January 19, 2022

Philosophy of Art. What For? Food for Thought by Joan Hus

Philosophy of Art. What For? Food for Thought by Joan Hus

I do not have a memory for locations. Two steps in an unknown street and I can’t bring back where I was the moment before. The feeling of being lost which invariably follows is terrible. It’s like my heart, lungs, veins suddenly covering up with a thick layer of ice. It’s like being walking dead. To find my way back, I need something that tells me where I am. That’s why, when I came to live in this city, I rented a studio in a tower building which could function as the cornerstone of my mental map. From the outside, the tower constitutes a highly reliable point of reference, clearly indicating the direction I should go to get to some place. From the inside, the windows of my room provide a genuine 3D earth view of the surrounding urban area. As an added bonus, high above the chaotic turmoil of motion, matter, sound and smell typical of big city surfaces, this place offers me the peace and quiet I need for my work. The only drawback of a life of celestial solitude is that every so often I have to resort to the translation game to block a feeling of loneliness, which threatens to disrupt my inner equilibrium.

Right now, I am typing the sentence “Darling, since I met you, I have been at your mercy, I beg you, please, let me go!” in the text box of the user interface of the automatic translation tool. Gliding my forefinger along the surface of the mouse pad, I move the pointer to the icon of a speaker. A light touch and a familiar voice addresses me in Finnish – one of my favourite languages, because of its magical sound quality and, I must admit, also because of the pleasant way in which the female voice pronounces the words. No yelling, no crying. She expresses what I want her to express, in a way that does justice to the content, given the context in which it is said, that is to say, given my need for companionship and the method I use to satisfy this need.

I delete the words in the text box and replace them by the utterance which deprived me of my sleep last night: “There are no undiscovered geniuses in art”. The way the speaker pronounces the words sounds truly la-di-da. A light touch, the voice repeats. A few light taps, it stutters and stammers. Sweet revenge for a sleepless night. I don’t want to go over the questions about history and truth, life and thought, practice and theory, which kept me awake last night. Another reflection round the clock might be the end of me. Still, if David Hume was right, as I think he was, when he claimed that “the science of man is the only-solid foundation for the other sciences”, then the question of artistic genius is an issue that should not be ignored. That’s why; being an artist and philosopher, I feel obliged to give it another try. However, grown wiser by last night’s failure, this time I will take a more charitable view on the matter. Instead of trying to reach some imaginary shore, I will stay safely on the terra firma of my 70.3 apartment and simply cast my line in the rich waters of speculation. For one thing is sure by now, we have a long way to go before we unravel all the secrets of art. In the meantime, speculation is a great way to keep things going, on condition that we do not forget what our objective is: to find a basic assumption that could lead to a great wealth of artistic facts.

Now then, without further ado, let’s go off to a suitable la-di-da start:

“Making connections is essential to the activity of man.”

Since creative activity is a kind of human activity, it follows that making connections is essential to it. Thinking further along this line, I see that there are different ways in which human beings establish connections. Roughly speaking, they do it in a predominantly cognitive, intellectual, rational, discursive or propositional way, or in a predominantly non-cognitive, experiential, intuitive, non-rational, non-discursive or non-propositional way.
Human beings are not the only living things on earth that make connections. Peculiar to our species, however, is firstly, that its members have a natural predisposition towards learning, and secondly, that pleasure is the drive that keeps them going. A life devoid of pleasure could never be called human. Our greatest pleasure consists in showing the other members of our species, and by extension the other creatures on this planet, what we can, and in seeing what they can.

The pleasure we humans take in developing ways of doing things and perfecting our technique, is the reason why we have become the unbeaten champions in making connections. Strangely enough, we do not seem to realize how essential this connecting activity is, and how good we are at it. If so, we would long since have made it a subject of research both in the humanities and in the sciences. In parenthesis, researchers on neural networks do not go far enough. They do not study the activity of making connections as such. Their research is limited to the topic of information processing.

Now, if it is true that pleasure stimulates our connecting activity, it is equally true that making connections gives us great pleasure. I would even dare to go further and say that the pleasure of making connections is the pleasure underlying all other pleasures in life. Evidence of this could be find in the experience we have when we look at great pieces of creative work.

I remember my trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the Night Watch. Without the slightest effort, my eyes ran over the vast canvas, from one face to another, from one source of light to another, from one colour to another. Rembrandt’s painting confirmed my existence as a dynamic, active, energetic being who’s coming into being and whose life is nothing but continual connecting activity. It was an exhilarating, invigorating, energizing, stimulating experience.

Thinking back to other experiences I had with other pieces of creative work in the visual and in the audiovisual arts, in dance, theatre, music and literature, I come to the following conclusions: firstly, that the number of connections implied by great pieces of creative work is incredibly vast; secondly, that these connections have an unhesitating, clear-cut nature; thirdly, that they are necessary; and fourthly, that each of them links up with the others in an ‘if-and-only-if’ way. Taken together, these four conclusions explain the reason why great pieces of creative work continue to impress the beholder throughout the ages despite the diversity of their outward form, despite the difference of material, which they are made from, and despite the different contexts in which they came into being. Which is the very reason why the saying “no work of genius remains undiscovered” has become a commonplace.

Satisfied with the outcome of my intellectual effort, I save my text and turn the computer off. Before I start editing, I want to get some fresh air. I go outside, cross the street and enter the park. After a few steps, I stop and turn around. The tower where I live rises high above the treetops. The sight of it is comforting. I will not get lost. Continuing my walk, it occurs to me that Philosophy of Art is like a landmark building. It keeps us from getting lost. Its height needs not deter us. Even in high places, there are cool games to play.

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