Ode to Dumb Matter

 [Available in PDF format here.]

There are many fine art museums. Apart from the richness of their collections, they tend to differ primarily in the ingenuity brought to bear in the placement of particular works of art so as to ensure memorable viewer experiences. Perhaps the best known example of ingenious placement is that of the Winged Victory in the Louvre. Assuming that it is still in the same place, it confronts the viewer from the top of a long, broad marble staircase. On a good day, standing at the bottom of that staircase looking up, the viewer sees that sculpture in flight, as though alive, coming at him or her down those stairs as no mere piece of marble can. It is a breathtaking experience.

I am sure that this feat of placement was carefully planned by a museum professional with a subtle understanding of what makes for felicitous encounters with art. Surprise is part of it. It prevents viewer expectations and knowledge from inserting themselves like an obscuring veil between the viewer and the art. Unfortunately, surprise only works once. The Winged Victory will fly for you only once. Because the experience was so marvelously overwhelming, you may want to have it again. But no matter how often you go back to Louvre expecting to see the Victory fly, it will refuse to accommodate your desire. Your very expectation gets in the way. At least, that has been my experience with that sculpture.

Some examples of effective placement are accidental. There is a small museum in Delphi right next to the ruins of the Sanctuary of Apollo in Greece. It is home to The Charioteer and the Sphinx of Naxos. The museum staff did the best they could with what they had, which was not much space, which is to say, not enough room for clever placement possibilities. But the exhibit is powerful all the same, largely because one walks into it after an encounter with what is left of a long lost world: broken columns; marble stairs deeply worn by the cumulative effect of countless feet climbing them for three thousand years or more; a baffling story about a mythic battle between a python and Apollo, the god of form and sense-making, who slew the beast and threw its remains down a chasm in the rock, etc. The sculptures in the museum put a face on the people whose world that was. The Charioteer, in particular, makes absolutely clear that they were people like us. Indeed, as I have argued here once, his face looks more human than any live face in the place.

In this instance, it is the location of the museum itself that takes care of the placement issue.

The issue matters because emerging from that museum, one looks at its setting with different eyes. They may have been people like us, but they also weren’t. That Naxos sphinx, for example, or one like it, once crouched atop a thirty-three foot column guarding the entrance to the sanctuary. What could they possibly have had in mind putting it there, believing apparently that a sculpture of a mythical beast could be an effective guardian of a sacred place? Was it all merely symbolic? Apparently not. They also placed such sculptures in cemeteries so as to deter grave robbers. They took the idea seriously, in other words. But how could they? How likely is it that people not sufficiently scared of the dead to prevent them robbing graves at night would be afraid enough of stone sphinxes to deter them from that enterprise?

I once tried my hand, also here, at an answer to that question and don’t want to repeat myself. My point at the moment is only this, that in combination with its setting, that art induces experiences the implications of which may reverberate past immediate encounters with it, and that those reverberations may then become the ground of other such experiences, some of which may ultimately reach all the way into ordinary life. It is an instance of how art works when it really works.

We do not look at ourselves in quite the same way after we recognize ourselves in people who lived three thousand years ago, disconcerting beliefs and all. That’s another dimension of what G.M Trevelyan called “the poetry of history”. As he suggests in his “Autobiography of an Historian”, it may come as a powerful revelation that once upon this earth, a very long time ago, there were people just like us, living and loving one day, dead, gone, and forgotten the next. It may come as an even more productive revelation that we are still those people today and can therefore understand them – and ourselves differently — if we try. We can feel our way, for example, into being afraid of a stone sphinx, and do so, moreover, without dismissing that fear as a form of primitive superstition.

By understanding ourselves differently, I mean something more substantial than simply abandoning the silly notion that we are fundamentally more clever, as well as more immune to nonsense, than our ancestors were. As a day or two spent at Delphi may convey to a reflective visitor, in some ways they were more clever — more intimately in touch with complex human realities — than we are. And in some ways, we are just as much hostage to nonsense today as anyone was three thousand years ago. In the name of fairness and justice, for example, we passionately believe in an ideal of equality that not only leaves the injustice of nature what it has always been, but exploits it in the furtherance of growing inequality. The naturally able thrive, the less able founder. The rich get richer, the poor, poorer. We call that justice and pride ourselves on the firmness of our grasp and the purity of our insight. A thousand years from now, probably sooner, future historians will shake their heads in disbelief at our collective blindness.

Those historians will not be significantly ahead of where we are today, however, unless they understand that as human beings, they, too, remain as vulnerable to nonsense as we were. It may assume different forms, but the phenomenon will not on that account be any more edifying. By understanding ourselves differently, I mean gaining purchase on the nature and causes of that vulnerability. And unlikely though it may seem, reflecting about our reactions to art can help advance that project.

II

Going back to the Louvre, I spent a lot of time over the years trying to understand what happened to me there on that day, roughly half a century ago, when I saw the Winged Victory fly. The experience turned my world upside down. I knew as well as anyone else that marble does not fly, but I saw it fly. I learned later that a fair number of people have had the same experience. It induces awe, a mixture of fear and elation. And it is absolutely compelling. You stand there, rooted to the spot, unable to move, not tempted, for example, to get out of the way lest the thing crush you. Yet it is coming straight at you, flying down those stairs, wings beating, as you stand there marvelously, absurdly, exhilarated.

As unexpectedly as it began, the experience ends. You wake up as though from a dream. You see people staring at you with alarm on their faces. You become aware of the tears on yours. Apparently, you have been laughing and weeping at the same time. You look up the stairway and the sculpture has returned to its spot, deceptive in its innocent immobility. So you walk away, find the exit from the museum, and get back out into the everyday world of the street. That world looks astoundingly impervious to what just happened to you and, more surprisingly, to the reality that you have just encountered. You may be relieved to see that out there dead marble does not spontaneously fly, but you know that it can. Why doesn’t everybody know it?

When this happened to me, I walked into a café for a cup of coffee. Sitting there drinking it, I said to myself that what I had just experienced had to be an illusion. Marble does not spontaneously fly. If it did, the real world would be different in countless unimaginable ways. Moreover, had I really, literally, seen it fly and coming at me, I would instinctively have gotten out of the way. I didn’t. Therefore, something else had to be going on. But what? I had no idea, but I told myself that I would figure it out eventually.

A good effort, in other words, to make my rationality prevail against an experience disconcerting both in itself and in its implications if I took it seriously. But this was the sort of experience that fiercely resists invalidation by rationality. I was as sure that I had seen that thing fly as I was that I was sitting at that table in the café, if not more so, which is to say, as sure that it actually flew as that the table top was hard.

It occurred to me that that is how optical illusions work. The same gray, surrounded by different colors, looks like a different gray, lighter, or more intense, for instance. One actually, literally, sees it as a different gray. This was a much more complex optical illusion, dynamic and three-dimensional, but an illusion nonetheless. But when it comes to known optical illusions, we understand why and how they work. It has something to do with the neurobiology of vision. In this instance, no such explanation offered itself. It was not even true, certainly not obviously, that I had harbored some hidden desire to see that sculpture fly and consequently animated it unbeknownst to myself. But if I had no such desire, why did seeing it fly make me feel so insanely happy, ecstatic, in effect?

I did not solve the problem for a great many years. I continued to believe not only that I had seen the Victory fly, but that it actually flew before my very eyes. And because the experience had such a huge emotional impact upon me, I was encouraged by it to generate theories according to which the effect of art, when it is good, is to open our eyes to dimensions of reality to which we remain ordinarily blind because they tend to get in the way of practicalities and comfort. But we resonate to those dimensions, I typically argued, because they have something to do with us as mysteries to ourselves. Although we do not understand them, they forcefully remind us of our intimate kinship with the mystery that is reality itself.

III

Mystical experiences understandably give rise to mystical theories. Unfortunately, mystical theories explain nothing. What exactly is it about the reality that I am that makes me resonate profoundly to the incomprehensibility of reality itself as art presents it to me? That I don’t understand myself and know that in my bones? Why would it make me happy, never mind ecstatic, to be reminded that I am not the only thing that I don’t understand?

Reality itself is mysterious alright, but we ourselves represent its most challenging mystery. We are striving biological materialities, endowed with organs of perception and a consciousness. As a human being, I am not something over and above that, such as the ghostly inhabitant of that materiality. I am not my consciousness either. The latter functions as my headlights, ideally as an aid to successful navigation. At my core, I am that materiality itself, animated, however, by a striving that in its objectives generally transcends my survival. The latter is an accidental side-effect of what I do. I build; I attend to the quality of structures and patterns – to their integrity, if you will; I chase wholeness, ideally not at the destructive expense of diversity; I endlessly pursue unity and harmony. Those are the objectives of my striving, built-in, so to speak, into my biology conceived as dynamic. They are sometimes called beauty or the good. But whatever they are called, pursuing them, I survive. My survival is a fortunate side benefit of my striving for other things.

But try understanding that. Try understanding matter striving when your conception of matter is of something essentially mindless and dumb. But you are an instance of that same supposedly dumb matter. Yet here you are, striving for high-flying objectives like beauty, harmony, the good, and so on, resonating loudly and deliciously when you come anywhere near them. But why try to make sense of that at all? Because we can’t help trying! Doing so is yet another instance of the very phenomenon we are trying to understand.

As a species, we are purportedly unique in our ability to turn our headlights on ourselves. Try making sense of that while you are at it, when unless it issues in more intelligent navigation, that uniqueness remains a largely wasted evolutionary endowment.

IV

Back down on earth, when you really think about it, there are few things more absurd than a block of marble sporting wings, shaped into an obviously forward moving anthropomorphic figure with those wings deployed, and yet as immovably immobile on the ground as any granite rock on the coast of Maine. Few things insult our sense of reality as egregiously as a bronze figure of a charioteer and his horses, supposedly careening down the race course in the plain below Delphi at mind-boggling speed, yet deathly still. And what could be more out of place in relation to familiar, age old reality, than that other piece of marble, also in the Louvre, with now missing arms but its female torso, fine breasts and all, polished to perfection, translucent like human skin, but stone cold, hard as stone, and as unlike any female flesh anyone has ever known could possibly be?

There are absurdities so unredeemable in their incongruity that they beg for even greater absurdities in order to start making visual sense. Which is where we come in. The cold skin of the Venus de Milo starts to glow with the warmth of life. On a good day, you may even see the artery pulsating at the side of her throat. That charioteer comes alive, his body filled with tension, his face with intense concentration. And some face it is, more human than ours because it is made of bronze, which enables its humanness to assert itself the more conspicuously. And just so, the Winged Victory starts to fly.

Also just so, blotches of paint on a flat canvas that look like tulips turn into tulips, apparently more real and more beautiful than any really real tulips have ever looked. We are not tempted to pick them or to replenish the water in the painted vase. We are not crazy. We are not tempted to duck or to step out of the way when the Winged Victory comes rushing down those stairs. No one is seriously tempted either to start caressing the breasts of the Venus. Their coldness and hardness would make for an instantly sobering experience. All the same, however, these confrontations and others like it induce a profound happiness in us. I couldn’t buy the Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo, but I did Diane Messinger’s Tulips and hung the painting in my house, so that every time I look at it, I can experience some of that happiness.

Good visual art – painting and sculpture – creates absurdities which it takes a human eye, mind, and intelligence to perceive as such, a human sensibility to be offended by, and then to redeem in the direction of intelligibility, even where the price of that redemption is the ushering in of even greater absurdities. And as though that were not startling enough all by itself, the feat induces joy. Bringing it off makes us happy as few other things can.

When I ask myself what that happiness is all about, I customarily resort to talk about beauty. But I don’t think that such talk is ultimately satisfactory as an answer to the question. Even if it were possible to remove some of the vagueness from our concept of beauty, we would still be left wondering what beauty is to us. Of course we love it, but why?

Even if one concedes that those sculptures in the Louvre are beautiful, harmonies replete with tension, etc., one is left wondering why their sight affects us as it does. God knows, there is plenty of tension when stone postures as flesh, and even more of it when marble spontaneously flies. It is the outright impossible made real. But why do we love it when we see it, where the everyday word “love” hardly does justice to the intensity of the emotion the sight induces?

Because, I suggest, it is all our doing, and as such, not just any doing. It is our doing what we are best at. We always do it, but never quite that conspicuously, that recognizably, that gratuitously, or that wholeheartedly. In it, we meet up with the beings we are at our core, namely inveterate strivers for wholeness and sense. Whether are conscious of it under that description or not, the pleasure that encounter induces in us is that of self-recognition.

Good visual art is a mirror that offers us a glimpse of who we are, both generically and as individuals. Looking into that mirror may the closest we come to discerning more than confusion when we turn our headlights on ourselves.

I am strongly tempted, of course, to say that of art in general. But the case is easier to make with respect to visual art.

Just to make sure that nothing remains unclear: as the sculptor’s material is marble or clay, and the painter’s pigment and canvas, the viewer’s material is what the sculptor makes and the painter paints. The viewer turns that material into another work of art, one in which the incongruities of his or her material find resolution, albeit in the form of a creation that, in relation to real reality, is an anomaly. Viewers cannot help doing that, but in the pleasure it gives them, they come alive to themselves as artists by nature, as essentially builders and creators, and as lovers of harmony and sense.

The upshot is that whatever else it may be, a good work of art is an instrument of self-knowledge for its viewers. And whatever other business artists may take themselves to be in, the one that they are really in is as the makers of such instruments. Finally, what those instruments reveal when all is said and done is that we are all artists, not just at heart, but always and in fact. We are biological matter offended by imperfection, absurdity, meaninglessness, striving always for wholeness and sense, and joyfully recognizing itself in its creative achievements. What is beauty to us? A prized mirror of who we are!

V

This may be a good time to remember Socrates’ suggestion, in Plato’s dialogue Charmides, that a self-knowledge that has no practical implications is useless. To the extent that it induces a degree of awareness of ourselves as creative beings, art may be immensely gratifying. But unless that awareness translates into differences in life as lived outside the confines of museums and art galleries, that is where its value ends. In other words, the question is whether art is worth celebrating for reasons beyond its catering to our vanity.

Offensive incongruity assumes many forms. They are a feature of everyday life, often more troubling in their implications than artistic artificialities, like marble posturing as flesh. Moreover, the stakes involved in resolving them felicitously are typically much higher than they are in the lovely perceptual game that issues in seeing marble come to life, or blotches of paint turn into tulips. In life outside of art, it is notoriously not a desirable option to create anomalies in relation to reality, or to resolve absurdities by ushering in even greater ones. Yet considering the state of the human world, and though life is not art, it seems that we commonly avail ourselves of that option all the same.

As you live in the same world that I do, I’ll spare you a list of examples that could go on forever. My point is that what we do when confronted by incongruity in art, we also do — not always, but often enough to catastrophic effect – in the face of incongruity in life. And just as we can’t help doing it in art, neither can we help doing it in life. Our instinctive creativity has its downside.

Though not many people do, one can know that, not that knowing it does any good all by itself to change anything. But it is a start. Exposure to good art issuing in self-knowledge gives us that start.

We may all be artists, but the state of our world strongly suggests that we are not all good artists or thoughtful ones, either individually or collectively. Moreover, thoughtfulness on that front is often a luxury that we cannot afford. Of course we should worry about tomorrow, but unless we get through today, there may well be no tomorrow. That, too, makes good sense, even though its effects may include sleaze in all its varieties, dysfunctional government reflecting a broken society, to say nothing of war, genocide, and the decimation of the planet.

All the same, which is admittedly saying a lot, the same principle that animates our striving when we sweep our front porch, or place flower boxes on our window sills, also drives our less edifying productions. There are many ways of getting the better of perceived incongruity and absurdity. One is to demonize my adversaries or to try to destroy them. In theory, of course, they are people just like me, no better, no worse, but in fact, I can feel better about myself by making them out to be evil. I could sort out the complexity of the issues that divide us, but it is so much easier to have my world make sense by concluding that they are not really human at all, at least not as I am. And to be fair here, I may not really have it in me to opt for the harder solution, either because my culture does not support me in that effort, or because I am not by nature a hero, or because my adversaries have not been kind to me either.

Although I understand full well that if the world continues on its current economic course, there will eventually be hell to pay, I may not have it in me to stop contributing to the persistence of that disastrous course. I do what I can with what I have, in the circumstances in which I have it. I am no moral hero. I am limited in my perspective, but from within those limitations, everything makes sense. Perhaps I’ll bolster that sense by framing and hanging on my wall some soothing quotation from a kindred soul to the effect that capitalism has done more to lift the poor out of poverty than all the do-gooders, social workers, and reformers in the whole history of the world. And when some scholar writes an intelligent critique of capitalism, I dismiss it as Marxist claptrap, or the solutions the person proposes as impractical, even though they happen to be as non-radical as a transnational wealth tax.

If I am a liberal or a progressive, supposedly more enlightened, with more of the milk of human kindness running though my veins, I am lot likely to pause and wonder why that makes sense as a human phenomenon. It is so much easier to write off the economic and social right-winger as heartless or downright evil. That also makes sense.

In fact, in a world that makes so little of it when considered as a whole, just about everything makes sense, people everywhere keeping themselves in one piece within the limitations of their circumstances, generally well-meaning, everyone of them loving his or her children, and making the best of a bad situation.

It does no good to say that people should be more thoughtful when they can’t be. It does no good to harangue them from the top of a moral high horse or from some other pulpit. They do what they can with what they have, in the circumstances in which they have it. And that includes holding dumb beliefs, buying into absurd ideologies, or attributing responsibility for the sad state of things to God, which makes it seem just instead of appalling.

As I said, one can know that. One can know oneself as always an artist. And if more of us knew it, the human world would gradually change because we would have a radically different sense of what human beings are about: creative biological materialities always hunting for sense and harmony, and embracing it whenever and wherever they can find it within the limits of their circumstances. We may be individually close to powerless to change our circumstances, but we are not collectively powerless. Collectively, we are to a huge extent the creators of our circumstances, including, for example, of a culture that would have some people be good and others evil, the injustice of nature be just, and human beings free to do whatever they please, or be what they should be just by wanting to or trying hard. All of that is nonsense, anomalies piled on top of perceived anomalies, created to make sense of the latter. Because we created that nonsense, we can also dismantle it. Instead of wringing our hands in despair and in helpless anticipation of even greater disasters, we could come to terms with the beings we are.

That is why good art matters. More of it, as well as more reflection about it, might get us started on the long road toward knowing ourselves better and attending to the practical implications of that knowledge. It might eventually issue in the human world turning into the ultimate work of art and a lovelier home.

© Serge Kappler 2014

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