Levels of Existence

This sign (the one on the left) is on the Education Council of the place where I live.


Click to enlarge.

There is, really, no such thing as art. There are only artists.


When I first read it I was shocked by the sheer stupidity of the thing, but hey, let's think it over a bit. I suppose that saying someone is an artist, meaning a person that creates art, and at the same time claim that art, as such, does not exist, sounded like a good idea at the time. It's the kind of counter-intuitive slogan that makes people say "oh, deep, dude" between bong hits.

It's deeply stupid literally, in that it would, of course, make artists people who create something that doesn't exist, which puts them at the level of aspiring unicorn wranglers and theologists in the futility of their chosen profession. But in a way, it is true. Because "art" is not a thing, it has no material existence, although it has many examples.

So, pieces of art exist, but art as a whole doesn't. Art would be the platonic idea from which sculptures, paintings and novels are but a reflection. Which is a metric ton of bullshit but is at least somewhat defensible. And of course whether something is art or not is completely subjective, so art is like a club where objects enter or not based on opinion, and that club exists only in each person's head.

But in any case, that doesn't make it not existing, just because something only exists in your head that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It means it exists in your head, no matter how silly that sounds. So, art does exist, in the same way that imagination exists, or memories exist, or thought exists. Which again goes to show Gombrich was just crafting a silly slogan.

So, we have established that existence is not exactly a black and white thing, because there is at least material existence, and things that don't exist materially? Wrong, because your brain processes are material too. Thought, imagination, and art, all exist materially, in your brain. We just don't have the instruments to measure them, or report on them, except via that unreliable thing called people who just will not shut up about all those things they perceive in their brains. So, art exists, materially.

I know that may sound slightly strange, but what doesn't exist? Do the dragons of Pern exist? Yes, they exist, you can buy "The Dragons of Pern" in Amazon. And yes, specific dragons exist as well, because if they did not, how could we know they are carnivorous, oviparous and warm-blooded? Sure, they don't exist materially in the form of dragons, but I know that because I remember them. How could I remember something that doesn't exist? I remember them because I read about them. I have a memory of their description. There is a description o Pernese dragons as written by Anne McCaffrey, and that's not as good as actual, touchable, warm dragons, but it's the next best thing.

If I mention pink elephants, I am bringing them into existence, not as elephants, but as a description of an elephant, pink. It's an attenuated existence, but is the same one Japan has for me, who have never been there and must make do with notoriously unreliable testimony about their exotic temples, bizarre habits and enormous fire-breathing atomic lizards.

Obviously this is not what people mean, in daily usage, when they say existence, since it would include things people are happy to say do not exist, like Pernese dragons, pink elephants and Gojira. So, in a twisted way, maybe Gombrich is right. Except of course that existence is not a democratic decision. So maybe just people are wrong to say Gojira doesn't exist.

Or maybe existence is not a useful property for things. Maybe what we should use is reality. Because while Gojira exists, he is not real, in the sense that his material form is not that of a huge Tokio-stomping man in a rubber suit. Even though there used to be a guy, dressed on a rubber suit, stomping on a "Tokio", but I digress.

So, art is not real, maybe? Well, no, because noone is claiming art has a physical nature distinct from that representation it has in our heads. Noone claims art is yellow, smaller than a teapot, and covered in purple hair. Art is an abstract concept. And abstract concepts exist.

So Gombrich was full of shit.


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