Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Art (and Philosophy) and the Ultimate Aims of Human Life
Raymond Tallis is hungry to expand human consciousness through art.
Past and Future
In what follows, I shall focus less on what art has been or has meant in the past than on what it might be or might mean in the future. Of course my vision of the future of art is informed and inspired by its past. Otherwise I would not be justified in using the word ‘art’.
Focussing on the future avoids the problem that, in the past, art has always been inextricably tangled up with many other things. The distinction between arts and crafts, for example, is not hard and fast; art has rarely been exclusively ‘for art’s sake’; and what we call literature has been used for practical instruction, for the transmission of information, for edification and for political, cultural and religious propaganda.
Art has often been used to glorify, divert or pleasure those who commission or pay for it. This has made people cynical about the claims of art to express transcendental values. Artists know they must follow the dinner pail or end up dead next to an empty one. But the extraordinary thing about great artists is that they have produced works that are many times more beautiful, profound and complex than their contract required. The luminous intelligence, the miraculous imagery, the ravishing music, of Shakespeare’s plays is astonishing when one considers the inattentive, malodorous, noisy philistines who placed their Elizabethan bums on the seats. This tells us something about artists – and about humanity.
Great artists, then, have always created art for art’s sake as well for the sake of physiological and social survival, or out of a need to make a career while avoiding execution. Future art, however, may be less burdened by extraneous demands.
Art will still need to entertain, holding an audience through evoking ordinary human emotions: amusement, gossipy curiosity, sympathy, horror, and so on. Art that does not entertain cannot have any other impact. Entertainment, however, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of the experience of art. The art of the future will be at odds with the world of what Ivan Klima called Total Entertainment, or continuous low-grade distraction, in which we are currently invited to live.
The Fourth Hunger
Art, I want to argue, addresses a fundamental hunger arising out of the human condition. Humans have three obvious hungers: for survival; for pleasure; and for positive acknowledgement by real or imaginary others (internalised as self-esteem at being loved, lusted after, or knowing that one is not, or is not thought to be, useless or a shit). But there is a fourth hunger and it is this that art addresses – and in the future will do so more explicitly and exclusively. What is this hunger? Where does it come from?
The fourth hunger – like the third – arises from our curious condition of being animals that have woken to a greater or lesser extent out of the state of an organism. Half-awakened, we are constantly engaged in making explicit sense of the world and of our fellow humans. This sense remains tantalisingly incomplete and stubbornly local. We go to our deaths never having been fully there – except perhaps in our final agonal moments when we are reclaimed by our bodies – or never having fully grasped our being there because we never quite close the gap between what we are and what we know, our ideas and our experiences, and because our knowledge is permeated by a sense of the ignorance that surrounds it.
For most people throughout most of history, the fourth hunger has scarcely been an issue. The starving, the oppressed, the frightened, the aching, the itchy, and the bereaved, find the local, unchosen, meanings that they have to contend with quite sufficient. Affluence, born of technological advance, however, has resulted in increasing numbers of people for whom economic survival is a less continuously pressing concern, who are in good health, who are not oppressed, and who are selfish enough not to be overly concerned with the needs of the needy. They have sufficient leisure to think beyond means to Ultimate Ends. For them, the incompleteness of the sense of the world, the vacuum in the present moment, may become a problem.
The commonest response is increasingly frenzied activity, usually involving consumption of goods, substances, entertainment and one another. Motor cars, Bargain Breaks, Stella Artois, orgasms, etc are thrown into the hole in sense. These, while excellent in themselves, do not palliate the fourth hunger: for a life more connected, for a more intense consciousness, for joyful experiences that are truly experienced in the way that pain, starvation, and terror are fully experienced.
David Hume feared that the self consisted simply of ‘fugitive impressions’. ‘Phun’-obsessed individuals, what is more, increasingly approximate to the condition of ‘Humean beings’ in the grip of ‘and then… and then…’ The attenuation of presence by e-sense – the inability to sit still without endlessly reaching out towards, and receiving input from, an electronic elsewhere – is a striking symptom of the existential consequences of affluence.
Art and Religion
There is another important trend. The heavens are continuing to empty. There is much religious noise but even religious fanatics, especially when they use mobile phones to detonate bombs, cannot help buying into the rationalistic world picture they reject. Their arias of magic thinking are set in a recitative of secular rationalism embodied in wall-to-wall science-based technology.
Religion, however, addresses fundamental human needs, not only by offering a Club Class after-life to compensate for our days in steerage but by offering the image of an entity – God – in which the meaning of everything we do and feel converges, so that ‘And then...’ comes to an end. It speaks to the fourth hunger.
Art can and must lay claim to the hole left by the absence of God – if only to diminish the chance of His return and the malign consequences this may have and which do not need spelling out.
Art is not, as was said of Mozart’s music, ‘God’s means of letting himself into his own creation’. Rather it is humankind’s most powerful attempt to shake off what Kant called its ‘self-imposed minority’. It is our path to experiencing , with appropriate awe, the extraordinary world which we have in part found (nature) and in part created (culture).
Two characteristics of art are of particular importance: form and connectedness.
In ordinary life, even in the Kingdom of Means, where our sole aim is enjoyment, we almost invariably find that experience does not match our expectation, even where the latter is based on previous experience. We may translate the mismatch between experience and the idea of it – as a result of which we somehow do not experience our experiences – as a disconnection between content and form. The content is the actual experience, with all the sense data served up by the accidents of the moment; and the form is the idea of experience. In a truly realised work of art, in contrast with our lives, form and content are in harmony.
This is most easily illustrated by music which, for the present discussion, we may think of as the paradigm art. (As Walter Pater famously said, “all art aspires to the condition of music.”) Think of the relationship between sound and idea – or form – in the experience of a melody. Each note is fully present as an actual physical event and yet is manifestly part of a larger whole, of an idea. There is no conflict between the form or idea of the music and its actual instants. Our moments of listening are imbued with a sense of what is to come and what has passed. The form to which the music conforms – that ties what has gone and what is to come with each other and with what is present – shines through its individual moments.
There is both movement and stasis; in Aristotelian terms, the unfolding sound realises form as ‘the unmoving moved’.
Of course, the music has its journeys – it manifestly is a journey from a beginning to an end – and in great music we feel as if we have travelled great distances to and through a remote soundscape. But the journeying is never merely a piece of en route: the unfolding of the form fills and fulfils the sensation of the present moment with the past and the future, rather than undermining it with the past and the future. The leitmotif, recurring throughout the music like an involuntary memory, ties together the beginning, the middle and the end, making it all one. The retrospective light it casts on all that has gone before creates the feeling that we have been arriving all the time and that, indeed, we are arrived.
Which why there are moments when, listening to music, we have the sense of enjoying our own consciousness – its present and its past – in italics.
Connectedness across occasions – so that any moment reaches into a wider world than is available to it in ordinary life – is best illustrated by what is achieved in fiction. The most obvious device is the plot. Of course both great literature and ephemeral garbage tie together persons, places, things, and themes by means of a story. Literature, however, realises – makes real and present – the road the story takes, opens views either side of the road, and connects numerous roads with one another. While trash draws a blurred line, faded with familiarity, across an otherwise blank canvas, great novels create microcosms which, by reproducing the multidimensional complexity of the macrocosm, make more of the world mind-portable, and so extend ‘available consciousness’ and human sympathy.
The artwork of the future will have to combine the special virtues of music and of literature. And the literary work of the future will bring together the strengths of fiction; of lyric poetry, with its ability to encompass a whole world in a small space through implying more than it says and unpeeling what it celebrates; and, possibly, philosophy.
Oh yes, philosophy. Philosophy at its best combines the toughest, most rigorous sense of reality with the most tingling sense of possibility. And its most fundamental aim – to enlarge and clarify our understanding of the world; even to make the world mind-portable – overlaps with that of art. It, too, strives to bring us closer to rounding out the sense of the world, and to helping us to escape the Dominion of Eternal And, and the endless ‘fugitive impressions’ of Humean being.
Unfortunately philosophy tends to X-Ray rather than see the world, looking straight past or straight through it. That is why we have to agree with Nietzsche that “the creation of art is the only metaphysical activity to which life still obliges us.” Such a metaphysical activity is one in which we shall truly experience our experiences.
If it is to address the wound in human consciousness, the art of the future must be content to have no practical use. (Any conceivable practical use for art can be better delivered by other things – journalism, treatises, work chants.) Its sole aim will be to help us towards the full self-presence of a wide-angled consciousness in which ideas and experiences are congruent.
Such a consciousness will open to the reality of other people – utterly unlike the swooning egocentricity of closed-off, uncaring hedonism, with its orgies of consumption and its consumer orgies, from which we awake to bitter solitude when misfortune strikes.
Nevertheless, we must have to recognise that works of art may become just some more consumer items, so that one series of ‘And thens…’ is replaced by another: ‘Stella + Bargain Breaks’ by ‘Symphony + Poem’. We need to live within, live inside, a small number of definitive works of art that will give us a true image of the human world, equal to its variousness, its depth, its mystery and its grandeur.
We must also acknowledge that we shall continue to experience art at many other levels than those which touch upon fundamental hungers. Curiosity, the need for distraction, love of entertainment, snobbery, the chance of meeting others, the excitement of being at great occasions, the desire to make oneself more interesting or attractive – these are, and will remain, the commonest reasons for engaging with the arts. We will not always arrive at a symphony concert on a Saturday night in the grip of a metaphysical hunger and leave with that hunger satisfied.
Artists are more continuously and explicitly aware of the fourth hunger that is only intermittently felt and often unrecognised by others. If artists are able to withstand an almost unbearable awareness of the flaw in the human condition it is because they also experience the intense joy of creation.
“I paint because I am unhappy” Picasso said. One suspects that he was happy to be unhappy, so that he could paint. Artists address artists’ problems. This does not mean that non-artists cannot accept an invitation to greater wakefulness, ‘thereness’, connectedness, issued by those whose intense, essentially metaphysical, dissatisfaction holds out the possibility of a more luminous experience of the world.
Art offers an intermission in the otherwise permanent condition of never having been quite there. Useless and necessary, art – like holidays – is about experience for its own sake – but – unlike holidays – such experience perfected. So let there be art, extending and deepening, if not rounding off, the sense of the world, celebrating the wonderful and beautiful uselessness of our half-awakened state.
© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2006
Raymond Tallis is a philosopher, poet and novelist. His novel Absence has just been published in paperback.
Note to Readers
Readers who may be suspicious of the argument set out somewhat telegraphically in this article may wish to consult the following, where the aesthetic and metaphysical position is argued in full:
Newton’s Sleep (Macmillan 1995), especially ‘The Difficulty of Arrival’.
The Knowing Animal (Edinburgh Univ. Press 2005), especially ‘The Unhealing Wound’.
‘Metaphysics and Gossip. Notes Towards a Manifesto for a Novel of the Future’ PN Review 1996; 109: 43-46.
‘Some Thoughts about the Book’ - unpublished MS available on application to firstname.lastname@example.org (Warning: autobiographical and somewhat narcissistic).