Monday, July 12, 2010

Some vague and brief philosophical footnotes to Art

I've recently been reading about the great Indian Buddhist Philosopher Vasubandhu (quite a character, it seems, of the 4th century C.E.) and he has inspired me to wax philosophical in relation to my ongoing efforts in art-making. What follows are the tentative, half-formed results of my musings, which have almost nothing to do with Vasubandhu, demonstrating that the oddest things can serve as Muse.

From my perspective, art is communication. Sometimes the communication is explicit, direct and obvious. Other times, it is much more implicit, hidden, even 'secret,' or simply unconscious. Sometimes the artist is not consciously aware of what they are communicating or may be communicating something other than what they consciously intended. The viewer may get an entirely different message from an art object than was meant by the creator.

So, if art is communication, what does it communicate? Ideas? Impressions? Events? Knowledge? Feelings? Opinions? The state of one's "soul"? Perhaps all of the above.

This may be where philosophy among other activities, comes into play -- wouldn't it be sensible to be clear about one's ideas if these are informing and/or influencing one's artistic production?

Of course, "ideas" (whatever they may be, exactly) may be a small part of what informs the artist's work. The other items I listed above may be much more important for the artist. Recognition of the possible (even probable) irrelevancy of so many "ideas" has led me in recent years to be much less enthused with philosophical and related pursuits.

But it remains the case that often some ideas or another -- often what are generally called "pre-conceived ideas" -- will filter, color or shape all the other phenomena in my list: sense impressions, events, knowledge, feelings, opinions and the very state of one's consciousness. In fact, if one looks more closely, it appears that all of these will quickly become ideas once we start talking about them: sense impressions are just so until we start to think and talk about them. Events quickly get boiled down to what we think happened. Knowledge is just some ideas about how we suppose things work. Feelings, once they start to be examined and discussed are nothing but ideas. You can see how the rest fit in here. In short, anything that can be conveyed in words is an "idea."

Isn't it wonderful then, that a visual art can communicate without words, without logical language? It raises the possibility of getting past "ideas" and into the heart of the matter.

Or does it?

Some ideas have a pervasive, if unconscious, effect on our entire mental life. As an example: for some, the glass is forever half-empty, while for others it is half-full. "The glass is half-empty" seems like a vague, amorphous kind of idea -- but it is built up over time by the acceptance of a host of little ideas about life and how the world works. This sort of idea, which is almost more of a feeling-state, can pervade all of one's experience, and make a great difference in one's work as an artist.

So -- the examination of ideas. Could philosophy have a role to play in this endeavor? We shall see. All of these thoughts may lead me to renew some of my efforts in philosophy, as time permits. Vasubandhu (more on him someday!), in particular, has reminded me of the relevance and interest of Alfred North Whitehead's work, so I am contemplating a revival of my much neglected Whitehead project. Stay tuned for further developments!

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