The Unknowable

“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”


To continue the discussion about art and it’s relation to reality (hopefully you won’t mind), the above quote implies that there is some perfect form or super reality of which art is a pale imitation. Shades of Plato’s cave!

If everything that we know is only an imperfect representation of another realm, how can we ever know that other realm at all? Western philosophers have struggled with this question for centuries. Some believed that since we, in fact, cannot really know the perfect form behind our perceptions, we have no right to say that anything exists at all except our perceptions – the empiricists (Hume, Berkeley) were in this camp. This rigorous doctrine leads to all sorts of problems, however, so Immanuel Kant tried to reconcile the dilemma by saying that the ding an sich, the thing in itself, was unknowable but that it indeed existed. We can only know our mental representations about it and there is a fairly murky relationship between these representations and the things in themselves. If you’ve ever read Kant, you’ll know what I mean by murky here.

A work of art is one of these mental representations of reality, perhaps it’s ultimate form. In light of all this questioning of to what extent we can actually represent the thing in itself, artists started paying more attention to their relationship to the painting than to the paintings relationship to the world. A lot of this philosophical dialogue was happening in the early 19th century, around the time when painters started moving toward more abstraction and when photography began. The rise of photography served as a counterpoint to this dialogue as well – the difference between a painting of something and a photograph of it was that the painting had something of the artist in it, while the photograph was just a simple and exact rendering of the world.

Even today, painting is held in general in higher artistic esteem than photography, perhaps because the painting reveals more about the mental imaginations and feelings of the artist than does a photograph. that’s a point for another discussion – since I’m both a painter and a photographer, I have some feelings about that one!

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