The Basic Dilemma of the Artist

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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"I know of no 'new programme'. Only that art is forever manifesting itself in new forms, since there are forever new personalities-its essence can never alter, I believe. Perhaps I am wrong. But speaking for myself, I know that I have no programme, only the unaccountable longing to grasp what I see and feel, and to find the purest means of expression for it."

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff

The psychophysical problem is long standing and, probably, intractable.

We have a corporeal body. It is an entity subject to all the laws of physics. Yet, we experience ourselves, our internal lives, and external events in a manner which provokes us to postulate the existence of a corresponding, non-physical complement. This corresponding entity ostensibly incorporates a dimension of our being which, in principle, can never be tackled with the instruments and the formal logic of science.

A compromise was proposed long ago: the soul is nothing but our self awareness (introspection) or the way we experience ourselves. But this is a flawed solution because it assumes that the human experience is uniform, unequivocal and identical. It might well be so - but there is no methodologically rigorous way of proving it. We have no way to objectively ascertain that all of us experience pain in the same manner or that the pain that we experience is the same for all of us. This limitation on our knowledge prevails even when the causes of the sensation are carefully controlled and monitored.

A scientist might say that we can map and pinpoint the exact part of the brain which is responsible for pain. Moreover, science is even be able to demonstrate a monovalent relationship between a pattern of brain activity in situ and pain. In other words, the scientific claim is that patterns of brain activity ARE the pain itself.

Such an argument is, prima facie, inadmissible. The fact that two events coincide (even if they do so without fail) does not make them one and the same. The serial occurrence of two events does not make one of them the cause and the other the effect, as is well known ("correlation is not causation").

Similarly, the contemporaneous occurrence of two events only means that they are correlated. A correlate is not an alter ego. It is not an aspect of the same event. Activity in the brain appears WHEN pain happens, but it by no means follows that it IS the pain itself.

A stronger argument would crystallize if it were convincingly and repeatedly demonstrated that playing back these patterns of brain activity induces pain. Even so, we would be talking about cause and effect rather than an identity of pain and its correlate in the brain.

The gap is even bigger when we try to capture emotions and sensations by applying natural languages. This seems close to impossible. How can one even half accurately communicate one's anguish, love, fear, or desire? We are prisoners in the universe of our emotions, never to emerge and the weapons of language are useless. Each one of us develops his or her own, idiosyncratic, unique emotional language. It is not a jargon, or a dialect because it cannot be translated or communicated. No dictionary can ever be constructed to bridge this lingual gap.

In principle, experience is incommunicable. People - in the very far future - may be able to harbour the same emotions, chemically or otherwise induced in them. One brain could directly take over another and make it feel the same. Yet, even then these experiences will not be communicable and we will have no way available to us to compare and decide whether there was an identity of sensations or of emotions.

Still, when we say "sadness", we all seem to understand what we are talking about. In the remotest and furthest reaches of the globe, people share the feeling of being sad. It might be evoked by disparate circumstances - yet, we all seem to share some basic element of "being sad". What is this immutable kernel?

We have already said that we are confined to using idiosyncratic emotional languages and that they cannot be translated to other idiosyncratic emotional languages or otherwise communicated.

Let us postulate the existence of a meta language. This language is common to all humans. Indeed, it seems to be the language of being human. Emotions are statements in this language. This language must exist to make even the most rudimentary communication between humans possible.

It would appear that there must be a correlation between this universal language and our myriad idiosyncratic, individualistic languages.

Pain is correlated to brain activity, on the one hand and to this universal language, on the other. We would, therefore, tend to parsimoniously assume that the two correlates are but one and the same. In other words, it may well be that the brain activity which "goes together" with pain is merely the physical manifestation of the meta-lingual element "PAIN". We feel pain and this is our experience, unique, incommunicable, expressed solely in our idiosyncratic language.

We know that we are feeling pain and we communicate it to others. As we do so, we use the meta, universal language. The very use (or even the thought of using) this language provokes the kind of brain activity which is so closely correlated with pain.

It is important to clarify that this universal language could well be a physical, even a genetic one. Nature might have endowed us with it to improve our chances of survival. The communication of emotions is of an unparalleled evolutionary importance and a species devoid of the ability to communicate the existence of pain, for instance, would surely perish. Pain is our guardian against the perils of our surroundings.

To summarize: we manage our inter-human emotional communication using a universal language which is either physical or, at least, has strong physical correlates.

The function of bridging the gap between our idiosyncratic, private languages and a more universal one was relegated to a group of special individuals called artists. Theirs is the job to experience (mostly emotions) and to mould their experience into the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of a universal language in order to communicate to us the echo of their idiosyncratic language. They are forever mediating between us and their experience. Rightly so, the quality of an artist is measured by his ability to loyally represent his unique language to us. The smaller the distance between the original experience (the emotion of the artist) and its external representation, the more prominent the artist.

We declare artistic success when the universally communicable representation succeeds at recreating and evoking in us the original emotion (felt by the artist). It is very much like teleportation which allows, in sci-fi yarns, for the decomposition of the astronaut's body in one spot and its recreation, atom for atom in another.

Even if the artist fails to faithfully recreate his inner world, but succeeds in calling forth any kind of emotional response in his viewers/readers/listeners, he is deemed successful.

Every artist has a reference group, his audience. They could be alive or dead (for instance, he could measure himself against past artists). They could be few or many, but they must be present for art, in its fullest sense, to exist. Modern theories of art speak about the audience as an integral and defining part of artistic creation and even of the artefact itself.

But this, precisely, is the source of the dilemma of the artist:

Who is to determine who is a good, qualitative artist and who is not?

Put differently, who is to measure the distance between the original experience and its representation?

After all, if the original experience is an element of an idiosyncratic, non-communicable, language, we have no access to any information regarding it and, therefore, we are in no position to judge it. Only the artist has access to it and only he can decide how far is his representation from his original experience. Art criticism is impossible.

Granted, his reference group (his audience, however limited, whether among the living, or among the dead) has access to that meta language, that universal dictionary available to all humans. Still, no member of the audience has access to the artist's original experience and their capacity to pass judgement is, therefore, in great doubt.

On the other hand, only the reference group, only the audience can aptly judge the representation for what it is. The artist is too emotionally involved. True, the cold, objective facts concerning the work of art are available to both artist and reference group, but the audience is in a privileged status, its bias is less pronounced.

Normally, the reference group will use the meta language embedded in us as humans and a modicum of empathy to try to vaguely compare their emotions to his, to try to grasp the emotional foundation laid by the artist. But this is very much like substituting pornography for real sex. Talking about emotions - let alone making assumptions about what the artist may have felt that we also, perhaps, share - is a far cry from what really transpired in the artist's mind.

We are faced with a dichotomy:

The epistemological elements in the artistic process belong exclusively and incommunicably to the artist.

The ontological aspects of the artistic process are observable by the group of reference but they have no access to the epistemological domain.

And the work of art can be judged only by comparing the epistemological to the ontological.

Nor the artist, neither his group of reference can do it. This mission is nigh impossible.

Thus, an artist must make a decision early on in his career:

Should he remain loyal and close to his emotional experiences and studies and forgo the warmth and comfort of being reassured and directed from the outside, through the reactions of the reference group, or should he consider the views, criticism and advice of the reference group in his artistic creation and, most probably, have to compromise the quality and the intensity of his original emotion in order to be more communicative.

I wish to thank my brother, Sharon Vaknin, a gifted painter and illustrator, for raising these issues.

ADDENDUM - Art as Self-Mutilation

The internalized anger of Jesus - leading to his suicidal pattern of behaviour - pertained to all of Mankind. His sacrifice "benefited" humanity as a whole.

A self-mutilator, in comparison, appears to be "selfish". His anger is autistic, self-contained, self-referential and, therefore, "meaningless" as far as we are concerned. His catharsis is a private language.

But what people fail to understand is that art itself is an act of self mutilation, the etching of ephemeral pain into a lasting medium, the ultimate private language.

They also ignore, at their peril, the fact that only a very thin line separates self-mutilation - whether altruistic (Jesus) or "egoistic" - and the mutilation of others (serial killers, Hitler).

About inverted saints: http://samvak.tripod.com/hitler.html

About serial killers: http://samvak.tripod.com/serialkillers.html

The Case of Sergej

Sergej Andreevski is one of Macedonia's foremost painters. I visited his studio in the outskirts of Skopje to avail myself of a rare opportunity: an open invitation by a practicing artist to enter his mind.

Sergej is an action painter in an age of for-hire artisanship, he is an expressionist, bucking the trends of modernism, abstract and otherwise. He splurges paint from his tubes all over the (usually largish) canvass and then dives into it, fingers and soul. He prefers green and blue.

Sergej is a very physical artist. He loves the texture of his colors (though not their smells). He is tall and imposing and likes his experiences raw and direct. But he rebels against the limitations of the physical and its intrusion on his spirit: he makes battle with his canvass, jabbing at it and piercing it, in a bid to extricate himself from its disciplining dimensions.

He paints with music in the background and tries to capture motion and magic by deploying naive but endearing techniques. His is a world of guts. He is a quasi-surrealist, though he rejects this label, any label. He is not a man of theory, but of daubed practice.

Sergej regards his art as an expression and a manifestation of what he calls his "instinct." He finds the need to verbalize the sources of his inspiration tedious, difficult, and superfluous. His sensa and his exposure to other countries and cultures should suffice to account for his work. He admits that mathematical precision and the balance of colors have a role in his art, but only as finishing touches, not as an integral part of the primary process of creation.

He is attuned to other people: their body language, their feelings, other intimate information he can glean. This is his raw material. His art is his reaction to the world, an emotive discharge. His paintings are, thus, emotional capsules, a visual internal biography, a landscape of interactions with himself.

Painting is Sergej's compulsion. The public is secondary. He doodles when he is not painting. When at work, he dissociates ("I cut them out"). Frequently, he has only vague memories of events outside his easel and of the intervening time. Sergej is cursed (or blessed) with synaesthesia: musical notes assume colors and shapes and have a profound effect on his mood.

He thinks of his paintings as triggers, not as messages. As far as he is concerned, the viewer is at liberty to disagree with the artist on what a work of art means or says: "art is not a language". What matters is that there is a reaction. Sergej is a great believer in art's power to refine and uplift even the coarsest, most vulgar man.

He brings into his art the spell of his homeland, Macedonia, steeped for hundreds of years of solitude in folktales and traditions, the mists of times, the cradle of legends and of superstitions. "Too much knowledge obstructs the artist." Artists need to work on their associations, not to be too erudite, Sergej concludes.


Also Read

On Empathy

On Being Human

Manners of Speech


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