Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part one

I am not a philosopher. I am not even sure I’m really an artist yet, only that if I keep trying in earnest then I’ll probably be one eventually. I don’t think artists need to be philosophers – art is, above all, a practical subject. Yes, it helps to grasp history, and be roughly logical, but many great artists (setting aside those most trivial artists whose only claim to “greatness” is that they won the self-interested patronage of the ruling elite) have been quite mad and irrational, and become artists nonetheless because they’ve grappled, consciously or unconsciously, with fundamental questions about the world we live in. Despite whatever confusions they suffer, an artist manages, as Voronsky phrases it, to contribute to our “cognition of reality”. So artists need not be philosophers, it is true, but any artist – any person at all – can only benefit from striving to be rational and from trying to understand, as objectively as possible, the world that they inhabit.

However, perhaps because rationality definitely is not a necessary condition for becoming an artist, the philosophy of the art establishment leans heavily towards the venomously irrational and carefully ignorant. This quickly became clear to me last February, when I found myself forced to describe Judith Butler’s definition of gender in a mere 400 words. In that short piece, I wrote:

Were we to inhabit a world in which all was discourse, or only accessible in terms of discourse, what constitutes anything at all would be very hard to pin down. Fortunately, then, our discourses are bound within a material world investigable – with however much caution and difficulty it requires – as more than mere discourse.

To this my lecturer replied, in writing: “Um, we sort of do.”

Art academics seem to take for granted that, because we speak by language and perceive by thought, we are thereby separated from the real, solid, material world. If this is really their belief, and I suspect it takes a great feat of cognitive dissonance to maintain it, it is difficult to see why they also believe that a material world exists at all. Taking Occam’s razor to their belief, if everything we can know really is just language or perception or thought alone, what point is there insisting anything else exists outside of those? It is parsimonious to simply stop when we reach, “all is discourse, or only accessible in terms of discourse”. Clearly that is where my lecturer stops herself, adding a light concession that, yes, the real world exists outside of our language or perceptions, somewhere it does, but we can only speculate about that. It’s not “all is discourse”, just “all is only accessible in terms of discourse”, but as I’ve hopefully explained, the latter claim amounts to the former when it is scrutinised carefully. From this premise, a very bad one, art academics derive a wide variety of theories. A small number of these theories are interesting, a slight handful of which even approach being true, though usually more by accident than by the theorist’s design.

There is a word in philosophy for a conclusion like “all we can truly know is language, or discourse, or perception, or thought, or any other mental phenomena”: Idealism. This does not mean “idealism” as we might casually use it – usually meaning “optimistic in a sort of utopian sense”. In philosophy, Idealism is the position that the world is made up only of ideas or perceptions, not of material substance, a position put forward in what we might call its “purist” form, certainly it’s most infamous form, by the 18th century philosopher Bishop George Berkeley.

Berkeley’s idealism is an extreme form. It is much more extreme than the position that is popular with certain art academics, because Berkeley made no concession for a material world somewhere out there beyond our grasp. According to Berkeley, tables were just made up of table perceptions – put crudely, tables are just thoughts-of-tables, and only exist when they are thought of (Berkeley even had the gall to claim that when we say something exists we necessarily mean that thing is being perceived!). This raises the rather scary idea that the universe blinks in and out of existence according to whether someone is looking at it or not. Common sense, though, tells us this isn’t true. The universe exists all the time, perceived or not, and Berkeley dealt with this objection by insisting that an infinite spirit (ie, God) perceived everything and this kept it from blinking out whenever we, finite spirits, blinked our eyes.

Ronald Knox famously turned Berkeley’s philosophy into limerick form:

God in the Quad

There was a young man who said “God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”

Reply:
“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

Berkeley’s idealism was very speculative and unsatisfactory, and it seemed rather self-serving that the clergyman had found such a central role for his alleged god in his grand scheme, but his ideas proved very influential.  Most importantly, though, few philosophers, if any, could ever rid themselves of the suspicion that tables and wood really are solid, real, material things that exist externally, not just internal ideas-of-tables-and-wood leant consistency by God’s will.

Another 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, recognised how silly Idealism was, and he sought to overcome it. In brief: He failed, and I’ll go into that, and how it relates to the views I keep meeting in Art’s groves of academe, in another post soon. I suspect if I don’t serialise this, it will become far too long…

[Edit: Part two.]

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4 Responses to Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part one

  1. Jammathon says:

    Groves of Academe is dead, mate. Accept it.

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Art, Theory, and Idealism – part two | Oily Mud on a Piece of Cloth

  3. Pingback: Jun 16 – Berkeley & Butler | Holy Women, Holy Men

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