The You-I Event 6. On experiencing a work of art

This blog will be incomprehensible without the preceding five (starting here). It is about the experience of art as a kind of You-I Event. I mean art in all forms, not just painting or sculpture. I’ll save for later the question of how the Event relates to the making of art.

Every work of art has a frame of some sort. Call it the fictive frame. It offers a different time and space (e.g., “Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away—”). It invites me to leave behind the world that contains myself, my history, and my concerns.

The function of the frame is clearest for any good oil painting done in the West between the 15th and late 19th centuries. I peep into a world that seems to extend beyond the visible part that the frame cuts off. I am in two worlds at once. For example, I am in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the year 2021, but I am also in the world of Monet’s Sheltered Path, in 1873. Because I do not really live in the world that is framed, I am free from danger to the extent that I am there, including and especially the danger of absolute dependence which belongs to the You-I Event. The delicious feeling of comfort when the lights go down in the cinema, or on hearing the words “Once upon a time…”, or when my eyes come to rest on Monet’s sheltered path, derives in part from the assurance, “Here I am safe, no You can approach me.” The frame lulls my dread of the Event (see Blogs 3, 4, and 5). I can afford to lose myself in the painting because of the security offered by the frame (which includes not just the physical frame but part of the composition). Furthermore, I always know where the rim is, so if I do feel threatened inside, I can easily yank myself out—close the novel, leave the theatre, walk to a different painting.

But that is only half the story. Because the frame lulls my unconscious dread of the You-I Event, I am – ironically – open to a kind of Event within it. In the case of a novel, for instance, my engagement as a reader is not just with a story or character, but with the “implied author,” who “makes his readers”:

“Regardless of my real beliefs and practices, I must subordinate my mind and heart to the book if I am to enjoy it to the full. The author creates, in short, an image of himself and another image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his second self, and the most successful reading is one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete agreement.” (Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 137–38).

He adds that the book we reject as bad is often simply a book in whose implied reader “‘we discover a person we refuse to become, a mask we refuse to put on, a role we will not play’….”

What occurs in the experience of art is a kind of You-I Event. We are given over and receive ourselves anew – but within a frame. From art we get a taste of the life that self-talk has precluded (a taste of what Feuerbach called “the life of life.”) Furthermore, because the framed Event provides an alternative self-awareness, we enjoy long stretches without inner speech.

Sometimes, though, especially in youth, what happens inside the frame can change a person after she leaves it, fundamentally and forever.

My account does not apply when painters avoid the effect of two worlds, remaining on or near the plane of the painting. The avoidance began with Cubism and has continued since. Apart from short-lived attempts, it has not occurred in literature—perhaps because words cannot be words without pointing beyond themselves, whereas paint can still be paint and shapes can still be shapes when restricted to a single plane.

There is a sequence of factors to explain the shift that occurred with Cubism: the advent of photography and reproductions, the fact that we are bombarded with framed images as our forebears never were, the consequent tendency to experience everything as if through a frame, hence the dilution of the power that frames once had. More importantly, there is a Nietzsche-like revulsion against the two-worlds effect, that is, against the tendency, known as dualism, to divide reality into upper versus lower, divine versus demonic, light versus darkness, good versus evil, truth versus falsity, the permanent versus the changing, spirit versus flesh. The Cubists and their successors were not content to let the viewer treat art as time-out for a better world, like going to church on Sunday. They were right, of course. Dualism is untruth. But so is our life in self-talk. Dualism is not just a worldview that we might choose to adopt or not. Precisely as untruth, it is the accurate reflection of life as we live it. It expresses the yearning for a lost paradise, an image derived from the forgotten Event (minus the dread of separation that was part of our original condition, for nostalgia is blind to dread). As for the notorious rift between mind and body, this too is a truth within untruth: it derives from the gap between the inner loop of self-talk (“mind”) and everything external to it (“bodies”). Dualism is not just an inherited myth, and cannot be cancelled by fiat.

As said, the making of art will require a separate blog. I shall need first to talk about the making of dreams.  

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