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.