From This Space, Nicholas Murray, in a comment on Steven Mitchelmore’s post, Some thoughts on the death of criticism: (From Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog, 2007)
Is it worth scrolling back to Hegel who argued that art would gradually become displaced by philosophy as we, as it were, grew up intellectually unlike those Greeks who had to take important truths in intuitively through their art. I see this as the beginning of a road that leads to conceptual art, a progress from the sensual, tactile, visual (visceral?) enjoyment towards abstract contemplation of the idea or Geist. The critic in this scheme becomes less a servant of art, an explicator and evaluator, than a fellow-creator, whose intellectual function is equal to that of the artist. Critics who argue that authority comes from being a creator are in the rearguard of this movement. The “space” identified by this blog I take it to be one in which both kinds of mind meet and explore things together, ultimately abolishing the distinction. I am warming to the idea having been a bit of an artist-knows-best fundamentalist hitherto.
I began to reply as a comment but it kept growing, and thought it would be better as a free standing post.
I asked Nicholas: What do you mean by “together?” As one thing? Or in conjunction–in dialog, in relationship? If conceptual art marks a progress toward something like abstract contemplation of the idea, would one not expect this art, not only through its appropriation of abstract ideas, but in itself, to be a kind of philosophizing? I certainly don’t find that to be the case. Conceptual art, rather than becoming more like philosophy, seems rather to be challenging philosophy and abstract thought on its own ground, appropriating ideas to its own, quite different ends.
I think you go wrong when you view this as an issue of authority, or rather, as a competition for authority, as though there were One Sort of Authority, and artist and critic were fighting for its blessing–Jacob and Essau at the feet of Isaac. Authority as Nobadday.
The authority of philosophy is not that of the artist, and the authority of the artist, not that of philosophy (the definite article with ‘artist,’ but not for philosophy) Through art, we orient ourselves in relationship with others, individually and collectively: collectively, because I don’t think of individuals (us) as discrete units apart from our relationship with others, but as beings who build a world we can have (and know) in common, a world (like the gorilla fashioning its arboreal nest) as a humanly habitable place in space and time.
What happens to us when we read stories, stand before the images we make, listening to the ordering of time and tone in music? What do we do when we experience art? We orient ourselves in reality, by selecting out of the incomprehensible totality, what we need to paint a picture of the world, to tell the story that–does not tell us, but places us–such that we “know” where and who and what sort of creatures we are.
Neither philosophy nor science do that. They can’t give us a world to live in. They examine and explain and take apart what we believe we know and experience. They can show us the artifice of our belief–in what we are, in the fabricated world we inhabit.
Art emerges from the primal effort to live as conscious beings in a reality that knows nothing of our existence as we experience it: whatever it is that drives the brain to integrate the competing and separate systems of perception, memory and interpretation into an unshakable belief in the semblance of our Selfhood.
Science can name the parts and explain their mechanisms; Philosophy can remind us that it is a semblance, that what is real lies outside our power to possess, by either experience or knowledge. Art happens. As our sense of Selfhood happens. The difference is, that art is a happening that we make. It happens in relation to a natural world filled with the many other worlds we have made. That is, it uses whatever materials it needs to give us what we need, natural and humanly fabricated: the Romantic painter using the colors of sunset and sunrise, the conceptual artist using the ideas of philosophers and critics. And here is exactly where the critic comes in. It’s not as if the critic has only one authority, one opposed to or other than that of the artist. Rather, the critic draws on multiple authorities. He examines, disassembles, names the parts–so we can better appreciate the artifice, the art that went into the making. But he also–if he is a good critic, an honest critic, enters into what happens, into the happening, and draws on that in what he writes. In this, in his drawing on what happens, he is like the artist, is an artist, and at the same time, remains other, secured to a way of knowing that frees us from the illusions we cannot help but make and need, lest we vanish into our own dreams, even as the subversive power of art frees us from the chains of knowing.