Friday, 18 July 2008

Art and philosophy

The Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin has, until 10 August, an exhibition by Anna and Bernhard Blume called Reine Vernunft. It consists of photographs of people trapped in geometrical structures of wood, representing the subject trapped in space. There is an example here and another one here. It would be difficult to find an exact isomorphism between the contents of the pictures and the contents of Kant’s philosophy of space. Some odd bit of one or the other would stick out somewhere. But that does not matter. The exhibition is fun.

I like the idea that such exhibitions can be more than fun. There is a sense in which a work of art can embody a philosophy, perhaps something which cannot be said but which can only be shown. Such a work would not be recognised as a work of philosophy in a university. One needs words for the sake of univocality, certainly for cross-cultural univocality, and to facilitate engagement in debate. But a work of art can prompt the response appropriate to good philosophies of the human condition, the response “Yes, that is how it is”.

Berlin is the place for such works. The best summary I know of the absurdities of life is in the Gemäldegalerie. It is Die niederländischen Sprichwörter by the elder Breugel, which can be seen here. It shows people doing literally all the silly things we have turned into proverbs (pearls before swine and the like), but which we sometimes do all too close to literally ourselves.