Craig Vick's Scattered Thoughts

Adventures in Virtual Community

Flesh and Blood Philosophy


ToledoBeginning our conversation with Unamuno is proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated. It’s tempting to blame Unamuno, to complain about his lack of consistency and rigor in developing his arguments. His fiery style lends itself to this sort of critique whether or not he deserves such handling. This, however, is a rude way to treat a guest. I repent. The real problem is not Unamuno but rather finding a point of entry for our conversation. The escalator moves quickly and we must find a step where we can begin.

Perhaps we need to engage in some small talk with our guest. I realize that many despise small talk because it lacks depth and intimacy. We are admonished to seek transparency where we all freely reveal our most intimate secrets. This might seem to be a kind of paradise to some, but I prefer to choose my confidants. Small talk is a way of getting to know one another. It builds trust. It’s like dating or courtship before plunging into marriage.

I doubt Unamuno would want to contribute to observations about our lowly Seattle Mariners or our unseasonably hot weather. Perhaps we can get his attention with an ice breaker, a question tailored to his tastes. Suppose we have before us what is universally acknowledged to be a great work of art. Perhaps we are standing in front of El Greco’s View of Toledo. Suppose further that through the results of modern historical research, we learn that this painting wasn’t really painted by El Greco. Is it still a great work of art? Put another way: is the greatness of a painting relative to who painted it?

At first, we might say that the artist isn’t relevant. The beauty of a piece of art is something objective. It can be evaluated based on the painting alone. We don’t judge beer on the basis of who brews it. Certainly there are great works of art where the identity of the artist isn’t even known. This would seem to prove that the artist doesn’t count when we evaluate art. This seems right and yet I have some nagging questions. We do blind taste tests of beer. Why don’t we have similar tests for paintings? Why does an artist sign his or her work? Is it simply a matter of wanting credit? What if we were to discover that the View of Toledo before us is in fact a forgery. It’s monetary value would certainly be affected. Would the forgery still be a great work of art? Can the greatness of the forgery surpass that of the original if the counterfeiter feels free to touch up the fake at points? What if the work before us turns out to be a kind of accident? El Greco painted one thing but time and exposure to the elements changed his painting into something he wouldn’t even recognize. Is the painting before us still a great work? Which is greater, what El Greco actually painted or the piece produced by El Greco and the elements?

The biography of the artist may not be relevant to the greatness of a specific work. If we discovered that our history of El Greco was flawed it would probably not radically change how we view his work. Perhaps he wasn’t really from Crete. What does that change? What does seem to matter is that a work of art is not simply an object. It is the work of someone and through it the artist speaks. That’s why it’s signed. That’s why no importance is attached to the forgery. If we can borrow the distinction for which Martin Buber is known, we might say that we only see the greatness of a painting when we see it via an I-Thou as opposed to an I-It relationship. If we miss that there is a flesh and blood artist speaking to us through the painting, we don’t really see the painting. It becomes to us an unknown language.

How does this help us to enter into a conversation with Unamuno? We need two more questions. Does what we have suggested about a great work of art also apply to a great work of philosophy? Does it apply to a great work of science?


9 thoughts on “Flesh and Blood Philosophy

  1. Two paragraphs into Unamuno’s novella, one cannot help but discover that he is — SURPRISE!– Spanish!

    What IS it, brother, about the Spanish, that forces them to see the world through a dark, foreboding lens? One is reminded of Eeyore! (Pooh-Bear’s donkey friend.) I have this sense of wanting to cajole him out of his depression, much the way that one would want to cajole the bull at a bullfight out of his — or the way one would cajole San Miguel Bueno, Martir, out of his.

    A parallel to your main question might be, if the novella had been written by, say, Dilbert, would it be as great? I collect Chinese Antique Porcelain. Would knowing the name of the artist make any difference in which works of art I have selected for my collection?

    My answers are a simple yes and no, respectively. But then, if a philosopher, I’m probably the kind who believes that philosophy IS a blood sport!

    And, sometimes, the bull, he win! But ultimately, in the truest sense of all things tragic, he becomes El Filete de Biftek!


  2. Thanks for visiting Ed,

    You may find it difficult to get Unamuno to part with his despair. You ask two great questions, both helpful in moving the conversation forward. Let me respond with further questions. If Dilbert wrote a great novella, would we not conclude that Dilbert is not the person we assumed him to be? Would we hear a new voice in the novella? With respect to your porcelain, you don’t know the name, but is there anything you do know about the artist from the work itself? If I created a machine that could make a perfect copy of one of your pieces, would the copies be as valuable as the original?

  3. Your questions invite a LOT of digression!

    My assumptions about Dilbert have always been more or less positive — perhaps in the sense that he’s at least a person of some intelligence, surrounded by idiots, with a boss whose idea of a desktop computer is an etch-a-sketch. But I digress.

    Creation of art, whether through words or Michaelangelo’s ‘David,’ is hardly what one would expect of a Dilbert. Should such a person produce one, we’d have to admit that our presumptions about him were flawed.

    The work tells us much of the artist. In Unamuno’s case, it tells us he’s a marvelous writer with a bad dose of depression, out of which he’s not likely to BE cajoled. In the case of my Chinese porcelain, the works tells us very much about the artists who created them — and in the one case where I CAN identify the artist (the phenomonally talented and very celebrated ceramicist T’ang Ying, from the reign of Quanlong, 1736-95), the objet d’art itself practically shouts of his greatness.

    I have a problem getting my head around your question regarding a machine that could replicate such a work as that of T’ang, or for that matter, other artists. This, I suppose, illustrates my limitations as a philosopher. Should such a machine be achievable, it would certainly bring to bear the reality of the vanity Solomon describes in Ecclesiastes — all artistic achievement would truly become meaningless.

    But for all that, the artist himself was as close to a perfect replicator as we are likely to encounter in all of Chinese history. If the object were porcelain, no matter how cleverly made or glazed, T’ang could replicate it so perfectly that one could not distinguish the original from the replica.

    Philosophically, then, I could modify your question by asking, “Is T’ang’s replica as valuable to the collector as the original?” To the collector, the answer would be no. (And T’ang was always honest enough that he would mark his replica in such a manner as to ensure it would not be confused with the original, a trait we do NOT find in most of the more modern ceramacists!)

    But if the mark were not there (remember, philosophy is NOT my strong suit!) would it be? If one could not be told from the other, then in what way does either retain its importance to the collector?

    Well, there are ways to determine the approximate age of ceramics, though the testing required is very expensive. Example: I have a beautiful celadon brush wash, an unmarked identical replica of a priceless piece from the Northern Song Dynasty, made by an artist who was a contemporary of T’ang. The replication is perfect, right down to the extremely heavy glazing common on many Northern Song celadon pieces. It was represented to me, with accompanying authenticating documentation, as actually BEING of the period.

    Close examination of the documentation, however, illustrated the fraud; the documents had been altered. I pointed this out to the seller, and purchased the piece as being of the later period.

    The piece is beautiful. Without expensive testing it cannot be told from the original. So IS it as valuable as the original? Philosophically, a case could be made for an affirmative answer. Reality, rearing its perhaps uninvited head, however, heads that one off at the pass!

  4. I am neither philosopher nor artist, though I have some appreciation of both. Yet, I wonder why we regard “greatness” among us humans in any endeavor: novellas, ceramics, et al?

    If depression is revealed in Unamuno’s work, does this need consideration? Is he still a great author? If so, it would seem we are valuing his gifting and not his person. Should he or anyone be lauded for his/her gifting? God deposited the gift and is its Author, no?

    To have used the gift but also passed along the depression is part of evaluating the work. This may not be considered as objective analysis but is nonetheless where many people will dwell. Experience tells me that we (in a cultural context not a purely philosophical one) tend to expect those “great” among us, particularly in the arts, to be angst-filled and express that.

    Further my experience is then, the more angst that is found, the more angst with which one can identify and the more need for that one to have a group where all can be called confidants and dump.

  5. Thanks Ed for your thoughtful responses,

    I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. I’ve been camping with my family and without internet access.

    I should probably point out that my ice breaker (like many ice breakers that have gone before it) doesn’t really have a right answer. To arrive at a decisive answer we would need to do a lot of work clarifying what we mean by ‘art’ and ‘great’ etc… The intent of my question was to get us thinking about the relationship between an artist and what we value in his or her art. Hopefully, this process will make it easier to understand what Unamuno wants us to see about philosophy. Many who write philosophy act as if philosophy is so objective that it practically writes itself. We talk of science in a similar way. Unamuno will argue, as I’ll try to bring out in future posts, that this ignores the vital truth that people (people of flesh and blood who live and die) write philosophy. That’s why I asked the question about a machine that can make perfect copies. In short, if we focus on the objective side too heavily we lose something valuable. You’ve added another dimension, the role played by the collector (or viewer).

  6. Ded,

    Your question about greatness is worth pondering. I don’t know whether or not Unamuno was a great philosopher. Deciding on his greatness isn’t something I would consider to be all that interesting. My question about great art was not meant so much to get us to think about Unamuno’s greatness as it was to get us to think about the relationship between an artist and his or her work. With respect to his despair, Unamuno found a clash between faith and reason that he could not resolve. He argues that faith is necessary for life (both for individuals and for nations). On the other hand, modern thought undermines that faith. Unamuno might say, “Lord I believe help thou mine unbelief.” So his despair is not simply looking at life like Eeyore. To engage it we need to look at his arguments (which we’ll do in future posts). I believe you will find the journey worthwhile. Unamuno might also remind us that Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

  7. Craig–You asked “Can the greatness of the forgery surpass that of the original if the counterfeiter feels free to touch up the fake at points?”

    Though not explicitly forgeries, Shakespeare’s works used other plays as foundations–and consistently improved upon them.

    On another point, were Unamuno to remind us that Jesus proclaimed “Blessed are those who mourn” wouldn’t we answer with the rest of the quote: “For they shall be comforted”?

  8. Margaret,

    Shakespeare’s use of other plays raises some interesting questions that I suspect will be very helpful in enriching our conversation. First as an example it reveals how conversation forces us to re-think what seem to be good assumptions. We start by thinking that we have good ideas of what something is but as soon as we state those ideas a Socrates comes along and our statements prove to be inadequate. We think that originality is key, maybe even essential to great art and you remind us of how an actual artist worked. We have a hard time capturing life in our definitions. I believe Unamuno would cheer at this point. I hope to show why in my next post. Secondly, notice how intentions seem to play a role here. A real forger steals rather than writes a story. Shakespeare, on the other hand, still creates even while making use of other plays. My forger does perhaps create in touching up so I may have been too harsh. With respect to “For they shall be comforted” we might very well respond that way. Unamuno would, I believe, find comfort in such a response. I know I do. Mourning isn’t the goal, and it will not be the last word.

  9. I apologize for my own tardiness in getting back to the conversation. Margaret, you mentioned Shakespeare and his drawing on other poetry and plays to create his own, which, in every case, enlarged upon them in one way or another. Chaucer did this as well; in his Canterbury Tales, his ‘Knight’s tale’ is very recognizably based on Boccaccio’s ‘Teseida delle nozze di Emilia.’ This is not to fault Chucer, any more than Shakespeare should be faulted for his enlargement on other works, but rather to recognize the genius in both their works.

    That Chaucer reduced Boccaccio’s work from nine thousand lines to two thousand, yet managed to convey an even larger and more complete story is perhaps the finest complement that could be paid his genius. This is to take nothing from Boccaccio; his work was in a flowery language that Middle English couldn’t begin to compare to, yet conveyed a remarkably riveting story.

    Again, I digress. Does the ‘forger’ improve on the original? I offer that he actually does not. I’m a bigger fan of Chaucer than I am of Boccaccio, yet I must recognize the sheer audicity of the former. I am, perhaps a bigger fan of T’ang, the ‘forger,’ than I am of the artist who created the original work he duplicated, in spite of his admission (through his mark) that his work was indeed a copy. The sheer audacity T’ang displayed in tackling works impossible (so it was thought) to mimic was, in their perfection, a tribute to his greatness. That he could mimic across so many centuries and techniques further illustrated this greatness.

    This brings us face to face with Craig’s remark; that originality is key, or even essential, to great art. I think that, then, the question becomes, is T’ang’s work, or Chaucer’s, then, great art? And to enlarge, does the methodology of the artist’s mind in the creation (or the enlargement) count for anything?

    I submit that it does, and that Craig is right about Unamumo’s likely cheering at this juncture. We, inded, have a hard time capturing life in our definitions.

    And I am quite certain that this missive illustrates my shortcomings as a philosopher!


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