|Copyright © 2008 Jud Evans. Permission granted
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or non-commercial, provided author attribution
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ART AND THE TRUTH OF THE HUMAN CONDITION
What does it mean to claim that a work of
art represents a truth about the human condition?
I answer this question at the outset thus.
Only some art, for some people, represents a perceived truth about the human condition. Does the
reification *Truth* exist anyway? I for one
think not. For me the only truth-statement
is that which nearest describes the electro-chemical
actuality of some existing physical object.
All truth-claims (particularly those concerning
art) are emotive, subjective, opinion-based
Some art, for some people, represents absolute
nonsense or worse. The so-called *Truth*
perceived to communicated in *a work of art*
can be no more than a subjectified illusion
or a deliberate misrepresentation or outright
lie. Such nonsense or rubbish art was a characteristic
of the Zeitgeist of Germany in the nineteen-thirties
reflecting as it did the inhuman conditions
of many of the people who were unlucky enough
to be living and dying in Nazi fanatic Heidegger's
In this essay I hope to persuade the reader
of the view that I offer, which is that art
in its many forms is just as much a means
of communicating propostions about the world
with the use of film, paint, ceramics, photography,
musical sounds, sculpture or dance, etc.
as the more commonly human experience of
employing natural language. Even an apparently
uncontroversial painting of a landscape involves
the artists invitation to us to see the world
as he or she does. To think like him or her.
From the very beginnings of art, when man,
in the recesses of his dark cave first dipped
a finger in the fire-soot and by the flickering
light of a burning brand traced the outline
of some beast of prey upon the wall and looked
over his shoulder for the appreciation of
his fellow troglodytes - art assumed its
place, as the mirror reflecting our mutually
shared human condition and acting in a manner
that Hamlet (speaking to Polonius of his
players) described as the abstracts and brief chronicles of the
times.  (Shakespeare. 1855. p. 355.)
Art reflects back at us the human condition
both personal and public, the commonplace
and the dramatic. In Hanfling's Philosophical
Aesthetics, Rosalind Hursthouse draws our
attention to Aristotle's opinion that tragic
poetry 'yielded us knowledge of truth.' Unlike
Plato, who was generally uncharitable towards
poets, Aristotle believed that poetry is
something more philosophic and of graver
import than history. His reasons? Because
poetry's statements are of the nature of
universals, whereas those of history are
of singulars. He was obviously referring
to the universal givens of the human condition
- how people react to the world - what they
usually say and do. Moreover he claimed that
it yielded us knowledge of a special sort
of universal truth; not the sort that the
natural sciences give us, but the sort that
is necessary for moral wisdom - truth about
human nature and about life. Art then reflects
the intensely personal, the social, the national,
the racial and the religious.
As Rosalind Hursthouse remarks, such artistic
representations need not be of the trompe
l'oeil type. An example of art which seeks
to be so realistic that it is taken for reality
is that of the Greek Zeuxis of who was said
to have painted grapes so realistic that
they fooled crows.
Sometimes the non-literal, the abstract and
the allegorical artistic subjects incorporate
disguised references which allude to an arcanum
known only to a special group.
Whatever the art, whatever the subject and
whatever the aesthetic idiom, it is made
available to us via the multifaceted sensorial
medium of the linguistic, pictorial, semiotic,
plastic and auditory languages of the arts
by which the artist, a fellow experiencer
of the human condition, expresses the aesthetic
features through which we are reminded of
our mutually shared human condition.
Twenty-four thousand years before the birth
of Christ, concerned with spirits which must
be assuaged and the procreation upon which
the very survival of the group relies, the
primitive sculptor clad in skins whittles
the generous curves of the female form from
wood or limestone with a sharpened flint.
A legion of human lifetimes later, in a studio
at Vauvenargues in the south of France not
many miles away from Chauvet, the 32,000
years old cave dating from European Paleolithic,
Picasso coaxes form from formless watercolours,
oils or acrylics. Unveiled not with sharp
flint or splayed-twig brush, but with brush,
thumb and palette-knife, pigmented images
speak to us modern mortals personally, in
forms of abstract significations or familiar
Like all artists, Picasso bespeaks to us
of our own human condition with a similar
economy of line as profoundly persuasive
as the morphological thrift of our ancestors'
Venus of Willendorf. But the painting I have
in mind speaks not of fruitfulness but death.
His painting Guernica depicts the Nazi German
bombing of Guernica, Spain, in 1937 during
the Spanish Civil War. Lots of innocent civilians
were killed and many more were injured. Picasso
presents a true portrayal of the human condition
in time of war. A scene of violence, brutality,
suffering, and helplessness.
Carved from oolitic limestone and only four
inches high, the religious fertility object
continues to speak to us of the human religious
condition across a void of 26,000 years.
It is in such artistic artifacts that we
may look upon and see reflected there - ourselves.
Do these religious fertility objects speak
of the truth of the human condition so long
ago? Yes, it is through such primitive art
that the religious experience we share today,
the desire to be fertile and experience the
joy of children was a human condition experienced
by our ancient ancestors so long ago.
This is an instance of what it means to claim
that a work of art represents a truth about
the human condition, but as when a later
discuss Isenberg's no-truth theory, such
claims can be very personal and one viewers
interpretation of an aesthetic representation
of a truth about the human experience may
be another's most vile lie. There we encounter
our own timeless, uniquely species-specific
human condition - not so much the physical,
bodily condition which is nowadays more liberated
from the ravages of sickness and pain, from
that of our cave-painter brothers.
Art speaks more to our emotions, our sensitivities,
our fears, our titillation and our joyfulness,
our psychological concerns and our personal
relationships. It was expressed as art and
petroglyphs which adorned the walls of our
ancestors' caves, now it graces publicly
supported galleries, it is piped into our
living rooms and can be found on the wide
cutting tables of the couturier's studio
and fitting rooms.
According to Santayana, the psychological
concept of projection plays a large part.
Expression always involves two terms, the
aesthetic object itself and the associations
it has for us which we project onto it and
perceive as qualities of that object. He
claims that beauty is not regarded as a pleasure
regarded not as a property of ourselves but
of an object. For him expression involves
two terms, the aesthetic object itself and
the associations it has for us which we project
on to the object.
 (Wilkinson. 1995. p. 230.)
Such Platonism is far too metaphysical for
me, though I know exactly what he means.
Such a notion of projection is very much
like that of Theodor Lipps which he referred
to a Einfuhlung (empathy) a version with
which I am a little more comfortable.
In another Paris studio, Rodin and others
brought into being similar, if more sophisticated
forms. There, on bench or plinth liberated
from formless clay deposits of the Meuse
and Haute-Marne, are modelled meditations
on the human condition. Skeletally supported
by structural armatures or small maquettes,
at the behest of busy human fingers, clay-derived
Promethean models boldly emerge from their
adobe aggregation. They are inanimate, original
and unique, but the figures they pose in
their simulated reified angst or jubilancy
are as physically and universally disjunct
as their animated creators.
Ted Cohen chides Sibley for a lack of a set
of demarcationary rules. We need no Ted Cohen's
putative set of rules to appreciate and evaluate
Rodin's The Thinker or The Kiss. The would-be
rule-seekers once talked of a Golden Section.
If asked to draw a line and then add a line
at right angles to it, it was found that
nearly all people divide the line in the
same place. Suggesting that a picture that
exhibits a similar configuration contains
some mysterious aesthetic ingredient. It
took Croce to point out, that if that proportion
was a feature of every good picture, we would
conclude that if we found a picture with
such a ratio we would have discovered a valuable
There are no rules! We look, we like or dislike
- it is all done on a one-off basis. The
sculptures speak of the truth of the human
condition with a power and individual immediacy
which is obvious and unique. The world of
art is a world of aesthetic singletons which
lack the kind of generality that lends itself
to sets that formalists crave.
But not every work of art expresses a truth
about the human condition. As Isenberg confirms:
The criticism of a belief follows a standardized
method, commonly termed "verification,"
and terminates in a verdict of probable or
improbable, true or false. Our snap judgments
and stubborn prejudices are compelled by
this method to follow the courses to which
they have previously committed themselves.
 (Isenberg. 1954. vol. xiii)
In other words much of the works of art that
we confront does not correspond to our concept
of what is true about the human condition
but rather address the putative truths concerning
the human condition of certain conditioned
humans. As examples we point to the art of
the Third Reich, the childlike naivety or
hate literature of certain religious books
and illustrations, or the prurient depictions
of the female form which reduces women to
the status of objects.
In response to Sibley's claim that recognising
aesthetic properties requires a special sensitivity
and taste. His critics Ted Cohen and Peter
Kivy protest that the ability to attribute
such properties does not presume a special
faculty, since anyone can distinguish a graceful
line from an ungraceful one. I would have
thought that such a criteria sets the bar
a little low? The appreciation of the beautiful
is far more complex than that.
Even an illiterate Bushman who has never
seen a painting in his life can appreciate
a graceful curve, as anyone familiar with
the phenomena of steatopygia will be able
For me such theorists are bereft of any cogent
alternatives regarding the nature and rationality
of critical evaluation. I get the feeling
that the academic nit-picking is to find
an angle or a niche in order to get attention
for career purposes. As Colin Lyas makes
clear - in The Evaluation of Art, there is
no such thing as reason giving.
Hampshire in Logic and Appreciation concludes
that this is because each work of art is
original and unique. One of the defenders
of the notion of the aesthetic in modern
times is Monroe Beardsley who suggests a
restricted form of categorisation by positing
three basic criteria of what merits beauty
in art - unity, complexity and intensity.
Colin Lyas promptly responds that almost
everything can have unity, and until a definition
of aesthetic unity is provided we are back
at square one. Furthermore Lyas correctly
points out, though we can think of artworks
that may have unity, complexity and intensity,
we can also think of plenty of ones which
incorporate such features and are bad art.
I would add that Colin Lyas' criticism on
this point is also applicable to Aristotle's
order, symmetry and definiteness.
Art in its many forms is ubiquitous presence
in our contemporary environment. We confront
it in advertisements, chalked on pavements,
pasted in the bowels of the London underground
and junk-mail. It is encountered in concert
halls, in the fashion houses and as artistically
designed jewellery which adorns the bodies
of women with taste, and in the tattoo parlours
where some folk are not so much concerned
with delicate discrimination. It is found
in the cinema, and on the Internet and as
Gombrich ironically remarks:
|Nowadays many a modest amateur has mastered
tricks that would have looked like sheer
magic to Giotto.  Gombrich 1977. p. 7.)
If there is anyone left who still seeks for
a what one might call a Grand Unified Theory
of Art well tell them they are too late -
art is by us and about us and bespeaks of
our universal, temporally diachronic, never-changing
human condition. But HOW does art reach us?
What is the mechanism whereby art reaches
out and speaks to us of the truth of our
Let's see what some leading aestheticians
have to say . Contemplating Rodin's sculpture
The Thinker we may be prompted to describe
it. Perhaps we might say,
It's a man sitting on a rock with his chin
in his hand, it's caste in bronze and it's
about six feet tall.
According to Frank Sibley's account these
attributes are non-aesthetic concepts. An
average person of normal intelligence is
immediately able to identify them. We might
equally say of the object,
It portrays a man in serious thought battling
with a powerful internal struggle. It depicts
man's inexhaustible curiosity and hopes.
He dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates
itself within his brain. He is no longer
a dreamer, he is a creator. It is a recognizable
icon of intellectual activity and is often
associated with philosophy.
For Sibley these are aesthetic concepts.
Unlike the recognition of non-aesthetic concepts,
acknowledgement of aesthetic concepts requires
a certain taste, refinement and sophistication.
But in the above the attributive cognitive
traffic is all one way - from observer to
statue. The question I asked was:
What is the mechanism whereby art reaches
out and speaks to us of the truth of our
I did not ask:
What is the mechanism by which we can differentiate
the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic and
best convey the way that the aesthetic speaks
to us of the human condition?
The answer has been staring me in the face,
at least it was until I read Count Tolstoy's
account . The artist feels an emotion. Apparently
for Tolstoy, a Christian, it is a sentiment
of human brotherhood. But it could equally
be a desire for celebrity, or even in some
cases (De Sade) notoriety. He wishes to convey
this to others. He creates a suitable vehicle.
A book, a painting, an opera calculated to
engender a similar emotion with those who
experience such works.
For Collingwood the emotion is less Philadelphian,
more personal. The emotional activity and
pleasure lies in the inchoate feeling of
release from emotional tension as he gets
his feeling cathartically 'off his chest.'
Yes, for me a work of art ( and a work of
philosophy for example) itself is purely
a medium which conveys the thoughts, feelings,
desires and all the other human exteroception
to stimuli originating outside of the body
to which we respond (or recoil). Whether
our response is to a visual, auditory, tactile,
gustatory or olfactory encounter with an
art form, (the Societe Centrale de la Parfumerie
Francais certainly claims it to be an art)
there is only one entity that can communicate
those sensitivities - and that is - another
human being who is a fellow-experiencer of
the human condition - the artist.
There is no Barthean Death of the Artist/Author
- the author/artist may be dead, or just
forgotten, but the spirit of the author lives
on, and if the work is one which truly speaks
of the truth of the human condition it will
continue to elicit a reciprocatory truthful
response from the experiencer (viewer, listener
etc.) Just think of any well known work of
art of which the author is dead or even anonymous
- they live on in the spirit.
So now to refer to the question again.
What does it mean to claim that a work of
art represents a truth about the human condition?
It means of course that:
(a) The artist must successfully create a
piece of art which faithfully represents
and is capable of eliciting a reciprocatory
truthful response from the experiencer (viewer,
The experiencer must be of sufficient intelligence
to perceive what is communicated and if he
or she wishes to relay such feelings of spiritual,
ethical, emotional and psychological import
to another person, do so in a form of language
which is aesthetic rather than non-aesthetic.
Hence in order to convey truth the artist
and her/his art must be instructive, celebratory,
empathetic, connective, sharing, revealing,
understanding, spiritual and religious, emanating
from and reaching out to some deep inner
human need or needs - and to speak of needs
is to speak of the very nature of being human.
Who could disagree with this? Well Heidegger
would. For the Nazi philosopher the artwork
and the artist, exist in a dynamic where
each appears a provider of the other. Neither
is without the other. Nevertheless, neither
is the sole support of the other. For Heidegger
art is a thing that can be separated from
both artefact and creator. But how can this
be when the sole source of the concept is
the artist's brain and the sole source of
the artefact the artist's hands?
One thing Heidegger does say that makes sense
is his observation that works of art are
not merely representations of the way things
are, but actually produce a community's shared
understanding. The banality of the art of
totalitarian states acts as a two-way demarcationary
mirror of the human condition. Whilst faithfully
reflecting the low-brow, thuggish banality
of the evil instigators of such dreadful
human landscapes, it also truthfully reflects
the human condition of the persecuted masses
they persecute. To say:
This may be the only truthful axiomatic generalisation
we can make about art that works? Therefore,
only some art, for some people, represents
a truth about the human condition. Some art,
for some people, represents absolute nonsense
or worse - an outright lie.
 Shakespeare. W. Hamlet. Complete Illustrated
Shakespeare. 1851. Routledge, London
 Wilkinson. Robert. Art, Emotion and Expression.
Philosophical Aesthetics. 1995. Oswald Hanfling
ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. UK
 Isenberg. A. The Problem of Belief. Journal
of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 1954.
 Gombrich. E. H. Art and Illusion. p.
7. Phaidon. 1977. 5th edition.