What IS the Question?

Erik ReeL painting
Erik ReeL, opus 1761, acrylic painting

Q: I realized I had started to ask a question about Schopenhauer, but we got completely sidetracked. I’m trying to remember what we were saying.

ReeL: I don’t think we got started on anything, other than that Schopenhauer is one of the few formal philosophers who said a lot about art in his major works, but wasn’t a specialist in aesthetics or art or anthropology or anything like that.

Q: Yea, So what can you say about Schopenhauer?

ReeL: There’s quite a lot to be said about Schopenhauer, but I’m not  so sure it’s so important anymore.

First off, Schopenhauer says some things related to art that could be construed quite radically in the abstract, but when he gets down to examples and details, you realize he’s an old fuddy-duddy with conservative tastes as trapped in the conventions and blindness of his times as anyone.

Unlike Nietzsche, he does not have a great insight into specific art forms in the concrete, nor a vision of a relevant future.

In his own words, Schopenhauer’s philosophical project was to update Kant and fill in a few holes on things he felt Kant neglected, like art. On the one hand, that makes him immediately interesting to some people who do a lot of thinking about art, especially if they are interested in Kant.

On the other hand it reveals how burdened he is by German Idealism. That’s why others think Nietzsche is  more interesting, he wants to sweep all that aside while still  more firmly grounded in the German philological tradition, which enables Nietzsche to see art more clearly.

When you read Schopenhauer, he doesn’t read like Kant at all, so if you don’t know what the overall intention of his project is, it is easy to be misled. This is because he also wants to replace Kant’s terminology with what he feels is a more modern terminology and idiom, and he wants to write more clearly.

In this he succeeds. Kant is notorious for his ponderous obscurity. Schopenhauer is clearer, especially for a German. The existentialists used to cite as part of their tradition Schopenhauer and then Nietzsche. The clarity of their writing has something to do with this. Even without Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s clarity gives him the force of a sledgehammer knocking off the rust from the entire German philosophical tradition. In this way, he helps set up Freud, who writes brilliantly clear essays.

As for art, Schopenhauer’s distinction between the realm of the Idea and the realm of the Will leads to a fundamental and potentially useful means of distinguishing great art from the rest–great art being a product of the Will, the rest merely based on Idea.

He gives interesting and potentially useful specifics. For example, the Idea produces a more limited work of art, say a painting, that can be interpreted with clear maps of form to meanings, like a sophisticated rebus.

A product of the Will cannot be reduced to such maps. There is always enough room for interpretation left over, enough multi-valence that it will always resist a strict interpretation. This gives it a resonance and room for re-interpretation that will keep it alive for a very long time. This is one reason why we never tire of great art, but quickly tire of weak art.

Notice I am resisting Schopenhauer’s terminology here, using more contemporary language.

This machinery of Schopenhauer’s could be used for a very non-Kantian, more contemporary critical theory with room for things like eisegesis, strong verses weak art and artists, instead of good art and artists, all the machinery that Harold Bloom develops that others have seen as potentially more applicable to visual arts than it was to Bloom’s original application to late Romantic poetry. Things like that. There are possibilities there.

They would not only be non-neo-Kantian, but firmly outside the stated intention of Schopenhauer’s project. You’d have to purposefully misinterpret him. Which may not be a bad idea.

If you dig into this chain of thinking, you will come up to a sense of how Schopenhauer shows why we should probably not pay so much attention to Kant anymore. Why Kant does not get us to where we need to go.

This interview  is not the forum to go into any of this. This answer is far too longwinded as it is.

The good part of the above would be that this misuse of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea machinery leaves plenty of room for a lot of our twenty-first century thinking, especially in terms of things like cognitive theory and the vastly greater range of what we think art is and can be that is so immeasurably beyond what Schopenhauer thought possible.

We live in such significantly different times than Schopenhauer. Poor Schopenhauer missed the import of Impressionism, and of course never witnessed Modernism, so his conception of art is going to be incredibly narrow for our eyes.

Schopenhauer was still stuck back in History Painting with a capital H and its strict hierarchies of content and medium, things students today would consider not just quaint or narrow, but almost evil, for we see how they lead to destructive and unwanted prejudices.

But then you never know. Marx survived well into the last century in spite of being based on Hegel, who talked about the hierarchy of cultures, with Prussia at the top of near perfection, then descending down toward the bottom with the Chinese and the dregs of the scale landing in Africa. It’s obscene. You read Hegel’s Theory of Right, a book that essentially outlines his entire philosophy–his Phenomenology of Spirit is essentially an expansion of a relatively small section of the Theory of Right–and it is easy to visualize German tanks rolling over the Russian steppes and the rise in Berlin of a racist maniac in the next century.

It is astounding how many people didn’t see any of this, nor saw the danger, let alone see it coming. Marx, for one,  is inspired by this Hegel, on his own admission Since then there’s been a whole resurgence of interest in Hegel over the last two generations.

The blindness of prejudices are persistent–and poisonous.. All the more reason to fight them in all their forms.

So, you see, I’m not so sure we should be talking about Schopenhauer anymore, or Hegel, or Marx, or Heidegger, for that matter.

Speaking of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea machinery, a philosopher who talks about art that we didn’t mention, Karl Popper, probably gives us a more useful starting point in terms of trying to locate conceptual realms, though I’m not convinced he gives us what we need either for understanding where the future of art has to go.

As for Post-Modernism, it is already mired in the mud of a lot of  post-War intellectual sloppiness from which it seems doomed to never be able to extricate itself.

Some of the post-war thinkers are wonderfully poetic writers who are still under-appreciated, even misunderstood, but not in a good way.

People are very confused, the planet is in crisis.

Not good. I’ll stop there for now.

Q: I’m not sure I followed all that, except the end. The planet is in crisis, I am definitely confused.

I have no idea what question to ask.

ReeL:  Ah, that’s just it, isn’t it? What question do you ask?


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