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 ……

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. gormorywexler
    Sep 27, 2010 @ 11:27:00

    Great first half Kim! I’m very excited for the conclusion. Also, putting aside his primacy to language as the zenith of knowledge/all things, doesn’t Gadamer rock?


    • tattooed.philosopher
      Sep 27, 2010 @ 16:22:10

      Thanks! 🙂
      Gadamer does rock, i cannot help but adore his work. I have a hard time accepting that he actually liked Heidegger, but i guess no one is perfect.
      Later in the week the second half will go up. I’ll let you know when it’s up.
      Good luck to your blogging adventures, i read them when i can.


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