Home > Film, Literature, Philosophy > On the terms ‘artwork’ and ‘work of art’

On the terms ‘artwork’ and ‘work of art’

A term that appears fairly frequently on this blog is ‘artwork’ (or its rearranged equiva­lent, ‘work of art’). The terms in their standard sense refer to a finished artistic product, the result of the work of some artist. The product of the artist’s work is the artwork. This is established usage. But if we ignore this convention and simply look at the compo­nents of the terms, a second sense lends itself to us. ‘Artwork’ may refer to the work done by the novel, film, painting in question, may be the work of art, where ‘of’ is used to indicate possession. Insofar as we take this notion seriously (I think we ought), we can see relationship between art and its readers, viewers, etc. as one in which the per­son opens herself up to the art and allows it to do work on her.

To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that the relationship between the person and the art is on the one side passive and the other active. Opening oneself up before a work of art, humbling oneself before it (to use a phrase a good friend of mine once used), is no easy matter. It requires divesting oneself of prejudgment without thereby losing oneself, in effect making a gift of oneself to the work: do with me as you will. It means paying close attention to the intricacies of the way the work twists “language” (including visual and musical languages) in new and unexpected ways. Like anything difficult, being able to do this requires strenuous training, and as such it is no surprise that most people are not literate in any important sense. (I confess to being at best only marginally literate myself.)

My goal in this post is to explore, in sketchy detail, a few of the ways in which art may work on someone who has so exposed herself to a film, a novel, a symphony, etc. In order to stress the activity performed by art, the post is takes the form of examining certain verbs that we might use to (metaphorically) describe the work done on us by the art we experience.

Since I recently read Beckett’s Three Novels, that is a good place to start. Beckett’s novels seep through your skin and infuse themselves into your bloodstream, like a slow-acting toxin. I discussed in an earlier post how Beckett forces you to say “I”, to put yourself in the place of “The Unnamable”—more and more as the trilogy goes on you feel that you yourself as Molloy, Moran, Malone, Macmann, Mahood, Worm. The characters in the novel are all in a prolonged process of dying, but never reach death. The toxin Beckett introduces slowly drags you into this process.

Where Beckett is slow acting, other works are much more abrupt and immediate in their effects. In my post on Tolstoy and Nietzsche, I discussed how Nietzsche is like a dash of cold water to the face. Nietzsche slaps and reprimands, he diagnoses and tries to bring back to life. (He does this in all his works, but I am thinking here primarily of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his most literary effort. Though, with that said, the fact that philosophical texts may function in much the same way lends some credence to the view that the precise boundary between philosophy and art is blurry at best.) Nietzsche strives to diagnose, to wake up, and because of that he is brash and in your face. His art is physically violent.

I already contrasted Nietzsche’s style with Tolstoy’s, but it has another opposite in the work of Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu’s films are very delicate, with shots that linger before and after the main action, and in which the camera sits at a low, submissive angle. The effect of this is to create an inviting atmosphere: Ozu has built a home, and he invites you to come inside, look around, make yourself comfortable. By this I don’t mean that Ozu’s films are comfortable to watch; rather, the discomfort he creates stings precisely because it is something that is happening inside a place that feels like home.

Other art functions by mirroring the person who looks into it. In one sense you might be tempted to apply this metaphor to Nietzsche, who makes you go look into the mirror yourself, but to slap you and say, “Go look at yourself!” is distinct from functioning as a mirror. Here I am thinking instead of Plato (whose oeuvre is as much art as it is philosophy). It is a noteworthy and initially perhaps shocking feature of Plato’s works that Socrates’ interlocutors are often (but not always) rather faceless. They go along with Socrates and say “yes” or “surely” or “it must be so, Socrates” or “I cannot argue with that.” This allows anyone reading Plato to slide himself into the place of the interlocutor, and so to see the flaws in his own view, to be reduced to aporia himself. Socrates’ method reveals to you your own deficiencies, not those of his interlocutors.

Finally, I want to consider art that confesses itself, or that requests the confession of its viewers (or both). My example here is Tarkovsky. In my first post on The Sacrifice, I showed how a particularly uncomfortable scene in the film forces the viewer to sin. The natural continuation of this is for the film to request of the viewer that she confess that sin. Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror on the other hand, is itself a confession of sorts. A man, on his deathbed, remembers all the pain he has caused people. Having heard this confession, you must then go on in a new way.

This post is a promissory note more than anything, an attempt to think about the work of art. My analyses above are, as analyses, mere sketches of unsatisfying detail, but they point toward a way of thinking about art that I hope and expect will prove fruitful. One way to reflect on my or your experience of art is to pay attention to how it works on me (or you), to understand this in specifically physical terms. Not just what it means, but how it actively changes your very constitution.

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  1. 2013/05/21 at 13:36

    I like your approach, dyssebeia. Art that seeps, slaps and confesses sounds personal and interesting. I do worry if somebody as well-read as you considers herself “only marginally literate” within the context of this article’s subject matter. Of course that is up to you, but if you’re correct, how many literate people would there be?
    I am reading Anthony Storr’s Music and the Mind about the experience of listening to music and after investigating carefully, he does not really makes a difference between the listener who is schooled in music, or a composer, or a musician herself and the inexperienced listener.
    I can see how listening to music is different from reading literature (I am talking about music without words) but still I like to think that the person who is prepared to humble himself before a work of art might be ready to be touched by it (to stay with your verbs).
    Another reason why this might happen is the artist not completely controlling the effect the work will have on the person listening to it or reading it. If it were a question of the artist carefully putting something in and the experienced reader equally carefully taking it out again, they might a need to speak the exact same language. But I am not sure if it would still be art. Storr says somewhere that “Archetypal patterns substruct the trivial as well as the profound.” That might be applicable to the person reading the work, as well…

  2. 2013/05/21 at 13:59

    Hehe, I’m actually a “himself” and not a “herself”.

    Thanks for the comment. I think you have hit on actually the thing: one reason why I emphasize the value in thinking about art in this way is precisely that it makes art personal. Experiencing a work of art, at its highest, is like having an intimate and private conversation with a friend.

    I do think there are shockingly few literate people in the world. It’s not something that I see valued today. (I mean no “how we’ve fallen” narrative—I don’t know if literacy has ever been a widely praised virtue.) I got lucky enough to stumble upon people (friends and authors) who slapped me hard enough that I snapped out of my “illiterate slumbers”. But I think I’m still fairly groggy-eyed. I spent a good many years developing bad habits and I’m still working to overcome them.

    When I think about literacy, I really mean it in an expansive sense. I think being able to read (in this sense) is interchangeable with being able to listen (to a piece of music, to another person with whom you’re conversing), to watch (a film, a play), to look (at a painting, a sculpture). Of course each manifestation requires particular training—it doesn’t just translate automatically. But ultimately they are manifestations of the same thing. So certainly I think what I say should apply to music (and painting, and…) as well. I talk about literature and films because there I’m not hopeless. With music and painting I can barely manage complete sentences, let alone insight.

    I think you are right that the person who engages with a work of art doesn’t simply get out what the artist puts in. That’s why it’s misleading to talk about the work of art as a completed work—it still has to do work (not just be a work), and that happens in open-ended, unpredictable ways. Gadamer says in various places that the task of interpretation is the task not of simply understanding the past (I.e. a text from an earlier era) but of bringing the text into the present. It’s a matter of finding what is there in the work, of course (you can’t simply take out things that aren’t there), but what is there may be there only because you are there interacting with it.

  3. 2013/05/21 at 14:59

    May I compliment you on possessing a very subtle sense of humour? 🙂
    I would like to comment, further, but I need some time to think.

  4. 2013/05/23 at 11:14

    Well, here I am again. Your name and avatar really put me on the wrong foot, there!

    I really like it when you say a work of art still has work to do. Great choice of words.
    The idea of bringing a text into the present also speaks to me. But I think it is complicated. For instance, on reading Nietzsche’s Unfashionable Observations, it is sometimes difficult to not interpret what he writes as social commentary on our present day. Simply because many of the things he writes about are still very relevant in today’s society. But I think it would be a mistake to imagine that he could have known what the world would look like 130 years later.
    Still, when you say that the work of art still works and may work ‘because you are there interacting with it’, this seems to open new possibilities. It is definitely worth thinking about.

    Well, that goes for much of your writing, in my humble opinion. 🙂

    As to there being very few literate people in the world, I would have to agree. I find myself wondering if things were different in oral cultures. It seems people have great capacities for memorising poetry, for instance. And there might not have been so many cheap distractions, then. But I really have no idea.

    To end with a question: What would bad literary habits be?

    • 2013/05/26 at 14:36

      I started reading Richard Poirier’s The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections today, and it is just spectacular. I’m going to quote a few relevant bits related both to why a work of art must still work after it is written, and why so few people are literate:

      “‘The genius of the poet,’ Wordsworth remarks, ‘melts down’ these ‘arbitrary associations.’ He ‘melts’ them down ‘for his purpose,’ but the process cannot end there. ‘They retain their shape and quality,’ he admits, ‘to him who is not capable of exerting, within his own mind, a corresponding energy.’ Hence the never to be completed task of literary genius, its acts and operations; the pathos, never to be relieved, of a great writer’s ambition for immortality. Even after his death he remains at work and induces us to work within the energies generated by his language.”

      “The effort of reading, like the effort of writing, is entirely its own reward. To ask for more, to seek security in meaning, is a cheat upon literature and upon life. It is like a surrender to Fate.” (I think people who seek “security” in a text, who seek answers rather than questions, are hardly able to be counted as literate—they neglect the real “effort of reading.” And, incidentally, I have a great natural tendency to read like this. I left it off my list of vices, but really, all those I listed above are to a great extent related to this, subspecies of this larger problem which is the real reason I called myself “at best marginally literate.”)

      “Literature is supremely the place where this process [of “valid-ation” (W. James), of making true] goes on, a process in which, ideally, the reader and writer become indistinguishable as partners in the enterprise of ‘genius.’ […] We do not go to literature to become better citizens or even wiser persons, but to discover how to move, to act, to work in ways that are still and forever mysteriously creative. Obviously, we are required to read, but in a more self-surrendering and at the same time self-discovering way than is implied by the phrase ‘readers of poetry.’

  5. 2013/05/23 at 14:17

    I would agree with you that Nietzsche couldn’t have known what the world be like 130 years later, but then I read the end of On the Genealogy of Morals and think that he surely had to have had some special inside source on future happenings… 😛 (The Untimely Meditations—tangent: this book seems to have the greatest number of distinct English translations of its title of all Nietzsche’s books—is as yet still a glaring lacuna in my Nietzsche reading.)

    But I think what Gadamer means by bringing a text into the present isn’t so much treating it as a direct commentary on the present as understanding that every interpretation has an ineliminable contribution from the interpreter, that there is no simply getting at the work of art “in itself”.

    Bad literary habits of mine include:
    •reading too quickly
    •starting to analyze before I’ve let myself really experience the text
    •looking forward to the end of the text, like it’s a goal I have to reach, instead of letting each individual bit fully sink in
    •allowing myself to think about other things while I read

    There are probably others. I’ve gotten better at all of these over the past couple years, but still have a long way to go.

    Thanks as always for the compliments, and even more for the perceptive comment.

  6. 2013/05/27 at 12:09

    Wow, those are great quotes! I can readily see why you are enthusiastic.
    I especially like the one stating that the effort of both reading and writing is entirely its own reward. And one should surrender to it as if to Fate. That is brilliant.
    (Who exactly said this?)
    To me, it can be like two sides of a coin. Your interpretation of Zarathustra on David’s blog impressed me and made sense to him. There is nothing wrong with analysing a text or even rephrasing it so that a part of it stands out, I think. But if the text in question really is a work of art, one might miss the point by looking for confirmation or security. After all, if we analyse we go by what we already know, I think. It would be hard to move past our own limitations.
    I also like the third quote, on not going to literature to improve ourselves. This can be a challenge for me. I’ll keep it in mind!
    Thanks again for mentioning this addition to the discussion on the work of art. 🙂

    • 2013/05/27 at 12:38

      My reading of the “surrender to Fate” line is that it is part of Poirier’s critique of seeking security in a text. I think he thinks you shouldn’t surrender to Fate, but rather struggle against it. Fate is some definite, close-ended future for yourself. But Emerson, and Poirier after him, praises the open-ended, that which refuses to settle for definite answers and constrained paths.

      I agree that analysis is useful and helpful, but ultimately every analysis is to be forgotten and given up to the uncapturable text itself. (One of Poirier’s striking theses in the book is that even the text itself should perhaps ultimately be given up. I’m still digesting his analysis of Emerson on that point.)

      On not reading for self-improvement, that I think really turns on how you understand self-improvement. Dewey (a great Emersonian) once said that “the only end is growth”—certainly growth is a sort of self-improvement. But, as above, there is growth into a predetermined mold, and then there is something more open-ended. Poirier is urging against reading to become some future version of yourself that you already have an image of. But reading to learn “to work in ways that are… mysteriously creative” is self-improvement and growth of a different sort.

      All of these are from Poirier himself, except where he makes it clear that he is quoting from others (e.g. Wordsworth).

  7. 2013/05/28 at 05:14

    I think we feel the same about Fate. Maybe it’s me, but I think surrender implies there having been a struggle. If it doesn’t I can only say that’s how I perceive it.

    I like your point on growth: I have nothing to add or subtract!

  1. 2013/06/15 at 16:35

Kindly perturb

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