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.


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