Thursday, December 30, 2010
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
He was lying in bed one night because the dark had come and his parents had resolved to sleep. He wasn’t displeased to be lying there, he was simply lying there. Life had recently taken on this inevitable quality for him. Acceptance seemed like the easiest thing to do in almost every instance. This night was no exception.
But thought was never something that could be easily accepted. It was something that rebelled, that flailed, that fought. But on this night, as was too often the case, thought seemed incapable of moving the body. Even when he began to hear the pattering on the roof it didn’t seem like there was a thought in existence that could move him from those blankets. His thoughts still groped and searched for some way to be meaningful, like a fish constantly dying and being reborn over and over again inside the empty blackness that he imagined his mind to be.
We all have our fear. We feel it and we know that something could have happened to someone who heard that noise. Long ago in a cave someone heard that pattering sound and they were devoured by something with teeth larger than their own. But this wasn’t the age of devouring. This was the age of boys who lied safely in their parent’s homes. Or perhaps I should say that this was the country where bodies weren’t devoured anymore. In either case, thought felt inert in the face of the warmth of the moment.
But what if the pattering got more serious? Louder and more aggressive? More certainly a something than a nothing. It turns out that it did.
But how could he possibly feel threatened? What in this world could possibly make this life concerned for its own existence? It didn't matter if he could conceptualize it or not. Because he was scared and that was all that mattered. He looked at the warm white walls all around him. He wondered why the pale blue spirally light bulb made them feel so foreign and mystical. The color of the light made him think of some glowing underground cavern that had one been described in that book he loved. It didn’t help his nerves. Because in that particular book everyone had died a horrible death. He didn’t want that to happen to him. Especially not here.
The pattering stopped for a few minutes and he began to relax. He stopped imagining terrible beasts lightly tapping on the roof. He settled back into his book and he just let himself be again. The fish in his mind still flashed him images he didn’t like to see, but knew he couldn’t control. Why not accept thought? he asked himself. Because thought is not to be accepted, it is to be transformed, his mind immediately replied. Why am I so afraid of something that isn’t there, why do I fear these noises that are so obviously not something coming for me? he asked. Because something is coming for you, his mind immediately replied.
He was drifting into another one of those weird moments where his mind begins to feel like a third party. He poses himself a question and he immediately receives a reply out of the darkness. He begins to ask his mind who it is and it tells him it is someone else. He accidentally tells himself that he is a monster from a different world that knows things about him, wants to make him feel things, wants to take him over. These were always small moments of panic when he knew that he was made up of multiple entities. He just hoped that all of the entities deserved his name, and that none of them were dangerous.
The roof started making sounds again. Now a heavier slamming sound. Not the light and frantic pitter patter of a few minutes ago. But rather a heavy and desperate slamming with clawing spliced in for good measure. He wriggled further into his blankets and immediately laughed at himself for using thin fabric as protection. He knew he was still the child that he always was and that he still simply wanted to cry.
But this modern world has no tolerance for adults who want to be children and he knew it. Suddenly thought came alive again. It filled him with images and with definite guides to action. He knew what he had to do. He had to go outside and stand in the dark and wait for whatever wanted to come after him. He thought that maybe he wanted to die. He knew he wanted to die. He wanted to prove to anything at all that he didn’t care if he died.
He knew he didn’t want to die.
The walk down the stairs was exciting. He felt pleased to have his thoughts finally prompt the movements of his body. Past all the light switches without a care, past all the photographs of his younger body without wondering if the mind had stayed the same. Obviously it had. Getting to the front door was an even better moment. The exhilaration! The pleasure he took in every barefoot step, every moment in which he was the driver, in which he was truly the logos, in which thought was supreme.
But as soon as he opened the front door and went outside his mind became someone else again. Don’t go out there it said. Get back in that bed it said. You aren’t thought he said. You are another being from another place telling me other things. No thanks he said. Tonight I’m the sauce boss he said. He loved to say nonsensical things that affirmed his belief in choice. He really didn’t believe in choice, so he seized on any opportunity in which he could reasonably deceive himself. He was choosing to go outside and face down this thing that was so insistent on disturbing his sleep.
He wanted to die.
As soon as he closed the front door he took five full steps into the dark night without a concern for what he would find. He was hoping to brush into anything physical and warm, preferably something already dying. What he was really hoping for was something that was already dying. He was hoping that all of that scratching was some sort of mythical beast that had been wounded in its fall from the heavens. Then he would find it and finally see a non-human animal utter strange words. He wanted it to tell him how he had been born with a purpose and with a power beyond reckoning. That his arrival had been anticipated, and that others cared. That his life meant something to something. He wanted this creature to have horns and fur caked with blood and dirt and yellow eyes and a voice like his first love. It would look him in the eyes and choke on its own blood. It would smile and cry with pleasure that it got to see him before it died. He secretly fancied himself to be the next messiah. He secretly knew that he was just going to die like everything else.
But what part of his mind kept these things from him? Which was the side of him that craved divinity and which was the side that craved death? Something about Walt Whitman and contradiction. Everyone loved it and no one knew why.
He knew why. Because he openly loathed his desire to find this blood soaked cosmic angel that would cry in his presence. Yet it remained a desire. There was no denying it.
Then he came out of this world of thoughts and remembered all that darkness around him, and realized he could still hear the pattering. It was still on the roof, which was now behind him. He stood with his back to the house listening intently to the fluctuations in the noise. Only something organic could make those noises. Only something with thoughts could make those sounds.
Then his skull was crushed and removed. It turns out he was something divine. But the divine have to die like everyone else. They might even have to die with more force, with more fury, with more violence than anything else.
He was looking at his body from above. He saw exactly what he thought he would see. An indistinct beast caked with blood and dirt. It was devouring his physical body. The body he had so long preened and wept over. He couldn’t deal with its nuance anymore. He couldn’t deal with its imperfections anymore. He was delighted to leave it behind and to finally have confirmation that there was a glowing thing inside of him that had now attained its own freedom. He was so relieved to know that death was simply an end and not the end. And then his brain died and it turned out it was simply the end.
This is part II.2 of my collection of essays 'Art, Zen, and Insurrection'. Here is a table of contents:
II.2. Art, Status Functions, And Contemporary Consciousness
7. Art As A Means To Understanding The Present: What Is The Collective Thing That The Artist Tries to Communicate?
8. John Searle's Status Functions And Specifying The Collective Nature Of The Artist's Expression: The Artist As Expressing The Linguistic Structure Of Social Experience
9, Status Functions and The Structure Of Emotions, Consciousness, And Experience: Social Knowledge and Self-Knowledge
10. Art, Status Functions, And The ‘Corruption Of Consciousness’
11. The Artist as Enabling New Behavior With New Status Functions: Deliberately Unifying Thought And Action
12. New Status Functions as New Thoughts As New Actions As New Brains: Art and Neuroplasticity
II.2. Art, Status Functions, And Contemporary Consciousness
Now that I have explored art as an empathic, social, and historical phenomenon, I would like to try to specify the usefulness of art a little more specifically. In the previous section I was painting in very large strokes and don’t think I made it very clear why art is actually useful. All I really established was that art can help us with our emotional lives, and that it can do this on a larger social scale, and with a historical perspective. But now I want to try to explain how it can possibly have these greater cultural impacts (in the abstract).
The main thing that I want to do in this section is bring John Searle’s work in Making The Social World into the picture. I think that he will be able to help me with one of the biggest questions I have about this issue of emotional expression somehow benefiting a community: If the artist supposedly expresses something that is of benefit to all of society, what is this collective thing that is being expressed? Can we name it? Can we abstract it somehow? I suspect it might have something to do with what John Searle calls ‘status functions’. A status function is something that functions in society only because it has been declared to have that status, the best examples being money, marriage, and other social institutional phenomena. Searle believes that the existence of status functions all comes back to the human capacity for language, and language’s capacity to create the things that it declares to exist. He believes that status function declarations are the bread and butter of social reality. So after exploring Collingwood and Searle’s connections generally, I’ll try to discuss some of Collingwood’s more specific ideas through the framework of status functions. In particular, I’ll be introducing Collingwood’s crucial notion of ‘the corruption of consciousness’, which he believed was one of the greatest threats facing modern European and American culture. After that I’ll try to integrate the issue of the union of thought and action that Collingwood believed to be so important. And lastly I’ll be vaguely introducing neuroplasticity into the picture, just for my own fun. Here I go.
7. Art and the Means to a Universal Understanding Of The Present: What Is The Collective Thing That The Artist Tries to Communicate?
So as I said above, if we accept that art is a social and historical phenomenon that revolves around emotional expression and empathy, we are met with other questions. In particular, I can’t help but push the question of what exactly an artist could express that would be useful to all of society? Is it possible to name this type of expression? Is it possible to really understand what the heck an artist would be doing if he were trying to express something in the hearts of everyone?
All I can say for now is that for Collingwood artist’s should not simply be expressed their own trivial emotions, but should rather be addressing problems. Furthermore, the artist should always be using his audience as the reference point for these problems: “The audience is perpetually present to him as a factor in his artistic labour; not as an anti-aesthetic factor, corrupting the sincerity of his work by considerations of reputation and reward, but as an aesthetic factor, defining what the problem is which as an artist he is trying to solve – what emotions he is to express– and what constitutes a solution” (315). It seems very interesting to me that the expression of an emotion is in itself is simultaneously an identification and solution to a problem. But this falls in line with other things that Collingwood says about art and consciousness. Collingwood believes that it is the task of consciousness to turn our emotional problems into clearly defined issues, and this transformation of sensation into idea is in itself the solution to emotional problems. This is what he means when he says, for example, that once “we form a clear and distinct idea of a passion, it ceases to be a passion” (219). Once we have turned a feeling into a clearly defined idea it ceases to be a problem like it was.
This also seems to be why the artist is fundamentally occupied with truth. For if the artist is attempting to identify and express certain problems that he sees around him, then it must have something to do with truth. I also think that Collingwood uses the world truth in a similar sense to Foucault. Because I don’t think he means that truth is some kind of absolute or essential property, but is rather the reality of people’s experiences and emotions. Perhaps truth for Collingwood has something to do with the way that people experience their social lives. I’ll just admit that I don’t grasp Collingwood’s use of the word truth at this point. It is clear, however, that artistic expression has to be about truth. As he says, artistic expression “so far from being indifferent to the distinction between truth and falsehood, is necessarily an attempt to state the truth. So far as the utterance is a good work of art, it is a true utterance; its artistic merit and its truth are the same thing” (287).
So how is it that the artist is trying to identify an emotional problem that is both social and true? Well, I’m not sure. So I’m going to start explicating John Searle because I think that his work on status functions will be useful here.
8. John Searle's ‘Status Function Declarations’ and Specifying the Universality of the Artist's Expression: The Artist As Expressing The Linguistic Structure Of Social Experience
Now I mentioned above that Collingwood might be using the word truth in a similar way to Foucault. That would mean that ‘truth’ is not about some essential thing lying in the world waiting to be discovered, but is rather a reality that exists in people’s minds and in their experiences. I think this is probably the case. Collingwood has been identified as an idealist philosopher, one that believes that what exists in the world exists because of how our mind apprehends it. I look forward to the day when I read his book Speculum Mentis, which means ‘mirror of the mind’. He believed that reality was not essential, but was rather the mirror of the mind. This being the case, I have to ask how this view relates to art and to artistic expression. If the artist is expressing something fundamental in society, and something in the hearts of all people, yet it is something that is not essential, and exists more so in people’s minds, then what kind of thing could this be?
Well, I think that John Searle’s work on Status Functions will throw quite a lot of light on this issue. While Searle doesn’t seem to be identified with idealist philosophy, I think that his work on Status Functions has enough similarities to make the comparison legitimate. So what I’m going to do is just explicate Searle’s basic argument (not his nuance) in its own right, and then I’ll go about explaining how it illuminates Collingwood’s claims about art.
In Making The Social World: The Structure Of Human Civilization Searle is advocating the creation of a new branch of philosophy known as ‘the philosophy of society’. He believes that philosophy has not yet adequately dealt with the existence of human society and institutions. Searle, therefore, is attempting to explain the existence of human social institutions. In particular, Searle is concerned with things like weddings, cocktail parties, presidencies, and national borders – i.e. things that have no reality except their agreed upon status. Weddings only exist because our society has accepted that weddings exist and are binding agreements. Same thing with the president; Obama is president only because we have all accepted that he is president. Searle dubs these things Status Functions, because they only function because they have been given a certain status. He believes that Status Functions are created by what he calls Status Function Declarations. Searle believes that it is a unique property of human language that it can create the very things that it declares to exist. A physical border, for example, does not exist until it is declared to exist, but that declaration makes it an institutional reality. Searle uses a mundane, everyday example, to explain how status functions exist all around us. He gives a hypothetical instance of going to a bar. Say I am with two friends, I buy three beers, one for each of us. I carry them back to our table, and I say, this is X’s beer, and this is Y’s beer. If friend Y were then to reach for the beer that I designated X’s there would be an awkward moment. My allocation of the beers would have been a Status Function Declaration that would brought a social reality into existence.
I want to quickly note that although Searle believes that human institutional reality is created by the working of language, he argues that language is the fundamental human institution. In his chapter “Language as Biological and Social”, he explains how language could have come about through evolutionary processes. From that evolutionary account he goes on to explain how language must be the fundamental institution of humanity that then allowed for the rest of our complex institutions to be created through SFDs. I’m not explaining this well because I don’t want to take the time and effort. But it seems necessary to note that Searle claims that language is the fundamental institution that then allows the rest of institutional reality to be linguistically constituted.
Searle believes that the Status Function Declaration is the single thing that has created all of our social institutional reality. He is quite explicit about the core claim of his book: “all of human institutional reality is created and maintained by (representations that have the same logical form as) SF Declarations” (Searle, 13, his italics). It is thus language, and its ability to create the things that it represents, that allows us to have things like weddings, nations, and borders. While language has many facets, Searle believes “the Declaration is peculiar in that it creates the very reality that it represents it” (16). This allows us to explain how our social lives are structured in a way so as to give us reasons for doing things that seem contrary to our desires. Language can, Searle argues, “create desire-independent reason for action if the status function that they attempt to create are recognized by other members of the community” (86). So why do I wake up in the morning and go to work to make money even though I feel tired and frustrated with my life? Well, money is an institutional reality that has been collectively acknowledged, and it thus comes along with a set of deontological rules. Deontology is the study of rules, right, obligations, and limitations. Searle believes that SFDs work primarily by creating deontic powers: “The only reality that we can so create is a reality of deontology. It is a reality that confers rights, responsibilities, and so on” (89). It is words, and the use of specific words, that allows these social realities to function. Furthermore, Status Functions are responsible for facilitating our social relationships. We think in terms of ‘friendships’, ‘love’, ‘relationships’, all kinds of other institutional facts. This is why vocabulary is so important in social relationships. Social revolutions can revolve around the reclaiming or words, or the creation of new words. Searle points out how the Soviet Union used the word ‘comrade’ to make a feeling of unification between all people, and how the use of that word constituted a SFD that tried to bring new institutional realities into existence.
Searle then goes on to explain how SFDs bring certain types of power relations into existence, and how they constitute certain types of human rights. He also explains how SFDs need to be backed by physical force in the case of government; how government can’t exist without the implicit threat of violence. This will be important when I reach the sections on ‘insurrection’.
I fear that I’m failing to explicate Searle in meaningful ways. His book is quite complex and quite important. I have a lot of grappling left to do with it. But there are several things that I’d like to take from Searle in order to enhance my analysis of art and its usefulness. The first is the role of language in constituting social reality. If language, in the form of SFDs, has the power to constitute new social realities, then doesn’t art (being a form of language) have the potential of being a SFD? Second, it seems like Searle’s work on SFs can help me understand how the artist’s expression is supposed to speak to the hearts of an entire community. Perhaps what the artist manages to express is the existence of a Status Function that has eluded everyone’s awareness. Third, I want to entertain the idea that our experiences, our emotions, and our consciousness is structured by the existence of SFs (which seems obvious to me). Finally, I want to explore the idea that what the artist does is to use art to make new SFDs into existence, thus creating new institutional realities, and new relationships. Before I delve into those ideas in the next few sections I want to prevent some evidence from The Principles Of Art to show that Collingwood may have embraced some of the same ideas that Searle entertains.
One of Searle’s most important claims that Collingwood seems to agree with is that language is an institution that is fundamental to human society. Furthermore, that what grammarians analyze and describe as ‘language’ is really the aftermath of the expression that really constitutes language. Grammarians take symbolism, an agreed upon meaning of a word, to be the core form of language. But Collingwood insists that language cannot exist only as symbolism, it cannot exist as something that has been settled upon, because “the supposed agreement by which the meaning of a given word is settled implies a previous discussion out of which the agreement is arrived; and unless language already exists and is already capable of stating the point at issue the discussion cannot arise” (225). Language, as expressive gesturing, therefore, must predate what we know as words and symbols. But Collingwood seems to think that grammarians have a limited grasp on language as a natural phenomenon, and rather treat it as an analyzable social phenomenon. On the contrary, Collingwood asserts that language is not simply symbolism, but is an action: "Language is an activity; it is expressing oneself, or speaking. But this activity is not what the grammarian analyses. He analyses a product of this activity, 'speech' or 'discourse' not in the sense of a speaking or a discoursing, but in the sense of something brought into existence by that activity. This product of the activity of speaking is nothing real; it is a metaphysical fiction" (254). This point is awfully confusing to me. But generally I think the idea is that language is the process and not the residue or meaning of that process. This is why it is a fiction. Perhaps this will be made clearer by another idea, that of the recurring word. “Thus we get a new fiction: the recurring word, the entity which forms the lexicographer’s unit” (256). Collingwood believes that language becomes analyzable as a codified set of symbols when we take the time to analyze it. Further, it is not that we are discovering these divisions within language, but we are creating them: "The division of the 'thing' known as language into words is a division not discovered, but devised, in the process of analysing it" (255). Collingwood seems to believe that language has been inappropriately identified as a ‘thing’, while in reality it is an activity. It is something that we do, a way that we express ourselves, and the codification of language is what brings symbolism into being: “Thus, what the grammarian is really doing is to think, not about a product of the activity of speaking, but about that activity itself, distorted in his thoughts about it by the assumption that it is not an activity but a product or ‘thing’” (255). Now this all sounds a bit too loosely connected to Searle’s work. I think it is a bit of a stretch to really say that Collingwood totally shared these views about language as a biological phenomenon. But it does seem that they line up in the sense that language is not simply words and symbols, as grammarians would assert. But that it is rather a natural phenomenon of gesturing and expression. I suppose this reminds me of Searle’s work on ‘speech acts’. I don’t understand it entirely, but the basic idea is that speech is an action, something that you do. That idea seems implicit in Collingwood’s work.
For Collingwood, however, this is issue of language being misunderstood as a thing rather than an action is fundamentally tied to the issue of art and craft. He believes that language has been misidentified in this way because it is approach from the standpoint of the philosophy of craft, and not the philosophy of art. Language as a thing, he claims, “is believed to exist only because the theory of language is approached from the standpoint of the philosophy of craft, and the assumption unquestioningly made that any activity is essentially a kind of fabricating. That being so, the activity of expression will be essentially the fabricating of a thing called language, and the endeavour to understand that activity will take the form of an endeavour to understand its product” (254-55). Then what are we to make of the analysis of language? If language is being misunderstood as a product and not as an action, then what is the usefulness of analyzing the aftermath of language, these ‘metaphysical fictions’ that are symbols. Well, this is where I lose Collingwood a little bit. Because symbols undoubtedly do exist, and they do have a social reality to them. But Collingwood does seem to recognize this. He says that the analysis of language as symbolism “may seem like a futile undertaking. What possible result, good or bad, can come of trying to understand a thing which does not exist? The answer... is that these metaphysical fictions are in one sense real enough” (254-55). Does this have some echos of the idea of status functions? To me it does. When he talks about ‘metaphysical fictions’ that are ‘real enough’, what does this mean? It means to me that although they are linguistically constituted realities, they are still realities that are capable of structuring our lives and our experiences. Status functions are precisely this: linguistically constituted realities that still make us feel certain things, think certain things, experience life in certain ways.
Now, when Collingwood goes on to specify the task of the artist as speaking the heart of his community, and more specifically, speaking the parts of their heart that they are unaware of, could this have something to do with status functions? Well, me thinks yes. And I think this based on something Searle says, and also based on something Collingwood says. Searle says that status functions have the tendency to stay below the radar, to defy people’s awareness. Searle claims, “We live in a sea of human institutional facts Much of this is invisible to us. Just as it is hard for the fish to see the water in which they swim, so it is hard for us to see the institutionality in which we swim. Institutional facts are without exception constituted by language, but the functioning of language is especially hard to see” (90). These linguistically constructed realities elude are awareness, and this is probably how they like it. This prompts some questions about the artist’s expression. If the artist is expressing the hearts of the community, and it is a part of their hearts that they are unaware of, then perhaps what the artist is expressing is the status functions that are structuring our lives without knowing it. This quotation I’m about to present rings with this idea. It seems implicit that the artist is expressing some sort of status function that is eluding the apprehension of the masses. I fear I’m projecting, or making silly connections. But you tell me: “As a spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death” (336). How is it that the community doesn’t know their heart? Perhaps it is because their experience is structured by status functions that are below their awareness. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Yup.
In any case, I feel frustrated with the way this section has been panning out so far. I don’t think I grasp Searle’s work enough to draw its full implications. I suspect this is because the implications are quite large. Also, I don’t have enough of a command of Collingwood’s claims about language to fully bring together him and Searle. But I’m trying here. The general conclusion that I suppose I have reached is that if the artist is attempting to speak the unknown emotions of his community, then there is a chance that these collective ineffabilities have roots in the social structure, and might therefore be identifiable as a status function. Searle’s work on status functions can therefore help us conceptualize the collective ineffables that Collingwood says the great artist articulates. But why does this matter? Why are status functions important? What bearing does this have on anything at all? Well, in the next two sections I want to explain why it is important to take status functions seriously. In the two sections after that I hope to explain how we can try to create our own status functions.
9. Status Functions As Structuring Emotions, Consciousness, And Experience: Social Knowledge And Self-Knowledge
The main reason that I think that status functions matter for this current writing is because they provide the structure of our social world, which in turn gives a structure to our subjective world. Status functions shape the way we live in the social world, they shape my individual life. If self-knowledge is in any way important (which Collingwood believes it is), then it would do me well to understand exactly what was structuring my life. If I really want to know myself I need to know the status functions that govern my world. I think there are three things I can talk about in order to make this clearer: emotions, consciousness, and experience. So the questions are, How are my emotions structured by status functions? How is my awareness, my consciousness structured by status functions? And what does this mean for the whole of my experience, how is that structured by status functions? I intend the notions of emotions and consciousness to be subsumed under the larger category of experience.
So how are my emotions structured by status functions? Well, in one sense there are things about emotions that are essential. That facial expressions don’t vary between cultures attests to this fact. There seems to be a universal thing that we could call ‘anger’, or ‘sadness’, or ‘happiness’. There also exist, however, things about our emotions that are not universal, but are rather historical and social. There are undoubtedly things about my emotions that have to do with the existence of status functions. These would be not the emotions themselves, but the things that set off our emotions, that make us feel certain things strongly. If we were robbed, for example, we would feel a variety of emotions; we would feel angry, sad, frustrated, hopeless, and so on. But we would only feel those ways because the status functions of ‘property’, ‘theft’, ‘money’, and so on structured our existence. Or if a romantic partner were to cheat on us we would feel sad or angry or so on. But we may only feel those ways because of status functions like marriage, relationships, monogamy, so on. This example runs tricky ground, I know. I suspect people thnk jealousy is an essential attribute, something apes feel. Perhaps it is. But I also suspect that marriage and other status functions structure our emotions, make them different. Now what about happy emotions? We would be very happy if we won the lottery. Again, this is because money is such an important status function in our society. Winning the lottery would mean that we would have enough money to bypass the status function that is the working world. Well, we would still be engaging with the capitalist world of status functions, but we would bypass its drudgery, so to speak. In any case, it seems clear to me that while emotions may be essential, what sets them off in a social context is structured by status functions. If we were to examine our emotions, wonder about their causes, we might be aided by knowledge of status functions.
What about our consciousness? How is that structured by status functions? When I use the word consciousness I am using it in the sense of awareness, the things that we notice, and the things that we don’t notice. Clearly we don’t notice everything all the time, our awareness only picks up on certain things. So why is it that we notice certain things but don’t notice other things? Because our consciousness is structured in certain ways, likely by status functions, by language. One time that I first really was convinced of this idea was when I read How To Read Foucault by Johanna Oksala. Oksala uses the example of Inuit categorizations of snow. The inuit have more than 100 words for snow, all different types, different shades and qualities. Further, they register these differences in snow in their daily lives, they simply notice that yesterday the snow was like this or like that. But for us there is simply snow, and so our consciousness doesn’t register much nuance. Now this idea extends to culture at large. Norman Doidge confirms this in The Brain That Changes Itself. He says that culture determines what it is that we do and do not notice. We notice the things that our culture has deemed important, the things that our society has categorized for us. Because when something has been articulated, when it has been named, labeled, categorized, it becomes very easier for us to assimilate it into the things that we notice. Have you ever been told of a certain thing and then suddenly you see it everywhere? Is it really that they are everywhere now? Or has the structure of your consciousness been altered and you are now noticing different things? I think that the structure of our consciousness has likely been changed. And because it is categorization and labeling that structures our consciousness, it seems clear that status functions would be the things that are structuring our awareness. Anything in society that has been named is potentially a status function.
What kinds of things do you notice? What do you notice about people? Their gender, their height, their weight, their race, their age. What else? All of those things are status functions and structure our awareness. What do you notice about spaces? Their color, their size, their ‘class’ and ‘style’. What do you notice? Why do you notice those things? What is the structure of your consciousness?! What kinds of things come to mind and what kinds of things don’t? These seem like exciting and important questions to me. If you want to understand yourself you may have to reckon with the structure of your consciousness. I want to understand myself. I don’t fully understand the structure of my awareness. But I try to be vigilant about what I notice and why. Especially after writing this paragraph, I’ll be very careful about what I notice. The woman in front of me: I notice she is old, I notice she has a bottle of war, Deer Park. I notice she looks concerned and tired as she tentatively drinks from her bottle of water. I notice this airport and the people all watching the T.V.. I notice the rainbow book in front of me and I wonder if it is about something new agey.
Look at all the concepts that just informed my observations! I assume the timidity of the elderly, I notice bottled water because I find it repulsive, I notice people watching tv because I myself am averse to T.V. I notice the rainbow book because of my past with reiki and yoga. The structure of my consciousness comes from my history, my individual history. But it also comes from my collective history and the history of status functions.
We are structured beings. Status functions have something to do with that.
Now what about our experience as a whole? It is obviously structured by our emotions and by our consciousness, but what else structures it? Well, there is also a structure to our physical actions. And here again I keep coming back to capitalism as one of the ultimate status functions. Money as one of the ultimate status functions. Because lets face it, I get up every day, I go to work, I think of my time in certain ways, all because of this idea of money. An idea that has become real enough. That is why Discipline & Punish is such a fascinating book to me; it looks at the way that ideas contribute to the physical regulation of he body. Because status functions change the way I move and use my body. There is a structure to all of my physical actions that goes beyond me. I was thinking, oh but what about when I dance, isn’t that less structured. But the notion of dance is also a status function, we dedicate certain spaces to it. The structure of my physical actions also has to do with the way that space and time are structured by status functions. People can’t come behind the counter at my job because there exists a status function around that space. I wake up in the mornings, monday through friday, because the calendar tells me those are work days. I was able to fly home and see my family because the calendar said these were the holidays, and because families are valued, and we should be with our families on holidays. All of that is status functions. If we want to understand ourselves and our experiences we have to look at the way that status functions regulate our physical actions.
I think I’ve said enough to make this point clear: status functions, although mere linguistically constructed realities, have the power to shape much of our lives and our experience. They change the way that our emotions are expressed by giving them a social context in which they acquire new meanings. They structures our consciousness by making it so that we notice certain things and so that we don’t notice certain things. And it structures our physical actions by giving us reasons for doing things, by regulating space and time, and by giving us faith in money. All of this contributes and structures our experiences, our lives, and our thoughts. If self-knowledge matters to us, if we think it important, we can’t ignore the way that status functions constitute our own identities. I think that understanding status functions would give us a whole new set of tools with which to understand ourselves. Social knowledge is inseparable from self-knowledge.
Now that I’ve made these claims about how status functions structure our lives, I’d like to connect this to a specific issue that Collingwood raises. He calls it ‘the corruption of consciousness’, and I suspect that status functions have something to do with it. Duh.
10. Art, Status Functions, And The ‘Corruption Of Consciousness’
Now one of Collingwood’s major concerns in The Principles Of Art is what he calls ‘the corruption of consciousness’. He thinks that people in early twentieth-century England were incapable of facing down their own emotions. For Collingwood, art is useful because it helps us get a grip on our emotions: it is all about using consciousness to raise our raw emotions to the level of imagination and idea and thus making them expressible. Collingwood believes that when we use consciousness to express ourselves we alleviate any emotional pressure or anxiety that our raw emotions may have caused us.
Collingwood, however, believed that people were losing their ability to show down their own emotions. He thought that people were being run down by the working world, and that they were turning more and more to amusement as a way to escape their unhappiness. Instead of expressing the dissatisfaction that they felt with the capitalist world, Collingwood believed they were using alcohol, drugs, popular fiction, movies, and pornography to escape their unhappiness. This is what Collingwood means when he refers to the corruption of consciousness: the proliferation of amusement that is a sign that people are dissatisfied with their basic means of living. Furthermore, Collingwood believed that art is useful because it combats the corruption of consciousness. “The corruption of consciousness,” he argues, “in virtue of which a man fails to express a given emotion makes him at the same time unable to know whether he has expressed it or not. He is, therefore, for one and the same reason, a bad artist and a bad judge of his own art” (283). It is the task of art proper to relieve people from the corruption of consciousness, to show them that they can express their dissatisfaction, and that they don’t have to simply turn to amusement. This is why the “corruption of consciousness is the same thing as bad art” (285). If we could make art a more prevalent factor in people’s everyday lives then perhaps we could combat the corruption of consciousness a little more effectively. Perhaps we could push people towards self-knowledge, and not be so overrun by amusement. Collingwood really thinks that embracing art can help us overcome the corruption of consciousness: “For the evils which come from that ignorance the poet as prophet suggest no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind, the corruption of consciousness” (336).
I’ll have more to say about amusement in Part IV, but for now I’ll say a few things. I think that contemporary American culture is overrun by amusement. I think that the internet, video games, alcohol, television, movies, and little cell phone games that are played for only a few minutes, makes it so that we never have to be unoccupied. We never have to be bored because amusement is constantly at our fingertips. But I think this detracts from our ability to pay attention. It prevents us from having serious downtime to reflect on ourselves and our actions. There have been a whole slew of articles that have addressed these issues in the NYtimes and other publications. But when I read these sections in The Principles Of Art on amusement and the corruption of consciousness I freaked out a little bit. Collingwood was diagnosing his own era, and not ours. But I think it has only gotten worse. Amusement is only more rampant, and I fear that consciousness is that much more corrupted.
But what about status functions how does this fit in with the issue of the corruption of consciousness? Well, to me it seems that the corruption of consciousness undoubtedly exists because of larger social factors, because of status functions. Collingwood does seem to single out the economic system as one of the ways that the corruption of consciousness has come about. He talks about how our social lives have become referred to as ‘drudgery’, and how we seem to think of our means of existence as not worthwhile. “When this reaches a point of crisis,” he claims, “practical life, or ‘real’ life becomes, emotionally bankrupt; a state of things which we describe by speaking of its intolerable dullness or calling it a drudgery. A moral disease has set in, whose symptoms are a constant craving for amusement and an inability to take any interest in the affairs of ordinary life, the necessary work of livelihood and social routine.” (95). How many of us take a genuine ‘the necessary work of livelihood and social routine?’ My recent foray into the working world has definitely lit a fire in me. It has me feeling what it is like to work 40 hours a week, to struggle to find the time to do what I want to do, to not make a lot of money and to not find my work to be socially useful. I struggle everyday to maintain my awareness, to stay positive and intellectually vigilant. As I said before, capitalism exists because of status functions, my life is structured this way because of status functions. The corruption of consciousness, therefore, must be a matter of status functions and how they structure our experience.
This has some implications for battling the corruption of consciousness, which I will now explore.
11. The Artist as Enabling New Behavior With New Status Function Declarations: Deliberately Unifying Thought And Action
Now one of Collingwood’s concerns, in general, is the unification of thought and action, the unification of moral philosophy and moral behavior. Now, if our actions come about as a result of the status functions that structure our social lives, and if the corruption of consciousness is one of our key concerns, then how do we go about aligning our thought and our behavior? Well, an unrealistic conclusion, but one which I fear I must tentatively talk about right now, is that the artist attempts to create new status functions that would allow people to behave differently. This could in a sense be conceptualized as enabling a freedom of sorts. Because I’ll be frank, I don’t feel free in my own life. I feel that the things around me, the status functions that structure my life, restrict me. I am not free to do whatever I want. I am free to do what I am capable of doing within the already established status functions. I am only free in the sense of ‘meta-strategy’. I can develop my own strategy, but it must operate within the already existing social strategies that structure my life. Freedom within a social determinism. Relative freedom.
So could new status functions enable a new freedom of sorts? Well, if status functions are what already structure our lives, then would it be possible to restructure them by creating new status functions? The answer is yes, but the scale matters. A small example. When I drove a car in high school everyone followed the rules of the game ‘shotgun’, so that if you yelled ‘shotgun’ then you got to sit in the front seat of my car. I didn’t tolerate that. I thought it was dumb. I enforced a rotational system in my car. People would exchange front and back seats. I pointed this out to people, I made the declaration. I was in effect making a status function declaration about my car. Interesting, because my ownership of the car was in itself a status function. And having that status function of ownership gave me the power to make a new status function declaration that would change the way that people behaved. So in this example it is clear that I was modifying the way that people behaved with the way that I spoke, with the things that I declared. By Searle’s definition, I was creating a new institutional reality.
So sure, on a small scale, new status function declarations can enable new forms of behavior. But how to create status functions that function on a larger scale? Seems like a much more difficult task, frankly, like the task of a government. I already used the example of how the Soviets called everyone comrade in an attempt to create a new set of status functions and relationships. Perhaps if the artist is simply exposing status functions for what they are, that would be enough to create new status functions. If the artist is truly capable of empathizing with his community, and capable of speaking their hearts, then perhaps that is enough to bring new status functions into existence. It seems that the artist can’t go about creating new status functions, he can’t be prescriptive. All he can do is express and expose the status functions that people are unaware of. This is why “Art is not contemplation, it is action.... it requires of the artist that he should participate in his public’s emotions, and therefore in the activities with which these emotions are bound up” (332). So if the artist is sharing his people’s emotions then he will be able to express what they feel, and alert them to the structures of their lives.
Perhaps this type of expression should simply make people more aware. Perhaps this is how art can battle the corruption of consciousness. By exposing status functions for what they are the artist will jar people out of complacency, he will make them see their lives in a new way, he will reinvigorate their awareness, re-spark their consciousness. Perhaps this will be something like a mindfulness. Hmmm. Curious. It reminds me of something Searle says in Making The Social World: “My main strategy in this book is to try to make the familiar seem strange and striking” (106). The corruption of consciousness comes from a complacency with life, and a sense that our way of living is boring drudgery. To make the familiar seem startling sounds much to me like the reinvigoration of consciousness. It seems, therefore, that the artists task is not to create new status functions, but to expose existing ones, thereby giving other people a chance to create new ones. Expression that precedes social creativity.
This would be how the artist would open people up to new behavior. She would display to the public the status functions that structure their lives, and thereby give them chances to behave in new ways, and give them a chance to restructure their lives. But this could breakdown into a loop of restructuring. Perhaps that would be for the best.
The last thing I want to do is make some vague connections to neuroplasticity.
12. New Status Functions As New Thoughts As New Actions As New Brains: Art And Neuroplasticity
So, I am hopelessly interested in the idea of neuroplasticity. The idea that when we think differently and behave differently we change our brain. Why am I so drawn to this idea? Why does it matter so much that thought can change the brain? Well, I suspect I feel overwhelmed by the prevalence of scientistic thought. Science is regarded as the pinnacle of knowledge it seems. So I don’t know, I’m drawn to connect things to scientific evidence as much as I can, as poor as my grasp on the stuff is. But nonetheless I think it is important. I think that it can help us understand how it is that our culture effects our behavior. I think it helps us demolish the notion of ‘essential’ or ‘hardwired’ aspects of ourselves. It shows us that we are plastic, that we can change, and that we can change as the result of thought. So this section can essentially be stated in a single sentence: if new status functions enable new categories, then that enables new thought, and if new thought enables new actions, then that undoubtedly means we would have new brains. If we behave differently that will show in the brain. Art, therefore, has the power to change the brain for the better. I think that this is doubly the case if we regard art as a source of synthetic experience.
Later in this essay I’m going to be exploring the issue of neuroplasticity and synthetic experience more fully. But I guess I’m just dropping this note on neuroplasticity now so that it isn’t a total curveball later on. To restructure our consciousness by creating new status functions would be to restructure our neural circuits.
Concluding Part II.2
This section was awkward, difficult, and a bit frustrating. I tried to connect Searle’s work to everything that I was saying, and don’t really know if I did it successfully or not. But generally here is what I tried to do. I tried to ask about what type of thing the artist could be expressing that would be valuable to an entire community. How could one person’s expression have something to do with the hearts of everyone who lives in that society. I concluded that Searle’s work on status functions could help us understand how a whole society could feel something yet be unaware that they were really feeling it. Status functions fit the bill perfectly: they are linguistically constructed realities that structure civilization and our individual experience. I tried to explain how they structured our emotional reactions, our consciousness, our physical behavior, and thus the bulk of our experience. Having established the importance of status functions generally, I tried to connect it to Collingwood’s notion of ‘the corruption of consciousness’. I claimed that the social disease that Collingwood diagnosis probably has something to do with status functions, and more specifically, with capitalism and its associated status functions. If Collingwood is correct, and art is the antidote to the corruption of consciousness, then doesn’t art therefore have something to do with status functions, their exposure, and their restructuring? I concluded that yes, that artist must be in some way exposing status functions that are structuring our experience, and thus making it possible for new status functions to come into existence. This is one way that the artist would be able to introduce new types of behavior into the social world; she could reveal the linguistic structure of experience and thus allow people to overcome rutted ways of thinking and acting. This would, I think, constitute an antidote to the corruption of consciousness. If you were to reveal status functions for what they are you could then reinvigorate consciousness, bringing new things into people’s realm of awareness. The artist’s task, in some way, is to raise consciousness (shout out to Mary). I then made a vague (and probably useless) connection to art and neuroplasticity, briefly telling you that if artists were there to raise awareness, and to change behavior, then they would in essence be changing brains. A mishmash of reflections on status functions, art, and social change, I know.
Concluding All Of Part II
In all of part II I was generally trying to state what the use of art could potentially be. I handled it in two sections. Part II.1 I was trying to explain the relationship between empathy, society, and history. Art is about emotions, and therefore it has to have something to do with empathy. I ended up explaining how art as the expression of emotions and experience, must be about a pedagogically useful empathy: it has to be a sharing of experience that helps other people learn to feel things for themselves. What I described was an empathic loop in which the artist empathizes with his community and expresses their emotions for them, and the audience in turn empathizing with the artist’s expression, thereby learning to express for themselves. Finally I tried to explain how this was a historically situated process by which the artist was trying to diagnose and express the condition of his times, thereby making art a ‘modern’ or ‘genealogical’ process.
In part II.2 I tried to take these questions of art, society, and empathy into a more technical realm by introducing John Searle’s work into the picture. I summarized that section above. But basically the question was: If the artist empathizes with the community and expresses their heart, thereby giving them self-knowledge, what type of thing could the artist possibly be expressing? It now seems somewhat clear that the artist is expressing something that has to do with status functions and the way they structure life. In his own time, Collingwood believed that the greatest issue for art to tackle was ‘the corruption of consciousness’; by which he means society’s inability to engage its own emotions due to the plethora of amusement that was distracting people. Collingwood believed that this had to do with the working world, with economic organization, which I explained, is one of the most important status functions that is still around us today. Furthermore, I also believe that the corruption of consciousness is a serious problem, and that amusement is rampant. It seems to me, therefore, that art as the empathic expression of the social effect of status functions may still be a viable means of combatting the corruption of consciousness in contemporary society.
In the next section I will be elaborating the full claim that all of this has been building towards: the notion of an aesthetics of existence; the idea that all of life can become an art form. Whether existential aesthetics has the same pragmatics as art as Collingwood describes it is yet to be determined. But I will tentatively say that I think that these ideas about the empathic exposure of status functions will still apply to life as an art form. Here I go.
I think that my writing in this section became a bit self-deprecating at times. I was frustrated. I am not informed enough for this stuff. I’m writing about things far too serious for me, things far beyond my grasp. But that is why I’m reaching. If I’m not confused I’m not working hard enough. If I’m not confused I’m not thinking clearly. If I’m not confused I’m probably not learning. I want so badly to learn and to be a good person. I want philosophy to help me live a good life.
I’m on the airplane now.
Feeling awfully sad.
Was very hard to say goodbye to mom and dad at the airport.
It was so quick, just such a sudden goodbye.
A sudden silence and so long, I’m off to Seattle again. What doesn’t make me crazy these days?
Just feels so weird to be heading back to this life I’ve made for myself there. So new, so exciting, but so far.
Ahhhhh who knows what I’m doing.
Finished History Man. Started Marx’s The German Ideology at the airport. Hope to do some writing now. Then some reading later.
Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Yet wanting badly to ease my confusion.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
PART II: The Use of Art: Emotional Expression for the Artist and the Community
Now that I have finished explicating Collingwood’s analysis of art proper I would like to explore the pragmatics of artistic work. What is this art business good for? What does it do for us or our for our community? How is this imaginative expression in anyway useful? How could the expression of a single individual have any benefit in society at large? Especially given that art is defined as a form of language, how does this linguistic definition mean that art relates to society? What is the role of language in society in general?
In order to answer these questions I have this part divided into two sections. First, in the section ‘Art as Empathic, Social, and Historical’ I’ll explore questions about how individual expression relates to society at large, and how it can be useful in some ways. In the second section ‘Art and Status Functions’ I’ll be trying to grapple with the relationship between art, language, and society. In particular, I’m going to be using John Searle’s work to talk about how language constitutes social reality. Seeing as how art is a form of language, Searle’s work on the role of language in constituting social reality should have some interesting implications.
Here is a table of contents for Part II.1:
II.1. Art as Empathic, Social, and Historical
1. Art, Experience, and Empathy
2. The Artist and The Community: How Does Individual Expression Relate to Collective Experience?
3. The Artist's Empathy With Society: Expressing The Quality of Contemporary Experience
4. The Audience’s Empathy and Collaboration With the Artist
5. Knowledge of Self and Knowledge of Others: That Artist's Universal Expression as Enabling Empathy and Creativity
6. Art and the Attitude of Modernity
II.1. Art as Empathic, Social, and Historical
So in this first section I’ll be addressing the way that art is useful. I’ll be focusing on the way art relates to three things: emotions, society, and history. The first thing that needs to be clarified is the relationship between art and empathy. Because if art is fundamentally about emotions and their expression, then I suspect art has some kind of fundamental connection with empathy. After that I’ll try to explain how art and its connection with empathy functions on a larger level of society. I’ll try to explain how it is that the artist and the audience engage in something reciprocal forms of empathy, with the artist empathizing with his audience, and the audience empathizing with the artist. Finally I’ll try to wrap it up this section by bringing Foucault into the picture. In particular, I’ll be bringing up his idea of modernity as an attitude of concern for the self in relation to history. The way Collingwood talks about his thought and about art makes me think that he implicitly embraced this idea of an attitude of modernity. He didn’t call it by those names, but I think it makes sense to say that Collingwood was ‘modern’ and believe that art needed to be ‘modern’ in the Foucauldian sense. Onward.
1. Art, Experience, And Empathy
So the first thing that I need to do in order to explicate the relationship between art, emotions, society, and history, is to discuss three other things: art, experience, and empathy. Mainly because art, according to Collingwood, is about expressing certain experiences, and because, as my discussion of Goldman should have made clear, engaging in the social world is about sharing other people’s experiences via empathy. So I need to tease out these connections between art, experience, and empathy. I really think that empathy must play a crucial role in the issues of art and language. But first let me talk about experience so that I can then talk about empathy.
There are two ways that experience plays a role in Collingwood’s analysis of aesthetics. First, experience is the general criteria by which things must be evaluated. Collingwood says that “all knowledge is derived from experience; and whatever claims to be knowledge must appeal to experience for its credentials and verification” (167). So, in general, experience is to be regarded as the supreme epistemological standard. An interesting claim, on that lines up with Clausewitz. But experience also plays a special role in the creation of art. According to Collingwood the artist is always grappling with experience. It is our experience in the social world, in the political world, in the mental and intellectual world, that provides the fodder for artistic expression. And this is so because experience is the thing that prompts our emotions and gives us fodder for our emotions, and art is all about expressing our emotions. I don’t have tons of evidence for this idea that experience is the crucial factor, but the point should be more or less self-evident. Where else would our emotions come from if not our experiences? For Collingwood, experience is therefore the crucial factor in all knowledge and in the creation of powerful emotions that art requires. He argues that “an artist who is not furnished, independently of being an artist, with deep and powerful emotions will never produce anything except shallow and frivolous works of art” (279).
So, then, if experience and emotions are the crucial factor in the creation of art, then what does this imply about what it takes to appreciate a great work of art? Well, I think it should be obvious that if the prior statement is true, empathy becomes a crucial factor. Because if an artist is primarily expressing his emotions that he has acquired from his experiences, it follows that other people must be able to express those emotions for themselves if they want to understand a work of art. As I said in Part I.1, art is not about representation, it is not about communication, but about expression. So the audience must be able to understand a form of expression, which can only be done by expressing for themselves.
This brings me to the relationship between experience and empathy on the side of the hearer, the empathizer. What does it take for someone to be able to understand what another person is expressing? Collingwood’s answer (and Goldman’s answer) is that the listener must have a similar experience that will allow them to properly reenact/simulate the experience being expressed by the speaker. Or, as Collingwood says, “understanding depends on the hearer’s ability to reconstruct in his own consciousness the idea expressed by the words he hears. This reconstruction is an act of imagination; and it cannot be performed unless the hearer’s experience has been such as to equip him for it.... no idea can be formed as such in consciousness except by a mind whose sensuous-emotional experience contains the corresponding impression, at least in a faint and submerged shape, at that very moment” (251). This is the same thing that Goldman refers to when he talks about ‘experience-deficient simulation’. Goldman explains how people with a damaged amygdala, who are incapable of feeling anger for themselves, are also incapable of empathizing with or understand those who express anger. If we can’t feel something for ourselves then we won’t be able to properly empathize with other people.
Goldman’s notion of experience-deficient simulation is logically implicated in Collingwood’s analysis of how language and art work: “The hearer, therefore, conscious that he is being addressed by another person like himself... takes what he hears exactly as if it were speech of his own: he speaks to himself with the words that he hears addressed to him, and thus constructs in himself the idea which those words express. At the same time, being conscious of the speaker as a person other than himself, he attributes that idea to this other person. Understanding what someone says to you is thus attributing to him the idea which his words arouse in yourself; and this implies treating them as words of your own” (250). If this is indeed the case, then the hearer’s experience is a crucial factor. In fact, Collingwood draws the full implications of his analysis and hints at the notion of experience-deficient simulation: "If words, however eloquent and well chosen, are addressed to a hearer in whose mind there is no impression corresponding to the idea they are meant to convey, he will either treat them as nonsense, or will attribute to them... a meaning derived from his own experience and forced upon them in spite of an obvious misfit" (251).
Collingwood therefore recognizes that there is a crucial relationship between art, experience, and empathy. He also says that this is what art is all about. It is all about the artist expressing his experience and thus allowing the audience to reconstruct that experience for themselves, thereby allowing the audience to express those emotions for themselves: “It is this experience... that is the heart of his poetry; it is the ‘enlargement of our experience’ by his own... that tells us he is a true poet; and however necessary it may be that a poet should have technical skill, he is a poet only in so far as this skill is not identified with art, but with something used in the service of art” (27). Here, again, Collingwood hints at how the role of craft in art is different from what art proper truly is. Art proper is the act of imaginatively expressing our emotions, and craft is a secondary process.
Now that I have established that art is about expressing your emotional experiences, and thereby allowing others to empathize with you, let me talk more explicitly about how the artist’s expression relates to the community and the audience. In short, now that I have explained how art is about emotions and empathy, I’d like to explain how art is also social.
2. The Artist and The Community: How Does Individual Expression Relate to Collective Experience?
Now what I’m about to address is one of the most seemingly paradoxical things about his definition of art as the imaginative expression of emotions. And that is the artist’s relationship to the community in which he is embedded. Towards the end of The Principles Of Art Collingwood himself presses this question. He asks, if art is simply expressive “then why does the artist take pains... to bring himself into relation with an audience?” (301). If the artist is simply dealing with his own emotions and experiences then what does it matter if other people see it? What could it possibly have to do with other people?
Well, according to Collingwood the individual artist is intimately connected to the community that he produces in. And even though the artist’s expression is highly individualized, highly personal, it is connected to the community in two ways. First, the artist is embedded in a community of artists that produced before him and that are producing alongside him. Second, the artist is connected to a larger community that influences his expression.
As for the community of artists, both past and present, Collingwood is skeptical of the notion of influence. He says that we typically speak of artists as influencing one another, but in reality he thinks that it is closer to collaboration. That what artists are really doing are working with one another, building on one another, collaborating with one another. “All artists,” he asserts, “have modeled their style upon that of others, used subjects that others have used, and treated them as others have treated them already. A work of art so constructed is a work of collaboration. It is partly by the man whose name it bears, partly by those from whom he has borrowed. What we call the works of Shakespeare, for example, proceed in this way not simply and solely from the individual mind of the man William Shakespeare of Stratford... but partly from that of Kyd, partly from Marlowe, and so forth” (319). The artist is therefore always in collaboration with other artists that came before him and that exist around him. It is impossible to have any form in artistic expression without implicit reference to other works of art. He is even clearer about this point when he says: “The aesthetic activity is an activity of thought in the form of consciousness, converting into imagination an experience which, apart from being so converted, is sensuous. This activity is a corporate activity belonging not to any one human being but to a community. It is performed not only by the man whom we individualistically call the artist, but partly by all the other artists of whom we speak as ‘influencing’ him, where we really mean collaborating with him” (324). Expression can never exist in a vacuum because individual minds never exist in a vacuum.
The artist also stands in intimate relation to society at large. The artist, according to Collingwood, relates to the whole of society by regarding their experiences as his own, by trying to understand what exists deep in their hearts. The artist is the person who tries to express what everyone feels but can’t quite articulate. The artist’s connection to society is what I now want to explore in the next section.
3. The Artist's Empathy With Society: Expressing The Quality of Contemporary Experience
As I’ve been saying, Collingwood’s definition of art as the imaginative expression of emotions makes it seem as if though the aesthetic activity is entirely individual, verging on solipsistic. But Collingwood is quite clear that this is far from the case. On the contrary, the artist always works in relation to the society that he comes from. The artist’s expression, if he is truly a great artist, Collingwood says, is actually expression that is aimed at speaking the heart and minds of his entire society. The artists individual expression is therefore not highly individualistic or solipsistic, but is thoroughly social and collective. In short, it is the artist’s task to express the quality of contemporary social experience. This does not mean that all art has to express something universal about society. Someone could express very personal emotions that don’t apply to many other people and it could still be called art proper. But the question is about those great artists, those artists that have managed to impress and touch the masses, to shift culture in substantial ways. What did they do? Collingwood’s answer is that the truly great artist is the one who is capable of expressing what lies in the hearts of everyone in a society; the artist expresses what everyone feels but they don’t quite know that they feel it. I think that it seems like the artist is therefore the one that is successfully able to empathize with the collective experience of his society. Let me give you some textual evidence.
So the main thing to reconcile with this idea is how it is that an individual engaged in purely individual expression is also engaged in a social action. Because it is very clear that art proper is still an individual process of expression, but this is indeed compatible with it holding a larger social meaning. Collingwood makes this clear when he says that “the poet is a man who can solve for himself the problem of expressing it, whereas the audience can express it only when the poet has shown them how. The poet is not singular either in his having that emotion or in his power of expressing it; he is singular in his ability to take the initiative in expressing what all feel, and all can express” (119). As Collingwood says, it is the artist who takes those first steps in expressing the quality of contemporary experience. Art proper is therefore simultaneously an individual and collective form of expression.
But how does the artist do this? How does one gain access to your own feelings that are simultaneously the feelings of the masses? How do you identify and grapple with the universal quality of contemporary experience? Well, Collingwood hints that this process has something to do with empathy. If the artist is to go about expressing the hidden emotions of his society he must be able to feel them for himself: “If the artists are really to express ‘what all have felt’, they must share the emotions of all” (119). This means that the seemingly esoteric and highly individual expression of the artist should rather be regarded as a highly empathic and social act. This means that the artist must “take it as his business to express not his own private emotions, irrespectively of whether any one else feels them or not, but the emotions he shares with his audience. Instead of conceiving himself as a mystagogue, leading his audience as far as it can follow along the dark and difficult paths of his own mind, he will conceive himself as his audience’s spokesman, saying for it the things it wants to say but cannot say unaided.... he will be a humbler person, imposing upon himself the task of understanding his world, and thus enabling it to understand itself” (312). Furthermore, Collingwood believed that this act of expressing for society could have profound implications for how a society understood itself. This is why he said that art “must be prophetic. The artist must prophesy not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but in the sense that he tells his audience, at risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. His business as an artists is to speak out, to make a clean breast. But what he has to utter is not, as the individualistic theory of art would have us think, his own secrets. As a spokesman of his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart; and by failing in this knowledge a community deceives itself on the one subject concerning which ignorance means death” (336). The artist is thus the person who challenges himself to feel for all of society, to feel for collective experience, and to attempt an expression of this communal experience.
I think that this sounds very similar to some of the ideas presented in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, one of the founding texts of Taoism. In the Tao Te Ching Tzu discusses the way that ‘sages’ relate to society at large. When Tzu talks about sages I think he is talking about wise individuals who are able to provide a model for existence, those who have attained a state of being in which they are happy, and which others can emulate. But interestingly, Tzu says that sages are not simply expressing their own emotions, but are rather expressing for all of society. Thomas Cleary translates section 49 as such: “Sages have no fixed mind; they make the minds of the people their mind;... The relation of sages to the world is one of concern: they cloud their minds for the world; all people pour into their ears and eyes, and sages render them innocent” (Cleary, 38). It is the task of the Taoist sage, much like the artist, to transform his mind into the audience’s mind by empathizing with them. Right here I am incorporating this example because I am hinting at the larger argument that I will be elaborating in Part III: that all of life can become an art form. If Taoist sages were not expressing themselves simply artistically, but simply through their whole lives, and they too were engaging in this process of communal empathy transformed into individual expression, then doesn’t it make it seem like they are living an aesthetic existence of sorts? And furthermore, an aesthetic existence that has social and political implications. The quotations I used above from Collingwood make it hard to deny this connection to Taoism, and I will hopefully be able to buttress this argument further in Part III. This quotation in particular bears strong resemblance to the ideas expressed by Tzu: “If [the artist] attaches any importance to the judgment of his audience, it can only be because he thinks that the emotions he has tried to express are emotions not peculiar to himself, but shared by his audience, and that the expression of them he has achieved... is as valid for the audience as it is for himself” (315). It is the artist’s ability to transform his mind into the mind’s of his community that makes him a great artist. This should remind you of my discussion of simulation theory. It is because the artist is capable of empathizing with, capable of simulating the minds of his audience, that he is able to express something deep in the hearts of the community. This is why “Whatever statement of emotion [the artist] utters is prefaced by the implicit rubric, not ‘I feel’, but ‘we feel’” (315).
Collingwood even provides a few examples of artist’s that have managed to use their individual expression to identify the quality of their society’s experience. He argues that Shakespeare, for example, was able to intellectually apprehend the quality of his era, and was then able to imaginatively express it in his plays. He claims that Romeo and Juliet is meaningful not simply because it is a love story, but because “their love is woven into the fabric of a complicated social and political situation, and is broken by the strains to which that situation subjects it. The emotion experienced by Shakespeare and expressed by him is.... an emotion arising out of his (intellectual) apprehension of the way in which passion may thus cut across and social and political conditions” (294). Another example that Collingwood uses is T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. He argues that The Wasteland is a great modern poem in the truest sense in that it expresses the weariness that many citizens of early-twentieth-century Europe were experiencing. “Mr. Eliot, in the one great English poem of this century,” Collingwood asserts. “has expressed his idea (not his alone) of the decay of our civilization, manifested outwardly as a break-down of social structures and inwardly as a drying-up of the emotional springs of life” (295).
The artist’s individual expression, as Shakespeare and Eliot exemplify, is not simply individual, but is rather social, political, and fundamentally empathic. The great artists are thus those that are capable of empathizing with the whole of their society. This means that the artists relationship with his audience is “an integral part of [the aesthetic] experience itself” (312). It is not simply an individual expressing his own emotions. It is an individual that is expressing emotions that he believes to be in the hearts of all. It is an individual empathizing with everyone, and expressing that empathy.
But how does the audience relate to the artist? Does it also involve empathy?
4. The Audience’s Empathy and Collaboration With the Artist
If the artist engages with his community by empathizing with them, then how does the community engage with the artist? I think that it also has something to do with the empathy. I think it would be fair to say that the audience’s engagement with the artist is also about empathizing with his experience and with his expression. Just as the artist empathizes with his community and thereby expresses the quality of their experience, the audience is supposed to use a work of art in order to gain access to the artist’s expression, and thereby becoming able to express their own experience. But it is not a direct reconstruction of the artist’s expressive experience. But rather an ongoing project in which the audience attempts to fully reconstruct the total experience of feeling, of painting, of singing, and so on. In this sense the audience is not a passive receptor of expression, but is in fact a collaborator: when they attempt to reconstruct the artistic experience in their own minds they are engaging in creative collaboration. This is true because, “The music to which we listen is not the heard sound, but that sound as amended in various ways by the listener’s imagination, and so on with the other arts” (143). It is never a perfect replication of the aesthetic experience, but an attempt to reconstruct as much of it as we possibly can. “There will be thus be something more than mere communication from artist to audience, there will be collaboration between audience and artist” (312). This imperfect reconstruction, therefore, qualifies the engagement with art as an act of collaboration.
The ultimate goal, of course, is for the audiences viewing of the painting to replicate “the richer and more highly organized experience of a person who has not only looked at it but has painted it as well” (308). But that can be very difficult. In fact, Collingwood seems to think that it would be impossible to recover an aesthetic experience in its entirety: “The audience as understander, attempting an exact reconstruction in its own mind of the artist’s imaginative experience, is engaged on an endless quest. It can carry out this reconstruction only in part” (311). The audience’s task is thus to gain access to as much of the artist’s experience as possible. This process, however, is one that requires careful attention. If we attend a concert, for example, we shouldn’t simply be there hearing it, but we should be actively listening. In other words, we shouldn’t be experiencing it as raw sensual pleasure, but as a reconstructed experience. Although “we certainly may... enjoy sensual pleasures. It would be odd if we did not.... There is a kind of person who goes to concerts mainly for the sensual pleasure he gets from the sheer sounds; his presence may be good for the box-office, but it is as bad for music as the presence of a person who went to a scientific lecture for the sensual pleasure he got out of the tones of the lecturer’s voice would be for science” (141). The audience’s task is thus a conscious and attentive empathizing with the total imaginative experience of the artist.
Collingwood believes that when the audience engages properly with a work of art they will be recreating the aesthetic experience in their own minds. And that it is not the external object that is the aesthetic experience, but only the mental thing that the audience experiences. The inward nature of the aesthetic experience is “supposed to stand in double relation to something outward or bodily. (a) For the artist, the inward experience may be externalized or converted into a perceptible object; though there is no intrinsic reason why it should be. (b) For the audience, there is a converse process: the outward experience comes first, and this is converted into that inward experience which alone is aesthetic” (301-2). The appreciation of art is this transformation of an external object into an inward aesthetic experience.
But there is no reason to stress whether this process of empathizing with the artist, the process of simulating his experience, has been done completely. For Collingwood claims that “The imaginative experience contained in a work of art is not a closed whole. There is no sense in putting the dilemma that a man either understands it... or does not. Understanding it is always a complex business, consisting of many phases, each complete in itself but each leading to the next. A determined and intelligent audience will penetrate into this complex far enough, if the work of are is a good one, to get something of value; but it need not on that account think it has extracted ‘the’ meaning of the work, for there is no such thing” (311). There is only an uncertain access to a total imaginative experience. “The doctrine of plurality of meanings, expounded for the case of holy scripture by St. Thomas Aquinas, is in principle perfectly sound: as he states it, the only trouble is that it does not go far enough. In some shape or other, it is true of all language” (311). In other words, all language is always uncertain and allows us only partial access to thoughts and experiences. What we should stress is not the full grasping of an experience, but rather the pragmatics of attempting to grasp that experience. Collingwood claims that art is valuable because it offers us an expanded body of experience. When we try to imagine another’s experience we are changed by the process. “It is this experience...,” he argues, “that is the heart of his poetry; it is the ‘enlargement of our experience’ by his own... that tells us he is a true poet; and” ( 27).
Engagement with art is therefore about reciprocal empathy. The artist empathizes with the audience and expresses their feelings. The audience in turn empathizes with the audience’s expression and therefore is able to express themselves in new ways. The constant struggle to reconstruct the artist’s experience is thus an act of collaboration on the part of the audience. Now I briefly hinted at the use of this. But let me ask this question of pragmatics a bit more seriously.
5. Knowledge of Self and Knowledge of Others: That Artist's Communal Expression as Enabling Empathy and Creativity
So if art is about this reciprocal empathy, why does this matter? Well, the answer has something to do with the way that the sharing of experience enhances our ability to engage in the social world. When we share other people’s experiences I think we can benefit in two ways. First, by sharing experience we are expanding our ability to empathize with other people. In Part I.3.18 I explained the existence of experience-deficient empathy: the idea that when we lack experience with something we are less able to understand other people who are having that experience. Second, by sharing experience through art we are expanding our ability to be creative. Both of these line up with Collingwood’s claim that “Art is knowledge; knowledge of the individual.” If art is knowledge of the individual, then it should help us both understand other’s and ourselves, and help us be more creative.
So as for art expanding our ability to empathize. This isn’t an issue that Collingwood handles explicitly. But I think that this following quotation hints at the notion of experience-deficient simulation: “If a poet expresses, for example, a certain kind of fear, the only hearers who can understand him are those who are capable of experiencing that kind of fear themselves” (118). I know I already used that quotation in my previous discussion of experience-deficient simulation, but it is too potent to not use again. If we can’t empathize unless we have an adequate store of experience, then experience is a valued commodity. This notion of sharing experience is indeed confirmed by Frith’s work. He says that “sharing of experience is not just words. When I tell you of my experience, your brain will change as if you had that same experience” (Frith,176-7). We are literally transformed when we empathize with others.
This act of understanding a work of art, however, doesn’t only expand our ability to understand others, it should help us understand ourselves. “Hence, when someone reads and understands a poem,” Collingwood says, “he is not merely understanding the poet’s expression of his, the poet’s, emotions, he is expressing emotions of his own in the poet’s words, which have thus become his own words. As Coleridge put it, we know a man for a poet by that fact that he makes us poets. We know that he is expressing his emotions by the fact that he is enabling us to express ours” (118). Thus art should give us access to new experiences that will enable us both to understand others and ourselves.
Furthermore, this expansion of experience should allow us to exert more creativity and expression in our daily lives. This is why in art the “kind of contact that is required is collaborative contact in which the audience genuinely shares in the creative activity” (331). The audience themselves must learn to be creative in their appreciation of art. But this idea also extends to daily life. Collingwood says that in our daily lives we should be learning to express ourselves. That artistic expression doesn’t stop at the moment we leave the painting, or leave the museum. Artistic expression is something that can help us in our daily affairs with peers. In particular, Collingwood addresses the notion of shameful emotions. “Every one of us feels emotions,” he argues, “which, if his neighbours became aware of them, would made them shrink from him with horror: emotions which, if he became aware of them, would make him horrified at himself.... bad art arises when instead of expressing these emotions we disown them, wishing to think ourselves innocent of the emotions that horrify us, or wishing to think ourselves too broad minded to be horrified by them” (284). We cannot deny our emotions. If we choose to deny our emotions, to ignore our deepest and darkest feelings, then we are engaging in a life of bad art. The task is to turn our lives into a work of art by always showing down our emotions, by using our consciousness to transform our emotions into expressible material. And it is the appreciation of art that is supposed to enable this. Art should provide us with access to more experiences that will enable us to empathize with others, to understand ourselves, and to become more creative in our daily lives.
Now in the last five parts of Part II I have come a ways. I’ve explained how art is emotional, and how art is social. Art is always about expressing emotional experience, and therefore understand art is always about empathy. Furthermore, art is always embedded in a community. It is embedded both in the community of artists, and in the larger social community. This means that there is a relationship of empathy, collaboration, and creativity between the artist and all of his various communities. This long quotation summarizes Collingwood’s arguments well: “The artist (although under the spell of individualistic prejudices he may try to deny it) stands thus in collaborative relations with an entire community; not an ideal community of all human beings as such, but the actual community of fellow artists from whom he borrows, executants whom he employs, and audience to whom he speaks. By recognizing these relations and counting upon them in his work, he strengthens and enriches that work itself; by denying them he impoverishes it” (324). By recognizing that art is engaged in a conversation with a community we have positive benefits to reap. We can learn to expand our own experience by appreciating art; we can learn to express ourselves more clearly; we can learn to empathize with others; and we can learn to understand ourselves.
There is one more section in Part II.1. In that section I want to explain how art is also historical in nature.
6. Art and the Attitude of Modernity
I believe that in addition to art being a social phenomenon, it is also a historical phenomenon. Furthermore, I think that this point can be clarified with reference to Foucault’s idea of modernity as an attitude. In his 1984 essay ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ Foucault argues that modernity is not a time period, but is rather an attitude, a philosophical ethos. He says that modernity is about a concern for the self in the present in relation to history. The modernist asks, ‘given what I know about history, what can I say about myself?’ I think that Collingwood’s work in The Principles Of Art exemplifies this attitude of modernity in two ways. First, Collingwood himself expresses his concern for himself and his world in the particular historical moment that he was writing. Second, Collingwood argues that art itself must exemplify this attitude of modernity. Collingwood, of course, never uses this idea of modernity as an attitude, but I think that Collingwood would agree with this notion. So whenever I use the word modern here I am using it in the sense of an attitude that is historically situated and concerned for the self in the present.
As for Collingwood himself as embracing the attitude of modernity, I think it comes out most clearly when he discusses his intentions in writing the book. He says that his writing of the book was prompted by his contemporary situation: "Everything written in this book has been written in the belief that it has a practical bearing, indirect or indirect, upon the condition of art in England in 1937, and in the hope that artists primarily, and secondly persons whose interest in art is lively and sympathetic, will find it of some use to them" (vi). Collingwood was surprised and excited at the growing aesthetic discussion taking place among philosophically inclined artists. "It is too soon to write the history of this movement," he said, "but not too late to contribute to it; and it is only because such a movement is going on that a book like this can be published with some hope of its begin read in the spirit in which it is written" (5). These two quotations should make it clear that Collingwood was prompted to write his book because he had a concern for the contemporary, for the present. He wanted to know what was happening to the arts in that particular historical moment.
Collingwood also believes that art itself is a fundamentally modern. He says that artists “become poets or painters or musicians not by some process of development from within, as they grow beards; but by living in a society where these languages are current. Like other speakers, they speak to those who understand” (317). In other words, creativity does not come from birth, it is not genetic, it is not fundamental, but is rather about the historical movement of society. And Collingwood believes that artists are fundamentally concerned with the historical movement of their society, and with the realities of their present moment: “The aesthetician, if I understand his business aright, is not concerned with dateless realities lodged in some metaphysical heaven, but with the facts of his own place and his own time.... The problems I have discussed are those which force themselves upon me when I look round at the present condition of the arts in our own civilization; and the reason I have tried to solve them is because I do not see how that condition (both of the arts and of the civilization to which they belong) can be bettered unless a solution is found” (325). It seems that the attitude of modernity is implicit in Collingwood thought: he himself was concerned with himself in relation to history, and he believed that artists too should be concerned with their particular historical moment.
So in Part II.1 I have tried to explain how art is both emotional, social, and historical. I started by explaining how the definition of art as the imaginative expression of emotions means that art must be fundamentally connected with empathy. If we are to accept that art, both in its production and appreciation, is about emotional experience, then it must have something to do with empathy. This turned out to be true in several senses. Furthermore, if we are to accept that art is fundamentally social, there are further implications to draw about the relationship between art, society, and empathy. First, it means that the artist is always in collaboration with all of the other artists who are working alongside him, they empathize with one another, they share with one another. Second, it means that the artist is in constant collaboration and empathy with all of society. Collingwood claims that the artist is attempting to express the core of everyone’s experience, that the artist is the person capable of apprehending and expressing the quality of contemporary experience. Third, this means that the audience’s understanding of art is about empathizing with the artist. But this process becomes one in which the audience is not only empathizing with the artist, but one in which they are also expressing themselves. This means therefore that art has some practical consequences when it comes to how we engage with experience and empathy. I claimed that it means that art can allow people to understand themselves better, which means that they would be able to understand others better, and that they could become more creative and expressive in their own lives. Finally, I explained how all of this is framed by what Foucault called the attitude of modernity.
In the next section I want to add some nuance to all of these ideas by connecting them to John Searle’s work on status functions.