Hope that is Real
Reclaiming the Real - a Leading Questions series

The Art of the Real

 

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Analytical writing ceases to be able to express what is real and what we know about it.

Christian Smith

What is a Person?

Christian Smith's statement is particularly true of writing about beauty. For beauty, as in this vase created by Mollie Curtis of Laguna, New Mexico, is something that must be encountered in the real of life. The moment I saw it, I couldn't take my eyes off it. It isn't just the pattern, but the creativity that went into it. All by hand. No template. No formula. As she told me, a blank slate when she began. Just imagination applied in shape and image. For me, this is symbolic of the real that cannot be put fully into words. It must be encountered, not simply observed.

It is, also, somewhat contradictory to think that writing about reclaiming the real is an act of reclaiming it. The real is something that can only be reclaimed in the world of experience, of doing, of action, in creativity and through change and transformation. It is more than what goes on in our heads. It engages the fullness of our body's senses, emotions and thoughts. It connects to the moment of encounter with past remembrances of similar encounters, and gives a grounding to understand our place in time and place. This is what it means to live in the real. It is full, complete, integral and alive.  

We do need words to help us tell the story that gives meaning to the work of art and to life as a whole. In many senses that story is a story of human encounter. This is why the best novelist creates for us a real world in our imagination. She elicits from us emotions and memories, images in our minds that create a world in which we are apart as the story teller proceeds.

Carried out in the fullness of our lives, the words come to us within a context that guides us to see how we can act, not just feel. To make a difference that matters, that gives meaning to the action itself, we must be engaged in a real context as whole persons. To reclaim reality today, we must articulate why it is necessary, and why we have a problem at all.

The Inadequacy of Analytical Observation

Christian Smith's statement above gets at part of the issue, that of treating reality from an analytical perspective. This is what Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist discovered as he studied the cultures of North Africa. He found that the analytical tradition that emerged out of the European Enlightenment two centuries before was inadequate. He writes,

Objectivism constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a 'point of view' on the action and who, putting into the object the principles of his relation to the object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and as if all the interactions within it were purely symbolic exchanges. 

Let's look at what he is saying here.

Objectivism is a belief that we can know something by standing apart from it. From the observers point of view everything is an object for detached observation and evaluation.

In its most benign sense, it is what the clinical lab does with the blood after your doctor draws it from your arm during your annual physical. Back from the lab comes a reading of your blood count that gives your doctor an indication of your health. However, as essential as this data is, it is your doctor's ability to see the whole context of your body's health that gives meaning to the data in the blood analysis. What matters is not an analytical reading, but a synthetic one that blends analytical analysis with an understanding of who this particular person is in their life context.

Detached observation and analysis has become the primary means for critics and commentators in the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and society at large to present themselves as authorities.  They speak with an air of authenticity. As alleged 'objective' observers, they claim to provide "objective" knowledge for the viewing public. They exist to inform us about the issues of the day, and guide us towards a "correct" understanding of events.

Watch them on television as they interview the subjects of their observations, the practitioners of whatever arena the commentators are observing and their condescension emerges. Because they are detached, analytical observers, they believe they are more honest, objective critics. Listen carefully to their questions, and a formula reveals itself. It is the formula of The Spectacle of the Real, that I've written about in this series of posts. There I write,

Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news - a statement of "facts" that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of "who, what, when and where" - is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis - more important than the "facts" of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.

The problem is that there is an 'accepted' narrative, and an 'unaccepted' one. The former we must 'accept' on face value, because it comes from those who have been chosen as "authoritative" interpreters of events. In this sense, the real is not authentic, the 'narrative' is the substitute for the real. The acceptance of the broadcast narrative leads to an audience and a populace who are passive receivers, dependent upon their daily missives from the screen to tell them what is true and real. This is the nature of the world as a series of spectacles as French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord has written in his book, Society of the Spectacle.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ...

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. ...

The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.

Life seen as a series of spectacles, without continuity or reality, but rather a bright, shiny appearance of something of significance.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, tells the story of the French Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. In that day, the public celebration of art was governed by the French government. An annual artistic competition called The Salon was held to determine the best (good?) art of the day. Repeatedly, the grand epic paintings of day were chosen, and the Impressionists paintings of ordinary life through very different images of color and technique were rejected. Gladwell writes,

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. Everyone at the Cafe Guerbois agreed on that. But the acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful, and they risked being lost in the clutter of other artists' work. Was it worth it? Night after night, the Impressionists argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The Spectacle of the Real is a constant reminder to each of us that the world is a Big Pond, and we are all tiny minnows. We are dependent upon them for their observations to determine who we are, what we are to believe and how we are to live.

It is impossible with this kind of manufactured narrative-based, posed objectivity to establish a basis for understanding what is real. Every person has a 'point of view' that they use as the basis of their analysis. Everyone of us. We, each one, speak from a context that disqualifies us as objective presenters of reality. This isn't a problem, but a social asset. Our point of view is OUR perspective. Just as The Impressionists perspective was THEIR perspective.

Context matters because it is the ground upon which we live in the real. The further we distance ourselves from the spectacle of manufactured opinion, the more likely it is that we will discover the value of our own opinion, and consequently begin to express it inways that are creative and elevating to the worlds in which we move.

It is important, therefore, that we own our prejudices, claim our perspective as our own, and speak and act from a standing position in the arena of life. In doing so, we are better able to engage in conversation and deliberation about the crucial issues of our time, because we are honest about our bias and perspective, and have the humility and self-confidence to listen, learn and engage with people of differing view points. But to get there, we must see clearly how objectivity is a mask for prejudice.

What is good art?

In college, I took one philosophy course.  It was on the philosophy of art. I took it because I was interested in art, especially the visual arts, and wanted to develop my critical faculties for understanding what I saw.  The professor told us, at the beginning of the course, that we'd spend the semester exploring art from the standpoint of what is 'good' as a way to get at what art is. What he did not tell us at the time, but became obvious, fairly quickly, was that he did not believe that there was such a quality as good.

As the semester proceeded, many of us in the class became increasingly aware that while our professor claimed an objective perspective as our academic authority, we students increasingly did not. Instead, we viewed him as a dishonest teacher of philosophy. Ultimately, it was not his stated position on 'the good' or art that disqualified him as a professor worthy of our respect and allegiance, but, rather, his constant denigration of students who saw things differently, who were trying to work out in their own real world context the meaning of art and the good. What I learned from that semester is that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge, interpreted from within a person's own life experience.

Habitus

The issue here is not that we have opinions, but the relation that our opinions have to reality. Bourdieu writes,

... The theory of practice as practice insists contrary to positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are constructed, not passively recorded, and, contrary to intellectualist idealism, that the principle of this construction is the system of structured, structuring dispositions, the habitus, which is constituted in practice and is always oriented toward practical functions.

To know something is not to know it as an object, but rather as a part of a living context that is constantly in flux, always changing, and in which we live each day. To know something, anything, is 'to learn' to know it. This knowing is an engagement, or as Bourdieu calls it, a habitus, that involves us in the thing to be known.

These 'structuring dispositions' or habitus are the virtues that Aristotle writes about in his Nichomachean Ethics. Virtue is more than an ethical perspective as in "She is a virtuous lady" or "He is a good man."  Rather, it is a learned mastery of living. It is life as a craft to be mastered, a work of art to be created over the course of our lifetime. It is our capacity to live fully in a real world, with all its hardship of work, pain and suffering, along side the beauty and goodness that we can create through our own desires for meaning, connection and impact. Aristotle writes,

Virtue, then, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral.  Intellectual virtue owes both its inception and its growth to instruction, and for this very reason needs time and experience. Moral goodness, on the other hand, is the result of habit, from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of the word ethos. This fact makes it obvious that none of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature, since nothing that is what it is by nature can be made to behave differently by habituation.

But the virtues we do acquire by first exercising them, just as happens in the arts. Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones ...

We don't know something because we read a book about it, or took a class on it. We know something by living in a learning relationship with it. Mollie Curtis did not wake up one morning and create beautiful pottery automatically. She learned over many, many years how to create a work of art as the one shown above.

The vase is a whole and complete expression of Mollie's art. It stands alone. It is does not need reference to anything else to be complete. It is not symbolic of anything. It is a work of art that is whole and complete in itself. As a result, it will be a lasting source of fascination as it resides in my home.

It is an expression of a creative life of integrity. Nothing artificial, nothing intended to push a perspective, just art for the sake of creating something beautiful.

 This vase is a product of the mastery (virtue) of Mollie's craft. It is good because it is a reflection of her learned skills. Goodness is another way of talking about excellence. As a work of excellence, it stands on its own, as a unique expression of the artist her self.

The Choice

Ultimately, it is not necessary to understand the inner workings of the Spectacle of the Real. All that is required to reclaim the real is to act, to create, to contribute to the world in which you live.

Start somewhere, and go where it leads. As you do, your world will expand. It doesn't expand by spending more time passively observing others expressing their 'authoritative' opinion. It does not because it lacks a context in which you live.

Plan each day to choose to do something that makes a difference that matters. By doing so, by focusing on creating impact, you turn away from a passive fascination with the spectacles of our time.

Ask yourself these questions.

Why is it important to understand why Mylie Cyrus has taken her performance craft in the direction that it has?

Why is it important to pick sides in the political games that Washington plays to distract us from what is really going on?

Why is it important to know how much money NFL quarterbacks make each year?

Now ask, how does this change my life, and especially what I'm going to do today?

More importantly, what will I do differently because of knowing more about these spectacular subjects?

Follow the desires that we all share. There are three of them.

1. That our lives have personal meaning.

2. That our relationships are to be health and happy.

3. That we make a difference that matters with our life.

We all share these desires. They are part of what makes us human. And to flourish as human beings, we must find ways for these desires to live and find fulfillment.

Lastly, think for yourself. Don't let anyone tell you what you must believe, think or do. Stand fast as a person of dignity, with gifts to share, having a purpose that elevates your life and the lives of others.

This is how we create our lives as works of art that enable us to reclaim the real.

May this be true for you and all those whom you touch with your life's work.

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This post is apart of the Reclaiming the Real series. Links to the other posts can be found here.

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