In the introduction to his book entitled ‘Philosophy of art’ Virgil Aldrich notes that there are many ‘phenomena’ associated with art. He means by a ‘phenomenon’ something that ‘teases’ people into thinking about it; in other words a phenomenon is something that provokes thought, reflections and questions. The resulting responses – the answers to these questions – serve as the beginnings of theories and philosophies of art.
He then provides a thumbnail sketch of various of these phenomena and he begins by pointing out that a work of art can seem strange or thought-provoking because the medium somehow ‘contains’ the image and is not analogous to looking at the world through a window pane or a mirror. In addition we see, for example, three dimensions in works of art (such as a figure, a person, or a bowl of fruit) when in reality we are viewing a flat two-dimensional surface. When we look at works of art we find ourselves wondering if are we seeing something concrete or essentially an illusion. We also seem to have a point of view that is distinctly aesthetic, a point of view that also goes beyond the purely subjective. There is a special kind of objectivity that characterises works of art; without any such objectivity, art criticism would not be feasible. But, it is feasible.
And amongst the many other phenomena of art there is the artist’s ambiguous relation to everyday life and its values. He writes:
‘On the one hand the artist seems remote from life, caught in the self-sufficiency of his or her works of art … yet on the other he or she seems to be more intimate than non-artists are with life so that he or she can reveal its secrets.’
And he continues:
“… it seems to be this puzzling sort of relation to his or her works that others must get into if they are to experience it for what it is worth as art.”
What a wonderful incentive this must be for the serious artist; he or she can celebrate or criticise the world as they find it. They may reveal truths about the world (imagine Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, a haunting work by Goya or an insight wrought by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky; imagine, even, the acute perceptions of the Impressionists or the realities surfaced in Bob Dylan’s poetic lyrics). So, Aldrich’s remark suggests that when we view works of art in the museums and galleries we might always respond by looking for truths about humanity and the world in which we find ourselves. And, as the contemporary art critic Matthew Collings recently observed, this may entail very hard and prolonged thinking. He, Aldrich, also enjoins us to try and uncover the relationship between the person of the artist and the work that he or she makes. This may or may not be straightforward.
Aldrich published his ‘philosophy of art’ in 1963. The question his book now raises concerns the way the contemporary artist engages with the world. Is it still the case that the relationship remains quite so ambiguous?