Art, Interpretation, and the Rest of Life

Today, Saad surprised me with a few articles and reviews by Alexander Nehamas. I am very thankful to him for looking them up and sending them to me as I was not even aware they existed. Most articles at JSTOR, i.e. the ones you really want to read, can only be accessed through some institutional membership, and it is good for me to have at least one friend academically involved in the humanities.

I just finished reading one of these articles which highlights the pervasive significance and uncertainty of aesthetic values and interpretation in art and life, and consequently suggests that no degree of passion or conviction concerning an intense debate should make any argument or interpretation uncivil. That it is possible to be tentatively and resolutely involved or dogmatically and timidly dismissive in interpretation and appreciation, I am only beginning to comprehend.

Here are a few excerpts:

Art, Interpretation, and the Rest of Life
Author: Alexander Nehamas
Source: Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 78, No. 2, (Nov., 2004), pp. 25-42
Published by: American Philosophical Association
Stable URL:

…the effects of our interpretations of works of art on the rest of our lives are far-ranging; they shape and color our experience, they give it form and structure, and they are integral to what each one of us is. To which the obvious objection is that, although that might perhaps be true of a coterie of a few aesthetes and a handful of professors, the only reason academics would like to think that it applies more generally is that it seems to offer some justification for our lives; most people, however, have little use for art and even less for its interpretation. Perhaps, one might think, art is irrelevant to most people because it is at best part of the life of only a small and privileged social group; or because, even if most people are exposed to it, they know only its worst and most trivial instances (in which case, one should hope it remains irrelevant to them); or again because, even if serious art is part of their life, they have neither the leisure nor the ability to respond to the stringent intellectual demands of interpretation. All these considerations presuppose a distinction between the fine arts and high culture, on the one hand, and the crafts and popular culture, on the other. Yet if the history of art teaches us anything, it is that–from the successful efforts of Alberti to show that painting is not a humble occupation but an admirable practice “worthy of all our attention and study” through the failed efforts of a generation of English writers, including Coleridge, to prevent the novel from becoming an object of serious attention” to the victories of photography, film, and jazz–the line between high and low art and culture is always drawn in sand…

It is ignorance, sometimes willful, that prevents people from recognizing that aesthetic experience is neither marginal to life nor restricted to a few privileged arts. Aesthetic experience is, in fact, inextricably woven into the everyday, so that perhaps no experience is completely unaesthetic. Dave Hickey, who believes that “the live effects of art…inform our every waking hour,” remembers “standing on the comer of 52nd Street and Third Avenue on a spring afternoon, six feet from a large citizen gouging the pavement with a jackhammer, and thinking about the Ramones, amazed at the preconscious acuity with which I had translated the pneumatic slap of the hammer into eighth-notes and wondering what part, if any, of the pleasures and dangers of the ordinary world might rightly be considered ‘natural.'” Art and beauty can be found everywhere, and therefore so can interpretation, without which they slip unnoticed by while we sail on oblivious of the wax blocking our ears. The issue is only whether we know–or whether it matters to us to learn–how to discern the beauty and engage in its interpretation…

Interpretation unfolds in time. Steiner, who thinks that Magritte did not paint either women or beautiful pictures, dislikes him; my reading of his work disposes me to find him attractive. My attraction, in turn, is not an isolated state, a brute feeling I experience as I look at, or occasionally recall, his paintings, but is concretely manifested in my actions and the rest of my life. It is an unfolding, a working out of my interpretation. Because of it, I am likely to attend exhibitions of Magritte’s work, read books about him and discuss his pictures with people with whom I would not interact otherwise, think more about Surrealism and the social conditions within which it developed, wonder why Surrealism became, and remains, a favorite style for illustrating print advertisements, and turn to other painters to whom Magritte leads me and who, in turn, steer me toward still other works, other people, and other actions. It permeates my life…

Each one of my interpretations literally determines at least part of the shape of my life and affects its quality. When we argue about interpretation, if we are serious, we argue about just that: the shape and the value of our life. But it is impossible to know in advance where an interpretation will lead. The shape and the value of life are difficult to establish and we can’t presume to know how we will turn out, who we will be, as a result of accepting a new interpretation. We don’t know whether the new interpretation will bring with it benefits or harms, or what those will be. It is for that reason that arguments over interpretation need to be, however intense, civil and calm: we can’t assume that agreeing with us, however convinced we may be of the correctness of our view, will have the right consequences for our audience. Very few interpretations are global enough to have clear consequences for the rest of our behavior. The moral clarity to which so many of us are quick to lay claim requires at least a sense of its own limits. Self-righteousness is not only distasteful, but destructive.

The interpretation of Magritte, and interpretation in general, is not a trivial matter even if it has no obvious consequences, for any interpretation may prove to be central to a life, with consequences that, however obscure at first, may be immensely far-ranging. But whether a view of Magritte will be central to a particular life depends on many other factors; it is a question to which different individuals will give different answers. The value of the place of Magritte (or the novel or television or anything else) in life cannot be established on general grounds: it will depend on the value of the whole life of which it is a larger or smaller part, whatever that value eventually turns out to be. I have claimed that Wayne Booth has misinterpreted the formal features of the visual media and that he is wrong to think that television deforms the soul of its audience. But would it have been better for him if he appreciated it and if he had watched it a lot? There is absolutely no way to know–perhaps he might have written brilliantly about it, but perhaps it might have deprived us of the Rhetoric of Fiction and perhaps it might, in fact, have burnt him out. Not knowing where an interpretation can lead, the sort of life it will become a part of, however confident I am that it is right or wrong, I can’t be certain of the quality of its effects and I surely can’t consider it an instrument of moral progress or decay. Civility and calm are an expression of that uncertainty…

But what now of the countless people whose lives will never intersect with Magritte, Mann, or Wagner? They will still center on something–Frasier or Baywatch or rap or samba or glass beads or Yemeni oral poetry or Bollywood movies or who knows what else–and they will know how to interpret and appreciate it. Nothing short of relentless oppression or desperate hunger can rob life of art and beauty. I don’t see how it is possible to live without finding some things beautiful, related to the world only through appetite and need. And wherever beauty is found, interpretation, the effort to grasp and understand it, has already been there. Plato knew that love and knowledge cannot be separated, and Nietzsche saw, perhaps despite himself, that Socrates was a great erotic.


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