Drawn?

No, David, if I had expressed myself more clearly, it would have been plainer that I hadn’t thought you were arguing that art uniquely, or distinctively, fuses matter and intentionality.

Let’s look at the point where you do agree that we differ: You observe that in some works of art, “the mute is brought to speech,” that they “carr[y] more meaning than words can express,” a carved stone “speaks more eloquently than does flesh.” (Clarification: you ren’t saying this happens automatically, in every case of supposed “art” — all these examples are governed by your prefatory “sometimes.”) Yes, that’s just where our paths diverge. I don’t want to concede that the power to move you resides in some quality of the carved stone, the painted canvas, the outstanding artwork. I think that the assumption that the item in question itself moves you or me engenders the misleading impression that there’s a quality of “moving-ness” that we might separate from the cultural settings and conventional modes of expression within which we encounter the work of art. “King’s pawn to King’s Knight 7” may be a powerful move, a blunder, an illegal move, or an unintelligible gesture (as my old Flanders and Swann record said, “because they were playing bridge at the time” — what a joy, to discover that Phil Wolff loves Flanders and Swann too!) depending on the situation, the conventions and expectations that govern that move.

I harp on this point because in my field, people persist in ascribing agency to words and artifacts in ways that mystify a more precise characterization of what’s happening, and in ways that direct attention away from human responsibility for those happenings. When someone says, “The Bible demands that I stone an adulterer to death,” such a person exculpates her- or himself for the blood of the transgressor, rather than acknowledging that a myriad of very pertinent human considerations affect every judgment about what the Bible says. They don’t render the Bible “meaningless” or permit people to cite the Bible as a warrant for just any action — but the constraints on interpretation (I repeat) derive not from inherent qualities of “the work,” but from the patterns of social interaction within which we judge particular interpretations justified and other outlandish.

Or as Cole Porter might have said if he were a technologist-philosopher or -theologian, “You say ‘Heidegger,’ I say ‘Wittgenstein,’ let’s call the whole thing drawn.”

4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I’m glad you added your third paragraph because it helped me to understand how you were taking what I said. Artistic fundamentalism, so to speak, seems more obviously wrong even than Bible-based fundamentalism. So, when I say that in art (sometimes) mute substance is brought to speech, I do not mean that it does so outside of culture or that what it says transcends culture. (“If the statue of a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand what it says.”) Nor am I pointing to an eternal, trans-cultural characteristic of all art. I’m just saying that for me, sometimes that’s what leaves me slackjawed before an artwork.

    Do we agree yet? And, no, I must insist that the lack of clarity is all mine, Sirrah!

  2. Wonderful post, AKMA. New Criticism had fallacies of its own, including reifying the “text itself.” Maybe we all agree that a text can be luminous, or even numenous, that it can partake of the sublime, or the uncanny. At the center can be everything or nothing, the divine or an aporia. Art can also be decepitively ridiculous. But the work is a series of moves not just within a game, but against the boundaries of existing games. The way Jesus spoke a series of such moves, always putting the interlocutor in play within a game larger than the interlocutor would otherwise understand. Art in that sense wagers us, we wager ourselves in reading it, at our own risk.

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