Why talk about the ontology of art when such high-minded thoughts are a distraction to creating art work? The simple answer is that, with limited time left on earth, I want to create meaningful works. This begs the question of what makes great art. I’ve asserted elsewhere that it is the sense of presence in the works. Here I will expand on that, striving to understand what draws us into the works existentially.
Before I start, I should articulate a disclaimer about the scope of my assertions. Using a big word like ‘Ontology’ is risky because immediately your position is compared with the long history on the topic that includes the greatest minds since Socrates. What you’ll find here is a layman’s musings about being. Not only do I not have the training or time to be a scholar, I also don’t want to invest much life energy into exploring all the rabbit trails in the history of philosophy. I have too many works of art that are languishing unfinished as it is.
Moreover, it is my belief that an understanding of what causes a masterpiece to exist should be understandable by the common person. It should be more accessible, like a catechism or the stories of mythology, than like the polemics of a Princeton or Oxford.
Another reason to be humble about assertions of being is what I’ve called elsewhere ‘the n-level problem’. This was noted when I recounted my exit from Christianity. You see, even if we could assert that wounds St. Thomas touched were, in fact, those of a resurrected Christ, the very fact that Christ could be resurrected makes any other supernatural phenomena possible, such that Christ himself could have been impersonated, used or deceived by a higher power. Likewise, angelic beings might have indeed appeared to Mary and the Shepherds and said what is asserted they said. There is no way to guarantee, however, that those beings weren’t on some drunken hazing exercise to play games with humans, the way the Greek gods mucked around with them.
Once you assert higher beings who can read our thoughts, be teleported, raised from the dead, transmuted, etc. there’s no way to morally qualify them, or distinguish the good from the bad. The earth gods might have been played for fools by higher beings, just like they play with humans. Thus, if you assert the possibility of miracles and higher beings, you are also picking a side by your own faith alone. It is necessarily a personal choice, just like you chose which church to attend.
The same principle applies not only to assertions about god(s) but also to assertions about our own being. It is conceivable that genetic engineers can create a new form of life and introduce that into a laboratory experiment where existing forms of life encounter it. These creatures do not have the cognitive capacity to understand that the new creature was introduced by man. They might be so primitive as to not have senses, like eyes, for example, to detect the presence of observers. They have sensors of various types that enable them to survive. The natural, i.e. non-manmade creatures must figure out whether the new arrivals are friend or foe, etc. Let’s assume in the end they all get along, and the new creatures coexist with the old. That is, the natural creatures have no notion that the new fellas are synthetic, and the synthetic ones were engineered to not know or care about their origins.
If we cannot deny the possibility of such a hybrid experiment, who can categorically affirm that we ourselves are not the subjects of an analogous experiment by higher beings we can’t detect? We might lack the faculties to see higher beings that could, hypothetically, be engineering our own existence to watch and learn what happens.
Why is it, for example, that we are wired for story? All cultures use mythology, even in secular sectors, to drive behavior. The story ‘interface’ to our minds and psyches can be used periodically to ‘program’ entire populations and thus steer history, as evident in the construction of pyramids or the Third Reich. Stories to humans are like so much sugar water stimulating populations of slimy creatures to act.
So rather than explain Being as something integral, as an object that can be described, I’d rather describe a phenomenology of interactions between higher and lower beings to the extent they can be experienced. I look at the interaction between creator and created, and as we’ll see below, between artist and his work.
By phenomena I mean interactions like prayer. I’ve covered interaction with ‘the Universe’ previously with the notion of Uranthom, so I won’t revisit it now. Here, we’ll look at ourselves as the higher beings in relation to our creations, one of which is art. Certain art has ontological standing in relation to both the creator and the observers. While the principles may apply to other domains, in what follows, I’m thinking of paintings specifically, not sculpture or art installations.
The Existence of Art
What if Van Gogh had the idea for Starry Night but never executed on it, would the art exist? Of course not, because with art the idea is not complete until it is realized, and the realization necessarily evolves the idea further.
Neither is a work masterful until it has a presence when observed. By presence I mean the sense the viewer has, when in front of certain masterworks, that they are having an encounter with a personality or domain that is ‘other’ than the physical place they are standing in. For example, standing in front of a Rembrandt portrait at a museum, I had the distinct impression I was encountering a being from another place and time who ‘spoke’ to me in ways that cannot be fully articulated. It’s true that powerful 3D movie on a big screen may have an immersive effect of presence also, so I’m not disparaging other types of art. I’ll stick with the domain of paintings here.
What makes one work have that state or being that others do not have? To me, Van Gogh’s art is more powerful than Gauguin’s. Why? Gauguin is telling a story of a journey, provoking viewers with colorful figures that ask questions. These figures are like mythical characters, like those in Aesop’s fables. Van Gogh, on the other hand, just recognizes a certain existence in his subjects that comes from deep empathy. He lived with coal miners, he took care of the destitute, he was passionate about people. Gauguin cared mostly about himself, abandoning people – even his wife and kids – in the pursuit of art. The difference comes across. Gauguin is more calculated and cerebral it seems to me.
Van Gogh’s emotion came from a real connectedness, one that in some ways was fully consummated by him as he faced rejection. Like the isolated Michelangelo painting his marvelous nudes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, art became an alternate reality Van Gogh could immerse himself in. His passion is evident in his brush work. It is not representation, but action, a visual assertion of life and existence. This comes from someone who had been fired as a minister of Jesus for being too close to the poor. Van Gogh lived among them, in a miner’s shack.
To paint like Van Gogh is to express the essentials of being. The vocabulary is vibrant and simple. We have to empathize at an existential level. We are not thinking about answering specific philosophical questions about, for example, where we come from or where we are going (as with Gauguin’s work). In Van Gogh’s work, we are present with no strings attached. There is an inevitability about viewing his works that is disarming, that draws you into his intensity.
Great art does that. It draws us into a presence that otherwise would not be experienced at that place. Put a cover over the art, and that presence is gone. This the alchemy of aesthetic moments, where everyday experience becomes extraordinary. To me, these works have a type of existence.
Art facilitates an experience that is not necessarily reproducible by making more of its kind but rather is always recognizable in the masterful instance. You cannot paint as Van Gogh did, with his colors, brush strokes, motives, etc. and necessarily have, at the end of the effort, a masterwork. In other words, the essence of great art is not in the materials or the technique, although these are necessary elements to the masterful whole. There also has to be an audience to experience the presence.
If an instance (even if the very first instance) of a painting in a style can be more masterful than others in that genre, it only follows that someone may later produce another piece of even greater quality. If by the application of fresh colors in a superlative execution an expert managed to surpass a Van Gogh with a work in his style, then the Van Gogh would be diminished regardless of being the inventor of the style. This is like the young Leonardo surpassing Verrocchio with the painting of an angel in a single collaborative work.
Of course, for collectors who know Van Gogh, a work by the master’s hand would have more value just because Van Gogh painted it. In other words, they are assigning value to authorship. This valuation criterion is external to the work and the pure artistic experience the viewer may have with it. I don’t count knowledge of authorship as a distinguishing characteristic of masterpieces. Artistic ‘parentage’, if we can call it that, is interesting information, but in a strict sense, not part of the being of the work as we’re calling it out here, i.e. that spark between the viewer and the work we call presence.
One could argue that Van Gogh enthusiasts can’t really separate the experience from the knowledge of the authorship. Let’s say, however, a previously unknown Van Gogh is found and is then copied with such superlative execution that the result is a better Van Gogh than what he himself originally painted. Maybe the original was a misfire, a good idea painted on a bad day for Van Gogh. And let’s say the impersonating artist actually pulls it off so well, that there is an experience of presence of the same quality as to be had with Van Gogh’s other works. If the experience is there, it must be recognized as such, apart from knowledge of the hand who made it.
Thus, because it is conceivable that someone could paint a more impactful and better-executed version of the masterpiece, we can assert that the essential idea of a great work, while not available to experience apart from an execution, nevertheless exists apart from a specific execution, as it did in the mind of Vincent, when he decided to paint it. Moreover, a work can exist in more than one execution, as in Velazquez’ multiple copies of the portrait of Don Luis de Gongora. When a concept instantiated multiple times in high quality, no one instance can be said to be less real than the other. In other words, the masterwork is co-dependent with at least one execution, and not restricted to a given instance.
Likewise, we don’t know who really initiated what is known as The Iliad and The Odyssey. These works were transmitted orally over many years, so that the version we know today may have been honed by many authors in the retelling. Nevertheless, the work has an existence beyond the vagaries of specific words that changed from one recounting to another.
Beyond the idea and its execution, it would all be for naught if there wasn’t an appreciative audience. If the rest of humanity disappeared and a tribe happens to eventually wander into the ruins of Amsterdam, and they valued a shapely designer garbage container more than Van Gogh paintings in the museum, would the paintings cease to be masterpieces? To the natives, the answer would seem obvious: the garbage container is much more useful. Experience is necessarily part of the presence of the work, so that the existence of a masterpiece cannot be independent, but is rather relative to its visibility in the culture. Adherents of ISIS had no problem destroying ancient Assyrian bulls and other artifacts because to them, they were no more valuable than a garbage can is to us. Yet somehow over the span of history, we must affirm that artifacts that were masterpieces to ancient cultures are worthy of protection.
So far, most of this seems obvious. There seems to be a synergy between the idea and the realization, each of which is not complete without the other. The idea necessarily came before the execution, was then modified by it, and can, in turn, inspire additional ideas for execution. If there is continuity of being between us and the rest of creation, is there some parallelism we can draw out of the ‘masterpiece’ ontology of art for the sake of understanding human experience. It seems to me that the three factors elucidated above, i.e. the idea, the execution and the acceptance, also apply to people.
Perhaps God cannot know us apart from the instances of people in the community. The idea, or better said, the ‘hunch’ of a person in the mind of God, is not the person. The struggle to produce a masterpiece person and community is evident in the ambitions of civilization and may be a categorical imperative. The driving force behind humanity’s continual self-realization towards excellence maps to the ‘mind of the artist’ so to speak, of him or herself being realized through excellence. Realizing this elevated intention without hindering others can be considered the moral life. We have to be careful because our the collective choices of intent determine the reality orchestrated. Moreover, if the execution impacts the idea, then we are shaping the mind of God, such that it cannot exist apart from creation, nor can He/She.
— Roy Zuniga
July 16, 2017