Archives for posts with tag: Poetry

So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.

My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy art. In particularly photojournalism and photo-realist painting, interestingly, both schools of which are sometimes touted as not art at all. My view is that good photo-realism adds something to mere representation that is almost intangible – and it is that, in fact, which is the slippery essence of what ‘art’ is.

But any debate on art quickly falls into rather crass examples of what one likes or dislikes as if that explains what art is or isn’t. A slightly deeper debate will often get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’ but these too are often distracting traps of little consequence. Keen to play along, however, and at a push I came up with a simple triad of core qualities which we might use to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m absolutely happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.

Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.


All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally both the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it but if a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. To you. So, that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend it: there’s no magic number in consensus, but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object will do. In fact, it is probably easier to consider a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some way to define this difference between object and item imbued with meaning in some way. Which is different, of course, to ‘not liking’ what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.

It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or the horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.

The most obvious quality. And then there’s ‘found’ objects which are given a context and thus communicate as more than mere objects. So, no, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence, which brings us nicely to…

The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.

The combination of all these three (and in some cases perhaps, only two of these), and by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.

Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become art over time as context changes (scarcity or changes in train design now reveals the craft or art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, or some novels.

The creation of art has the consequence that it does, however, become a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate to this, and it is a question rather of what do we mean by the ‘value’ of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.

Disappointingly, I find debate around art tends to miss what we might call the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking, or more thanks to modernity maths and coding might be considered an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. It has gone beyond design, as evidenced by people being compelled to buy and hang prints of it, a pursuit disconnected with its original purpose.

Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’

It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.

Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.

I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.

Rarely has an album crept up on me so wholly. Laura Veirs‘ latest release (July Flame) was unremarkable at first, but I had got hooked on the track ” so stuck with it.

Then, driving with work to deliver on-site consultancy and through the flat Oxfordshire countryside on a warm British summer day, her collection of songs got under my skin.

And now the astonishing beauty of her lyrics similarly impresses whereas before it was a purely aural joy. Notably…

I wanted to make something sweet
The blood inside the maple tree
The sunlight trapped inside the wood
Make something good

I wanted to make something strong
An organ pipe in a cathedral
That stays in tune through a thousand blooms
Make something good

It’s gonna take a long, long time
But we’re gonna make something so fine

I wanted to make something pure
Emerald field from steer manure
A wide-eyed child in a moonlit room
Make something good

And if you love music and your friends then there really is nothing else to do but buy them a copy and that’s just what I’ve gone an done. On its way to you Jon.

(the  topic at last night’s pub philosophy meeting lead by Prof. John Clarke MA and Emeritus Professor of History of Ideas at Kingston University)

Some points I am still pondering – help welcome…

1. Can an argument, hypothesis or idea exist independent of the philosopher – as vehicle – who propagated it? When does a hypothesis become so consumed by adherence to an ideology by its vehicle that its value decreases? Is it when we get emotional about that ideology (as we rightly do with Nazism or Communism)?

Or, would Heidegger’s reputation be different were he not a Nazi?

What if he unconditionally recanted his Nazi Party membership? Does that actually matter? Is the hypothesis bigger than the man?

Many struggled with this last night, but other examples were offered – Wagner for example; have we dismissed his music because of his attitudes that seemed entirely compatible to his Nazi admirers? Jung has the advantage of admitting he was wrong to be involved with Nazis and their sympathisers and this appears to be hardly mentioned when talking of him and his body of work today and yet with Heidegger it is always mentioned as a defining context.

2. Did Heidegger really completely reject calculative thinking (in favour of purely meditative thought)? The answer from Prof. John Clarke was ‘no’, but it seemed to me that the attitude was more binary than not. This strikes me as somewhat asinine of someone purported to be among the most influential of thinkers in the 20th Century. Then again, I’ve not read his criticism of calculative thinking, but I am surprised he sees little value in it.

Instead, Prof. Clarke referred to Heidegger’s love of poetry and the almost Taoism of the meditative critique, but this is a paradox: poetry is full of rules, syntax, craft, a necessary mathematical pulse even – it’s more than aesthetic. I guess this is the danger of only a 45minute lecture on a complex man, especially when we warned that ‘Being and Time’ (Heidegger’s greatest work) is virtually unreadable.

3. The idea of anti-modernist attitudes was floated. It seemed to me from what we heard about Heidegger was that, actually, he would’ve been more at home/peace (and perhaps enjoyed a kinder audience) had he been born 60-70 years before and entered into the circles of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts bent of British socialism as opposed to the National Socialism of Germany in the 1930’s. The argument being that the zeitgeist at the turn to first-quarter of the 20th Century saw theological and philosophical challenges to meet modernism which was running away with itself – had taken the enlightenment too far. The volk were spiritually dissatisfied with modernism. Modern life is rubbish. It was technology-led and reinforcing a soullessness which was consuming faith, culture, socio-political issues as well as the aesthetic.

The example offered from our modern understanding modernism is the endless development of, say, TV from analogue to digital to micro gadgets replacing formerly cabinet-sized beasts of the lounge (and, I assume, the depreciation in quality content in light of the increase in means and technological advancement, which was implied but not actually cited). But, I objected, this criticism is not an aspect of Heidegger. In fact, I could not think of a single philosopher who actively embraces endless developments in pure technology and thus the implication of the contrary. And the reason is clear: it is not philosophers who occupy this realm, but the forces of economics.

Perhaps we could mention Marx, but I rather think we should separate his observations on economics from his pure philosophy. Marx philosophises on the exploitation at the kernel of capitalism, but capitalism is NOT a philosophy it is a socio-economic and political structure. So, still, can you think of a pro-technology philosopher? No. And I’ll tell you why because economics of this kind thrives on mindlessness not wisdom.

So I am not entirely convinced of the value of this if all philosophers are anti-technology by their love of wisdom alone; they can be against modernism and post-modernism, but not against pure technology just as they can’t be for it; it is a personal value judgement not a system of thought.

A zillion trees;
some of them dead
and some of them touching one another
looking at the dead.

by Karlos the Unhappy Jackyl

I don’t mind eels
Except as meals.
And the way they feels.

by Ogden Nash.

the whole yard quiet—
the cool sound of rain
on rhubarb leaves

This was written by H. F. Noyes as featured in ‘Haiku: Poetry Ancient & Modern’ edited by J. Hardy.