Hermeneutics 2

Gadamer: An artist in his own right

More from Herr Gadamer ….

Art as festival: as much as art has a very intimate, individuating aspect, it is also a way where the witness to art participates in something beyond themselves, something communal. The individual comes to stand in a relationship with others, coming together in a shared interest in what the work has to say. They forget the everyday trials and tribulations of their individual lives to come together, and this once again speaks to the power of art. The analogy of festival also reveals a horizon of meanings: Art’s communicative capacity brings about the realization that in as much as I understand art making its claim on me personally, I must acknowledge that I already belong to something larger than myself — I am indebted to past and to future communities of meaning. The meanings present have been there before me, and new ones will eventually come about after me. This is what Gadamer calls the Hermeneutic Collective.

There are a few ways tattoos exhibit the festival. First, tattooed people and tattoo artists often form a community amongst themselves, to share in the experience, the significance, and celebrate all things tattooed. Once you get a tattoo, you join that community and it becomes a moment of shared experience when you run across someone else who is tattooed: You both share in the feelings about getting tattooed, you share in the appreciation for the image and the craft, and you share the meanings involved to you both personally. Sometimes we even see portions of society gathering to dislike or shun tattooed people, a darker sense of community but a community nonetheless that comes together to respond to the claim made by art. Second, in getting a tattoo you do realize that you are part of something larger than yourself. In one sense, it is in the fact that tattoo is an art form that has been around for ages, in different cultures and for different purposes — different reasons for getting tattooed. Tattoo has a history. In another sense, you recognize the meanings bound up in tattoo images are horizonal: you know that each image had some meaning before, has a meaning now, and a new meaning will evolve. A tattooed person also knows that their tattoo can change meanings as they travel into different nations, cultures, age groups, or races. A great example that comes to mind are Russian prison tattoos, a tattoo that has a specific meaning and status in Russia and yet here is trendy because it is exotic and uniquely not our NA culture. To travel around Canada with Russian prison tattoos would be a completely different experience than to travel to Russia or Ukraine, the responses from the community would be vastly different. In recognizing these things about tattoos you realize that you are a part of a collective, sometimes even more than one.

Art as symbol: Gadamer begins with some Greek here, speaking to the origins of the word ‘symbol’ as a token of remembrance. A ‘symbol’ was an object broken into two pieces, one piece given to the house guest in the hopes that later the two pieces could be re-joined in an act of recognition — recognition of something known to the people involved. It’s a fragmentary promise of completeness (wholeness) at a future moment, along with an abundance of meaning. The symbol is speculative in this way. The symbol also does not refer to something outside itself, rather it presents its own meaning, and an indeterminate one at that. This is another side to its connection with speculation — any statement pertaining to the meaning of a symbol is bringing forth more than is actually spoken. In short, it’s sublime (I love that word). As our friends at Stanford Philosophical Dictionary so eloquently put it “The “speculative” capacity of an image or word concerns its ability to sound out or insinuate the unstated nexus of meanings which sustain a given expression but which are not directly given in it. The speculative power of an image or phrase has something in common with the sublime: it illuminates in the spoken or visual image a penumbra of unstated meanings whose presence can be sensed but never fully grasped or conceptualised.” Hence, a work of art is never fully exhausted by the symbols that carry it but does not exist apart from those which sustain it. The symbol resonates with suggestions of meanings, and at the same time we are also presented with the notion that not all is given to us. There is an excess of meaning in an artwork, and simultaneously there is the promise of more meaning, and the promise of there being other meanings. An artwork is not reducible to its history, or to its situation within a movement or genre. Its meaning is not immediately apparent to us and is impossible to fully interpret, and yet we turn to art in search of significance, something that completes the puzzle of our lives or existence. The point to be gained here is that while art is symbolic, it does not stand for something else, or for some hidden impersonal meaning that needs to be explained. Art as symbol involves an act of self-recognition, where we approach it seeking to understand ourselves. This is what sets Gadamer’s aesthetics in opposition to that of Wilhelm Dilthey (Erfahrungs-Ästhetik vs. Erlebniss-Ästhetik): art is a significant life-experience for us, as mentioned we have deep, personal, and prolonged relationships with art where meanings are continually renegotiated upon revisit, and this contrasts with Dilthey’s idea that art’s affect, while intense, is momentary and enjoyed purely for its own sake, independent of cognitive content. (There you go, Brendan, Dilthey got a name drop and here it is right next to yours too). 🙂

Now, once again to relate to tattoos. Tattoos are symbols in this very sense, and like art tattoos are excessively filled with meaning and bring the promise of more to come. The promise of completeness or full understanding is felt when you have the urge to ask the person what it means to them, and even after you get the answer the meaning for yourself is never exhausted. Tattoos are also sublime in that their meanings are never fully fixed or determined. This can be true of a tattoo that is an image or one that is writing. When we stare at a tattoo we do so in self-reflection: in admiration, in envy, in inspiration, in shock, or in disgust, but all roads lead to self-reflection here. Some people can admire the art and dream of similar things for themselves, while others realize or reaffirm that tattoos are not for them. Either way, self-reflection is involved and what is sought is a better understanding of ourselves through the work of art on the skin before us.

Hermeneutics & the art of tattoo

Hans-Georg Gadamer

I am currently working on an aesthetics project with a professor from CUNY, and I find every time I even approach the aesthetic realm I end up returning to Gadamer. I have only heard lovely things about him from those around me who had the pleasure of knowing him. I have been wondering lately what he would have thought of tattoos given his philosophical views on art. This Gadamer discussion will be most likely in two parts to avoid it being far too lengthy.

For those of you unfamiliar with hermeneutics, it is the study of interpretation theory (either as ‘art of’ or ‘theory and practice of’ interpretation). So, concerning hermeneutical aesthetics it has to do with the human experience and interpretation of art. As Stanford so eloquently says it “Hermeneutical aesthetics regards aesthetic appearance not as a distraction from the real but as the vehicle through which real subject matters reveal themselves. It over-turns the notion that art works are at one remove from reality. Hermeneutical aesthetics is dialogical in character. It recognises that practitioner and theoretician share in bringing a subject matter to light and plays down any theory/ practice division in the arts. Interpretation is a means to a work’s realisation.” Gadamer spent quite a bit of his time on art, and his ideas are both a deconstruction of the traditional philosophy of art and beauty, and a construction of a theory that wishes to focus on the cognitive ways we experience art and the meanings we come away with when encountering art. For Gadamer, something worthy of being deemed ‘art’ has the power to say something directly to us: art addresses us and makes a claim. This claim can be shock, surprise, anger, excitement, or joy — any emotion we are capable of feeling. The experience of art is an experience of meaning, one that can only come about through and with understanding, and the relationship we have with art is ongoing and deep. One is never a disinterested onlooker when approached by art, instead one is deeply affected and has a dialogue with the work where understanding is constantly renegotiated. The deeply invested involvement we have with art is demonstrated by three analogies in Gadamer’s work: play, festival and symbol. In this entry, I will discuss play, and pick up festival and symbol in a later post.

Art is compared to play in that it puts something into play: a witness to art (e.g. audience member at a drama play) shares a similarity with sport spectators in that they are both immersed, drawn into something bigger than what is simply presented to consciousness. To be immersed in something is to surrender to it, caught up in it. Comparing art to a game also serves to show that (1) traditional views that begin the interpretation of art with the artist’s own subjectivity are inappropriate and do not reveal what goes on in the subjectivity of the viewer, (2) art is not understood with sole reference to the equipment/tools/methods/medium/etc., it is more than that, and (3) like a game art requires an appreciation for the rules or conventions, but its lifeblood is not solely in those rules or conventions. In short, art cannot be reduced to intention, materials, or conventions.

Now, to relate all of this to the art of tattoo … I think Gadamer would agree that tattoos are something that can properly be called works of art, for the following reasons: (1) The beauty of a tattoo cannot be reduced to intention, materials, or conventions. A tattoo is more than the ink, more than the needle, and more than the intentions of the artist or the wearer. As much as a well-placed, well-sized, well-executed tattoo can make the skin it appears on more enticing, the tattoo’s beauty cannot be purely reduced to the skin it is on or the fact it appears on skin at all. I bring this up since most people who disagree that tattoos are works of art, or find them generally offensive, usually have more of a problem with the fact that they are applied to skin rather than the actual image itself.

(2)Tattoos do make a claim on the person who witnesses them, and this claim can be any range of emotions — shock or outrage to joy or erotic stimulation. The experience of a tattoo is one of meaning, and often there are various meanings discovered that relate to one’s own experiences, or cultural background, or taste. The meaning you walk away with from experiencing a tattoo has as much to do with what you bring to the table as how good the quality of it is. When I see a tattoo on someone, my first moment is figuring out what it is of and then the second moment is trying to figure out what it means (what it says in itself and of the person it is on), then i feel a judgment of quality or taste. One can feel the nature of deep investment when looking at a tattoo on a stranger in public: it is hard to not take notice of it if it’s peeking out from under a sleeve or a collar, and it is hard to look away from it once you’ve seen it. The investment also comes to surface when you find the tattoo makes you want to know more about the person wearing it: what does it mean to them, did they create it or find it, why did they get it in that spot, how was the experience, when did they get it, who was the artist, etc. From this we see the dialogical nature of tattoos, and in fact this dialogue can go from an inner dialogue (your mind and the work of art) to an outer dialogue with the other person (i.e., we see a sense of community, connection with others). But more on that later ……

It’s time

T. S. Eliot


“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T. S. Eliot, (1915)

Eliot is one of my favorite poets and this particular poem is special to me because of the continuous mention of time. Time is a topic I adore, and I find the philosophical problems and arguments to be so creative and interesting. Last year, I taught an introductory metaphysics course, and it was so much fun to return to the problems associated with time and space from greats like Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Aristotle, Augustine, Newton, Leibniz, Kant, Bergson, Einstein, McTaggart, and Mellor … to name a few. I do especially like the discussions of Newton, Leibniz and Kant, debates about the nature of time and space (absolute and/or relative), but it is hard to play favorites with such a great topic that hits so close to home.

Time has weighed heavily on my mind as of late for several reasons, and the one which is relevant to this blog is that I think my next tattoo will be of a pocket watch (a man-made time piece). I love pocket watches, in addition to every other kind of time piece. My next tattoo will be my annual birthday present to myself, a tradition i started over a decade ago. For me, a birthday tattoo not only marks the occasion (hurrah, I’m another step closer to dirt!), but it marks change, progress and identity …. it’s a physical stamp of being. What I find interesting about my choice is that, even with reading tons of philosophy on the topic of time I still don’t actually know what time is. I know what it feels like, but not what it actually is. I cannot put my finger on it, but I seem to know it. This brings to mind a great philosopher named Henri Bergson: Time is duration (neither unity nor quantitative multiplicity), and cannot be conceptualized, measured, or symbolized — duration is synthesis, qualitative, and only simple intuition of the imagination is required. Duration also applies to consciousness, and is probably the best example of what he means: consciousness is always moving, always ‘of’ something. Measuring time and consciousness is difficult: the moment you start to measure, what you tried to measure is gone — nothing quite captures what it is completely, it is something ineffable. In class I used the example of a colour wheel: to try to pinpoint when one colour ends and another begins is extremely difficult even though intuition tells us when blue is now purple, etc. A qualitative multiplicity is inexpressible, and according to Bergson, if we want to be able to grasp it we would have to make the effort to reverse the habitual modes of thought, placing ourselves within duration itself by using intuition. No easy task, to say the least.

I guess getting a tattoo of a pocket watch best expresses the paradox of time for me: the watch itself is a symbol, a concept if you will, of something that cannot be symbolized, conceptualized, or expressed. A contradiction in (on) myself, you could say. And I guess if you are going to be a moron, it’s preferable to be an oxymoron … and a philosophical one at that. All quite logical. (Note: being a philosopher does set you up for all kinds of oxymorons and contradictions, and if you don’t accept it and enjoy the puzzles you will go insane. Just look at Cantor … nuff said.)

Henri Bergson: Time, time, time, see what's become of me ....

“And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”
T. S. Eliot

I am a work in progress …

A Japanese bodysuit in progress ....

I can imagine most tattooed people, that is anyone with more than one tattoo, are asked frequently by friends or family “when will you be done?”. I have been asked that question often, and in the beginning my answer was “I am a work in progress, and when I feel done, then I will be done”, but around third year of my undergraduate degree I found a response that better (and more philosophically) addressed the question. In 1999, I discovered Sartre, and like most young, slightly dramatic, black-clothed (maybe even beret wearing), Marxist sounding, coffee drinking (& smoking) philosophers, I fell in love with Being and Nothingness and existentialism. Being an atheist too, existentialism just made sense. I still to this day have a soft spot for writers like Sartre, Beauvoir, and of course the very sexy Camus. The mantra that captivated me was the infamous “existence precedes essence”.
According to Sartre, existence is a fact, a presence, a “thisness”. Being born into this world is a fact. Essence, on the other hand, is the nature of the thing, the kind of thing it is, “what it is”. Who you become after you are born is essence, and that is determined by your choices alone. We are thrown into this world without a purpose and not of our own choosing, condemned to create what we will be … condemned to be free and responsible for our choices, hurled towards a future. Ahhh … the French drama of it all. This of course contrasts with some mainstream religions that say man is born into ‘original sin’, or any other idea that man’s life is somehow pre-determined: his/her essence is prior to existence. And, in saying that choices determine one’s essence also implies a life isn’t finished until it’s dead — life is one big continuous project and then you die. Tattoos are a way a person creates their essence, it is apart of who they become, and is a physical mark of their choices and their individual essence (their personality, their feelings, what is meaningful to them, etc.). No one’s essence is ever really complete or finished, and I would argue tattoos are that way as well. Tattoos need touch-ups and maintenance over time to keep looking their best, and can be affected by personal choices such as sun tanning, or pregnancy, or even simply with the loss of skin elasticity associated with aging (tattoos change shape, colour, texture, etc.). Choosing not to touch-up a tattoo is also a choice affecting essence, and the faded tattoo reflects that. Choosing to update a tattoo or cover it up with a new one is also wrapped up in essence formation. The meaning of a tattoo can change over time as well. In short, tattoos are a vivid reminder of how our lives are a work in progress that is determined by our freedom of choice.

Sartre also wrote that “hell is other people”, and this phrase seems to come to mind every time I am asked “when will you be done?”.

Feel the nothingness and the freedom of it all ...

%d bloggers like this: