Wednesday, October 29, 2008

We don't see things as they are, but as we are.

The world is built in a particular way. But the way we see it is different.

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who is considered to be the last major philosopher of the Enlightenment, talked a lot about things in themselves, and things based on experience. He called his theory “Transcendental Idealism”.

“Everything intuited or perceived in space and time, and therefore all objects of a possible experience , are nothing but phenomenal appearances, that is, mere representations, which in the way in which they are represented to us, as extended beings, or as series of changes, have no independent, self-subsistent existence apart from our thoughts.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant was a philosopher who mediated between Empiricism and Rationalism. Rationalists say that all knowledge is without experience. They call this a priori knowledge. It is a theory in which the knowledge is not sensory but intellectual and deductive. They believed that reason is the unique path to knowledge.

The Empiricist view, on the other hand, says that all ideas come to us through experience, either through our five senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste, or through inner sensations such as pain and pleasure, and therefore that essentially, knowledge is based on and derived from experience. Empiricists therefore say that all knowledge is a posteriori i.e. it is based entirely on experience.

Kant said it was both. Kant said that things in themselves are not knowable. And he said that everything that you experience is partly created by you. He acknowledges that something comes from the outside through our sensory experience, but we cannot know anything with that alone. We receive senses from outside, but not passively. We modify them and therefore they are partly our own creation. If you see a table, according to Kant, when described as “a table for us” rather than “a table in itself” then you aren’t really talking about the world the way it is, but the kind of creatures you are, for who the world appears to be a certain way.

Another example – If a person is born with pink glasses, the entire world appears to him or her to be pink. That, for this person, is knowledge. He or she absorbs what the outside world gives him or her, through the senses, and because of the pink glasses, he or she modifies the world to make it seem a certain way. i.e. Everything appears to be pink. But just because he or she sees the world as pink does not mean the world is really pink.

What I’m trying to say is that we see the world through our own eyes and our experience. Therefore, as Kant says, absolute knowledge must include internal reason as well as external experience.

Also, “we” is never constant. There is no permanent state of “we”. We constantly change with the times, due to the changing external conditions. Hugely revered in many parts of South-east Asia and India, and now even in many parts of the west, the great thinker and philosopher Gautham Buddha said, “The only thing that is permanent is change.”

Furthermore, there is also no uniform “we”. So when we say we see things as we are, that is still a generalization. A classical musician might think of ‘hard rock’ as pure noise. But does that tell more about the object i.e. Hard rock, or the person i.e. the classical musician? Rock remains Rock, and each individual sees it differently, according to their own experience, upbringing, choices, preferences and social conditioning. Another example of this is the ancient erotic temples of Khajuraho in India. They portray sexually explicit but extremely graceful sculptures all over the temple walls. Victorian Englishmen saw and conservative Indians still see the sculptures as vulgar and crude. But today, most of us see them as objects of beauty. Again, the sculptures have remained the same since the time they were built between 950 A.D and 1050 A.D. It is our perception of these objects that has changed and our perceptions are different because we are all different. The way we see them changes because ‘we’ are neither constant nor uniform. This is another proof that we see things, not the way they are, but as we are. Our character, dispositions, influences, upbringing, social surroundings, and political beliefs - all affect our experience of knowledge of the world. We make a judgment about the world, and that says more about us, and how we are, who we are, and “as we are.”

This train of thought also got me thinking about the question about the distinction between high art and low art. That is also a question of who we are, rather than what the art is. Though the difference is not redundant, the distinction between high and low art is constantly changing as we change. Something which was considered low art earlier becomes high art. e.g. Isadora Duncan’s dance was very unpopular and criticized when she first started to dance, but over time and especially by the time she died, she was one of the most revered dancers in the world. Today she is referred to as the pioneer of Contemporary dance, an inspiration to legends of contemporary dance like Martha Graham, for whom she paved the way to survival, great appreciation and fame.

Since I am on the subject of high and low art, the other thing I feel is necessary to point out is that the culture of the masses has never been perceived to be high art. This is wrong. Very often, what is elite has been derived from the masses. A prime example of that is the form of dance that I do. Bharatanatyam is an ancient south Indian dance form that was danced by devadasis (servants of the gods) in temples. It wasn’t respected. And over time, it was brought out of the temples and became a staged art, watched and understood mostly by the elite who changed their perception of it. Now it is considered a high art. The object which we call art in this context has remained constant and unchanging. Yes, it has evolved and developed, but its nature has remained the same. It is our experience of the art, and our personal opinions and inclinations that have changed it’s perception as a high or low art.

The very concept of High art was brought about by the constant changing of people i.e.“we”. It came about in the Renaissance and the romantic period. Before this period, Michelangelo was just a painter who painted buildings and ceilings. In India, importance was given to Brahmans (priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors), rather than Vaishyas (artists). It was during the romantic period that the distinction came about, because of our changing perception of the object. i.e. art.

High art became a skill that required imagination and an internal standard of excellence whereas low art was not considered to be that skillful. Of course, if the world considers high art to be elite and low art to be associated with the masses, then I disagree with the above definitions that I have put forth. In that case, I don’t believe in high art and low art, but rather good and bad art, which exist both in the elite and the masses. Here itself, I have redefined the meanings of High and Low art based on my own points of view, my own social, political and personal understanding of the world. The nature of the art remains unchanged. It is my perception of it that changes. It does not change as an object in itself, it changes because of the way I see it. So metaphorically, I could say that I see it differently because I am wearing a certain coloured glasses.

Jean Paul Sartre, a well known author, philosopher and existentialist, is another revered man who talks about objects as seen by the mind. In his article “The Work of Art”, he says there are two kinds of objects – the real object and the aesthetic object. He says that in a picture, the ‘real object’ is the object that appears to us in physical space. But he says that it also occurs in imaginative space as an ‘aesthetic object’. And though when we observe the real objects of the picture, the aesthetic object will not appear - we must realize that the aesthetic object has not hidden itself. Sartre says that it’s just that it cannot present itself to a ‘realizing consciousness’. The aesthetic object will appear at the moment when our consciousness undergoes a radical change and becomes imaginative.

He goes on to say that the ‘real object’ constitutes the result of the brush strokes, the stickiness of the canvas, the polish over the colours and so on. But all this does not constitute the object of aesthetic appreciation. So when we see a painting, we ordinarily see paint, colours, and the canvas. It is when our consciousness undergoes a radical change into the imaginary from time to time, do we see the aesthetic object of beauty in art.

He, too believes that the real object itself is just an object that can be seen as beautiful or not beautiful by the person who perceives it after undergoing a change in his mind that makes him imaginative. Depending on the person’s imaginative conditioning, he or she will see the object as either beautiful or unappealing. This imaginative conditioning that determines the final verdict of the quality and appreciation of the art is nothing but who we are, and “as we are”.

To conclude - by applying the philosophical theories and ideas of great philosophers such as Kant and Sartre, and by giving several examples, “We see things not as they are, but as we are” appears to be true. Perhaps if we were all one big unit of identical individuals with the same upbringing, conditioning and the same points of view on everything, we would really see the world as it is – objectively and uniformly the same for everyone. But because we are all different and unique, and changing all the time, we all see things differently and see things based on our own personal experience of them.

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.

This is an article I wrote to send to universities where i'm applying to do an MA in Art History.