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.”

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Edward Hopper’s Room in New York

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Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii

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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

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Scruton, "Regaining My Religion"

From “Regaining My Religion” in Gentle Regrets, by Roger Scruton

For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.

For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgement in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects who relate to each other reciprocally. … To the person with religious belief — whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not — those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent. Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoing that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the “human form divine,” as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgement. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.

If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guildelines of his won, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ. The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss — a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.

ht: Rod Dreher