Blogging through Truth and Method, post 3: Retrieving the Question of Artistic Truth (81-100)

Art has not always been a matter of “appearance” as opposed to the sciences’ “reality” or a matter of the “timeless” in any uncomplicated sense.  This section of Truth and Method is a history not of the artifacts that we usually associate with museums but with the ideas that make museums, in their modern sense, intelligible in the first place.

Aesthetic Consciousness

A strong tradition of the visual arts, not to mention rhetoric and poetry, holds that art completes what nature is already doing rather than masking the natural (82).  However, as the Newtonian revolution reaches the fullness of its influence, the result is not a piling-up of “facts” that simply join the “facts” of the middle ages; instead, “facts” themselves come to dominate Western conceptions of knowledge, and art becomes the realm of “aesthetic consciousness” rather than of “fact” (84).  The result is that “art,” which used to stand as a part of reality (think Dante’s Purgatorio), becomes separated from the “world” more generally, becoming a place of few rules (beyond those of “taste,” far more narrowly defined here than by Aristotle) and of little consequence for the operations of “world” (85).

As art moves out of the “world,” museums arise to contain all of the scattered bits of “art” that the museum’s patrons can collect.  For Gadamer, this sets up a dialectic that remains throughout the modern era: while museums are places where “collections” remain, basically simultaneously, for regard by any given moment’s viewers; architecture, sometimes including those museums themselves, manifests the historically-contingent artistic spirit of the moment (98).  Readers who know Hegel will no doubt see in this second pole of the dialectic a nod to Hegel’s famous Lectures on Aesthetics, whose thesis is that the truth of a historical moment manifests in art.  But Gadamer adds to that thesis a layer of complexity, namely that certain historical moments, our own included, prefer to keep around a hint of the “timeless” so that we can protect ourself against the vertigo of historical contingency (87).

Art Beyond the Subjective

I love when philosophers take intuitive opposites and render them appositions, and Gadamer drops just such an apposition as he heads for the close of this chapter: “Pure seeing and pure hearing are dogmatic abstractions that artificially reduce phenomena” (92).  Since sensory impressions seem to be just the things that destroy Francis Bacon’s gallery of idols, Gadamer’s move to make uninterpreted sensing itself an idol is a satisfying move, rhetorically speaking.  But Gadamer does not leave things abstract; this is a discussion of art, and his observation, whose roots are in philosophy-of-science, will illuminate Gadamer’s preference for Hegel’s aesthetics and explain why just a bit more complexity will make Hegel’s philosophy of art even more powerful for explanation.

Most produced things–hand tools, dwellings, vehicles, meals–come to their completion when they have the capacity to perform their function.  A hammer which can drive a nail (Heidegger remains with me), a train which can transport passengers and freight, and a pizza ready for eating are all completed things.  The work of art differs, ontologically, because, at the terminus of its production, it remains unfinished, waiting for critical attention from the viewing or hearing parties to complete it (94).  The hearing or seeing does not constitute “use” in the way that other made things get “used;” instead, the viewing/hearing party actually makes the artwork something that it was not before the receiver got ahold of the production.

The implications of the two truths result in a different ontology for artistic productions than for normal ready-to-hand equipment.  (Gadamer himself cites Heidegger and refers to Dasein in these passages, so I don’t think I’m stretching too much here.)  The receiving parties, because they are memory-constituted beings, actually make any given work of art part of their own historical existence, so the work exists dialectically both as an agent in its own right and as part of the viewer’s ongoing history of self-realization.  Gadamer frames this dialectic in opposition to the “pure beholding” that bad theories of aesthetic experience assume:

The pantheon of art is not a timeless present that presents itself to a pure aesthetic consciousness, but the act of a mind and spirit that has collected and gathered itself historically.  Our experience of the aesthetic too is a mode of self-understanding.  Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self, and includes the unity and integrity of the other.  Since we meet the artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual work, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time.  Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it, and this means that we sublate (aufheben) the discontinuity and atomism of isolated experiences in the continuity of our own existence.  For this reason, we must adopt a standpoint in relation to art and the beautiful that does not pretend to immediacy but corresponds to the historical nature of the human condition. (97)

Thus beholding art is not “pure seeing and pure hearing” but part of history itself, and language about art is not a new event, separate from the artifact, but becomes part of the uncompleted work of art and leaves itself open for dispute, another stage still in the history of the artifact (98).  Gadamer’s project here is undeniably ontological: like Dasein in Heidegger, art in Gadamer has its own way of existing that sets it apart from the world of which it is a part but always keeps the work connected to and a part of the same world.

Gadamer leaves off this section with a big-picture intellectual question that has arisen, one whose contours will no doubt occupy the next: what would it mean to do a philosophical history of art in the way that Hegel would recognize it as philosophical history?  The implications for such a history might just be the kind of logic-of-the-human sciences that this book has set out to trace. (100)

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