Wed 11 Nov 2009
I just returned from spending three days in New York on a museum trip with students from the Humanities elective, Paris and New York in the Twenties and Thirties. Perhaps what I have to offer in this entry is not traditional philosophy, but it might be fun anyway. We spent some time looking at works by Kandinsky – colorful abstract pieces, intersected by seemingly random lines sometimes forming curved shapes. These are not at all the rigid tile-floor spaces of color by Mondrian. Caught among the throngs and jostling for a good view, some caught my interest, others were inscrutable. I overheard many comments of impatience and the sighs of those who could now say they had witnessed the show, found it silly, but satisfied the obligations to whoever had dragged them there. I thought about Gertrude Stein, who took upon herself the task of interpreting Picasso’s cubism to any who would listen. She of “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
In her essay, Composition as Explanation, Stein says, “Those who are creating…authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead…that is the reason why the creator of the new…is an outlaw until he is a classic.” But she warns us that a first rate work of art becomes a classic precisely because it becomes “accepted.” And once it is accepted it is possible for people to see its beauty. But that very process can lead to indolence and dull our perceptions. Instead, she celebrates irritation. “Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.” (Note how her bending of grammar and repetition can be irritating.) We need to pay attention to the way artistic expression and to philosophical ideas irritate us, especially in our time when we are so bombarded with stimulation that it is hard to focus on any one target of significance. We listen to a song that flooded our ears in high school and now we just need a few bars and we “have it.” It is a classic, and further attention is not necessary.
When we entered the Museum of Modern Art there was a natural rush to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night. What could be better than that? But it is too bad that during his life-time this opinion was not shared. Look quickly and move on, there are lots of other “classics” to check off of our list. Stein was motivated by defending Picasso. Not everyone who is irritating is actually worthy of renown. But perhaps we need to be more patient with what irritates us. And perhaps we need to look again at what has become accepted and classic. Stein cautions, “Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful.”
Which philosophers of the tradition have become the “classic” ones? I am still learning to look at Kandinsky. Which philosophers are worth overcoming the annoying suspicion that they are making things unnecessarily difficult? Which are worth a new look? Foucault, Wittgenstein? Aquinas? Who are your classic classics?