Distinguising Art from Non Art: Discussion 1, Part 2

Collingwood, Metaphysics, Presuppositions

In our last discussion, we looked briefly at Collingwood’s principles of art generally seen as an expressive theory of art. In this lesson we will briefly examine Collingwood’s views on presuppositions as a way to gain some language we may use to analyze various statements about art.

In 1940 Collingwood published a book titled An Essay on Metaphysics. What do we mean by metaphysics? Metaphysics is the study of ultimate reality. Metaphysics takes a big picture view, and in doing so looks at: being as such, first causes, unchanging things, categories, universals, and attributes.

Following this are branches of metaphysics that we call special metaphysics, and these are located to studies within specific domains. A specific domain would be art, for example.

Collingwood wanted to shift metaphysics from a study of being, what things are in the world, to a study of absolute presuppositions that govern enquiry about the world. And it is on this part of his book that we will spend some time.

When Collingwood uses the word presupposition he means something believed beforehand that sort of sits as a foundation for propositions.

Let us also define proposition. A proposition is a sentence or statement that expresses something: truth value, a belief, objects of belief, or doubt. Propositions are sharable, you can share a proposition with other people. Propositions are the primary bearers of truth and falsity. “It is raining outside” is a proposition. Take a look out the window. Yes or no?

Now, we can take any proposition and ask whether it presupposes anything. Let us look again at the example: It is raining outside. What do we presuppose? We probably presuppose at least the following: We presuppose there is an inside and outside. We presuppose we know what the word rain means. We presuppose that we are able to differentiate between rain and something else like sunny weather. We presuppose that our senses are working in a manner that allows us to determine that it is raining.

One of the concerns of a philosopher, and this is our concern as artists too, is to uncover presuppositions. In doing so we want to be rigorous. So long as we use in Collingwood’s words, “general abstract ideas” we risk both confusion and inconsistency. So Collingwood wants to clarify, he wants to be clear, he wants to get to the bottom of things rather than to hide behind generalities and vague statements. Collingwood wants to replace casual thinking with orderly and systematic thinking.

Here’s an example of vague thinking. In the United States Supreme Court ruling on Jacobellis v. Ohio in 1964 in a ruling about whether the Louis Malle film Les Amants was pornographic, Justice Potter Stewart wrote about pornography, “I know it when I see it…” which isn’t particularly clear or helpful.

For Collingwood, to think clearly means,“disentangling all this mess, and reducing a knot of thoughts in which everything sticks together anyhow to a system or series of thoughts in which thinking the thoughts is at the same time thinking the connexions between them.”

Let’s return for a moment to presuppositions. It is important to point out that Collingwood says the the logical efficacy (the ability to produce a desired or intended result) of a presupposition does not depend on the truth of what is supposed. In Medieval times some people presupposed that small spirits or the devil hid in the leaves of Brussels’ sprouts. If they ate the sprouts, they could be demonically possessed, farting being one sign of such possession. As a result of their faulty belief, they would carve a cross into the bottom of the sprouts before cooking them. The logical efficacy, the carving of the cross, of the presupposition, their belief in the hiding spirits, did not depend on the truth of that belief.

Next, Collingwood says there are two there are two types of presuppositions: Relative and Absolute.

1.) Relative presuppositions can be verified. Collingwood gives us the example of using a tape measure to measure the distance between two points. Our question is: What is the distance between these two points. We answer it by measuring that distance. What do we presuppose here? We presuppose that the measuring-tape measure we use to measure this distance is accurate.

Can we verify that the measuring-tape is accurate? Yes. We can compare the measuring-tape to other measuring-tapes or we can compare it to a universally agreed standard.

That said, we could question the accuracy of the measuring-tape every time we measure something, but that would not be very useful in measuring things. Instead we presuppose the measuring-tape measure is correct, trusting previous verification, or knowing if we have to we can verify it.

2.) Absolute presuppositions are different in that they cannot be verified. If someone says, “All abstract art is boring,” you might ask, “On what grounds do you think it is boring?” They might say, “It doesn’t represent anything,” to which you might ask, “Why does non representation make art boring?” They might answer, “I don’t know,” or they might say, “Listen it’s just boring. That’s the way it is. Stop bugging me. Defriended.”

Collingwood says, you can’t verify an absolute presupposition, it just is what it is for people. They can’t verify anything about their view, they simply believe it. And Collingwood says, “people are apt to be ticklish in their absolute presuppositions.”

Again the efficacy of a presupposition does not depend on its truth. Imagine you are in an art class where the professor presupposes that any art with the color blue is not good art because the professor thinks this is just the way it is in the world. We may say the truth of the matter is that there is art with blue in it that is considered good in the world. Nonetheless, the professor may give any student a poor grade for doing art with blue in it based on the professor’s absolute presupposition. The logical efficacy of the presupposition does not depend on the truth of that presupposition.

So, a question arises:

Does every proposition or belief presuppose something? For our purposes we may consider the answer to be yes.

Let us return to Collingwood and art. As he begins to consider thinking and feeling, and then language, and he comes to a strange conclusion that seems to contradict what he originally said about art. He says, “Language and art become interchangeable.” He continues, “Every utterance and every gesture that each one of us makes is a work of art.” So it sounds as though Collingwood is now saying anything anyone says or does is a work of art, but he also believes art’s goal is the expression of emotion. So how does he get out of this contradiction?

In his view, artists experience more deeply than the average person. Unlike the average person however, the artist has mastered the process of preserving these deeply felt feelings through art. The artist has learned to externalize an inward experience so that the thing eventually created (the art) is a blend of experience and imagination and feeling. This blend is complete in itself. Other people who understand the language of art, can identify with the experience or emotion found in the created work. He writes that a work of art is best experienced when the “imaginary experience of total activity” of the artist is recreated by competent and imaginative viewers.

Following this line of thought, Collingwood also denies that a work of art has to be a physical object. Imagination is required for creating a work of art, and that is something. And he says, this imagination may in fact be a work of art.

The view that a thought alone may be art is a view generating a good deal of controversy. Does art presuppose a physical object? Historically, a number of artists created what might be called thought-art intended to be transmitted mentally to an exhibition or for which a thought reader, if found, would allow a collector to obtain the work of art. Those who oppose this view argue, “I am Mozart in my own mind.” To recall our last lecture, for them, a presupposed necessary condition of art is that it be shared with an audience or that art be a physical object. For them, thoughts or mental pictures do not meet these conditions. A related question for Collingwood would be, if the purpose of art is to express emotion how does a thought as a work of art allow this to occur.

Ok to wrap up. Collingwood provides a good model for analysis based on seeking out presuppositions. On the other hand, questions have been raised around his principles used to determine a thing is art versus non art. In future discussions we will begin to look at what others have to say about the topic.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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