Sunday, December 19, 2010

Art, Zen, and Insurrection: Finding Personal and Social Change In The Art of Life Part II.1

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.

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