The Basic Dilemma of the Artist
by Sam Vaknin
The psychophysical problem is long standing and, probably,
intractable. We have a corporeal body. It is a physical
entity, subject to all the laws of physics. Yet, we experience
ourselves, our internal lives, external events in a manner
which provokes us to postulate the existence of a corresponding,
non-physical ontos, entity. This corresponding entity
ostensibly incorporates a dimension of our being which,
in principle, can never be tackled with the instruments
and the formal logic of science.
A compromise was proposed long ago: the soul is nothing
but our self awareness or the way that we experience ourselves.
But this is a flawed solution. It is flawed because it
assumes that the human experience is uniform, unequivocal
and identical. It might well be so - but there is no methodologically
rigorous way of proving it. We have no way to objectively
ascertain that all of us experience pain in the same manner
or that pain that we experience is the same in all of
us. This is even when the causes of the sensation are
carefully controlled and monitored.
A scientist might say that it is only a matter of time
before we find the exact part of the brain which is responsible
for the specific pain in our gedankenexperiment. Moreover,
will add our gedankenscientist, in due course, science
will even be able to demonstrate a monovalent relationship
between a pattern of brain activity in situ and the aforementioned
pain. In other words, the scientific claim is that the
patterns of brain activity ARE the pain itself.
Such an argument is, prima facie, inadmissible. The fact
that two events coincide (even if they do so forever)
does not make them identical. The serial occurrence of
two events does not make one of them the cause and the
other the effect, as is well known. Similarly, the contemporaneous
occurrence of two events only means that they are correlated.
A correlate is not an alter ego. It is not an aspect of
the same event. The brain activity is what appears WHEN
pain happens - it by no means follows that it IS the pain
A stronger argument would crystallize if it was convincingly
and repeatedly demonstrated that playing back these patterns
of brain activity induces the same pain. Even in such
a case, we would be talking about cause and effect rather
than identity of pain and its correlate in the brain.
The gap is even bigger when we try to apply natural languages
to the description of emotions and sensations. This seems
close to impossible. How can one even half accurately
communicate one's anguish, love, fear, or desire? We are
prisoners in the universe of our emotions, never to emerge
and the weapons of language are useless. Each one of us
develops his or her own, idiosyncratic, unique emotional
language. It is not a jargon, or a dialect because it
cannot be translated or communicated. No dictionary can
ever be constructed to bridge this lingual gap. In principle,
experience is incommunicable. People - in the very far
future - may be able to harbour the same emotions, chemically
or otherwise induced in them. One brain could directly
take over another and make it feel the same. Yet, even
then these experiences will not be communicable and we
will have no way available to us to compare and decide
whether there was an identity of sensations or of emotions.
Still, when we say "sadness", we all seem to
understand what we are talking about. In the remotest
and furthest reaches of the earth people share this feeling
of being sad. The feeling might be evoked by disparate
circumstances - yet, we all seem to share some basic element
of "being sad". So, what is this element?
We have already said that we are confined to using idiosyncratic
emotional languages and that no dictionary is possible
Now we will postulate the existence of a meta language.
This is a language common to all humans, indeed, it seems
to be the language of being human. Emotions are but phrases
in this language. This language must exist - otherwise
all communication between humans would have ceased to
exist. It would appear that the relationship between this
universal language and the idiosyncratic, individualistic
languages is a relation of correlation. Pain is correlated
to brain activity, on the one hand - and to this universal
language, on the other. We would, therefore, tend to parsimoniously
assume that the two correlates are but one and the same.
In other words, it may well be that the brain activity
which "goes together" is but the physical manifestation
of the meta-lingual element "PAIN". We feel
pain and this is our experience, unique, incommunicable,
expressed solely in our idiosyncratic language.
We know that we are feeling pain and we communicate it
to others. As we do so, we use the meta, universal language.
The very use (or even the thought of using) this language
provokes the brain activity which is so closely correlated
It is important to clarify that the universal language
could well be a physical one. Possibly, even genetic.
Nature might have endowed us with this universal language
to improve our chances to survive. The communication of
emotions is of an unparalleled evolutionary importance
and a species devoid of the ability to communicate the
existence of pain - would perish. Pain is our guardian
against the perils of our surroundings.
To summarize: we manage our inter-human emotional communication
using a universal language which is either physical or,
at least, has strong physical correlates.
The function of bridging the gap between an idiosyncratic
language (his or her own) and a more universal one was
relegated to a group of special individuals called artists.
Theirs is the job to experience (mostly emotions), to
mould it into a the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of
a universal language in order to communicate the echo
of their idiosyncratic language. They are forever mediating
between us and their experience. Rightly so, the quality
of an artist is measured by his ability to loyally represent
his unique language to us. The smaller the distance between
the original experience (the emotion of the artist) and
its external representation - the more prominent the artist.
We declare artistic success when the universally communicable
representation succeeds at recreating the original emotion
(felt by the artist) with us. It is very much like those
science fiction contraptions which allow for the decomposition
of the astronaut's body in one spot - and its recreation,
atom for atom in another (teleportation).
Even if the artist fails to do so but succeeds in calling
forth any kind of emotional response in his viewers/readers/listeners,
he is deemed successful.
Every artist has a reference group, his audience. They
could be alive or dead (for instance, he could measure
himself against past artists). They could be few or many,
but they must exist for art, in its fullest sense, to
exist. Modern theories of art speak about the audience
as an integral and defining part of the artistic creation
and even of the artefact itself.
But this, precisely, is the source of the dilemma of the
Who is to determine who is a good, qualitative artist
and who is not?
Put differently, who is to measure the distance between
the original experience and its representation?
After all, if the original experience is an element of
an idiosyncratic, non-communicable, language - we have
no access to any information regarding it and, therefore,
we are in no position to judge it. Only the artist has
access to it and only he can decide how far is his representation
from his original experience. Art criticism is impossible.
Granted, his reference group (his audience, however limited,
whether among the living, or among the dead) has access
to that meta language, that universal dictionary available
to all humans. But this is already a long way towards
the representation (the work of art). No one in the audience
has access to the original experience and their capacity
to pass judgement is, therefore, in great doubt.
On the other hand, only the reference group, only the
audience can aptly judge the representation for what it
is. The artist is too emotionally involved. True, the
cold, objective facts concerning the work of art are available
to both artist and reference group - but the audience
is in a privileged status, its bias is less pronounced.
Normally, the reference group will use the meta language
embedded in us as humans, some empathy, some vague comparisons
of emotions to try and grasp the emotional foundation
laid by the artist. But this is very much like substituting
verbal intercourse for the real thing. Talking about emotions
- let alone making assumptions about what the artist may
have felt that we also, maybe, share - is a far cry from
what really transpired in the artist's mind.
We are faced with a dichotomy:
The epistemological elements in the artistic process belong
exclusively and incommunicably to the artist.
The ontological aspects of the artistic process belong
largely to the group of reference but they have no access
to the epistemological domain.
And the work of art can be judged only by comparing the
epistemological to the ontological.
Nor the artist, neither his group of reference can do
it. This mission is nigh impossible.
Thus, an artist must make a decision early on in his career:
Should he remain loyal and close to his emotional experiences
and studies and forgo the warmth and comfort of being
reassured and directed from the outside, through the reactions
of the reference group, or should he consider the views,
criticism and advice of the reference group in his artistic
creation - and, most probably, have to compromise the
quality and the intensity of his original emotion in order
to be more communicative.
I wish to thank my brother, Sharon Vaknin, a gifted painter
and illustrator, for raising these issues.
ADDENDUM - Art as Self-Mutilation
The internalized anger of Jesus - leading to his suicidal
pattern of behaviour - pertained to all of Mankind. His
sacrifice "benefited" humanity as a whole. A
self-mutilator, in comparison, appears to be "selfish".
His anger is autistic, self-contained, self-referential
and, therefore, "meaningless" as far as we are
concerned. His catharsis is a private language.
But what people fail to understand is that art itself
is an act of self mutilation, the etching of ephemeral
pain into a lasting medium, the ultimate private language.
They also ignore, at their peril, the fact that only a
very thin line separates self-mutilation - whether altruistic
(Jesus) or "egoistic" - and the mutilation of
others (serial killers, Hitler).
About inverted saints:
About serial killers:
About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism
Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East.
He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press
International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental
health and Central East Europe categories in The Open
Directory and Suite101.