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'Psycho-Epistemology of Art' Questions

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I'll start with the relevant quotes from the essay and then ask the questions below them.


One of the distinguishing characteristics of a work of art (including literature) is that it serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation — and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often, resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion, to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, on his deepest, essential self.

Art is inextricably tied to man’s survival — not to his physical survival, but to that on which his physical survival depends: to the preservation and survival of his consciousness.


Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units — so art converts man’s metaphysical abstractions into the equivalent of concretes, into specific entities open to man’s direct perception. 


When we come to normative abstractions — to the task of defining moral principles and projecting what man ought to be — the psycho-epistemological process required is still harder. The task demands years of study — and the results are almost impossible to communicate without the assistance of art. An exhaustive philosophical treatise defining moral values, with a long list of virtues to be practiced, will not do it; it will not convey what an ideal man would be like and how he would act: no mind can deal with so immense a sum of abstractions. When I say “deal with” I mean retranslate all the abstractions into the perceptual concretes for which they stand — i.e., reconnect them to reality — and hold it all in the focus of one’s conscious awareness. There is no way to integrate such a sum without projecting an actual human figure — an integrated concretization that illuminates the theory and makes it intelligible.


This does not mean that art is a substitute for philosophical thought: without a conceptual theory of ethics, an artist would not be able successfully to concretize an image of the ideal. But without the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering: art is the model-builder.  



 It is important to stress, however, that even though moral values are inextricably involved in art, they are involved only as a consequence, not as a causal determinant: the primary focus of art is metaphysical, not ethical. Art is not the “handmaiden” of morality, its basic purpose is not to educate, to reform or to advocate anything.


But that influence and that “message’’ are only secondary consequences. Art is not the means to any didactic end. This is the difference between a work of art and a morality play or a propaganda poster. The greater a work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme.


Remember that abstractions as such do not exist: they are merely man’s epistemological method of perceiving that which exists — and that which exists is concrete. To acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality, man’s metaphysical abstractions have to confront him in the form of concretes — i.e., in the form of art.

(1) Art is a pure end in itself and yet it is also essential to our consciousness, on which our physical survival depends; it is an end in itself and yet described as a “model-builder”; art is essential to morality because it help us hold complex abstractions in summarized, embodied form, and yet it is not a “handmaiden” to morality and not the means to any “didactic end”. How do I reconcile these perceived contradictions? I suspect that this might be a matter of me using the terms differently and that she is saying art is a need for consciousness to function, and is a tool of philosophy, but simply not to specify in detail rules of morality. Thoughts?

(2) If you read a novel and just forget it then I assume it then has performed no function other than entertainment? If her theory is true and art does serve the function of helping us hold complex moral abstractions, then you'd have to remember the character in a book even years later.

(3) I can see this idea of a character embodying a complex abstraction in the Fountainhead for example, but I don’t see how this theory of art carries over into other works, e.g., if I’m reading about a drunk in a bar rambling and boasting about stealing money from his wife?

(4) Assuming you have some false metaphysical premises, then according to this theory you wouldn’t enjoy much art that’s implicitly holding opposed metaphysical premises (but let’s say true ones), so then the function of art in that case is to keep you sticking to your false premises and help you to live them out in tortured form?

(5) Should we have to work hard to enjoy art? E.g., if you read Dante’s Divine Comedy but find it excruciatingly boring is there something to be said for working to understand it? If that’s true, then can’t the same be said for people, e.g., if you feel no spark or interest with someone then you should also “work hard” to understand it and enjoy it? If all you’re relying on is that someone said this is a great work, then why listen to them?

(6) Any stories to relay on how art has motivated you, helped you embody a philosophic idea, or direct your actions? I find it difficult to point to any specific thing that has changed in my life because of art. It's hard to know how different would I be if I didn't read this book or that book. 

(7) Has anyone experienced this:  “it serves no purpose other than contemplation — and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often, resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion, to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, on his deepest, essential self.” I can’t think of a time that I felt deep resentment at wanting to analyze some art piece. 

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The answer to (1) is here: https://youtu.be/iQAbla-z6mg?t=3228

To summarize the answer and what I've understood so far: when she refers to art being an end in itself and not serving a utilitarian purpose, she means that art is not useful in some immediate, concrete way, i.e., art does not help you pay for a flight to Bulgaria or open a can of kidney beans. But art does still have a purpose, one that is much broader than immediate utility: it concretizes complex abstractions for you. Concretization of complex abstractions can include the creation of fictional worlds that operate by certain implicit metaphysical (philosophical) premises and the creation of characters inhabiting that world who implicitly embody certain moral (philosophical) principles. Art does not teach, it does not set out the metaphysical or moral principles explicitly, it simply shows a universe operating according to some implicit set of rules. This will happen regardless of what the artist intends because philosophy cannot be escaped. By doing this, art can help provide you with emotional fuel to live in a better, more flourishing way: when you're wondering why you're acting a certain way you can call to mind an image of a character you love and hold his whole life as an immediate, tangible sum to keep you going. Art can help you to identify and think in essentials at those times when you feel like you've been swept up, overwhelmed and jumbled in the day-to-day concretes of existence.

Edited by Jonathan Weissberg
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