H.R. Rookmaaker - Art, Philosophy and Worldview
Art, Philosophy and our View of Reality
by H.R. Rookmaaker
From the beginning of our history, we human beings have been placed at the centre of the world, God’s creation. It was left up to us to orientate ourselves in this world. As such, much is uncertain, since our knowledge and insights are human, relative, disputable, more in the order of hypotheses than certainty. God, in his revelation, has given us the key to understand reality; but much has been left up to us to discover, to study, to try to understand. In this sense, all of our knowledge is a posteriori, a reflection on that which is given. We look, we think and we talk about reality. In a certain sense, talking about reality, or better, discussions of what we humans claim to have seen and understood of reality, are essential to what it is to be human. We offer arguments and consider the correctness of interpretations.
The history of thought, in philosophy and literature, and the history of looking, in the fine arts, is in a certain sense the history of humankind. Of course, there is more to it than just talking. We also act: we use the knowledge we have gained, apply it and, if things go well, a contribution is made to an ongoing discussion. In and with all of this, we reshape the contexts, the ways of life and the views we have of reality. The philosopher and the artist are both engaged with reality. The philosopher speaks through concepts, trying to represent and express his or her thought in order to communicate and contribute to the discussion. The artist gives concrete form to what she or he has seen and, hence, contributes to the discussion by means of visual communication that which she or he believes to have seen. Discussion of art is an intrinsic part of art, both verbal and visual discussion – insofar as one artist reacts in image making to what another artist has put forth.
Before proceeding any further, two remarks need to be made. We are limiting ourselves in this article to one facet of the fine arts, namely, to visual communication. All of the other things which could be said about art – and there are many – will not be discussed here. Secondly, it is of course interesting to consider what philosophers have said about art, but that also will not be discussed here.
We see what we know
What interests us right now is the idea that philosophers, regardless of their insight into art, simply cannot think without it. (The connection between philosophy and literature is also much stronger than people usually realize, but neither will we discuss that here.) For the fact is that philosophers think about reality, that is, about reality as they know and have seen it. But what they and their audience often do not realize is that what they see is not simply something neutrally presented as a given, but the very way they see things is determined in part by the arts. The arts have represented what we can and want to see of reality, in an equally human and fallible way. Artists ‘philosophize’ about reality in their own manner, namely with eyes and hands; they express themselves not in language and concepts but through visual communication, using images, which in their own way are just as clear and definite as verbal communication in language; both ways of communicating have their own possibilities and limitations.
What we need to realize is that seeing or looking is a complicated activity. Neither is it true that everything we know is solely dependent upon what the senses offer us – as though they were the only contact we have with reality. It is not so that we know what we see, as is often implied in theories of knowledge such as those of Locke and ultimately also of positivism. Sight is not our only source of knowledge. If this were true, the philosopher would in fact be totally dependent on the artist. It is actually quite the reverse: we see what we know.
We see what we know. This also implies that we do not see what we do not know. Take a walk through an orchard with a tree specialist. You see trees, he or she however, sees this kind and that kind and is surprised by a certain tree which differs from the others of its kind; he or she notices the insects at work in the trees. He or she can show and teach us to see, although this is not always easy and it will take time before we are really able to see the things that are obvious to the initiated. All education consists of opening our eyes and learning to see. And this is anything but simple. Our problem is impatience; we want to see too quickly. We are careless about seeing, we constantly overlook things; we are even worse about seeing than we are about listening or reading.
We see what we know. This kind of knowing is determined by tradition – in particular by traditions of seeing – and by our knowledge. Philosophy and science have certainly contributed to the latter. We can put it like this: as long as we know less than the painter and are still learning from her or him, we see what she or he wants us to see, at least if we are patient about looking and trying to see. But if we know more about something than the painter, we can have a discussion with her or him and notice errors. Someone who knows a lot about anatomy sees mistakes in that area. Someone who is knowledgeable about the way a sailing boat is rigged, sees where the one who draws a picture of a boat ‘didn’t see well’, probably because she or he does not understand how it works. Hence, seeing and knowing, understanding and seeing, are very closely related.
We see what we know; if this is true, one might then claim we are captives to our limited knowledge and that we can never really see. Neither could we then appeal to philosophy or science, because they too could only deal with reality as they have seen it. As such, all of us would be captives. But the situation is not really like this. For we are capable of seeing creatively. Locke, and many others with him, thought too naïvely about perception and the senses in general. They acted as if seeing were a simple or obvious process; we see what we see, don’t we?
Human seeing is anything but mechanical, passive registration. We can see actively. What takes place is not merely ‘from outside to inside’; it is just as much ‘from inside to outside’. When we see, we use our imagination (imaginatio), as the twelfth-century Hugo of St Victor claimed, and so we can discover while we see, creatively grasp that which we missed before. By means of the power of imagination we can discover the structure and context of that which is offered to the senses. Indeed, they who see creatively must exert all their powers of imagination. If, for example, biologists look at a membrane through a microscope, they must use their scientific power of imagination to see something, to discover and to understand what they see. Art historians have to see creatively in order to discover new things in the artworks they have looked at many times already. It is amazing how we sometimes suddenly begin to see something that before has always eluded our notice. In short, when looking, we need the help of a creative imagination in order to discover what there is to be seen. Of course, it is possible for our imagination to run wild and for us to start seeing ghosts. But even this can become the subject of discussion.
This is how we human beings stand in the world, our cosmos – with our eyes and our understanding, our imagination and our creativity. This is how we pursue our quest for discovery. Dead ends are not excluded. Nothing human is certain. But in discussion with others, and with renewed seeing, we move forward and sometimes make progress. To this we can add that at every new point we reach with any degree of certainty or presumed certainty, new perspectives, new facets for seeing, open up. Reality is inexhaustible, infinite in depth, diversity and richness. It will never cease to fascinate us – the Lord be honoured and praised, we should add to this.
Now I want to turn to the second main point of this article, namely that there is a great deal that is definite and certain. If this were not so the preceding could give the impression that we are captives to total relativism, that everything is uncertain and endlessly disputable. No. The reality that we think about, which forms the basis for our observation, is a given which as such is definite and certain. Our humanity too, and the structure of our orientation in reality, our ability to think and see, is definite and certain, something given to us by God in our creatureliness. It is certain that you who read these words at this moment, exist, can read and, moreover, can read (understand) English. Otherwise you could not be reading this, and you would not be reading it. Our reality is full of certainties, which, as such, are the starting point of all our work. Put differently, the world is not in chaos but in order, an order that is not dependent upon us. Even if our thinking is chaotic and confused, this definite reality, which at every moment offers correction to our thinking and seeing, remains there. In it we have a guardian. And this is what the discussion is about, whether or not our thought and our seeing are in agreement with that which is given in reality itself.
Anyone who has understood the above will understand that all of our seeing is coloured. Our own starting point is subjectively determined by our own personal history – where do I come from? What are my life experiences? Our faith, our own personalities too, colour our way of seeing and understanding. But we must not therefore fall into subjectivism. Consider this comparison: coffee, tea, wine and Coca Cola are all drinks, but they differ in appearance and taste. The latter is the essential point. Still, they have a lot in common. Each consists, namely, of more than 90% water. Similarly with people, our insights and our ways of looking at things are coloured differently but there is so much we have in common – our humanity, our being placed in the same cosmos. And therefore we are able to communicate with each other and we don’t have to be afraid of getting stuck in a chaos of unintelligible misunderstanding. No, this is the greatest miracle, a discovery that surprises us anew, time and again, and which we cannot, or can hardly, explain, namely, that there is communication in spite of the fact that our subjectivity has such a profound influence on our understanding and our seeing, on our reality itself: we are able to see and hear what another person wants us to see and hear. In this we can distinguish between what belongs to the ‘colour’ of another person and what is the real reality that is incorporated in it. Our perception is coloured, also our observation of that which others communicate (which in itself is again determined by its own colour) and still we can discern and acknowledge what is real and what is certain in it. This amazing fact alone, namely that we are able to enjoy substantial communication and are not captive to subjective relativism, means that we can really discuss things and make progress.
Therefore it is worthwhile to read the writings of philosophers and listen to them. Looking at a painting is meaningful and so is discovering what it makes visible and, thereby, what becomes evident about reality – perhaps even new things, things we never imagined before. The question then is which comes first, thinking or seeing, philosophy or the fine arts? It is certainly not the case that it will always be philosophy. Thinking is, indeed, important, but it is thinking about a reality which is seen and which as such is partly determined by the artist who influences our seeing. In this way philosophers and artists need one another. The former can make progress only if the latter has kept up with them. Hence, the question of who is first will frequently be like the problem of the chicken and the egg.
Think of the German art of the tenth century, the so-called Ottonian period (named after various Emperors of that name). There never was a more spiritualized art. It contains practically no reality in the sense of anything tangible or visible and insofar as it contains any reality, that is completely spiritual: bodies cast no shadows but are themselves light. This art, in all its expressiveness, is totally inspired by the mysticism of Duns Scotus. This eighth-century theologian-philosopher spiritualized the image of God in man completely: the body itself is perceived as the image of the divine image in the soul. As such, the body is a transparency of a spiritual reality, and this art is the art of those transparencies. There never was an art which could represent the deepest Christian truths so clearly but which at the same time had so little eye for the ‘ordinary’ beauty of ‘ordinary’ things, thereby failing to do justice to God’s work of creation. Nevertheless, these people were good observers, as we can see from certain details, for instance the representation of flapping sails, the folds of robes, and so on.
In a depiction of Christ of this time we see something we could never see with our everyday eyes, but which is still true; something which is a given in the Bible. We say yes to this view; it is one that is not merely a vision but a glimpse into the essence of things. We see Christ with the book of life on his lap, enthroned in majesty. He is also the source of life and below Christ two deer, panting after water by the stream, are depicted. In his uplifted hands he holds (it could not be taken more literally) the Gospel of Luke, symbolized in the manner of this time by a winged bull. Above it we see Luke, the Gospel writer himself. All around the scene are the Old Testament prophets who have been quoted and who have contributed to the Gospel – their names are written alongside them. Out of all of this, like illumination from a candlestick, comes light – light represented by the hands, which we see coming out of a cloud of witnesses. All around is a decorative bow and many playful birds. A grand, but true, vision; a creation which almost makes us forget the one-sidedness of this way of thinking about reality, in which corporeality and materiality are swallowed up by the spiritual.
A second example dates from the time of the Renaissance, when a new representation of space came into being – by means of perspective. Panofsky has made clear how antiquity had not been acquainted with this because it did not yet see space as being homogenous. Things were, indeed, seen in a kind of perspective, but one represented as discontinuous, and they were not clearly related to each other. Only after the development of art in the high and late Middle Ages, did a new way of portraying space come into being, one which assumed a continuity in which things were related to each other in their ‘object’ appearance. But at the same time, just because it was now objective, space was de-theologized and came to stand alone in itself. Later, according to Panofsky, and I agree with him, space became rationalized by Descartes and still later, formalized by Kant. Furthermore, this meant that the space that Kant talked about, and which he elevated to a category, was no longer simply the given one but rather one subdued by humankind in its art. The space Kant talks about can be seen even earlier in a Massaccio or Piero della Francesca. Kant believed that he had seen something, but he was probably not aware that what he had seen was an interpretation – a human accomplishment and as such also disputable.
A third example can be found in the art of our time. The absurd, the chaotic and discontinuous, the breaking down of the old world view is nowhere better seen than in modern art, particularly at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was only later that the philosophers began reflecting on this development. In some cases we can directly point out the influence of this art on philosophy, or at least easily assume the possibility. Sartre was part of a group of people interested in Picasso and intensely engaged with his art. His own early philosophy may have been an attempt to understand the images which brought to expression a new vision of reality. He saw the world like this and then tried to articulate it in his thought. Modernism is, moreover, the end point in the de-Christianization of Western art and philosophy, a process that began in the Enlightenment.
The extent to which Christianity was taken to be dead – to say nothing of the death of God – can be seen in Picasso’s drawing of a crucifixion in which everything consists of dead bones. In earlier times, the crucifixion was depicted not so much as a reconstruction of what one would have seen at Golgotha, but as a confession of Christ who suffered for us. This confession itself is presented here as dead. It is up to us to discover reality once again, to learn to see and understand reality in its createdness and hence also in its openness to heaven. This is the purpose of Christian philosophy. This is also the purpose of a new art, of which we can see the first delicate beginnings here and there. In any case, if we ever hope to experience the reformation for which we pray and work, a revolution which is so deep and which we can never bring about ourselves, but which must be given by God – then it will be necessary for both our thought and our seeing to be renewed, both philosophy as well as art.
The body of Christ cannot be heart only – faith; nor head only – philosophy, science and theology; nor mouth only – preaching; nor arms and legs only – activity. No, it must also have eyes, and for this purpose it needs art. The one simply cannot do without the other. Through all the ages, the Lord has given his church both the one and the other. It is up to us to thankfully receive these gifts and to develop our talents. We need a kind of thinking that never stands still and an artistic activity that can open our eyes to the openness and depth of a reality that is more than an autonomous collection of atoms or living cells, one that contains not only what is human but, beyond this, also so many spiritual principalities and powers.
Originally published in Dutch in Beweging 40, 1, 1976.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 2, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.