Beginning 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?