Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Lambert Zuidervaart, Artistic Truth: Aesthetics, Discourse and Imaginative Disclosure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Victor Kocay

An old adage says that an orator should know his audience. Zuidervaart’s work would seem to acknowledge this. He writes from the tradition of Adorno and the Critical school, but he writes to an Anglo-American audience steeped in analytic philosophy. His clear and insightful book acknowledges both traditions. His objective is to describe artistic truth as a “multidimensional process of imaginative disclosure” (p. 7). Through close textual readings and the juxtaposition of different positions, Zuidervaart therefore constructs “dialogues with and between various opposing positions” (p. 14). One would hope that the various positions are listening, but that goes beyond the scope of this review.

This work is the first of two proposed works on the subject of artistic truth. This volume deals with the “aesthetic, linguistic, and epistemological underpinnings of contemporary art” (p. ix). The second volume will apparently discuss political, economic, and cultural issues. This first volume is divided into three parts. Part I considers what Zuidervaart refers to as the “hermeneutical matrix” of his work. Part II deals primarily with Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness, and the third part discusses the “linguistic turns” in the work of 20th-century British and American philosophers. For an understanding of Zuidervaart’s own position on the notion of artistic truth, part II is the most important; however, it is only fair to consider the arguments Zuidervaart makes in all three sections of his work.

The first two chapters of part I consider, surprisingly perhaps, Monroe Beardsley’s Aesthetics, Albert Hofstadter’s Truth and Art, and Herman Rapaport’s Is There Truth in Art? Chapter three gives an account of Kant’s notion of aesthetic judgement. According to Zuidervaart, Beardsley rejects the notion of artistic truth because, in order to have a truth value, an artwork – a non-literary work in particular – must either contain propositions that have a truth value or suggest and confirm hypotheses about reality. Because such works are non propositional and non inferential, they cannot be true or false. For literary works the case is a bit different for these works contain linguistic entities that can be translated into propositions whose truth-value can be tested. This means, according to Zuidervaart, that for Beardsley the “true value of literature is not the truth of literature but the work’s ‘literary value’” in an aesthetic experience (p. 32).

Like Beardsley, Hofstadter subscribes to a correspondence theory of truth and, again like Beardsley, his account of artistic truth derives from the philosophy of language. In addition, Hofstadter also considers the autonomy of artworks from the perspective of the aesthetic experience that the work makes possible (p. 42). For Hofstadter, in particular, the value of artworks derives not from the work’s intrinsic and unique qualities, but from the aesthetic experience that it affords the consumer, and consequently from the heuristic function that art provides. That is to say that the truth of an artwork derives from the work’s participation in the being of human spirit (p. 45-46). Rapaport, on the other hand, questions the correspondence theory of truth upon which Beardsley’s aesthetics and Hofstadter’s aesthetic experience are founded, although, for Zuidervaart, Rapaport’s “postmetaphysical deconstruction” is “too metaphysical” and does not answer, for example, questions related to the “historical unfolding of artistic truth content” (p. 54).

Chapter three, “Kant Revisited”, is not a critique of Kant per se. Instead, Zuidervaart uses Kant’s notion of aesthetic judgement in order to elaborate his own terminology. In a sense he attempts to revitalize certain Kantian notions. For example, he claims that once one “strips mentalist trappings from his [Kant’s] account of reflective judgment, one can see ‘taste-judging’ as a process of interpreting signs before, alongside, or against their established usages and significations” (p. 59). He continues: if one “substitutes ‘aesthetic practices’ for Kant’s ‘imagination,’ ‘aesthetic signs’ for ‘aesthetic ideas,’ and ‘purport’ for ‘rational ideas’, one comes close to the notion of presentation that I [Zuidervaart] wish to propose” (p. 61). As an alternative to traditional aesthetic notions, however, Zuidervaart proposes what he refers to as “imaginative cogency.” Now imagination, according to Zuidervaart, should not be understood as a mental capacity, but as “referring to intersubjective processes” that involve aesthetic signs rather than mental contents (p. 62). The term “imaginative cogency” refers therefore to a “horizon of aesthetic validity within which an intersubjective process unfolds, a horizon that encompasses the ‘objects’ of this process in their function as aesthetic signs” (p. 64). This notion allows Zuidervaart to avoid the limitations imposed by a propositional theory of truth and also makes possible the incorporation of cultural values in the determination of artistic truth.

Seeing as how Zuidervaart devotes chapter 5 to the notion of “imaginative disclosure”, and because this notion derives more directly from Heidegger than from Kant, it is possible to skip part I of this work, that is the first three chapters of the book, and begin directly with Zuidervaart’s reading of Heidegger. Zuidervaart reiterates in his final chapter that he begins with Beardsley because Beardsley’s “denial that artworks can be true or false” is a provocative position (p. 20). In his first chapter, however, Zuidervaart acknowledges that Beardsley’s position is emblematic of the analytic tradition that he wishes to counter. He states that his first task is “to consider a representative formulation of each position and to place it in conversation with the other two” (p. 17). He thus chooses these positions because they can be refuted. Beardsley, Hofstadter, Rapaport and Kant are like paper tigers easily recognized by those who belong to the tradition of analytic philosophy, and they are in turn rejected from Zuidervaart’s Heideggerian perspective.

Part II of Zuidevaart’s work juxtaposes Heidegger’s hermeneutical understanding of truth in art and notions of social critique developed in the tradition of Critical Theory. In chapter 4, Zuidervaart proposes that Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness reveals an understanding of truth that is neither propositional nor derives from a correspondence theory of truth. In short, Heidegger is not of the analytic tradition. For Heidegger, according to Zuidervaart, the agreement between a judgement and its object does not mean that mental representations get compared in relation to their object, but rather, that the asserted entity shows itself as that which it is. An assertion’s being true, according to Heidegger and using Zuidervaart’s formulation, is its “capacity to discover, its to-be-discovering (Entdeckend-sein)” (p. 82).

Zuidervaart criticizes Heidegger’s notion of assertion in its different formulations, however, i.e. as “pointing out” (Aufzeigung), as “predication” (Prädikation), and as “communicaton” (Mitteilung), because Heidegger bases linguistic assertion on primary forms of practice. Now, Heidegger attempts to derive truth from our relation to the world in which we live. Our language ascribes names to objects in the world and reveals objects as they are, but it can also mask them and give a sense of false security in our knowledge. Simply put – and this is true of all those that Zuidervaart comments on – Heidegger attempts to delimit our relation to the world in an abstract way where individual thought is the principle paradigm. Let’s say that the cultural community to which the philosopher belongs has been put in brackets in order that the notion of disclosedness, in the case of Heidegger, of aesthetic judgement, in the case of Kant, or of the correspondence theory of truth, in the case of analytic philosophers, can be developed and explained. To philosophical abstractions of this sort, Zuidervaart apparently wants to append a plural in the form of cultural traditions and linguistic concepts that inform each individual philosopher.

According to Zuidervaart, Heidegger’s notion of assertion is not a mode of talk but a mode of interpretation (p. 86). Although his criticisms of Heidegger can sometimes seem facetious, for example, when he states that when Heidegger is alone in his shop and simply points at the hammer (pointing out) while thinking that the hammer is too heavy, he would not be making any assertion and therefore no assertion would become available for predication (p. 87). This criticism is all the more curious given that on the previous page Zuidervaart quotes Heidegger’s definition of assertion as “a pointing out which communicates and defines” (p. 86). The act of pointing out is already, on Heidegger’s theory, a linguistic construct that defines and communicates. As human beings we dwell in language. In any case, Zuidervaart believes that assertions should be anchored in “conversation and ordinary language” (p. 88). It is in this way that he attempts to introduce a plural into the notion of disclosedness. The linguistic constructs that make up the language and the linguistic house of the dweller must in a sense be considered as an important aspect of assertion and of interpretation in general. According to Zuidervaart, asserting is an interpretive practice, but on his view it would be better to say, “asserting discovers not the entity as such but the entity in its predicative availability” (p. 90).

Further, according to Zuidervaart, Heidegger’s notion of truth is related to that of disclosedness such that “Dasein’s disclosedness can itself be described as truth” (p. 96). But because Dasein’s disclosedness can also be false, the relation between truth and disclosedness becomes problematic. In order to avoid this difficulty, Zuidervaart proposes that we “recognize principles according to which human self-expression, orientation, and discovering can be more or less true” (p. 96). That is to say that Zuidervaart replaces Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness with the notion of “life-giving disclosure”, a “process in which human beings and other creatures come to flourish” (p. 97). The principles that are to serve as the bearers’ of truth are those that people hold in common and that in turn hold people in common, although Zuidervaart is quick to add that the principles he is referring to are not those of an “unchanging and universal ‘human nature’” (p. 98). Rather, they are “shared reference points that have emerged historically through clashes between societies and within them” (p. 98). Once again, Zuidervaart has substituted a plural for the traditional standpoint of human relatedness to the world in which we live. Intersubjectivity was of course a major concern for Husserl in his later years, but Zuidervaart does not wish to follow Husserl’s notion of eidetic intuition.

In chapter 5 of his work, Zuidervaart considers Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness as truth. In order to satisfy the notion of disclosedness, truth must be dynamic and temporal. It must also be original and autonomous, and finally, it must be situated in the world. In this sense, Heidegger opposes both the subject-object paradigm of Kant’s epistemology and the form-matter paradigm of Aristotelian conceptions of truth (p. 107). He upholds the autonomy of the work of art but rejects the notion of artistic autonomy. But truth as disclosedness or as unconcealement remains open-ended in the sense that it is impossible to know if what discloses itself is in fact disclosed as truth. At this point, Zuidervaart distinguishes his own position from Heidegger’s in the sense that he (Zuidervaart) believes that responsibility for unconcealment should be returned to human beings. Considered as a human responsibility for which “distinct claims and principles of validity obtain” (p. 116), the notion of disclosure can be more readily related to the notion of truth. With respect to works of art, the notion of disclosure would therefore maintain some criteria of aesthetic validity, that is, in the form of principles that determine truth in art.

Zuidervaart next juxtaposes Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness as truth and the social critique that derives from Adorno and Habermas. For Habermas, according to Zuidervaart, it is important to distinguish between validity and disclosure in order to have an adequate conception of truth (p. 118). And for Adorno, the truth content of artworks is neither factual nor propositional although it is perceptible and structural (p. 122). Zuidervaart combines Adorno’s notion of truth content with Habermas’s validity claims for truth and derives the notion of “imaginative insight”, although to the term ‘insight’ he prefers the more Heideggerian term ‘disclosure’ (p. 125). Artworks could therefore reveal a truth content that can be validated by reference to validity principles such as “solidarity and justice”, principles that people hold in common and that are learned historical horizons (p. 126). This implies, according to Zuidervaart, that art can be true in three ways: with respect to the artist’s intentions, with respect to the audience’s interpretive needs, and with respect to the work’s internal demands (p. 127). He terms these three types of truth, respectively, authenticity, significance, and integrity (p. 127). To be authentic, an artwork “must be true with respect to the artist’s own experience or vision” (p. 128). To be significant, an artwork “must be true with respect to a public’s need for cultural presentations that are worthy of their engagement” (p. 128), and for a work to show integrity, it must “live up to its own internal demands” (p. 130). Further, the pluralistic bent to Zuidervaart’s attempt to localize truth in art implies that the validity claims of a work must be founded in the language used by various linguistic communities. Authenticity therefore implies “expressive sincerity” and artistic significance implies “normative legitimacy” while artistic integrity implies “propositional truth” (p. 136), for, like speech acts, artworks are “ways in which people address one another about something” (p. 139).

In part III of his work, Zuidervaart considers what he refers to as “linguistic turns”. Chapter 7 recapitulates the theories of Ogden and Richards and of T.M. Greene. Chapter 8 gives an account of Goodman’s nominalism, and chapter 9 represents a critique of Wolterstorff’s realism. None of these chapters are essential to Zuidervaart’s notion of imaginative disclosure, although Zuidervaart attempts to refute the position of each of these philosophers with respect to the notion of truth in art by reference to the validity principles mentioned in previous chapters. For example, I.A. Richards considers art to be a nonpropositional language of emotions, while Greene regards art as an expressive language of propositions (p. 151). According to Zuidervaart, “each side suffers from tunnel vision imposed by a propositionally inflected theory of truth” (p. 151). Goodman, on the other hand, hesitates to attribute truth to art, according to Zuidervaart, because the analytic tradition to which he belongs restricts truth to “carriers that are literal and linguistic” (p. 172). Goodman refers instead to truth’s aesthetic counterpart, but the notion of truth to which he ascribes seems to be ethical or instrumental for he refers to the “appropriateness” or to the “propriety” of a work, and not to the truth of the content of the work (p. 175). Likewise, Zuidervaart rejects Wolterstorff’s attempt to distinguish propositions that refer to the real world, and that therefore could be true or false, from propositions in literary works that can be neither true nor false because they refer to states of affairs that do not actually exist. According to Zuidervaart, Wolterstorff’s notion of intentionality, a notion that incidentally seems very close to Ingarden’s notion of intentionality, does not account for the role played by the audience in fictive world projection, nor does it consider “art-institutional rules according to which artworks and art gets constituted” (p. 196). This, however, is not surprising given that the notion of intentionality attempts, in general, to understand artworks from the perspective of the individual observer, or producer, and not from a pluralistic stance such as the one adopted by Zuidervaart.

In summary, in this work Zuidervaart attempts to found the notion of truth in art on certain principles that have been tested through time and that unite us as a society. His understanding of the truth content of a work derives basically from Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness. Considering artistic truth from this perspective implies that truth is revealed in works of art created or brought into existence by human beings. It also implies that truth can take different forms and reveal itself in different ways, similar to the manner in which Dasein reveals or unconceals itself in the clearing that is the surrounding world. The notion of disclosedness also implies that truth is relative to the situation in which it reveals itself: it is neither a metaphysical construct nor an eternal truth but is situated and determined historically. Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness involves, however, a confrontation between the individual and the truth that is revealed such that the individual must somehow determine authentic unconcealment from the non-authentic. In place of this existential confrontation of the individual with his or her own existence as a thinking being, Zuidervaart substitutes a pluralistic approach founded in the shared principles of society. The truth of disclosedness can then be measured, as it were, with respect to such principles, and the validity of the truth claim can be determined. The three domains that Zuidervaart invokes as revealing the truth content of a work are authenticity, or the artist’s intentions, significance, or the public’s appreciation of the work, and integrity, or the more or less harmonious content of the work, that is its coherence. It must be stressed, however, that the truth content of a work must be considered not in itself or in a traditional manner, but as coming to revelation by means of an imaginative disclosure in which the truth of the work is revealed. Succinctly put, it would seem that for the traditionally singular framework of epistemology, Zuidervaart has substituted a plural in the form of social norms and validity principles that we hold in common and that bind us together. To the Delphic oracle, know thyself, he apparently has added, know also thy place.

Now, the introduction of criteria by which the truth of a work can be validated is in itself problematic. First, it is difficult to measure in any concrete way the degree to which the criteria can be satisfied. On the topic of authenticity, Zuidervaart states that in the Western world we expect “art products to be imaginatively disclosive of the experience or vision from which competent art making allows them to arise” (p. 200). The significance of an artwork, on the other hand, “lies partly in how, specifically, it challenges interpreters to come to terms with interpretive needs in the social world they inhabit” (p. 179). And the integrity of an artwork “requires us to interpret the artwork as ‘standing for’ something, and to find clues to this meaning in the specific way the work configures whatever it makes perceptible” (p. 160). In many cases, however, artworks are considered important, or unimportant, regardless of the author’s intentions, and irrespective of whether or not the work expresses an ‘authentic’ experience. Further, it is quite possible that the interpretive ‘needs’ of a society could remain concealed for the very members of that society. And finally, there are many works that, according to the artist’s intentions, stand for nothing at all, or that stand for something other than what the artist intended.

Second, it is not clear, on reading Zuidervaart, to what extent the truth of a work must satisfy all three criteria. Perhaps only two are necessary, or even one, in order that a work might reveal truth. Further, the notion of disclosedness would seem to preclude the need to consider the artist’s intentions when one considers the ‘truth’ that a work reveals, and the significance of a work might only become relevant at some point well after its creation. It would seem, however, that the content or integrity of the work would be a necessary part of any discussion about the truth that the work reveals because the truth of the work must reveal itself by means of its content, albeit in an imaginative disclosure.

Finally, establishing criteria for the validity of a truth claim would seem rather to pose limits on interpretation, limits that artists would undoubtedly seek to surpass if they were to be erected as normative criteria for art interpretation. It would seem that the open-ended character of artworks, a notion that Zuidervaart borrows from Heidegger’s notion of disclosedness, would have to forgo any attempt to impose validity criteria on art interpretation in order to remain open-ended. It would seem, further, that the notions of truth in art and discussions concerning the interpretation of art would have to involve different and changing criteria. One wonders if truth in art and common social principles are not in fact two different discourses.

In conclusion, it would seem that Zuidervaart has renounced the more general discussion of truth in art in order to satisfy immediate and contemporary concerns about the content of art. The principles of solidarity and justice, to use Zuidervaart’s examples, may be general notions, but the degree to which solidarity is taken, or imposed, or the question concerning what exactly constitutes justice can be very divisive issues. The conflict between individual rights and the cohesion of the social group to which individuals belong involves cultural perspectives not soon to be resolved. According to Zuidervaart, the truth of artworks is to be determined by reference to principles that we hold in common and that hold us in common, but one must ask if, in the end, there is any principle other than force that unites us, either in the sense of imposed norms to be respected or in the sense of an opposition to force, that is, given that Zuidervaart has rejected an “unchanging and universal ‘human nature’” as the bond that holds us together (p. 98). I am using the term ‘force’ in a general sense here for the various interests of different individuals or social groups. If, for example, a work of art is considered to reveal truth for some members of a social group, does it then reveal truth for all members of that group? Likewise, could two different social groups or religious communities hold opposing positions with respect to the truth that a work of art reveals? And from a slightly different perspective, does the reference to the validity principles that Zuidervaart cites change in any way the types of discussions we are accustomed to with respect to the value or the truth of art? Would art interpreters not simply choose whatever principle they thought best illustrated the validity of their own aesthetic judgements? One would hope that Zuidervaart’s proposed second volume provides answers to some of these questions. In any case, this work, and more generally, the attempt to combine epistemological concerns with aspects of social and cultural criticism are sure to provoke discussion.


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