How do we produce authentic art? Can Art be produced in the Sartrean sense of Bad faith? That is an inauthentic representation of the self. Or in other words. An expression of a lie to oneself. A lie that we are aware of but insist on ignoring.
Or in the sense of Simone de Beauvoir and her idea of the Serious woman/man. That is an individual who latches on to a role or cause, to the extent they begin to lose themselves within it, and start, as she describes, “to harden “ into the object.
We know these people; as they assume their role, indeed take themselves so seriously they make an object of themselves, eradicate all doubt, gradually losing their transcendental, subjective natures (transcendence as a possibility to surpass its given state of affairs - to become something other).
Could artworks constructed in this fashion become merely a sclerotic object? One that has no basis in freedom. An object of an object.
How can we tell what is authentic and what is not, in a reality so full of things?
As way of introduction we find Aristotle embark on the inquiry into authenticity in the context of virtue by maintaining that “true” virtue is performed by the individual for themselves, because they carved this way to action through personal deliberation, as opposed to, doing it for the crowd, so to speak, or out of fear, or vanity.
Where to begin, briefly?
In this section I will attempt to draw out various conceptions of reality leading up to Sartre and the subject of authenticity and how we can apply this to Art.
In an idealist sense, our mental productions are representations of reality as idea( in our mind). Both consciously and unconsciously produced. As Kant conceived- the world of appearances, or as Schopenhauer subsequently phrased it- the world as Idea. Kant suggested that we naturally ask questions which seem to require information beyond immediate phenomena, why, what, God, causes what is red? Etc. Questions we can’t answer through experience.
Because reality is mediated through our sense apparatus Kant concluded that we do not have access to reality as it is. He called this inaccessible realm- noumena. His great copernican revolution was to propose that these truths are not out there in the world but in us, in the construction of our minds, which make sense of phenomena
By inference he extends this to the individual to create a split self, hewn into two incompatible parts. The phenomenal self stranded within the limits of its senses alienated from the essential reality which underlies it, but, with a faculty of understanding that can impose its laws and concepts (he splits these into categories-time, space to morality etc)into existence. He attempts to reunite physics with metaphysics, to provide meaning and universality to existence
Philosophers that followed refuted his ideas. Schophauer and Nietzsche are among these.
Schophauer albeit a great admirer of Kant disagreed with the notion of the thing in itself. He acknowledged the thing itself as a category distinct from phenomena, but proposed it to be the will;the will in the sense as the blind drive of all natural things to exist, and express themselves in existence. (Many parallels can be drawn here to eastern religions, Hindu and Buddhism.)Schopenhauer saw this will manifest in all life, as we see abilities and special features of creatures to kill and reproduce, and in the human world, which for him had the highest sensitivity and hence the highest sensitivity to suffer. Suffering is our universal feature, of which asceticism and compassion can mitigate the pain. Schopanhauer does really start to develop a philosophy of the unconscious, the human as a high functioning animal underwritten by a biological system, but aware of its own temporality, and so haunted by apparitions of past and future and its own death. Generally a miserable animal. Nietzsche takes this on, but develops a more pro-active optimistic future- The human as animal that can carve its’ on features.
Nietzsche sees the invention of metaphysical realms as life denying strategies and a sign of sickness, and attempts to bring the human back into reality. He tries to do this with his overt interest in the individual and their relationship to the world. A relationship which should seek itself in reality itself, not realms of fantasy. He develops notions of authenticity and existentialist thinking with, amongst other things, his attention to the idea of “becoming”.He was a great admirer of the ancient philosophy of Heraclitus, who saw the world as constantly in flux, changing; in contrast to Plato who creates a metaphysical ideal realm in the “forms”
We will take this up again with Sartre; but crudely speaking Nietzsche gives us the idea of a reality with no fixed meaning, like Schophanhauer,s brutal animal world; “we” bring this to the world, not as fictional a priori(innate/pre experience )constructs(like Kant) , but as our own constructs developed in the world, really through action. He describes the becoming individual as one of self creation, much like a work of art being made. That can affirm itself in the world. In this sense, he shapes the formation of the self as self written saga, not one shaped by fictions. So, one that has the possibility of authenticity. The individual has the power to clear away all the false illusions imposed on themselves to fully become what they are , not as a final goal, but a state of becoming, or being toward. Critics of Nietzsche accused him of creating a “relativism”, an anything goes philosophy leading to “nihilism”;but on the contrary, he worked to develop a philosophy of affirmation, in the face the demise of religion and the rise of science, Nietzsche diagnosed a sickness in his era. As Science rapidly destroyed the Theistic concepts, despite his criticism of religion, he feared for the outfall as these metaphysical structures disintegrated. He tried to develop a philosophy which centred the individual as the creator of values, in the face of nihilism.
So, what is this endeavour of art?- to represent or interpret this representation of our reality, and maybe gain some (speculative,imaginary)insight into our selves, and the world? Or is it the restlessness of our split selves appealing to understand, to fill the void. Or the Nietzschean adventure of self creation, the creative affirmation of the individual.
Whatever our reasons we cannot escape the conclusion that we suffer, die, look at ourselves doing it and can’t help asking - why? Meaning, value.etc In the next section we will look at some ideas of Sartre to help our investigation.
Sartre in his analysis of consciousness develops the idea of intentionality; that our consciousness is shaped by an about- ness. It’s eye is aimed at phenomena which it concerns itself with . He expands this idea to a double intention -focussing outward into the world of things, but also focussing at our own being, the in-itself. In other words, resting our attention upon reality, and reflecting upon ourselves within it
Sartre proposes this double movement( perceptive consciousness and self-consciousness) introduces a gap( as consciousness finds and negates itself, because it is not itself )within our being- a nothingness(negatite ) arises, which constitutes us as a being -for -ourselves.A being which finds itself non- identical to itself, necessarily un-unified, constantly seeking to become itself. Instead of the hackneyed excuse of a phrase. “ I am what I am”. Sartre would replace it with, “ I am what I’m not” and “ Iam not what I am “
We are becoming beings, constituted by possibility. It is this feature of nothingness, our incompleteness generated by our consciousness which “ condemns” us to freedom. In other words, the nothingness generated at the core of our being works like a causal gap, between past and present, where we escape a determining essence. We can choose ourselves, so to speak. (Eliminative materialists, Patricia Churchland, for example would suggest that this is a complete denial of the unconscious motivations of the brain hard wired into its structure. Sartre does seem to leave out unconscious biological features for an overtly “conscious philosophy”. We will look at this later.)
It is the corruption of this becoming which leads, according to Sartre to bad faith. However in a world of people and events it is extremely difficult to build ourselves authentically or even know what this is. The problem of the other, and the necessity of the other inhabits all that we do. So Bad Faith emerges from a loss of the authentic project of the self. “ I am what I’m not for something other”
But this sounds like an absurdly impossible, selfish project seeing that we are creatures bound up with each other and the world we find ourselves in. How do we stop this supposed project of authenticity from collapsing into narcissism. Our entire system of language pre supposes a being with others(or be examined later in terms of Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Mind). Simone de Beauvoir would say that the transcendental project of individual freedom coincides with everybody else’s project of individual freedom. So, she says, we cannot experience our own freedom ( freedom here is an open state of subjectivity, so one can be locked up and still experience oneself as free),unless those around us move toward their own freedom and authenticity. The inter subjective nature of existence is paramount(all our responsibility), so that gesturing and posturing leave out subjectivity altogether. So, we have to beware of narcissism dressed as a number of values; care, compassion etc. all performed in Bad Faith.All we see is an act played out.
Or if we become a tool of another or an organisation we lose our subjectivity, we leave our freedom at the door, and authenticity goes out the window.
Art is generally a public function, although its production can be a solitary business, and can remain there. However, its’ intention is to convey a representation or idea into the world. To represent a representation(created in the “mind”or brain - another discussion later). Of which we can receive from the world, or from internal motivations.
We can do this through an appeal to the world-“What is this?” Or a proposition -“This is the case.”
This proposition or appeal may relate to a represented scene, or an object, or itself or an absence. Where we don’t necessarily find an object, only idea, in the case of conceptual art.(generally the idea is the primary factor)
Is there a crucial philosophical break between art extracted and located in phenomena and art extracted and located in concept.?
What underlies socially engaged art ? We will return to these questions later.
To recap;we find ourselves, in the world, with no explanation, with a mind which is aware of its own body, almost as a stranger, and is aware that this body has a time limit, and in this time we must endeavour to make it mean something( or fall into nihilism). Heidegger believed we must acknowledge ourselves as a being-toward-death to truly think and act authentically. A true acceptance of this plight ( and absurdity for Camus), and the radicale freedom which grounds us would be our ideal existential beginning point. So by extension, the work, as an embodiment of consciousness, or encountered phenomena, the floundering for- itself as it tries to make sense of itself, others and other things, should (try to)embody that same freedom. Indeed a massive challenge.
If a certain social cause is being represented, we find the artist as activist; but is it not the case that if the artist does not recognise their own inconsistencies,contradictions, doubts and possibilities, the work will fall into either propaganda( a tool of ideology), or disappointing analogy, where we discover the (didactic)meaning of the work in the title, and in this one move, lose all the inherent freedom of the work? Living consciousness or subjectivity is lost.
If a work is to address an issue, which is a worthy and necessary project, in existential phenomenological terms it must begin from the subjective. It must almost be discovered anew. I think sometimes, many(outside of art), approach issues which are outside of their reality, purely because the last thing they want is subjective involvement.
To take an issue as it stands, and illustrate it, is just to publicly agree with it. An elaborate gesture. “I AGREE”. And with implication. “SO SHOULD YOU”. We may suspect, narcissism or some such ulterior motive.
Awareness that the phenomenal world is awash with power struggles, in language and manifestations, is I think, essential. In a contemporary world which presents us with realities outside of our experience, we must be honest with ourselves of what we know, navigate wisely. Both Sartre and Beauvoir insist that the choices we make for ourselves are choices made for the world; how we want to be is how we want the world to be, and the only logical project is the one of freedom. In this sense, Beauvoir especially, created an ethical dimension to existentialism which prevents freedom from manifesting as a destructive project; it’s necessary true form is when where it is neither receiving or emanating any oppressive force,to move toward its’ full potential .
However this state of affairs is both impossible and contentious. It is quite clear and Sartre devotes some writing to this, that the self requires and enjoys antagonism, not equilibrium, or at least a flux of states. To engender a mass state of equilibrium could well be seen as a totalitarian project, and also misunderstanding the complexities of human difference. The move from the psychological to the political is not just one of expansion, because that also presupposes universality, something like a Kantian category, to impose.
(Beauvoir did appreciate the confusion when considering the complexities of the forces at play when approaching emancipatory projects. As you enter into a state of affairs the outcome may be unpredictable and upturn when unknowns show up etc- as we see in global emancipatory military projects..) Theory and action, not always straightforward.
To be continued…