Art & Phenomenology: How Our Experiences with Art Influence Our Perceptions of It

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“Art is not only about something; it is something”

– Susan Sontag

In John Berger’s seminal book and BBC series, Ways of Seeing, published and broadcast in 1972, he asked his readers and viewers to look at Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Wheatfield with Crows completed in 1890.

(Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1890)

In his book and broadcast Berger asked the reader and viewer to really look at the painting and to develop an opinion of it. 

Do you like it? 

Do you not? 

Why or why not? 

After letting the reader and viewer formulate his opinion and feel comfortable with it, he began describing the painting himself. He pointed out the ominous imagery in it: “blackbirds haunting a darkening sky above a dust-ridden farmland.” 

He asked the reader and viewer then to look at the painting again. Do you have the same opinion of it, he asked? More-so or less-so? Why?

He then finished his narrative by referring to the crows as a “murder of crows who portentously circle above the famed painter’s one-eared head.” His final words, and in the book one has to literally turn the page to read it, he then tells the reader and viewer that this was the last picture that Van Gogh ever painted before he shot and killed himself … that Van Gogh had left this image as his last one before committing suicide. 

After letting the reader and viewer digest that information, he again asked: Do you like this painting? 

How does hearing this kind of information about a piece of art affect one’s perception of it? Can understanding and empathy deepen someone’s appreciation of a work of art without necessarily changing his or her opinion of it? How does the appearance versus the reality of anything mold one’s consciousness in how he or she interprets things?

Phenomenology is a philosophy based on human experience. However, it is not only just the study “of experience,” but also the study of “how a person experiences things,” … and for phenomenology the ultimate source of all meaning and value is in the lived experience of us all. I realize how daunting that sounds, but what phenomenology studies are the structures of conscious occurrences as experienced from a subjective, or first-person, point of view. Along with its “intentionality,” the way an experience is directed toward a certain object in the world has meaning. For instance, ask a dozen people who witness an accident to describe what they saw. You’re more than likely to get a dozen different interpretations of what they say they saw but they will all be true, albeit subjectively, from their own perspective. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena.”

The appearances of things

Things as they appear in our experiences

The ways in which we experience things

The meanings things have in our experience

Experience, perceived and otherwise, leads to the analyses of conditions of the possibility of intentionality, conditions that involve motor skills and habits, conditions of one’s background social practices, and often the conditions of one’s language. All philosophical systems, scientific theories, and aesthetic judgments exist as abstractions from the ebb and flow of the everyday world that people engage in on a daily basis. Most people see what they see, hear what they hear, smell what they smell, etc. and this is how a person determines what he or she likes and dislikes. Sensory actions and reactions are based on perceptions, and it is these personal points of reference that influence how he or she interprets things further … or not. 

The task of the philosopher, according to phenomenology, is to describe the structures of experience as it applies to one’s consciousness by engaging with  his or her imagination and acknowledging how it relates to other people. The situatedness of the human subject in society and history is, at best, always going to be relative. 

Most of us, either in high school or college, were introduced to Plato’s Republic and his infamous “Allegory of the Cave.” Written in 517 BCE, it is arguably Plato’s best-known story and most referenced piece of writing. The Republic is the centerpiece of Plato’s rationalist philosophy, centrally concerned with how people acquire knowledge about absolute concepts like beauty, justice, and goodness, etc. “The Allegory of the Cave” uses the metaphor of prisoners chained in the dark to explain the difficulties of reaching and sustaining a just and intellectual spirit.

The allegory is set forth in a dialogue as a conversation between Plato’s own teacher and mentor Socrates and his disciple Glaucon. Socrates tells Glaucon to imagine people living in a great underground cave which is only open to the outside world at the end of a steep and difficult ascent. Most of the people in the cave are prisoners chained facing the back wall of the cave so that they can neither move nor turn their heads. They have no idea what lies behind them. A great fire, however, is burning behind them, and all these prisoners can see are the shadows cast by it playing on the wall in front of them. They have been chained in this position all their lives and this cave and these shadows, for  them, are real. This is their reality.

There are others in the cave, carrying objects, but all the prisoners can see of them are their shadows as well. Some of the others speak, but there are echoes in the cave that make it difficult for the prisoners to understand which person is saying what. For these prisoners, even though the shadows and what they are saying are real, they cannot fully comprehend them. 

Socrates then describes the difficulties a prisoner might have adapting to anything different if he were ever freed from this cave, from this darkness. When he was able to see that there were solid objects in the cave, not just shadows, he would, naturally, be confused. Instructors could tell him that what he saw before was just an illusion, but at first, he’d resist believing this information and assume that this was some kind of trick, that it was not real. He would want to believe that it was his shadow-life that was reality. It has been, after all, his perception of everything he’d ever experienced to this point.

Eventually, Plato writes in his allegory, a prisoner is physically dragged out of the cave, the darkness, his perception of reality … and thrust into the sunlight outside where he is painfully overcome, dazzled and blinded, by the brightness of this other world. However, once he grows accustomed to the light of day and all the things that exist in this world, he comes to realize that this is the greater reality, the truth he’d never experienced before, and he begins to pity the people still in the cave, in the darkness below. He wants more than ever now to stay above ground in this light and apart from them in the darkness and to think no more of them or his own past any longer. 

The new arrivals would want choose to remain in the light, but, says Socrates to Glaucon, they must not; because for true enlightenment, to understand and apply what goodness and justice are, they would be obligated to, and therefore, have to descend back into the darkness of the cave and rejoin the people still chained to the wall there to share this new knowledge with them.

In the final part of his allegory, Plato explains to us what he meant in presenting this story. Trapped in a cave, he wanted to show how the world is revealed to people who only engage with it through their senses. What is real is only what they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. No deeper thought or understanding is necessary.

But he also wanted to stress that these sensory truths, or realities, may only just be that: perceptions … because what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste may, and often does, deceive us.

The ascent out of the cave represents the journey of the mind, the body, and the soul into the rational world, the realm of the intelligible: That which can be perceived and understood with more than just the senses. The truth, according to Plato, resides in the mind.

Plato fully understood and acknowledged that the path to enlightenment was a painful and arduous one that required time, patience, and guidance if it was to be achieved or gained at all. Sadly, Plato also realized so many centuries ago that too many “prisoners” would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall, the shadows, were real, and that they would never want to know of the real causes of the shadows. He knew most people were happy and content to remain in the safety of their caves because it was comfortable and all they’d ever known. In fact, he concluded by stating that if freed, they would likely rip the enlightened man apart for attempting to destroy their world.

Is it, then, our responsibility, our duty, to liberate people from the comfort of their caves? 

In terms of aesthetics, must we explain art? 

Can’t we allow people to simply look at a piece of art, see what they see, and believe about it what they choose from their own perceptions of it? Or, like Plato’s enlightened prisoner, do we have an obligation, a duty, to go into that cave and expose others to the “truth,” about what they are looking at? To give their experience deeper understanding by providing background, technique, and history about what they are experiencing? Do we improve upon or ruin the viewers’ experience by doing this? Is their perception their reality and do they even want us to destroy that for them?

Phenomenological theories of aesthetics regard works of art as either mediators between the consciousnesses of the artist and the viewer or as attempts to disclose different aspects of human-kind and their world to others. American writer, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and political activist, Susan Sontag, believed our empirical and sensory perception of and experience with art objects was necessary.

Writing in 1965 amidst an art world that had recently absorbed abstract expressionism, including action painting and color field painting, and at the height of post-painterly abstraction that was seemingly infatuated with hermeneutics, the branch of epistemology, or knowledge, that deals with interpretations, Sontag sounded a call for the importance and necessity of one’s experience, rather than someone’s interpretation, of artwork in her essay “Against Interpretation.” 

In opposing and calling for a re-evaluation of interpretation, our conditioned mode of approaching art, she argued that such interpretations actually altered the art itself radically and found interpretations to be “stifling.” Sontag advocated the pure, sensuous, empirical, and immediate experience of all art, for, she believed, “the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their ‘meanings.’” 

Sontag argued that it is the images and the forms of art that first seduced the viewer and interested him or her in any given piece of artwork. She believed one’s personal experience should prompt him or her to want to understand or try to find its potential “meanings” on his or her own. 

Interpretation, according to Sontag, “violates art” and implied that interpretations of art expressed a “dissatisfaction” with the art object as it was with a desire to replace it with something else – with a narrative other than the artist’s. 

It is for this reason, she continued, that avant-garde art was always “perpetually on the run.” Sontag believed contemporary art was purposefully attempting to avoid interpretation through experimentation with form “at the expense of content.”

Sontag not only called our attention to the complications and issues with interpretation, and our need to reconsider our employment of it, but also prompted us to think seriously about the way in which we approached art in general and what was at stake here. 

What, then, are we to do?

Phenomenology is a way of thinking about ourselves. It indeed focuses on the experiences that we get from the senses: what we see, taste, smell, touch, hear, and feel: What is referred to as “phenomena,” from the Greek phainomenon, meaning “appearance.” It does not ask if what we are seeing is actually real, there, or true. For example, it is not where we see an object … whether in real life, a dream, or even a hallucination … that is important, but it is the significance of the object itself that is important to the phenomenologist. It does not ask if we are missing something, or if we have all the facts. Instead, the basics of phenomenology believe we should first look at the world empirically, just as it appears to us. It does not, however, insist we leave our experience with it there.

The modern founder of phenomenology is the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938 CE), who sought to make philosophy “a rigorous science” by returning its attention “to the things themselves.” The road to a presuppositionless philosophy, he argued, began with suspending the “natural attitude” of everyday knowing which assumed that things are simply “there” in the external world. In Husserlian phenomenology the primary purpose is to focus not on the perceived reality of something but on the intention of the object, person, or situation. This focussing obscures the otherwise unquestionable empirical, or sensory, presence of aesthetic qualities of objects, human beings, or situations. Philosophers, he proposed, should “bracket” the object-world and, in a process he called epoché, or “reduction,” focus their attention on what is immanent in consciousness itself without presupposing anything about its origins or supports in order to focus on how they are arrived at, perceived, remembered, imagined, translated, admired, contemplated, reproduced, distorted, etc. “Bracketing,” for Husserl, was not effected to deny, doubt, neglect, abandon, or exclude a perceived reality from one’s research, but instead to suspend or neutralize a certain dogmatic attitude toward that reality…to focus more deeply on why the objects appeared as they appeared.

All these operations are supposedly consciously given in firsthand experiences. To apply phenomenological aesthetics is, therefore, first and above everything, to apply intentional analysis: to analyze the various modes of givenness of objects, whether natural or imaginary, in the various ways of intending them, such as unveiled in the aesthetic constitution of every art object. Pure description of the phenomena given in consciousness would, Husserl believed, give one the foundation of necessary, certain knowledge and thereby justify the claim of phenomenology to be more radical and all-encompassing than other disciplines. Husserl was, in essence, reaching back into Plato’s theories and dragging phenomenological concepts out of their caves.

Let preconceived theories form our experience, but let our experience determine our theories.

Looking at the four objects above, we can ask ourselves, “What am I looking at?” Experience would have us rely on our empirical senses. What do they look like? Sound like? Feel like? Etc. A person would process that information, move along, and that would be their understanding of it. From his point-of-view, he could develop an opinion based simply on his sensory experience of each one: 

“I like this.” 

“I hate this.” 

“How is this art?” 

“My child could do this.”

Plato would encourage him to forego his senses, leave the darkness of his cave, and engage his mind. Husserl would instruct him to look at each item and question their intentionality. Why have these four pieces been grouped together? Is this simply randomness or is there some purpose to it? 

This is where man engages his own free will and decides on whether to move beyond his sensory experience and utilize his mind to seek out more information about what he is looking at or be satisfied with his sensory experience and let that be his complete involvement with it. 

To leave the comfort of one’s cave or not.

Given consciousness and man’s desire to give meaning to the world around him, the philosopher wagers many would choose to understand this experience more and leave the encounter with more awareness. 

That being said, what do these four images above have in common? Are they just random pieces of art from a museum’s collection or do they have some greater purpose meant to heighten the viewer’s experience? 

If we engage our senses, we can discern that they are all freestanding, multi-dimensional objects that have been either carved, modeled, molded, cast, wrought, welded, sewn, assembled, or otherwise shaped and combined. 

What in a museum has these qualities in common?

If we were one of Plato’s prisoners and reliant only on what we’ve ever known to apply these sensory perceptions to, then of course, we would gravitate towards the Rodin piece and recognize it as a piece of sculpture. But are they all pieces of sculpture? For most people, experience would tell them that they are not.

(Plato, The Divided Line)

This is where Plato and his successors would deem it one’s duty to help the viewer understand that he is actually seeing more than he realizes, only he doesn’t yet understand it. One can guide the viewer’s journey in such a way that his experience grows and his perceptions open up in ways he hadn’t known before.

Plato believed there were four stages of acquiring rational thought. Using his allegory as a template, they were achieved as one moved further and further out of the cave and its darkness and into the light of pure reason. He referred to this process as moving along the “Divided Line.”

The divided line was bisected into two smaller parts that Plato used to explain this journey from the solely sensory, empirical way of thinking: the world of Becoming into the realm of understanding and rationality: the world of Being. At the bottom of the line in the darkest part of the cave lies “Imagining.” This is the realm of perceptions and conjecture. This is where those who only know what they can see, hear, smell, etc. reside. Plato considered this the most restricted area of existence as those who dwelt here would never be able to know, appreciate, or experience anything beyond this scope of recognition. These people are akin to the prisoners chained to rocks. 

Above this realm Plato referred to the next destination along this line of reason as “Belief.” This realm still existed in the darkness, but this is where those who resided there adopted their sensory perceptions as “Truth.” This is a place of faith and conviction, and although based on nothing but opinions and perceptions, it is regarded by those who dwell there as true reality.

As one chooses to leave this darkness and venture out of the cave, they eventually cross Plato’s Divided Line and enter the realm of the intellect, of “Thinking.” This is where a person begins to understand that there are explanations to explain prior perceptions that aren’t solely based on their senses. This is where the individual begins to engage his mind to explore more rational explanations for his perceptions.

The final point on Plato’s Divided Line is knowledge, or “Intelligence.” This is the realm of reason. This end is achieved when a person can, will, and does automatically engage his mind when discerning the truth in his world. It is pure reason and the crux of rationalism. Those who achieve this step are able to question their senses and go beyond them to discern a greater reality. They know that our senses can, and often do, deceive us. They know that one’s perceptions lead to convictions and faith based on nothing more than those perceptions. They know that to truly understand and attain a sense of enlightenment, one must engage his or her mind and use reason to discern what is perceived and what is not. It alters a person’s every experience with the world he or she is engaged in.

To that end, sculpture is not a fixed term that applies to a permanently circumscribed category of objects or sets of activities. It is, rather, the name of an art form that grows and changes and is continually extending the range of its activities with evolving and new kinds of objects. To apply the phenomenology of Plato’s Divided Line using sculpture as an example, one can see the journey a person engaged in it would travel along going from the purely empirical, sensory experience to the more rational one that fully engages the mind.

If we begin with Rodin’s Thinker, the piece most people would envision when thinking of a sculpture, we can use it as the empirical starting point: the realm of “Imagining.” By explaining that certain features which in previous centuries were considered essential to the art of sculpture, one of the most important of these being representation; we can bracket this journey by stating that pre- and early 20th century sculpture was considered a representational art, one that imitated forms in life, most often with human figures but also with animals and inanimate objects, and as such were meant to please the eye and engage the senses more than anything else. It is here where the most basic definition of the medium is derived: 

Sculpture is an artistic mode that is made of a material substance that has mass and that exists in three-dimensional space.

(Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1919)

Rodin’s The Thinker is made of a material substance, bronze; has mass, it measures 200 cm X 130 cm X 140 cm; and indeed exists in three-dimensional space … one can empirically see it, touch it, and walk around it. Cast in 1919, it is the representational form of a known object: man. 

How then to get the viewer willing to venture along this line to discover that this is not the only way to imagine sculpture? One must engage him in the next step of this journey: “Belief.” If a person is willing and able to accept the basic description of what a sculpture is, then one must apply it to something that challenges this perception while using that same definition.

(Alexander Calder, Water Lily, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1945)

Alexander Calder’s Water Lily, cast in 1945, while not as empirically simple as Rodin’s The Thinker, does still fit the same context for the most part. It is made of a material substance, painted sheet metal and wire; it has mass, it measures 136 cm X 236 cm X 170 cm; and it indeed exists in three dimensional space. However, unlike The Thinker, it moves. It is not static or stationary. Calder’s Water Lily adds an easily discernible dimension to what a person imagines a sculpture to be while easily being able to believe that this, too, is a sculpture. It is still accomplished entirely through the senses and requires no deeper thought whatsoever. 

With that it should not be difficult to reinforce this belief with similar non-threatening pieces of sculpture that, while fitting the experience and perception one has of sculpture, still challenges it. 

(Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Diana, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1892-93)

Like Calder’s Water Lily, Diana, made by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1892-93 of gilded copper sheets, appears, like Rodin’s The Thinker, to be a representational, static piece of sculpture. That is what one’s senses tell him. Believing this to be a sculpture, one can allow the viewer to discover that this piece, like Calder’s, is not static, but moves. The viewer learns that it originally sat upon the tower of New York’s Madison Square Garden to serve as a weather vane in the early 20th century. This information is easy to process and doesn’t threaten preconceived experiences or perceptions of sculpture.

One must, however, edge the person who strives to escape the shackles of his cave forward along this line of enlightenment and bring him to the precipice of the crossing point from relying solely on his or senses into engaging his or her mind.

(Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1964)

Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, made in 1964, requires the viewer to cross Plato’s Divided Line and enter the realm of “Thinking.” For all intents and purposes, Brillo Boxes still satisfies all the requirements one would need to define a sculpture: it is made of a material substance, screenprint and ink on wood; it has mass, it measures 43 cm X 43 cm X 35 cm; and it exists in three-dimensional space. It can easily be perceived and understood through one’s senses. However, the empirical thinker will part ways here with the rational thinker if not encouraged to disengage his senses and engage his mind. This is where his senses can deceive him. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are precise copies of commercial packaging. They are reminiscent more of a supermarket display than a museum piece. If sculpture has always been defined as being representational of things in life, then the mind will recognize that Warhol has succeeded in creating a piece here that fulfills the idea that art is imitating life. However, it goes further by raising questions about how one identifies and values something as art. If Warhol could transform a mundane commercial product into a work of art, then how did that happen?

Remember that philosopher Edmund Husserl, a man whose life’s work was the modern development of phenomenological thought, said one should bracket the “object world” together and “focus attention on what was immanent in consciousness itself.” If, as he purported, pure description of the phenomena given in consciousness gave one a foundation of necessary, certain knowledge that could be more radical and all-encompassing than other disciplines, then all one would have to do now is think back to the statue of Diana. Saint-Gaudens created this piece not to function as a piece of sculpture in a conventional manner, but as a piece of commercial art with a utilitarian purpose atop Madison Square Garden. Like a Brillo box that gets displayed in a public market as a consumer good, Saint-Gaudens’ work was commissioned, bought, and utilized as a weather vane on a public building as a consumer good. Warhol simply created something similar in a world over seventy years later, and considering Warhol made numerous Brillo Boxes and sold them to art collectors and museums, his sculptures can also be considered mass-produced consumer goods.

Rational thought enables one to make the connection which broadens his perception and augments his experience exponentially.

The final point on Plato’s Divided Line that one needs to arrive at in order to be fully liberated from the limits of sensual perception is the realm of “Intelligence.” This point is achieved when the person no longer seeks to go back to prior perceptions and intentionally engages his mind in seeking out perceptive truths for himself. 

This by no means implies that someone no longer requires help, assistance, or guidance. This only means that someone is now able to understand his environment enough to explore and discover, ask and experiment, read and research on his or her own or in collaboration with other like-minded individuals in experiencing the world in a clearer, more accurate, and truthful way. 

Having moved from Rodin to Calder: Imagining to Belief, from Calder to Saint-Gaudens: Belief to Thinking, and from Saint-Gaudens to Warhol: Becoming to Being, let us suppose someone is now confronted with a piece by Rockne Krebs.

Again, using his or her experience with prior sculpture, someone can easily identify this as having the qualifications of one: Krebs’s No. Xxxii is made of a material substance, plexiglass; it has mass, it measures 251 cm X 105 cm X 105 cm; and it exists in three-dimensional space. What stands out most about it, though, is that empirically, it may, and can, deceive the senses. Because of its minimalistic and clear design, it can, and does, often appear invisible depending of the light, time of day, and angle from which it’s viewed. Can something be a sculpture without empirically engaging it, something that we cannot see?

(Rockne Krebs, Sky Bridge Green (Ski-Pi), 1973, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In 1973 Rockne Krebs transformed the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s building into a site for a kinetic laser environment. His project, titled Sky Bridge Green (Ski-Pi), showed Krebs’s intention to animate the Museum’s East Terrace with an array of lasers projected at various intervals over the East Terrace and toward Philadelphia’s City Hall. As part of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s “Mayfest” that year, Krebs’s Sky Bridge Green (Ski-Pi) invoked the ephemerality of light as a connective force that expanded the work of art to include the texture and fabric of the city itself.

William F. Stapp, former Curator of Photography at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, and former staff lecturer in the Education Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was quoted as saying: 

“I was working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art back in 1973 when David Katzive, the head of the museum’s Division of Education and Urban Outreach program, commissioned Sky Bridge Green (Ski-Pi), which was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful artworks I have ever experienced. I watched Rockne tinker with the impressively huge laser that he had set up on the east portico of the museum to shoot a beam of light straight down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to a mirror on Billy Penn’s hat on top of City Hall.”

Krebs, an innovative Washington DC artist, found international acclaim for his striking environmental sculptures using beams of light. Using intricately arranged lenses, prisms and mirrors to direct light from lasers or the sun, Mr. Krebs pioneered what he called, in one of his exhibitions, “sculpture minus object.” His light sculptures were known for their clarity of form and for giving the illusion of confined or infinite space. Mr. Krebs was one of the few artists of the time to use the power of light as a primary artistic palette.

Krebs’s initial approach to sculpture was to eliminate its materiality, and a number of his works from the 1960’s, like No. Xxxii done in 1967, were geometric forms in clear plexiglass. Laser light and his ground-breaking works in this medium, would be his next step in creating sculptural works that had no solid form. Though some hardware was always necessary to his sculpture, the work itself consisted only of light.  

(Rockne Krebs, Sky Bridge Green (Ski-Pi), 1973, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The light generally took two forms: one natural, the technological. Working with the existing landscape, he transformed it, playing with the variability of light conditions against a formally rigorous system of mirrors and laser lights. This created structures which appeared solid and stable, but were actually immaterial and subject to atmospheric conditions.

Krebs’s art came from his dawning perception of the world as a unified whole to which every piece contributes: science, technology, his own artistic ego, man-made objects, and the panoply of the natural world…  He said of his work:

“I think of these as pieces which you experience in total but see only in sequence or passages. The experience is a remembered experience, almost as a piece of music of which you hear the progression. In this case, you see the progression of the piece and your final total experience is one of memory.” 

This is the crux of phenomenology: one’s perceptions based on one’s experiences. Rational thought, at its peak, is a journey though the mind in which all prior experiences build on one’s previous experiences to enable those perceptions to be clearer, more accurate, and more truthful. In defining sculpture, its definition has evolved to include that the aesthetic raw material of sculpture is, so to speak, the whole realm of expressive three-dimensional form. A sculpture may draw upon what already exists in the endless variety of natural and man-made form, or it may be an art of pure invention. It has been used to express a vast range of human emotions and feelings from the most tender and delicate to the most violent and ecstatic.

Purely representational, empirical pieces are not necessarily present in a great deal of modern sculpture and therefore can no longer be the sole form of its definition. The two most important elements of sculpture, mass and space, are, of course, separable only rationally, in thought. A primary outcome of philosophy is to expand one’s worldview. It is important to examine critically the way in which one lives while providing insight to the basic concepts that create our experiences and form our perceptions.

Phenomenological aesthetics, luckily, has time as its innermost constitutive dimension. When first seen, Calder’s mobiles, designed and constructed utilizing perpetual motion and anti-gravitational looks, were an aesthetic scandal. They were considered the negation of sculpture in the established aesthetic sense. Today they seem anything but the norm in what one might expect in a modern sculpture. 

This diversity of comprehension and perception over time shows that, in Husserlian terms, to look aesthetically at something is not to isolate it in an artificial space of contemplation or, as Sontag might argue, put it under the microscope of an “objective” scrutiny. Even the purest, untainted, and self-contained artwork breaks up into a bundle of intentionalities. There are times and places where shifts are far more radical, making a tabula rasa, a “blank slate,” of previous aesthetic constitutions, wiping out all preceding preconceptions and creating new perceptions of how we experience art.

“This is how a poem is made” 

– Tristan Tzara 

(Avant-garde poet, essayist, and artist and one of the founders and central figures of the anti-establishment Dada movement)

The art knows intuitively, almost instinctively, how to transcend the mind. Without art, perception is flat and banal, or else it feeds back into the distorted control we have exercised and the wasteland that has resulted because of it. Not in the object, not in us, not in the transaction, nor in the expectation, but in the transcendence of all of these experiences with imaginative perception. 

Remember when beginning this essay, it opened with John Berger’s attempt to orchestrate one’s experience with Van Gogh’s painting, Wheatfield with Crows, by manipulating our perception of it? His example illustrates the point of the phenomenology of aesthetics perfectly. In 1973 the basis of his claims was considered “true”. 

But time renders truth relative. 

Wheatfield with Crows was not Van Gogh’s final panting. Scholars at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are correcting the historical record by degrees of subtlety, writing wall texts for the institution that indicate a different attribution. According to their research, a more obscure painting named Tree Roots, also painted in 1890, is the likeliest final painting made by the artist.

(Vincent Van Gogh, Tree Roots, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1890)

Research since the publication of Berger’s book and series have revealed that before his death in late-July 1890 at age 37, Van Gogh created more than 900 works. A fastidious draftsman, he rarely left a painting unfinished, and as art historians Bert Maes and Louis van Tilborgh argue in a 2012 essay about Tree Roots, this fact indicates that an incomplete work was likely the artist’s last. Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s brother, documented Vincent’s life in the numerous letters they exchanged from August 1872 onwards. These letters were published in three volumes in 1914 by Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, Theo’s widow. This correspondence revealed that “the morning before his death, [Vincent] had painted an underwood full of sun and life.”

The above description perfectly suits Tree Roots which is an almost incomprehensible image of tangled foliage and branches flooded by a golden sunlight. There are only two unfinished paintings from Van Gogh’s final days in Auvers, France: the aforementioned landscape and Farms Near Auvers.

(Vincent Van Gogh, Farms Near Auvers, Tate London, 1890)

Researchers at the Van Gogh Museum have also been able to limit the scope of their inquiry by trusting the words of Andries Bonger, the brother of Theo van Gogh’s wife, Johanna, who in 1891 submitted Farms Near Auvers to the Salon des Indépendants in Paris under the title “Village, Last Sketch.” Although the debate continues vis-a-vis Tree Roots and Farm Near Auvers for the title of Van Gogh’s final painting, evidence is clear about tossing Wheatfield with Crows out the proverbial window. 

One’s experience with Wheatfield with Crows has changed. 

Should and does this information and the research of current academia alter a person’s perception of the painting? 

The study of phenomenology has long since evolved past the concepts of Plato and Husserl and many contemporary thinkers no longer agree with or give credence to their simple, naive, and archaic theories of how we experience and perceive our world, yet far too many people in our world are still too comfortable dwelling in the darkness of their perceptive caves with no other experiences in life to build on.

Perhaps it is, and always has been, one’s duty to liberate them.

“Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”

– Mark Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” 1947

– Richard Di Via –



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