Art and Descartes – What about it?

August 17, 2006

Let’s discuss some reader questions. Several real good issues have been raised by alert readers. Familiar with Dave Barry and his alert readers?. Thankfully I seem to have some too.

Maybe this blog is turning a bit more philosophical than I intended. Hey, all I do is fool around with cameras and various tools to make imagery I find interesting. Nothing earth shattering. But two readers raised points I can’t resist since they are both excellent. Besides, it’s a break from the “On Reality” stuff. Almost. So I’ll discuss those two points here rather than in direct responses to the two readers. Please don’t get it wrong. This is not an ego trip about me personally. I believe each question has a great fundamental value. Besides, having alert readers is nothing to sneeze at. I sure hope for more. It beats having me figure out all the subjects. Democracy.

The first item is an answer to my questions in the On Reality 1 post: “So, what is reality? Does it even exist? Does it matter if it exists or not? My quick answers – (1) No one knows, (2) No and (3) Probably not.” Reader Ryan offered the following comment: “Descartes addressed and answered your reality question… “I think, therefore I am.” Interesting, let’s examine that very famous statement and see if and how it applies.

The second question is by reader lodewika: “Hi, could you tell me why you call this art photography? I’m not saying its not, just interested in how you think.” I assume that refers to my work. Art or not? Good question. Oddly, I think my answer will relate a bit to the first Descartes question.

While I’m in this deep philosophical mood, I think I’ll touch on the metaphysical existentialist nonsense I’m accused of as well. Let’s get it over with. That is question 3.

Question 1 – I think, therefore I am.

As all of you alert reader know, Descartes was a ground breaking scientist and philosopher living from 1596 to 1650. Originally French, he lived most of his life in other countries – including my native (long ago) Sweden where he tutored Queen Christina, contracted pneumonia and promptly died. Later, his death was blamed on arsenic poisoning. Here is one quote:

René Descartes (March 31, 1596February 11, 1650), also known as Cartesius, was a noted French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Dubbed the “Founder of Modern Philosophy” and the “Father of Modern Mathematics,” he ranks as one of the most important and influential thinkers of modern times. For good or bad, much of subsequent western philosophy is a reaction to his writings, which have been closely studied from his time down to the present day. Descartes was one of the key thinkers of the Scientific Revolution in the Western World. He is also honoured by having the Cartesian coordinate system used in plane geometry and algebra named after him.” Source: here.

DescartesNot exactly a guy to ignore. For all his accomplishments, the statement “cogito ergo sum” is his most famous one liner. Most commonly translated into “I think, therefore I am”. So what does it mean? That has been debated for centuries. Here i8s my simple minded view:

The foundation of Descartes whole existence was one of great skepticism. In fact, he was strongly suspecting nothing existed and struggled with explaining whether or not he himself actually existed. Eventually he concluded, much to his relief, I’m sure, that he did in fact exist because he could think. Hence the statement. But that statement referred to him personally. Note the “I” rather than a “we”. He existed but what about the rest of the universe? Here’s another quote from the same source as above:

“Therefore, Descartes concludes that he can be certain that he exists. But in what form? He perceives his body through the use of the senses; however, these have previously been proven unreliable. So Descartes concludes that the only undoubtable knowledge is that he is a thinking thing. Thinking is his essence as it is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted.”

“To further demonstrate the limitations of the senses, Descartes proceeds with what is known as the Wax Argument. He considers a piece of wax: his senses inform him that it has certain characteristics, such as shape, texture, size, color, smell, and so forth. When he brings the wax towards a flame, these characteristics change completely. However, it seems that it is still the same thing: it is still a piece of wax, even though the data of the senses inform him that all of its characteristics are different. Therefore, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, he cannot use the senses: he must use his mind. Descartes concludes: “Thus what I thought I had seen with my eyes, I actually grasped solely with the faculty of judgment, which is in my mind.” In this manner, Descartes proceeds to construct a system of knowledge, discarding perception as unreliable and instead admitting only deduction as a method.”

Let’s see: “…use of the senses; however, these have previously been proven unreliable…” and “…discarding perception as unreliable…“. Let’s return to my original questions: “So, what is reality? Does it even exist? Does it matter if it exists or not? My quick answers – (1) No one knows, (2) No and (3) Probably not.” I guess, based on Descartes, the only think I would change is skip the third question and its answer.

My original questions should read: “So, what is reality? Does it even exist? My quick answers – (1) No one knows, (2) No.”

Ever hear the joke about him (Bob Hope)? Here goes:

Descartes walks into a bar and orders a drink. He quickly downs the refreshing beverage. The bartender notices his empty glass and asks “Another?” Descartes replies, “I think not.” And poof — he disappears!

And the Monty Phyton version: “René Descartes was a drunken fart, I drink, therefore I am”

Now, what do you think? It’s your turn.

Question 2 – Who is an artist?

Serious question. Not an easy one to answer. In a way, it’s like asking an alcoholic if he is an alcoholic. He will only answer yes if he himself believes he is an alcoholic. I’ve been taking pictures for many years. I never viewed myself as an artist producing art. I just had a hobby, pursuing a completely different career. Then things changed. I couldn’t take that other career any longer. I quit. I thought I might go for the photography thing. I went to school and learned the trade. Then, out of the blue, a second set of changes occurred, some very traumatic. My life changed dramatically.

To my astonishment (and that of others) my photography improved dramatically. I first had no idea why. All I knew was I viewed life and everything around me in a totally new way. Still, I was no artist. Didn’t know what one was. Eventually, though, some photographer friends saw something was going on. They helped me clarify and canalize my direction. They also forced some honesty into me. They guided me. They gave me hell. Then I finally got the point. In my gut, I knew what an artist is. I knew what it takes to produce art. I was an artist. It’s like asking an artist if he is an artist. He will only answer yes if he himself believes he is an artist. And the same for females. In my case, it was a serious change in life style.

So that’s my story. Let’s see what others think. It is easy to find many different opinions. But few seem to go beyond those interviews with basket ball players after a game. In fact I could only find one good article, shown here fully:

“The Artist’s Life (1994)

RembrantRembrandt dies in near bankruptcy at age 63, Rubens in wealth and esteem at the same age. Van Gogh, utterly without hope that his art will ever be understood, shoots himself in the stomach at age 37. Picasso dies an extremely wealthy nonagenarian. Such are some artists’ fates.

Despite the common humanity linking all people, artists are a different breed. They spend a lifetime, as surrogates of mankind’s quest for meaning, truth and beauty, translating into art their feelings and observations of the world that non-artists note only in passing.

While art’s importance to civilization is well recognized, you can’t eat art, sleep on it, keep the rain off with it, or drive it to Toledo. This “impracticality” — the essentially poetic, spiritual basis of art, and humanity’s lack of artistic understanding — sets artists apart from the rest of the world.

In extreme cases, such separateness can result in isolation, conflict and death. In a more pleasant scenario (not without its own pitfalls), the artist may be elevated to culture hero if fortunate and his work supports the positive or negative beliefs of the leaders of society.

A profound, poetic society, spiritually developed and humanistic, may recognize a Michelangelo, a Bernini. If the leaders are materialistic and nihilistic, then artists with those characteristics will gain fame and riches. It is also true that great artists can arise spontaneously, independent of social climate.

In most cases, artists trudge through life in a middle-of-the-road existence, exercising financial brinkmanship. Or they cave in to the fashions of the day, turning out products to meet art market demand.

A well-known New York art dealer once said, “If Rembrandt walked into my gallery today, I couldn’t (translation: ‘wouldn’t’) give him a show.”

The “reasoning” behind this absurd statement was that the dealer already had too many artists (the universal gallery excuse for not taking on serious artists. To which we might reply, “Yes, you have too many artists. Too many lousy artists. Make room for some good ones.”).

The dealer’s other reason was that Rembrandt was too “hot”, expressing intense feelings in his work, while the dealer only exhibited — and could only accept psychologically — the “cold” art of pop, minimalism and photo-realism.

The genuine artist’s challenge is two-fold. First, is the immense, life-long effort to develop and evolve a significant vision that expresses both his feelings and those of his era in the context of timeless human experience. Then, once the work has been created, begins the task of getting it out in the world, trying to make gallery people and collectors understand what has been achieved.

van Gofgh There is no doubt that the genuine artist — not the run-of-the-mill commercial hack — is ahead of his time, is the point-man for his society. Most of humanity is at least a generation behind the greatest artists. The irony and horror, of course, is that, with amazing regularity, these bringers of truth are condemned or ignored by their contemporaries out of fear or ignorance. Fear of the insights and inherent changes the artist is bearer of, and ignorance of their timeless implications.

Great artists’ clarity of vision shreds the fads and fashions that are the substitute for thinking in any era. Once safely dead and hallowed by history and myth, their artistic and spiritual truths can be cautiously approached, digested and integrated.

But significant, living artists are a threat to the aesthetic, psychological and financial status quo. Who wants a Van Gogh or Cezanne in their rough workmen’s clothes barging into a posh auction house to question what is going on with multi-million dollar prices for paintings they could only sell in their lifetimes for a pittance, if they could sell them at all?

One sometimes hears the vile nonsense, clearly an ignorant rationalization, that it is better for artists to suffer because it forces them to work, to produce better work. As if the artist is a freak or subhuman species that doesn’t feel the way “real” human beings do.

Artists who happen to be poor, like Van Gogh, produce IN SPITE of the hellish strain of not knowing where the next franc or dollar is coming from, not because of it. Think of a syphilitic, homesick, 55-year-old Gauguin dying in the tropical Marquesas, the last painting on his easel, a snow-covered, thatch-roofed Breton cottage later turned upside down at a sale of studio contents and sold as a waterfall by a smart-aleck auctioneer.

Was Gauguin better off as an artist and human being because of his suffering? Not likely. Would any comfortable middle to upper-middle to upper class individual or family want to trade places with him? Not likely.

“Where do we get such men?,” wonders actor Frederic March, as the admiral in the movie “Bridges at Toko-Ri”, about the fliers on his aircraft carrier as they roar off in their jets, having left civilian life behind to fight in the Korean War.

Such a question can as justifiably be asked of the men and women throughout history who devote their lives, as long as they can hold out, to the search for, and expression of, the timeless truths by which humanity must live if we are to remain sane and humane.

In a world concerned with financial issues, power, prestige, keeping up with appearances and the status quo conventions of life, what kind of people are these artists who are willing to go off in a completely different direction, that few non-artists will ever understand, in order to express the poetry in their souls that echoes the poetry they see in the common things of daily life and the infinite spaces between the stars?

These magnificent artists do not, cannot — could not — live by bread alone. They seek a clue, a link, a oneness with the greatness of life, of nature and of man through forms and images in paint and stone as true as the world itself. What a compelling, rewarding and dangerous task this is.

Copyright by Don Gray” Source: here

Forgive me, Don, if I violated your copyright. Terrific article.

Question 3 – What about metaphysical existentialism?

Wow – not sure I know a thing about this. But let’s try. Apparently it is the opposite of being Materialistic. Hmm. So let’s consult some quotes as starters.


Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the nature of the world. It is the study of being or reality.[1] It addresses questions such as: What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? What is man’s place in the universe?”

“A more nuanced view is that metaphysical statements are not meaningless statements, but rather that they are generally not fallible, testable or provable statements (see Karl Popper). That is to say, there is no valid set of empirical observations nor a valid set of logical arguments, which could definitively prove metaphysical statements to be true or false. Hence, a metaphysical statement usually implies a belief about the world or about the universe, which may seem reasonable but is ultimately not empirically verifiable. That belief could be changed in a non-arbitrary way, based on experience or argument, yet there exists no evidence or argument so compelling that it could rationally force a change in that belief, in the sense of definitely proving it false.”

Materialism or naturalism:


“Naturalism is any of several philosophical stances, typically those descended from materialism and pragmatism, that do not distinguish the supernatural from nature. Naturalism does not necessarily claim that phenomena or hypotheses commonly labeled as supernatural do not exist or are wrong, but insists that all phenomena and hypotheses can be studied by the same methods and therefore anything considered supernatural is either nonexistent, unknowable, or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses.”

“Distinctions are sometimes made between two approaches, the first being methodological naturalism or scientific naturalism, and the second ontological naturalism or metaphysical naturalism. The first approach underlies the application of the scientific method in science, which makes the methodological assumption that observable events in nature are explained only by natural causes, without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural, and hence does not accept supernatural explanations for such events. The second approach refers to the metaphysical belief that the natural world (including the universe) is all that exists, and therefore nothing supernatural exists.”


Existentialism is defined by the slogan Existence precedes Essence. This means: 1. We have no predetermined nature or essence that controls what we are, what we do, or what is valuable for us. 2. We are radically free to act independently of determination by outside influences. 3. We create our own human nature through these free choices. 4. We also create our values through these choices. The Existentialist View (We create our own nature.): We are thrown into existence first without a predetermined nature and only later do we construct our nature or essence through our actions.”

Does this give me a headache? Yes, it does. But still, let’s see if we can make any sense out of this. Again, remember the original questions that triggered this – they are the same as in the Descartes piece, now shortened to: “So, what is reality? Does it even exist? My quick answers – (1) No one knows, (2) No.” I suppose my short answer is – yes, some of the above probably apply to some elements in these posts. I think this philosophical stuff is off the point though. I use “materialistic” views to prove something “metaphysical”. So what?


I have no trouble at all with the two first questions. Valid points and hopefully satisfactory answers. I am not comfortable with question 3 and can’t really be coherent about the subject. Sorry. Perhaps some one else can clarify, in particular, its relevance to the current discussion. Maybe the graph above will help. Maybe. I’m just a photographer.

Let’s return to Earth next time. Thank you.


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