Thursday, January 27, 2011

Universalizing Art and Constricting Philosophy

Gwydion asks,

Are there any objective, universal assertions that can be truthfully and correctly made about the nature of creative endeavors (writing, for example, or painting) for all creative practitioners? In other words, is there anything that is universally, demonstrably, or even measurably true about writing for all writers, for example? (In the way that pi is pi for all measurers?)
If we all looking general propositions, then we can start with the trivial, definitional ones, e.g., all painters use paint, all writers write. These are universal and true because they say nothing about the process other than it is what it is.

The question, though, asks for what Kant called synthetic propositions, that is, statements that contain information. Is there any universal proposition that is true of all writers or all painters that says something about writing or painting. In the decades around the turn of the 20th century, we saw almost simultaneously in virtually all creative and intellectual fields, an attempt to ferret out such claims and violate them. Art became about what it is to be a work of art, music rejected tonal centers, geometry surrendered the intuitive axioms of Euclid. All pushed the line that distinguished art from non-art, the meaning of geometry, basic assumptions about architecture, into places we had never previously considered. Conventions were challenged. Standard definitions undermined. This question asks, a century later, despite the best efforts of the intellectual wrecking ball, is there anything left standing, are there any universals left that could not be undermined?

In the case of the creative arts, it seems that while the artist has been freed to affect the viewer in so many new and unexpected ways, the basic relationship between artist and viewer remains. The reader still reads, still approaches words from beginning to end and expects to come away with a transformed view of the world in some way. The viewer still approaches a piece of art and opens oneself up to what it does to the viewer in that moment of experience. Certainly with on-line publishing that allows through the use of links for writing that is not strictly linear and interactive works of art that put the viewer in part of the role of creator of the artistic experience, still there is always a meta-standpoint from which the individualized experience was shaped in the usual way by the artist or writer. I think that this relationship in a certain sense is based on the parent-child or teacher-student relationship, that viewers approach creative work as the apprentice who may or may not ultimately reject the master as not having truly been a master who had anything to teach, but the basic underlying relationship between creator and viewer seems to me to be unaffected by all of the revolutions in the creative world.

In the other direction, Kerry asks,
In your judgment, what big tent philosopher has done more than any other to derail future philosophers from asking good questions or following fruitful lines of investigation? (My money, for example, is on Descartes. But I don't wish to dogmatize. There are probably lots of good candidates.)
I would argue that we are still recovering from the illegitimate strictures at the beginning of the 20th century in philosophy. While every other field was expanding itself, philosophy broke into two and like a nasty divorce, each side completely alienated the insights of the other.

Carnap and the logical positivists in their radical decontextualizing of knowledge kept questions connecting the philosophical and the sociological from being meaningful. The anti-historical approach kept questions about the actual scientific practices of actual scientists from being asked for generations.

Similarly, Heidegger trapped Continental philosophy in a hermeneutic circle-jerk that gave rise to the postmodernism in which the entire world got lost in a haze of social construction. Epistemology wasn't dead, it just wasn't returning their calls because it had no desire to remain in an abusive relationship.

The second half of the 20th century was a slow shaking off of the artificiality and illegitimate constrictions of the analytic/continental split, something I think we are slowly starting to heal, the excesses of each being pared down a step at a time.