re-read, re-read, and another re-read. I don't think my brain has been taxed this hard to follow along in a text since I read Hofstadter. Perhaps some more grounding in philosophical literature overall would help. Fallico dearly wants to write this so that anyone can understand, but the very nature of the subject matter - the act of art creation, the art of reaction to art, and the relationship between both and the drive to exist as a being of freedom - mitigate against an easy common understanding.

For example, Fallico states early on:

Only in art do we find experience which endures, not by substitution and displacement, but by the kind of self-identical re-positing which keeps self-identity in being.

At first blush, the thought of art as experience is counter-intuitive. Art is stuff, right? But Fallico makes a careful distinction between the act of art and the art-thing. The artist, during the act of art, experiences being (or existing, hence "existential" experience). But the observer, because of their interaction with the art-thing (which results from the act of art) can have a moment or moments of being as they react to it. And every instance of this individual reaction is unique to the person experiencing it. Furthermore, art critics, who publicly respond to the art-thing, have their own "act of art" (my quotes) when they write or speak their critique. Then further observers down the chain must react to the critique, re-positing both the critique itself and the original object of critique, the art-thing itself.

The art-thing itself, in the existentialist critique, should not be thought of as a representation of anything, but as a presentation. The existent one (the viewer of the art-thing) should not, in Fallico's estimation, worry about what the art is meant to represent, but should only focus on the art-thing itself as an entity unto itself:

The peculiar composure and independence of the art-object come into clearer view when we see that it is in the order of a presentation, rather than a re-presentation. A representation, as the very word seems to say, presupposes another thing, somehow made to reappear under the guise of the art-object. A representation is un-original by definition. The essential characteristic of the art-object is precisely that it is an original - a first presentation of a possibility truly felt and imagined. It can remind us, really, only of itself, even if, in the process, we may remind ourselves of non-aesthetic things and events extraneous to it.

Here begins a sort of philosophical machismo that permeates throughout the work. One wonders if this attitude isn't at the heart of existentialism, but my personal feelings are that a person's realization of their vulnerability to the inevitability of death tends to engender more humility than hubris. Fallico seems to favor the view that a true existentialist faces existential angst with bravado, and that this attitude can be found in art itself:

. . . the order of the art-object is one in which everything is preserved in its being, everything achieves actual presence together with everything else, and everything relates and refers to an existent. Everything in the art-object stands fully realized, unchanging, and in full view. Nothing is inessential, everything is required. A single line, a dab of color, a sound - all are constitutive and uneliminable from the whole. Their relationship to other lines, colors, or sounds as well as to the whole is never one of mere adjacency, correlation, or probability.

This sense of bravado becomes more than a little tedious as one progresses through the book. By the end, the chest thumping gets a little ridiculous. I'll spare you the details, but not without warning you that Fallico's ideal existential man is an intellectual he-man proudly displaying his statuesque breast to the world, defying the cosmos to the bitter end.

One aspect of Art & Existentialism that really spoke to me, was Fallico's acknowledgement that:

. . . art has traditionally come to be associated with beauty. The beautiful, in turn, is associated with whatever pleases and suggests itself as ideal and perfection - and object of desire. Identification of art with the beautiful in this sense has ever been a pervasive error in aesthetics. And this is surprising, considering that so much of the great and respected art in every culture has to do, not with the pleasant and desirable, but with the ugly and the forbidding. Michelangelo's Pieta is not beautiful in the sense that it is pleasurable, nor are Picasso's Guernica or Guitarist. As such, pleasing, desirable, and attractive define the objects and objectives of action, not of aesthetic contemplation. This is not to say that the aesthetic necessarily concerns itself with the unpleasant and the unattractive, of course, but simply that it is utterly indifferent to such categories.

Huzzah! Someone finally said it! Art is not a beauty pageant! I've held to this for a long time. And while one can use the old soft argument that "beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder," that argument is sometimes used as a way for those who have a certain, preconceived notion of what is "good" art to hand-wave the whole question about art that is not beautiful, but worthy of praise (and preservation). I readily admit that much of the music and art I love is considered ugly or awkward or just plain unpleasant by many. But does that mean that it has no worth? I'd argue that sometimes it has more worth because of it's ugliness. Take one of my favorite examples: Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, a particularly noisome piece of music. The evocation of feeling as one listens to this piece can be incredibly strong. I remember being literally moved to tears in college while listening to this piece and seriously contemplating what it must have been like to be present for this horrific event: the sounds of the air raid sirens, the droning of a single bomber flying overhead, the concussive blast, the flesh-melting heat, the thousands of structures shattered into splinters and blown to the wind, the roaring fires and burning bodies, the cries and moans of the survivors. Not a pleasant thing. Not beautiful at all. But evocative and, dare I say, necessary? Here, Fallico allows us to embrace the necessity of such a piece.

The fact that Daumier's court scenes, or Goya's prints about the horrors of war are not direct incentives to action (great art never is) must not mislead us into thinking that they have not latent in them the power to remodel human purposing with respect to how humans feel about injustice, or about the obscenity which is war . . . there is not a single work of art, not a single first utterance, which does not, in its own way, present us with at least a possibility of novel outlook and global perspective. What counts here is that this - if it is truly aesthetic, and if we truly are able to enact it - is a concrete and actual possibility, one that is tasted, fused with one's very being in the enactment. No man who really encounters Cezanne's apples ever sees apples again in the same way, just as no man who really reads Sartre's The Wall or CamusThe Stranger can look upon death and our contemporary values as he did before the encounters. It is true that a great majority of gallery- and theater-goers, no less than readers of novels, seem to be little transformed by their experiences - but if they have any ind of aesthetic sensitivity, who can measure the degree of transformation they truly have undergone by such experiences?

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