Why write about art?
This post consists of my reflections upon Hans-Georg Gadamer’s delightful essay “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics”, first published in 1964 and now collected alongside other of Gadamer’s papers in Philosophical Hermeneutics. That essay contains the following thought-provoking quote, of whose thought-provoking-ness I hope this post might serve as an existence proof.
To understand what the work of art says to us is therefore a self-encounter. But as an encounter with the authentic, as a familiarity that includes surprise, the experience of art is experience in a real sense and must master ever anew the task that experience involves: the task of integrating it into the whole of one’s own orientation to a world and one’s own self-understanding. The language of art is constituted precisely by the fact that it speaks to the self-understanding of every person, and it does this as ever present and by means of its own contemporaneousness. Indeed, precisely the contemporaneousness of the work allows it to come to expression in language. Everything depends on how something is said. But this does not mean we should reflect on the means of saying it. Quite the contrary, the more convincingly something is said, the more self-evident and natural the uniqueness and singularity of its declaration seems to be, that is, it concentrates the attention of the person being addressed entirely upon what is said and prevents him from moving to a distance aesthetic differentiation. (pp. 101-102)
A great many ideas are packed into this half-paragraph, and I cannot and will not discuss them all. Instead, I will pick out a few strands and see where they lead, and will attempt to clarify some aspects of the quote that seem puzzling on their surface. This will eventually bring me around to the question, why write about art, and hence to self-reflection on my purpose in maintaining this blog. This purpose has, I think, only been sporadically conscious up to this point; this essay has occasioned my bringing it to the surface in a more concrete and rigorous fashion.
The first idea I’d like to isolate is that, when it comes to a work of art, “everything depends on how something is said.” What I take this to mean is that no detail of a work of art is incidental: each may, from the right perspective, play some role in the interpretation of a work of art. Any detail may grab hold of the viewer/reader/listener and reorient him to the work, even if only on a very local scale. This claim strikes me as obviously true, whether the work of art in question glistens with the surgical precision of a Nabokov novel or whether it slops out over the side like a Cassavetes film. The meaning of a work of art (Gadamer stresses this point elsewhere in the essay) transcends the intention of its creator, so it does not matter how tightly the creator controls each detail. Even the incidentals matter. Of course, this is no justification of the view that every detail must be precisely controlled by the artist (i.e. that Nabokov’s method is the correct one), but it does mean that the work of art that contains impurities must in some fashion put them to use. The artist who allows such impurities must, then, be conscious of this; not being Nabokov cannot be an excuse for being lazy. (Cassavetes’ films, I should note, are exemplary precisely because of how they derive meaning from those details that don’t seem to fit, that seem impure or incidental.) In a work of art, nothing can be unnecessary. In this sense, Alexander is right when, at the beginning of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, he claims, “sin is that which is unnecessary.” (I hope in the near future to write a post examining this thought and its connection to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.) Gadamer’s thought may also serve the function of making us more sympathetic to Nelson Goodman’s notorious claim in Languages of Art that a performance of a piece of music that gets even one note wrong is not the same piece of music. Much of the notoriety of Goodman’s claim comes from people interpreting it has having broader scope than the quite limited purposes for which Goodman advanced it, but following Gadamer we might see that even beyond this narrow scope the claim carries with it some insight.
Immediately after voicing this insight, Gadamer makes what is to my mind the most immediately shocking claim in the entire essay: “But this does not mean we should reflect on the means of saying it.” Taken at face value, this is an incredible claim, suggesting that one should not take apart and put back together works of art in order to see how they work. But this is not what Gadamer means. To see this, I need to introduce a distinction implicit in the essay but not made explicit: the distinction between experiencing a work of art and analyzing it. Gadamer’s concern here is with experience and not analysis. What I take to be Gadamer’s point is that experiencing the meaning of a work of art transcends any understanding that you can build up through analysis. This bears further exploration.
Gadamer here conceives analysis along the lines of coming to understand a sentence by looking up words in the dictionary. It is an irrefutable truth that I can come to better understand the sentence by familiarizing myself with the definitions of individual words within it—a truth which holds even if I already know beforehand the meaning of each word, and in some unproblematic sense understand the sentence before looking up various words. Even in this latter case, by turning to the dictionary I am able to increase my sensitivity to the precise implications of the sentence. Gadamer insists, however, that what I cannot do is sum up the meanings of individual words (or phrases) in accord with the grammatical structure of the sentence and end up with the meaning of the sentence. Such analysis can change how I experience the sentence, but I cannot build up the experience out of mere analysis. The meaning of the sentence transcends the combination of its parts. So too with a work of art: reflection on how the work of art says what it has to say can certainly increase my sensitivity to it and change drastically my experience of it. But mere analysis is not itself experience. It is secondary, parasitic upon experience. Analysis modifies a pre-existing understanding, but does not create it.
Elsewhere in the essay, Gadamer makes much of the idea that works of art have “something to say.” And if interpretation of a work of art is to be anything, surely it is an attempt to find out just what it is that a work of art has to say. Once we consider in this light Gadamer’s insistence that every detail matters, however, a problem arises for interpretation. In his later essay “Semantics and Hermeneutics” (the essay just before “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics” in Philosophical Hermeneutics), Gadamer is at great pains to deny the interchangeability of expressions. He sees as a “semantic ideal” that “in a given context only one expression and no other is the right one” (p. 83). In many contexts, this ideal is far off, and (roughly) equivalent expressions may indeed be equally right. Gadamer’s point about the necessity of each detail of a work of art, however, entails that no such interchangeability is possible here.
The problem is: this can make it seem that interpretation of a work of art, as an attempt to get at what it is that the artwork says, necessarily falls short. Not just because every interpretation is partial (though this is indubitable), but more pressingly because it seems to render every interpretation redundant. The work of art says what it says, and insofar as interpretation “gets at” what it says, interpretation does so in different language. Because every detail matters, an interpretation can never truly express what its object expresses. Why write (or read) interpretations, then, when you can go to the work of art itself and get the same thing precisely and completely, instead of imprecisely and partially?
Before defending interpretation, I want to acknowledge what is right in this objection. Experience of an interpretation is no substitute for experience of the work of art itself. Art has something to say, but not in the sense that it has a “message” or “moral” that can be summarized in other words. And insofar as interpretation is a fully “objective” inquiry that simply tries to get at what a work of art “really says”, it is necessarily redundant. This is why the first sentence of the initial quote is so crucial: “To understand what the work of art says to us is therefore a self-encounter.” Interpretation is not an operation that a subject (the interpreter) performs on an object (the work of art). It is a relationship between the subject and the object.
An interpretation, as discussed, because it uses different language than the work of art, can never really say the same thing. The language of the interpretation will have different implications than the language of the work of art, but these differences should not be seen as inadequacies, as a failure of the interpretation to fully “live up to” the work of art. That ideal is not just unreachable, it is nonsensical. These different implications instead point to the perspective and being of the interpreter; they are the result of a sort of translation of the work of art into the language of the interpreter. The question of any interpretation—is it adequate to the work of art?—is a legitimate and necessary one, but equally important is the question: is it adequate to the interpreter?
This is the ideal I strive for in my posts on this blog. When I experience a work of art, be it prose, film, poetry, music, what have you—when I really experience it, which means: open myself up to what it has to say as fully as I can (“We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said.” p. 101), it calls into question my life up to this point, my presuppositions, my received opinions, everything that constitutes my perspective at the time of encounter. If it is truly good, it points to some aspect of life that I have not yet recognized, or, if I have recognized it, not yet given the consideration it deserves. I do not write about Dickinson’s approach to death out of mere academic interest, but because her perspective on death is one that I believe may fruitfully enrich my own, whether I set myself alongside it or in opposition to it. Either way, I have to consider it. I can no longer go about my life in just the same way as before. The work of art reveals to me who I am, and who I might be going forward. I cannot express this better than Gadamer himself, so I will let him have the last word:
The intimacy with which the work of art touches us is at the same time, in enigmatic fashion, a shattering and a demolition of the familiar. It is not only the “This art thou!” disclosed in a joyous and frightening shock; it also says to us; “Thou must alter thy life!” (p. 104)