What does art do? How does it communicate feeling and ideas? How can it change us? These were some of the questions at the heart of Dr Jac Saorsa’s talk at Tuesday’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, in which the audience were offered a deeply personal account of the links between philosophy and artistic practice.
Dr Saorsa described how her work reflects her ongoing conversation with the work of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, whose writings on art (such as his book Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981)) present a unique interpretation of the unique power of painting in particular. A key element of the inspiration taken from Deleuze was the idea of communication as ‘stammering’, an arresting image and one which stands in sharp contrast to the imagery of communication generally found in Western philosophy, and particularly in aesthetics when it turns to consider how art ‘speaks’ to those who engage with it.
From Plato to Descartes and far beyond (with the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas being the most obvious contemporary example), the goal of philosophical reflection has been assumed to be intellectual clarity. Thinking about the world, our place in it, our relationships with other, and the experiences of suffering and joy human beings undergo has traditionally been viewed as a tool for uncovering the truth about these concerns – what the world is really like beneath appearances, how we should live together, what purpose or meaning can be found in suffering, and so on. Truth, once uncovered, is assumed to be communicable to anyone who has the capacity to reason. In the social theory of Habermas, the perfect political order is imagined as an ‘ideal speech situation’ in which all political and ethical positions are staked out on the basis of clear, comprehensible reasons and no one is prevented from joining in an all-embracing conversation in which they are debated, criticised or affirmed.
Leo Tolstoy’s writings on art represent art (in this case, literature) as a means of communicating emotion, of encouraging the audience to share in an emotion or emotions experienced by the author. The work of art is a tool for creating a community of feeling, in which all those who participate can discover essential layers of their common humanity.
In traditional Western philosophy – and in theories of art like Tolstoy’s – the goals of thought, communication and art is accurate representation, disclosing a truth which we can all acknowledge to be true, discovering that the other is, ultimately, no different from oneself. Deleuze’s ideas about philosophy and about art cut depict their respective roles quite differently. Dr Saorsa spoke of how she finds in Deleuze’s criticisms of ‘recognition’ key aspects of her practice reflected. Instead of art being the means through which the hidden truth is revealed in explicit form, in ‘clear speech’ the artist engages with a reality which s/he ‘stammers’ into new forms, through the use of media whose transformation is charged by emotions that cannot simply be ‘represented’. As a result, the audience is challenged to perform a similar work, to transform the artwork, in its physicality, into new understanding of an otherwise unreachable reality. But there is no guarantee in the work or elsewhere that what has been created – somewhere between the subject of the work, the artist and those who engage with it – is ‘the truth’. Rather, what is created is a new (temporary and perhaps fragile) community of understanding, founded on sensation.
The overall project ‘Osmosis’, of which Dr Saorsa spoke at length, represents an example of this practice at work, and she went on to describe ‘Drawing Women’s Cancer’, as a specific ‘offshoot’ of this project. Working with Dr Amanda Tristram, a gynaecological surgeon from Cardiff and Vale NHS Trust, Dr Saorsa worked extensively with vulval cancer patients who were experiencing different stages of the disease – having received a diagnosis, undergoing treatment, or post-operative. Listening to these women’s stories, or ‘personal narratives’, led Dr Saorsa to produce a series of drawings which, instead of seeking to reassure or ‘represent’, aimed instead to open up a space of experience which those without physical or emotional understanding of this disease would otherwise find impossible to inhabit.
The aim is not to facilitate recognition – to assure us that we can ‘feel the pain’ of another – but to stage an encounter between individuals (patients and audience) separated by biographies and expectations.
In discussion, some agreed with Dr Saorsa’s contrast between the existential qualities of tuberculosis and cancer, suggesting that the experience of cancer may demonstrate that the diseased body is a kind of refutation of relativism, representing an ultimate fact with which the ill person has to deal. In addition, the nature of cancer – its agency, its capacity to spread and act within the body, using the body against itself – adds something which evokes a pre-scientific world of supernatural agencies, in which acting in certain ways is seen as inviting the disease into the body. While we are used, in the contemporary world, to thinking of the future in terms of calculable risks, cancer opens up another way of understanding the future, as remaining in the ownership of powers still outside our comprehension.
Other members of the audience raised questions regarding the role of the artist within the model of communication posited by Dr Saorsa’s practice. Despite the artist’s refusal of a claim on being able to offer a unique form of recognition through art, or of perfected communication, does the idea of expression at work in the Deleuze-inspired account of artistic still contain assumptions about the artist as a privileged figure, uniquely able to translate the suffering of others into artistic form through craft?