Art as Philosophic Expression
A discussion



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There is a lot of evidence that Hildegard should be considered a philosopher. Often, the criteria used to claim a women is not a philosopher is that she did not write sustained, academic works that were published, that she had little or no knowledge of philosophic history, and she did not discuss universal ideas. Hildegard did all of these. She published many works(better than some of her male counterparts). In these, she discussed universal issues like the nature of men and women. It is also believed that she was well read in the works of previous philosophers and was able to use and criticize their views. Hildegard worked as a philosopher, though she did use methods that would cause many to place her as a theologian. She cited God as her source for information, claiming to be ignorant but for his guidance. Citing God as the evidence for and the source of her claims, Hildegard does not rely on traditional reason to arrive at claims. Many of her ideas were also presented in non-traditional forms, such as poetry, art, and music. The question seems to be not "was Hildegard a philosopher?" but "were her methods acceptable for philosophy?".

Published writings have traditionally been the only means of philosophic expression. Writing certainly lends itself to this kind of communication, but there are some things that visual can do that makes it also suited to philosophy. First, art has an immediate gestalt that writing does not. Just glancing at a painting can give a very strong statement, while a reader has to finish the entire piece in order to get the main ideas. Visual art also has the unique position of allow two very different types of experiences. Figurative art places the viewer in a realistic space. The viewer feels like they are somewhere else. The artist can also choose to ignore this type of figuration and create an intellectual, emotional, non-objective experience. Both of these are things that writing can do, but not with the gestalt immediacy that art can. However, all these experiences offer a more subjective interpretation of the argument presented. It is this subjectivity in art that calls for another kind of philosophy, one that allows for personal interpretation and thoughts in a philosophic work. However, allowing art to be used for philosophy brings up the idea of intention. Can the work of artists who are not working as philosophers, at least not as their main objective, be considered philosophy?

Richard Long is an Earth Systems artist who uses walking to discover the true nature of a place. By walking in a large circle all day, he begins to really understand what the place that he is in is like. After doing this, he takes a photograph of the tread he made in the ground.

Robert Ryman, a painter who uses only white paint on a surface, asks the question, "what is the core of painting, what are its essential parts?" Much like the early Pythagoreans who tried to determine the base of everything (water, fire, etc.), Ryman is asking, though his paintings, what is the real heart of a painting.

Nancy Spero uses iconic forms to discuss the nature of men and women throughout the context of history. She is interested in how women are portrayed and how they are treated, simply on the basis of their gender.

Jasper Johns' works of the 1950's and 60's deal with the idea of symbols. He is asking, "what is a symbol?" and "what is a symbol in contemporary contexts?". By using flags and targets, symbols made completely devoid of meaning by the way he paints them, Johns tries to decipher what meaning is left in them, and how something so charged with meaning can be made so empty of it.

John Cage is most known as a composer. His compositions were usually written by a series of chance operations by which he could determine pitch, duration, and instrumentation. However, Cage also made many prints (primarily etchings) by using similar chance operations. The lines, color, and placement were all determined by a system set up beforehand. In these, Cage is arguing for the existance of an art that elimanates the artist, questioning the purpose of the artist and the very nature of art-making.

Michael Craig-Martin's work is usually not overly philosophic. However, his piece, "An Oak Tree", questions the idea of perception. By "changing" a glass of water into an oak tree, Craig-Martin has changed the role of the artist from the creator to the namer or nominator. The accompanying text, found here, gives a good impression of Craig-Martin's reasoning.

None of these artists are claiming to be philosophers. All of them would probably call themselves artists, but their work is asking definate philosphic questions. So, does the intent of a philosopher matter? Do they have to be trying to be a philosopher? While it is very exciting to think that an artist could be a philosopher, where do we draw the line? A child's doodles could be philosophy. Also, if artists can be philosophers, what does this do to the canon of philosophy? There would certainly be a whole new set of "philosophers" to deal with, and their methods, being so non-traditional, would certainly change the nature of philosophy education. If these artists above cannot be considered philosophers, can art be used as philosophic expression? If so, Hildegard would without question be allowed into the mix of philosophy, along with dozens of others. Also, as an intersting side note, what other forms might enter philosophy as legitimate expression.