Can modern art bridge the gap of the subject/object divide?

One issue which has puzzled philosophers for hundreds of years is that of ‘other minds’.  Thomas Nagel made this puzzle iconic in modern philosophy with his essay ‘what is it like to be a bat?’. In this paper, he points out the problem of the subject/object divide. I, the experiencer, am the subject; my experiences are subjective. All the things I see are my objects, and they have an objective relation to me. These objects have an inner life which is simply unknowable. There is a sticky ‘what is it like’ question which is seemingly unknowable. Other people, in the context of subject/object, are unknowable objects too. We can know people by their actions, behaviours, their words, and so forth, but what we learn from them is our perceptions of what they externalise. We simply know the external values, the projections of them.

It would seem apparent that we could understand their experience of the world by projecting our imagination. We have human experiences of the world, so we understand our own ‘what is it like’ experience, we could surely project it to our imaginings of other people. That simply isn’t possible. Whenever we do that, we aren’t imagining what it is like to be that person, we are imagining what it would be like for US to be that person; the continuity of consciousness is still with the ‘I’ of our corporeal nature, simply imagined as the ‘I’ of another body, but it is still the ‘I’ of the same me, not them. That experience remains a closed subjective dimension.

The world of impressionism and beyond (post impressionism, cubism et al) in modern art could be seen to put an interesting spin on this. When the impressionist artists came about, the interest moved from that of portraying the world to that of portraying a perspective, an experience, of the world. Artists lost interest in painting in a realistic manner- that was seemingly superseded by the camera. They wanted to do something that the camera couldn’t do- show the world the inner life of things, the experience of things. Cameras can’t catch essences such as perceived motion, or emotion generated from the experience the artist has of the thing they are presenting to us.

A great example of an early attempt to convey what the camera can not is in Matisse’s The Dance. We see fluid motion in the picture, the bodies bend in unnatural ways. This conveys movement in the dance beyond a realistic portrayal. The warmth of the orange-red bodies, unnatural, yet full of joy, full of life, becomes captivating to the viewer when contrasted against the nighttime blue background. The thick lines contour the bodies, moving with, and exaggerating, the movements of the dancers. This painting is full of life far more than a Polaroid snap ever could be. The eye may not see it, but the mind feels it, and the eye sees what the mind feels. It makes perfect sense to us why the picture feels like this.

Kandinsky took this one step further. Throughout his career, paintings became increasingly abstract, relying more and more on the intrinsic values of the colours and the lines to convey the feeling of the picture. The names of his pictures weren’t even giving of details, being called ‘Composition vii’, for example. He wrote volumes on the effects of curves and lines, the properties of colours, light and shading, the impressions these had on the viewer of the painting, and what information and feeling these things contained. This seems natural, red means danger to many people, blue can mean calm or cold- we have our own notions of what these colours mean to us, but Kandinsky was interested in shared, universal understandings of these colours.

The interesting thing we can wonder is this- does portraying a subjective experience break down the subject/object divide? Are we any closer to understanding the ‘what is it like’ question? Some say yes, some say no. One issue which immediately presents its self to me is that, yes, we are perceiving a portrayal of a subjective experience. However, we have a subjective experience of an objective piece of a subjective experience. Let me explain- You and I both look at a photograph, this picture of Jacques Rigaut, for example. You and I are going to have very individual experiences of the picture, but also very different interpretations of it. Now look at the picture The Dance again. We both see the portrayal of a subjective experience. However, we are both having our own subjective experiences of this picture.

Does this mean that we are no closer to apprehending the experience the illusive object-other is having? Yes and no. Whilst we can’t say that this has caused us to have their experience, we could say that the pictures can elicit an experience in us which is qualitatively closer to that of the other’s experience. What we are able to do, in viewing the pictures of these artists, is extrapolate from our experience to one which is CLOSER to that of the other’s experience. We may never bridge the gap, but we seem able to narrow it, thanks to people like Matisse and Kandinsky. We could never close that gap completely, for to have another’s experiences is to no longer be ‘me’.

I remember a talk with Alain de Botton in which he proposed that we reevaluate art galleries to be more conducive to appreciating art. What he was interested in is the groupings of paintings in a way which makes more sense, grouping them with an agenda. That could mean to group Matisse paintings together to gain more of an insight into Matisse. It could mean grouping all the South African tribal paintings a gallery has together, so that we may appreciate them better- within the context of a cultural group. It could mean placing all the pictures of bathers by Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, and so forth, together, so as to understand the tradition of bather pictures better.

If we have a room of bather pictures, the range of perspectives can help us perceive a range of experiences. It can project our imagination to extrapolate us closer to a number of different subjectivities. Simply look at those by Picasso, Cezanne, and Renoir. On one hand we experience a range of representations by them, but on the other hand, we experience a range of experiences of a scene. Variations of a theme gives us a number of distances in which we can stretch our imagination and experience. These three paintings, whether we notice it consciously or not, have helped us see the world through the eyes of three different people already. The reason for thinking about grouping paintings is obvious- we could increase our psychological distance regarding a singular perspective, or we could do so about the entire life of an artist.

When Matisse was going through a depressive spell, many of his paintings were in, or mostly in, shades of blue. Through colour he displayed sorrow, emptiness, sadness, loss… and to group these together would magnify the distance we could stretch our minds to his period of suffering. We could say that a collage of objective subjectivities of an ‘other’ (the ‘other’ being the object in the subject/object divide) increases the distance we can extrapolate closer to a subjective experience of the ‘other’. The value of the artist can be in showing us the world, or the value of an artist can be in growing our perspective. The subject/object divide may forever be there, but they have the power to close the gap.

4 thoughts on “Can modern art bridge the gap of the subject/object divide?

  1. “the continuity of consciousness is still with the ‘I’ of our corporeal nature, simply imagined as the ‘I’ of another body, but it is still the ‘I’ of the same me, not them. That experience remains a closed subjective dimension.”
    ” What we are able to do, in viewing the pictures of these artists, is extrapolate from our experience to one which is CLOSER to that of the other’s experience. We may never bridge the gap, but we seem able to narrow it,”

    I tend to agree with this. Good.

    Are you a philosopher?

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  2. I read Thomas Nagel’s essay ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ long time ago, does he agree with your “the continuity of consciousness is still with the ‘I’ of our corporeal nature, simply imagined as the ‘I’ of another body, but it is still the ‘I’ of the same me, not them. That experience remains a closed subjective dimension.” As I have said earlier I agree with you on this.

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