The Philosophers’ Zone: The Artist and the Philsopher

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In the decades leading up to the first world war, Vienna was a vibrant and daring place. There were many artists and thinkers challenging the status quo.

The artist Gustav Klimt and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, both famous, were actually contemporaries. They came from very different backgrounds though. Gustav came from a rather impoverished background and entered trade school. He painted portraits of society people to earn money while he was studying. Wittgenstein on the other hand came from an elite background and lived an idyllic lifestyle in various places in Europe.

Gustav’s portrait pictured above is actually of Ludwig’s sister: Gretel Wittgenstein. And it happens to be an interesting study in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ides. Ludwig published two works: Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations.

Tractatus established a “picture theory of meaning”. There’s not much meaning in objects, rather it’s in the relationships between things that meaning arises. You can call a rose anything and it will still smell the same. There’s no good or bad, only relationships. For example a knife is good if you’re tied to train tracks, but it’s bad if it’s in the hand of an attacker. People are not objects though, they’re subjects with a set of meanings.

From the perspective of the Tractatus, the painting made a statement in the juxtaposition of the woman, her intellectual upbringing and her involvement in high society. The abstraction represents the intellectual climate of the Wittgensteins. Interestingly this was one of the first examples of abstraction in art. The dress and the look on her face represents her attraction to society and there is a tension there as well indicated by the hands which are not pictured.

In Philosophical Investigations, he rejects a lot of what he said in Tractatus. He posits that “picturing” is merely one aspect of language among many. To name a few others we can use language to berate someone or communicate with them. Essentially with this work he puts “picturing” in a greater context, as merely one possible use of language among many.

An interesting analogy was made to examine language’s role in determining meaning in our lives. Consider the cases of Kaspar Hauser and Robinson Crusoe. Kaspar was locked in a dark, isolated place from birth and never learned a language. Robinson Crusoe was a literary character who was trapped on an island alone, after he had learned the language. When asked what it was like, Kaspar replied that it wasn’t like anything: things simply had no meaning before he picked up a language. Crusoe on the other hand would have many experiences meaningful to most other people. Our privately meaningful moments are actually meaningful through language and are thus much more public than we think.

The painting seen from the perspective of Wittgenstein’s Philsophical Investigations takes a different, more modern view. It would see that the painting has many different meanings, depending upon who is asking. To name a few different ways it could have meaning: as being the dawn of abstract art, juxtaposition, a cultural artefact, milieu of the time, economic, sentimental, scientific, biographical.

To me it seems that the latter way is much closer to the truth. Perhaps that’s just because it’s become highly successful and accepted as common sense by now though.  The first is an interesting model but is indeed far too narrow.  Is it to him that we owe the knowledge that things can have many meanings? It is a wonder how nuanced our worldview has become compared to earlier times.

This podcast gave a nice vivid picture of early 20th century Austria and three interesting figures from that time as well. I can feel the imaginative images, the emotions, the dawning of newfound wisdom attached to all of this. It has indeed had an impression on me. Also it’s particularly interesting to learn about the dawn of abstraction, the interesting juxtaposition of the painting and a root from which common sense as I know it has grown out of.

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