Art and Philosophy

| January 27, 2015

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically. -Henry David Thoreau

Someone recently referred to me as a philosopher, which I admit pleased me very much despite knowing that my own approach to philosophy is quite different from that of professional philosophers today. In the words of historian Scott Soames, “Philosophy has become a highly organized discipline, done by specialists primarily for other specialists.” In that sense philosophy as a field of study has seen a transition similar to that of art – both once unabashedly made it their goal to elevate life in pragmatic and practical ways, and as academic disciplines both had since distanced themselves from such lofty pursuits. Both were, at times, beholden to religious and political ideologies, and both often progress by the heroic efforts of people outside of – sometimes in resistance to – their respective formal establishments.

I once told someone that Nietzsche ruined my life, in the sense that studying his philosophy (among other things) made me realize that the life I lived up to that point deserved to be ruined. I was reminded of it again some years ago as I listened to a Nietzsche scholar reviewing a paper he wrote to an audience of the Aristotelian Society. The paper’s topic is not important to this discussion, but what struck me about the presentation was the dry and dispassionate deconstruction of grammatical trivia, and the almost obvious avoidance of the practical implication of the ideas being discussed. I could not help the feeling that if Nietzsche was in the audience, he would have booed the speaker off the stage. It was the same sentiment I experience when reading discussions of art (and more so, photography) focusing entirely on technical minutiae and failing utterly to derive more profound conclusions ensuing out of the concepts discussed.

Certainly I am not the first to point out such disconnects, in either philosophy or art. Roman philosopher Seneca, writing about those who memorize maxims but do not live by them, pronounced, “I hold that there is nothing of eminence in all such men as these, who never create anything themselves, but always lurk in the shadow of others, playing the role of interpreters, never daring to put once into practice what they have  been so long in learning.” And photographer Alfred Stieglitz, lamenting the introduction of easy-to-use cameras and the resulting popularity of the medium, wrote, “… in the photographic world to-day there are recognized but three classes of photographers – the ignorant, the purely technical, and the artistic. To the pursuit, the first bring nothing but what is not desirable; the second, a purely technical education obtained after years of study …”

Physicist Stephen Hawking went as far as to declare philosophy dead because philosophers have not kept up with advances in knowledge. Indeed, what novel ideas can a philosopher not familiar with such things as quantum physics or neuroscience offer about the nature of reality and human perception, working from assumptions and intuitions that fail to consider actual facts, especially when such facts contradict our innate intuitions? And what novel work can an artist offer to enlighten and inspire their audience if they remain beholden to traditional templates of “acceptable” art or venture no further than showcasing technical skill or a travel budget?

People naturally resist change, and many fear knowledge and theories that put to question their deeply held beliefs, no matter how factual or plausible. Worse still, at a time when more knowledge is available and accessible to more people than ever before, reading appears to be declining and many simply give in to confirmation bias and seek no further. Therefore, advances in philosophy, science and art are not always received with popular acknowledgment. Anthropologist and philosopher Loren Eiseley wrote, “It is frequently the tragedy of the great artist, as it is of the great scientist, that he frightens the ordinary man.” But so what? Let ordinary philosophers and artists worry about the ordinary man.

The concern for popularity is yet a greater hurdle for novel ideas than the concern for the fears of “the ordinary man.” Much of Seneca’s philosophy is contained in letters he wrote to his friend Lucilius. Among many pearls of wisdom in these letters is this bit of advice: “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand?” And Nietzsche outright boasted, “Those who can breathe the air of my writings know that it is an air of the heights, a strong air. One must be made for it. Otherwise there is no small danger that one may catch cold in it.”

And so I will make a bold claim of my own: the most profound philosophy I read in recent years came not necessarily from ordained philosophers, but from the likes of physicists, neuroscientists, artists and public intellectuals. Similarly, the most meaningful art I have seen in recent years came not necessarily from graduates of art schools. It is here that I see another commonality between philosophy and art: the best philosophers I know are those who live their lives with the attitude of a philosopher; and the best artists I know are those who live their lives with the attitude of an artist. This has nothing to do with whether such people are “professional” philosophers or artists, and everything to do with their willingness and courage to shape their lives after what they hold to be true. In other words, these are philosophers and artists who practice what both philosophy and art were originally conceived for: to help answer the greatest question that any human can ask – what is the proper way to live? And by that distinction I am proud to be considered an artist and a philosopher, if only in the minds of some.

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (9)

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  1. Dave Benson says:

    “…have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand?” does it suggest that agreement with “many” is not a reason to be pleased anytime???

    Still mulling this part over…. although I think I get the part before and the Nietzsche “boast” that follows…

  2. Guy Tal says:

    “does it suggest that agreement with “many” is not a reason to be pleased anytime???”

    I wouldn’t say it’s not a reason, but rather, in itself, an insufficient reason.

  3. Eric Fredine says:

    I’ve often felt sorry for myself believing my work falls into a gap. It’s not mainstream enough for popular appeal but insufficiently obscure for art world academia. But I’m starting to think that might be a hole worth filling.

  4. “People naturally resist change, and many fear knowledge and theories that put to question their deeply held beliefs, no matter how factual or plausible. ”

    Just can’t stop thinking about this Guy! You hit the nail. A powerful one.

  5. Misha says:

    My feeling is that there is much overthinking about the practice of art. It’s a fine thing to study your discipline, to be familiar with its history, craft, and approaches, but it’s another thing to substitute such thinking for the actual practice of the discipline.

    I’ve observed many photographers (and other kinds of artists) who started out with fresh and vibrant work, only to see it become staid and stale over time. I really believe one of the culprits for this is overthinking – learning about certain schools of thought and trying to make the work fit into them, comparing the work to others before and adjusting to make it conform, etc.

    For me, the best approach is simply to know what you want out of your art and then go achieve it. In my observation, the difficulty for most artists seems to lie not in the “go achieve it” part, but in the “know what you want” part. If you don’t know what you want out of your art, it’s easy to substitute in current trends, academic approaches, what’s popular, and so forth in its place.

    Just one guy’s opinion of course!

  6. Wade Thorson says:

    In a classical sense they were right to call you a philosopher. If one lives a particular way in search of answers to existential questions, and uses these findings to split from conventional philosophy proper, whether working in the arts or sciences, than one can be considered a philosopher. You are the modern camera, and laptop wielding variety. You certainly help to make an individual think, not just about photography or art, but about life. To that I am grateful. Just keep scorning the applause…

  7. Wade Thorson says:

    In a classical sense they were right to call you a philosopher. If one lives a particular way in search of answers to existential questions, and uses these findings to split from conventional philosophy proper, whether working in the arts or sciences, than one can be considered a philosopher. You are the modern camera, and laptop wielding variety. You certainly help to make an individual think, not just about photography or art, but about life. To that I am grateful. Just keep scorning the applause…

  8. Steve says:

    The “technical minutiae” is the currency of the least common denominator and as such it is what appears on photo blogs the world over. It is far easier to talk about f-stops, lens length, how many pixels there are under the hood, etc. than it is to talk about how a lead-in line led you to the subject and how did that make you feel. It is unfortunate that more web sites do not delve into the artistic dimension of photography. The ones I have seen seem to be populated by bizarre compilations of doll-head art or collages of fuzzy clown faces. You know the sites. Anyway, it is as if there is not a common language to discuss such matters even in the case of “Art” photography. Adams gave us the language to discuss and create a consistent art form. White began to give us a means of expressing our art but I don’t feel his work was complete.

    I suppose the grad school set would have a thing or two to discuss along the lines of Deconstruction or Fem theory or what have you…Been there done that. It amounts to a never-ending circle jerk that fails to get to the heart of life. There are some things that are better taught from master to disciple. (Please disregard the religious overtones.) Arts, philosophy, quantum physics etc. would all benefit from a teacher who could show his students the meat of life and not just the theory.

    This leads me to your last paragraph and one rather small word which seems to throw a monkey wrench into, well, everything. True. “What they hold to be true.” On the surface seems like a straight forward concept but in philosophical terms it is preceded by “What is” and there is the rub. Whole books have been written on Truth. People believe different Truths. People search for the Truth. If you are honest and sincere it is a noble life’s work. If you are using as punch line, not so much. I think the Artist has to be honest and sincere (I’m thinking of Paul Caponigro here) in his efforts or his work comes through as hollow.

    So thank you Guy for being an Artist.

  9. Brad Mangas says:

    I will not dispute the words of Henry David Thoreau but, I would propose this possibility.

    I believe there may be many philosophers walking among us. They may appear more as the meek, less noticeable type. Not clamoring for attention but going about the business of living. Though not just any life, but one of spirit, growth, and acceptance of powerful forces directing their lives. These modern philosophers may never be known, heard of, or mentioned. It is this solitude and life that makes them the philosophers that they are.

    Is a life such as described beneficial to any other person? Of course it is. One does not need fame, notoriety or even acknowledgement to make a positive impact on life, but the requirements may be beyond the understanding or comfort level of most of today’s modern lifestyles. Believe, humility, and courage to live in such a way requires a far disposition from what is now commonly seen. A more noticeable presence of such philosophers would be beneficial in the encouragement of others, but does not negate the other positive attributes.

    As for artists the same may be said. In today’s world I would go further implicating a higher number of artists as philosophers than vice versa.

    As put by Tolsty, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”