It might be art – part two

This is the second part of a post covering the BHA’s conference on humanism, philosophy and the arts held at Conway Hall last weekend. For the first part, click here. The same disclaimer applies – here are some of the points raised, albeit somewhat simplified and abridged, and apologies in advance if I have at any point misunderstood the arguments that the speakers were making.

Julian Baggini: Hollywood versus philosophy

It occurred to me to wonder right at the beginning of this talk why the question was posed as adversarial since Baggini was essentially looking for points of similarity between film narrative and philosophy. He was asking whether film can examine questions seriously and systematically as philosophers do and concluded that, in some circumstances they can, perhaps even better than traditional philosophy.

He began by pointing out some of the differences – the fact that philosophers attempt to create a thoughtful, systematic and reasoned judgement on an issue, which is not the role of film. He also suggested that truthfulness in film is a very different concept to truthfulness in philosophy. The goal is to create a consistent truth within the film world which may or may not parallel the real world and there is no requirement for a film maker to create something that is coherent or consistent. Indeed, many opt for contradictions and paradoxes.

Baggini next discussed the intentional fallacy, the idea that the author’s intentions should not be of much relevance when discussing a given work of art. He said that this would suggest that a film-maker does not need to set out to create a work with philosophical insight in order to do so, and we shouldn’t frame our interrogation in those terms. Also some philosphophers have had great insights but have failed to build on them in a consistent manner and so this would not need to be a hindrance when judging film from a philosophical perspective.

Since films are not particularly in the business of giving their reasons, of providing consistency or of being systematic, it was suggested that their main value from the philosophical perspective was to provide useful ad-hoc insights. Baggini next suggested that philosophical ‘arguments’ are attempts to draw attention to an aspect of experience, be it observations or invitations to their audience to examine their own experience. He said film could do this very well, and sometimes better than philosophy, carrying out the crucial function of getting us to attend to things and in making people change their views on what is more or less than telling.

Thus, for example, a film like the Coen BrothersBarton Fink, can demonstrate that empathy and understanding is more important to the development of ethics and morality than arguments and ideas.

Baggini’s argument is that film, in short, can show us something about living a good life that a tract cannot and that literature and in particular film are able to build and develop our moral knowledge. However, despite the fact that this talk contained many interesting points and touched on a medium that is a particular favourite of mine, it was in some ways a disappointment, and really the first of the day. I think, after reflecting on this for a while, that was because it added up to considerably less than the sum of its parts. I didn’t come away at the end of it feeling that I had been guided to new knowledge that I didn’t already possess, or that I was going to look at cinema in a new way in future.

Rather, I felt that I had been taken on a tour of things I already knew, albeit a relatively engaging and interesting one, covering an area that had already stopped being controversial when we were film studies students some 20 years ago. Perhaps this was, in fact, the problem and those who had been somewhat less exposed to the ideas presented in this lecture would have found it more valuable than we did.

And so to that most controversial of subjects, modern art…

Nigel Warburton: Searching for meaning in Tate Modern

Warburton, who teaches courses on aesthetics at the eponymous institution, asked at the beginning of his lecture whether it was misguided to expect modern art to give us insights into the human condition and said: “Short answer: no!”

He then won me over instantly by presenting as his first slide one of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals, the subject of a fantastic exhibition at Tate Modern during the latter part of 2008, which was one of the most impressive I remember visiting for some time. He examined the idea that a painting that is good will speak for itself and that critical baggage is presumptuous, saying that he disagreed with both propositions.

He said rather that each viewer will bring their own baggage, that art will often involve and depend on more than the image before our eyes, and that viewers of art are no less immune from invoking the intentional fallacy then any those engaging with any other medium.

To illustrate the first two points, he mentioned the Rorschach Test as the ultimate example of people bringing their own baggage to an image – but then pointed out that Andy Warhol had made a series of artworks based on the famous ink blot test. He suggested that the two were visually indistinguishable and that the viewer must approach the pictures with more information than they can pick up just by looking – an excellent example, I thought, of the importance of the craft of curating exhibitions.

Warburton moved on to the idea that art does not have to only be about people and their emotional concerns, choosing a classic piece of mediaeval iconography as his subject. It depicted Christ on the cross and Warburton suggested that a viewer who had no knowledge whatever of the Christian myth of the crucifixion would nevertheless appreciate its geometry, its patterns, its composition and arrangement of space. He said religious paintings were a means of taking the viewer beyond the object in front of them, the same function fulfilled by a family snapshot.

He moved on next to an amplification of the concept of the intentional fallacy to discuss ‘virtual intentions’. As I understood this it means that, while it is never possible to have a complete picture of the intentions of an artist or creator, we can consider virtual intentions – a term from aesthetics – summing up those intentions that are plausible but not provable. He pointed out that, in conemporary art, it is important to try to understand the thoughts behind an object and used an example from the work of Thomas Demand, a German artist who recreates painstaking 1:1 scale paper models of significant scenes such as crime scenes, photographs them, then destroys the models. The photograph remains the sole artifact and the profound absence of any trace of humanity in them is an important theme in his work (more here and here).

Warburton summed up by referring to John Berger’s seminal work Ways of Seeing which mentions the bogus religiosity of art exhibitions and the way that viewers tend to walk around in reverent silence. He suggested that Tate Modern, with its thematic collections had managed to move away from this somewhat. He restated that it is particularly important in contemporary art to try to understand the thoughts behind an object and asked whether the visual arts are more open to general interpretations than the verbal ones.

He concluded by saying it is especially important to recognise the humanistic urge to communicate behind the work of art – and then made his one major mistake of the talk, inviting questions from the audience. What followed was a series of vehement assaults on the entire oeuvre of modern art that really served to reveal that the questioners did not understand the subject in the slightest and had no interest in doing so. They still felt perfectly well-qualified to criticise it, however, and as a result the session fell embarrassingly below the standards of debate that BHA members and attenders usually provide. The argument spilled over into the Q&A session that followed, spoiling that too, with the honourable exception of one contributor who proved with her question that she had not only assimilated the arguments perfectly but was able to express them in a clear, reasonable and non-hostile way.

At this point I decided my time would be better spent taking a calming stroll in the cool and leafy Red Lion Square rather than listening to any more. In this sense contemporary art is like feminism – having gone to some lengths to comprehend and learn to apply the arguments myself, I don’t feel it is a good use of my time to try to educate those people who are determined to wilfully misunderstand the subject in hand. Personally, I find that I can engage with art that is ugly, that is uncomfortable, that is challenging, that operates in a visual rather than a verbal or narrative language, and that requires input from me. I find making the effort is extremely satisfying, as with Rothko’s remarkable essays in form and colour, mentioned above or, for example, with a visit to Tate St Ives that puts the work of artists like Barbara Hepworth and Patrick Heron so beautifully in its geographical context.

Martin Rowson: Giving the gift of offence, or how cartoons keep us free

After the annoyances of the preceding question and answer session, the interlude during which poet Alan Brownjohn read his works and discussed their themes was very welcome.

The day concluded with an excoriating talk by Guardian and New Humanist cartoonist Martin Rowson about the crucial importance of satire to maintaining free speech and a healthy democracy. His argument was that mockery is one of the few weapons available to those oppressed by political and religious authority of all kinds, and also one of the most proven and effective. He explained how the fact we have a 200-year-old tradition of such satire in the UK has secured us a valuable degree of freedom to criticise our politicians, and pointed out that there are plenty of other places where such a tradition is not enjoyed, with predictably oppressive consequences.

It was interesting stuff, particularly his take on the controversy over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, which does not appear to have left him with a lot of respect for the position taken by either side. His criticism of the actions of the cartoonists (paraphrased, making life harder for some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in Danish society, the people who are already relegated to cleaning the toilets) was thought-provoking and reminded me that it is almost a precondition of any fight over free speech that you end up having to defend the positions of people you really would rather not be defending at all.

While I didn’t necessarily come away with an enhanced liking for the speaker, I did find he had a lot to say that I could respect. (Not that I think my respect or liking, or anyone else’s for that matter, would prove particularly important to him.) As well as receiving a great and entertaining insight into the travails of the political cartoonist, the people who commission them and the subjects they lampoon, it was interesting to discover how much his work is grounded in the tradition of political caricaturists dating back to the 18th century. Here the format of the lecture worked particularly well, since being able to view the visual evidence of his work alongside the points he was making made comparisons like these clear. Also Rowson was passionate about the arguments he presented, which is always a great thing in a speaker, especially when that speaker is the last of the day.

Taken as a whole, this was another excellent conference from the BHA and I’ll almost certainly be along to the next one. If you feel like doing the same, you should keep an eye on its website. Subscribing to its newsletter is a particularly effective way of finding out about events and campaigns you can support, should you happen to share its political objectives.