The Humanness of Art

Caveat: this post is a mental exercise, trying to work out my thinking.

First a quote from Roger Scruton:

“There is also the division that separates merely conscious creatures from self-conscious creatures like us. Only the second have a genuine ‘first-person’ perspective, from which to distinguish how things seem to me from how they seem to you. The creature with “I” thoughts has an ability to relate to his kind in a way that sets him apart from the rest of nature, and many thinkers (Kant and Hegel preeminently) believe that it is this fact, not the face of consciousness per se, that creates or reveals the central mysteries of the human condition. Although dogs are conscious, they do not reflect on their own consciousness as we do: they live, as Schopenhauer put it, in ‘a world of perception,’ their thoughts and desires turned outward to the perceivable world.”

Roger Scruton, “Confronting Biology,” in Philosophical Psychology: Psychology, Emotions, and Freedom, edited by Craig Steven Titus (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press, 2009), 90.

Reading the phrase “relate to his kind” stimulated me to think about how we relate to our kind. As Scruton says, I have “‘I’ thoughts”; I’m not merely conscious, but also self-conscious. But awareness of my “I” thoughts leads me to understand others “I” thoughts. It leads me to be aware of the fact of a sort of intentionality that is only possible for a self-conscious person. I must be aware of myself and my conscious aims for becoming to be able to intend in the fullest sense.

This cluster of ideas led in a hard-to-specify way to a realization that the sort of art I appreciate is human art (isn’t all art?). What I mean is this, I enjoy art to the extent that I can perceive alongside the artist, and especially when the objects perceived are humans. It is this struggle with self-consciousness and for the the rightness of self-conscious aims that so fascinates me about the human condition. And art that captures this struggle captures my imagination. As an example of what I mean, I am posting below a sampling of my recent and favorite Facebook “Cover Photos.”


Edward Hopper’s Room in New York


Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii


Hendrick ter Brugghe’s The Supper at Emmaus

10575279_10152664475495342_5683220365933775673_oLéon-Ernest Drivier’s La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Life)

1412739_10152065162000342_341645355_oJohannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid

Quotable: George Steiner

The last couple paragraphs of his brilliant, The Poetry of Thought:

“The radical break with the western historical past would be that of ephemerality. It would entail the deliberate acceptance of the momentary and the transient. There would be no avowed aspirations to immortality. These would be left to the French Academicians. Lines of verse claiming to outlast bronze would be entombed in the archives. Citation would become an esoteric practice and arrogance. The self-destruct, the effacing sweep of death would not only be accepted but somehow enfolded within aesthetic and intellectual phenomena. Sense would be made play: homo ludens. Thus semantics would converge with those mutations in the status of death and personal identity to which I have referred. On the horizon lies the prospect that biochemical, neurological discoveries will demonstrate that the inventive, cognitive processes of the human psyche have their ultimately material source. That even the greatest metaphysical conjecture or poetic find are complex forms of molecular chemistry.

“This is not a vision in which an obsolescent, often technophobic consciousness such as mine can take comfort. It comes after “the humanities” which so bleakly failed us in the long night of the twentieth century. Yet it may be a formidable adventure. And somewhere a rebellious singer, a philosophical inebriate with solitude will say “No.” A syllable charged with the promise of creation.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought, 216-217

Edward Hopper, “House by the Railroad”

housebytherailroadPersonal Reflections
I appreciate the way this picture captures the absurdity of American life, with its competing pulls toward material prosperity and spiritual (or aesthetic) peace (it is clear which is primary). Put in another setting, perhaps with an abundance of trees scattering the glittering sun, hedged by bushes and water, the house would be beautiful. In that way, it could even feel like a home, at least for a time. But this is no home. The blind judgments of material prosperity have either put the track near the home or the home near the track; no sensible person would have done either. It makes me think of Tolkien’s horror in “The Scouring of the Shire” (The Return of the King) that anyone would fashion a house to make money. But here the house stands with stark naked sunlight blasting the mostly shut shades. It cuts hard lines out of soft aesthetic curves. It makes me wonder which would be worse in the morning, the sunlight or the morning train? The only real sign of life in the picture is that obviously the tracks and the house were both designed, but, absurdly, both for utility.