The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 4

Academic Talk About the Arts

As I move towards articulating the principles involved in a Socratic perspective on the cultivation of a human being, we will need to take a closer look at the relationship between the predominance of secondary talk and living an examined life, which was discussed on page three. Our reliance on secondary talk does not fall unambiguously into the category of "bad things" to be avoided. Secondary talk is a vital function of all thriving civilizations. Unless, of course, you actually want to live in a world in which you have to make everything up all by yourself. Yet, it is true that secondary talk can be a powerful influence that damages our ability to do our own thinking and create our own talk. I will explore the relationship between the talk of others and our own journey of self discovery through the example of the academic study of the arts.

George Steiner proposed, in his book Real Presences[4], a thought experiment in which an imaginary counter-Platonic republic bans all secondary academic and journalistic talk about the arts in favor of a full focus on primary, first-hand experiences of the arts. Steiner's counter-Platonic republic is very different from Plato's republic. If I lived in Plato's ideal republic, I might not have been allowed to write this essay because the music I chose to focus upon could be determined by the authorities to be in the wrong musical key. Plato, although well intentioned, was a bit of a party pooper when it came to diversity of artistic expression. In Steiner's counter-Platonic republic, only the artists rule. In this republic, which is cast as the opposite of the academic study of the arts that Steiner euphemistically calls the "secondary city", it is forbidden to write the thousandth academic paper on the true meaning of a particular work of literature, music or art. In this art appreciating republic of the primary, it is the first-hand experiences of creating, performing and consuming the arts that are the socially approved modes of discourse on the arts.

According to Steiner, most academic writing on the arts is a sea of mediocrity that is destructively derivative in its endless reference to other academic writing. The real presence of the arts is diminished in the academic focus on their own jargon and theories. Academia, to the extent that it obsessively prioritizes its own secondary frameworks of interpretation and it's amazing capacity to endlessly reference other academic writing, establishes its secondary status as it works in the absence of a more direct relationship to art. The effect on those of us under the influence of such habits of thought is often the reduction of our primary attentiveness to and experience of the objects of the arts that we seek to understand. The very nature of how we attend to art is massively altered and filtered through the lenses of the secondary. In the academic study of the arts, jargon filled theoretical abstractions often take more precedence than do the arts themselves. If this habit is too persistent, we become removed from our most direct and authentic participation in art. In the counter-Platonic republic of the primary, the direct experience of the arts has more value than academic theory.

On the explosive propagation of secondary academic talk about the arts Steiner says, "Commentary is without end. In the worlds of interpretative and critical discourse, book, as we have seen, engenders book, essay breeds essay, article spawns article....Books of literary interpretation and criticism, of art criticism and musical aesthetics, are about previous books on the same or closely cognate themes...Monograph feeds on monograph, vision on revision....The primary text is only the remote font of autonomous exegetic proliferation. The true source of Z's tome are X's and Y's work on the identical topic." (Steiner, p. 39)

The focus of academic literature on the arts is often more about other academic literature than it is about the primary creative texts, music and other arts they claim to study. Steiner says it more concisely near the end of part one,

"It is not as Ecclesiastes would have it, that 'of making many books, there is no end'. It is that 'of making books on books and books on those books, there is no end.'" (Steiner, p.48)

In this imaginary republic, there is no secondary or tertiary academic talk about the arts. Steiner's "citizens of the immediate" do not talk about the talk of the talk of the arts. If they are not creating the arts, they interpret the existing arts through producing plays, performing music, reading poetry aloud, and engaging in the living reception of art. The citizens of this republic never let secondary talk stand between them and a first-hand experience of the arts.

In vivid contrast to the over indulgence of the academics in secondary theoretical abstractions that force us to focus more on the academics than on art itself, Steiner seeks to articulate a psychological concept for the reception and interpretation of art that may be characterized as a deeply attentive and personal human experience of art. With regard to finding the exact language for this concept, Steiner gravitates to the language of courtesy where art is hospitably received as we would receive an honored guest in our home. The differences that art brings to us, the invitation of art to experience something new, constitutes an 'other' in art that is the artistic analogue of the guest. Our hospitality to this 'other' allows us to be open to the real differences in art in a way that lets them become a real presence[5] in the home of our attending minds. Regarding finding adequate language to express this Steiner admits,

"I do not quite know how to express a plainly intelligible category in which morality, courtesy, perceptive trust can be seen to be nothing more than the concentrate of common sense. The informing agency is that of tact, of the ways in which we allow ourselves to touch or not to touch, to be touched or not to be touched by the presence of the other....The issue is that of civility (a charged word whose former strength has largely left us) towards the inward savour of things. What means have we to integrate that savour into the fabric of our own identity? We need a terminology which plainly articulates the intuition that an experience of communicated forms of meaning demands, fundamentally, a courtesy or tact of heart, a tact of sensibility and of intellection which are conjoined at their several roots.... I am, in short, seeking to define a notion as plain as daylight, yet elusive and vulnerable as any in the finesses of psychology....'Courtesy of mind', 'scruple of perception', 'mannerliness of understanding' are rough approximations. But they are too specialized. Syntax bulks at 'common sense heart'. What we must focus, with uncompromising clarity, on the text, on the work of art, on the music before us, is an ethic of common sense, a courtesy of the most robust and refined kind." (Steiner, p. 148-149)

Far from the dry, jargon filled and abstract theorizing that characterizes a great deal of academic writing on the arts in the secondary city, Steiner seeks to define the best interpretive mindset for experiencing art in terms of human relatedness. Steiner expresses the verities of our relatedness to art in terms that belong close to the reality of the courteous and hospitable reception of a guest. The ellipses in the above block quote omit illustrations. In two of these illustrations Steiner communicates the motivation and work ethic for the deeply meaningful reception of art in the common sense terms of our preparation for a guest. When we expect the honored guest to visit our home, "We lay a clean cloth on the table" and "light the lamp at the window". To experience and interpret the meaning and beauty of art, we prepare the home of our attending minds. We prepare our inner table upon which we share meaningful nourishment with the artist in our shared experience of art. We put a light in the window of our hearts in an act of expectation and welcome.

The ability to hospitably offer a quality reception to the artists and arts we receive as guests in the home of our attending minds is something that is available to every person. This simple, easily recognized characterization leads us to experiences of art that are, according to Steiner, more meaningful and valuable than the academic immersion in secondary talk. The impression given by Real Presences is that the juggernaut of endless, specialized theoretical commentary on the arts in the academy does seem to be in a world of its own. Academic commentary on the arts, as portrayed in Real Presences, could not be further removed from the sensibilities of hearth and home, of common accessibility and common courtesy that Steiner portrays as an everyday human character of excellence in our experience of art.

What are we to make of Steiner's desire to imagine such a complete social separation between the republic of primary artistic creation/performance/reception, and the secondary city of academic discourse? True to the spirit of Steiner's proposal, Real Presences is a book with no footnotes. What it has in place of the typical circumambulation of references to other academic writing is the vivid and beautiful radiance of Steiner's own firsthand experience of literature, music and art. Yet, it is impossible to read Real Presences without noticing the truly extraordinary erudition of George Steiner's academically well-developed mind. More significant than his own admission that primary and secondary discourse cannot be socially separated in a practical way is that the text of Real Presences itself cancels, by virtue of its very existence, Steiner's proposed separation of primary artistic creation/performance/reception and secondary academic writing. For Real Presences is a book that is simultaneously a brilliant manifestation of academia and a work of art in its own right.

This is not to say that Steiner's book is either a miracle of academic cogency or the height of artistic accomplishment. One cannot evoke both the academic and the artistic in the same breath without the compromise that is made when both share the same space. Real Presences is a book full of such compromise. The most significant dynamic regarding the division of primary and secondary discourse imagined in Real Presences is that the capacity for both the academic and the artistic will often exist in the same brain. The various cognitive modes that service "primary" artistic creation and "secondary" academic analysis may seem too diverse to see eye to eye. However, they work together all the time.

It is to the extent that this highly specialized style of attentiveness, which is characteristic of academic thought and writing, becomes an individual's or a society's dominant style of discourse on the arts that we diminish ourselves by virtue of the removal of our full attentiveness from the arts. This diminishment is conducted through the highly selective and overly leavened habits of academic thinking and discourse that take too much of the center stage when it comes to the interpretation of the arts.

The failure of the typical style of the academic study of the arts is that these well practiced and over emphasized habits do not utilize the full richness of cognitive diversity with which we are able to attend to the arts. It is the balance of human cognitive diversity that is lost. It is the loss of this balance that diminishes the meaning and value of our experience of the arts. Steiner's willful hyperbole with the republic of the primary, where all academic commentary is banned, does not restore this balance. Restoring the balance of human cognitive diversity in the living of an examined life is where Socrates meets the text of Real Presences. The next step in moving towards this restoration is to consider another type of talk.

An illustration of personal presence in an encounter with art:
Philosopher Alain de Botton shares a personal experience that pertains to the importance of bringing ourselves into the presence of art. Instead of abstract theories, Botton's experience emphasises a simple and commonly recognizable human experience. Here, the act of sharing your sadness with another human being makes available to us the heart, the purpose and the power of art. (Link Below)

Alain de Botton: from a talk on Art as Therapy


[4] George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1991), Paperback Edition.

[5] Steiner uses 'real presence' in the context of meaning as having a transcendental ground in which an underlying assumption of God's existence underwrites the meaning of language and creative acts. As this essay move forward, I will works with the idea of 'real presence' in the context of the immanence of our own self-knowledge.