Category Archives: #tats2015

On the Varieties of Otherness


In the blog this week: The Institute publishes a series of articles on contemporary art and philosophy in conjunction with the Talk Art/Talk Society events. The second blog post is written by Valter Holmström and deals with a reoccurring concept in contemporary art and philosophy, the concept of the Other.


First, three entangled quotes. During an event at the Finnish Institute in London, artist Tellervo Kalleinen defined the red line running through her artworks as “making the Other seem like any one of us”.  In a recent interview the British MP Chuka Umunna accused the Tories and UKIP of pursuing a “politics of othering”,[1]and approximately 145 years ago the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud coined the cryptic phrase “Je est un Autre” in a letter to his teacher – I am an Other.

What does this eclectic collection of quotes mean? The concept of the Other – note the capital O – has gained increased popularity during the last decades, a concept that is steadily creeping into art-talk, cultural critic’s columns and the vocabularies of various public intellectuals. Inevitably, a concept with such a wide use becomes slightly sticky – it attracts a multitude of meanings and as such could do with some unpacking. A return to the philosophical roots of the concept might be in order, to map its conceptual mechanisms.

In its original abstract philosophical sense the concept of the Other is simply a negation, a sort of negative definition: all that which is not “the Same”. And, perhaps more fittingly, that which is not the Self: anything outside self-consciousness. In this sense the Other is often seen as constitutive of the Self, of self-awareness, as the self can only be grasped when an outside to the self is posited – the Other draws a line where the self can emerge as an object of reflection.[2]

Kasimir Malevich’s black square painting series from 1915 primarily display contrast (and were in themselves an 
attempt to inject a radical Otherness into the established art scene)

In a slightly different but related sense the Other is specifically used to designate other people. And a similar dynamic of definition through opposition is visible here – we become aware of ourselves and define ourselves through contrasting ourselves to other people. This is especially visible in the construction of cultural identities, which work like collective selves.  We create cultural identities like “Finnishness” through contrasting it to other nationalities and identities. So the construction of this collective Self, this Sameness, is always dependent on a certain construction of Otherness.

A popular conception, for instance in postcolonial theory, is that some groups of people become defined as specifically Other, to work as a form of inverted mirror for a dominant culture. This is why we often construct a common image of the Other that is unflattering to embellish the image of ourselves. The cultural theorist Edward Said, for instance, examined how the dominant view of the far East – as the mysterious Orient – had been systematically constructed throughout the 19th century in Europe. A contrast to the identity “civilized westerner” was created, in culture, anthropology and art. Something decadent, promiscuously barbaric and backwards to bolster the sense of purity and historical progress that the western civilization was thought to embody – the west desperately needed an Other.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s orientalist painting Le charmeur de serpents, 1879.

Indeed many groups or communities run the risk of uncritically projecting Otherness in the attempts to create a common identity. When today, after recent elections in Finland and the UK, we see a kind of cultural protectionism emerging in politics, we can also note an increase of generalized Others in the public imagination. Whether it is the image of the immigrant, the EU-bureaucracy, the Greek or the naive internationalists, a convenient set of counterpoints is created to cement national identity. For an identity often gives a sense of stability and security in a world that is often in flux – it works kind of like a coping mechanism.

Otherness will always be present in our experience of the world to some extent, it is part of our very structure of thought and experience. On a cultural level, however, we can see that Otherness is often very unequally or irrationally distributed, and that these constructions often serve ideological purposes – be it national, class-biased or gendered. Often they work to externalize our anxieties into scapegoats, and in the process create glossy illusions of our own communities and identities.

This insight might be why the concept of the Other has crept into artists’ work and the general cultural discourse. Ideally, its use could be turned into a tactic of using art to redistribute Otherness more equally, deconstruct the myths of Sameness that create sharp distinctions between an “us” and a “them”. To repeat Kalleinen’s words, to make the Other seem like any of us, or – as in Umunna’s case – criticize the Othering trends in politics. And lastly, to paraphrase Rimbaud, to see the otherness inherent in ourselves.

[2] Paradoxically, this also means that the Self is always partly mediated through its own opposition.

Art-work or Art-object? A phenomenological introduction

In the blog this week: The Institute will publish a series of articles on contemporary art and philosophy in conjunction with the Talk Art/Talk Society events. The first blog post is written by Valter Holmström and deals with one of the main currents of philosophy of art in the 20th century –  phenomenology – and the transformative power of art. 

“By the opening of a world, all things gain their lingering and hastening, their distance and proximity, their breadth and their limits.” – Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art, 1950.

When venturing into the dense conceptual forest of contemporary art it is easy to get lost. The multitude of art theories, avant-garde art pieces, eccentric artists and confused public discourse makes for a strange foreign ground where the traveler is lost with no clear guiding coordinates. To create a framework of understanding – to grasp contemporary art in the form of thought – we turn to philosophy. Not necessarily to reduce the complexity of art to a few intelligible principles, but rather to sketch at least one way to navigate the contemporary art field.

In the Finnish Institute’s recent Talk Art/Talk Society event, artist Hans Rosenström and critic/curator James Putnam discussed various forms of visibility for contemporary art. Regarding the question whether art should be actively marketing itself for a wider audience Rosenström quipped “at what point does a work of art become an object for the market?”– a question that can be read in a phenomenological way, and a good starting point for elucidating some philosophical interpretations of art: the difference between art-work and art-object.
The distinction I’m referring to is one made by Martin Heidegger.  And whereas it might be pretentious to go into the complexities of Heidegger’s phenomenology in a short blog post, a simple grazing of the surface might give us a sketch of some concepts that can shed light on contemporary art. Suffice it to say that phenomenology is the philosophical study of consciousness and experience, and in that sense it’s often a natural ally to art and aesthetics.[1]
The distinction between art-work and art-object is one made by Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art (1950). One of the many things Heidegger was objecting to in this essay was the view of art as an object isolated from the viewing subject. We come to expect art to personally enrich us – we go to a museum and observe an art piece and walk home with a sense of fulfilment. Maybe we talk about it with our peers. But this attitude is restrictive in many ways and fails to grasp the true transformative power of art, or the crucial role art plays in a community.
The problem with this “aesthetic approach” to art, Heidegger suggested, is that it isolated the art and the viewer from each other. In fact, in our everyday experience, the line between art and subject is blurry. Modern thought is generally haunted by a shadow of dualism, of an object-subject distinction, which gives us a warped view of the world. And Heidegger blurred the lines. Art, for instance, is transformative; it does not leave its subject(s) intact.[2]

Artwork from the ceiling of the Tomb of the Diver in a temple at Paestum. 
Photo by Michael Johanning 2001.

Rather, both art and viewer are immersed in a historical community – what Heidegger calls a specific “world” – where they both play a dynamic part. It is in this context where the art-work does its work. It is an active part of this world, it creates, entangles, brings together different forms of intelligibility, values, existential attitudes, traditions – aspects which constitutes our experience of reality. Heidegger used an ancient Greek temple at Paestum as an example of a great artwork: it connects a community, shapes attitudes towards life and death, of what matters and what doesn’t. Art is not confined to some leisurely activity like going to the museum, it is not an object to be merely passively pondered.
The role of art in our historical situation, Heidegger continues, is also to bring forth the tensions immanent in our understanding of our world. Not only is art a crucial part of world creation, modern art also open ups worlds, makes us aware of the fundamental openness of world-making – how our reality is neither eternal nor objective, but always creatively constructed by human communities.

Nocturnal festivity by Paul Klee, 1921. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Art objectified, whether by a market logic or as bourgeois cultural capital denies art its world-opening, its world-making and world-transforming role. In stead it becomes part of the subject’s – this mythical creature’s – strive to self-growth, a perspective Heidegger viewed as insufficient if we want to really grasp our existence as human beings.
But there are many other ways of encountering art, and this is only one glimpse of one way of viewing it. Indeed, if contemporary art is a dense forest, so is contemporary thought. And there are different paths through both, interspersed with light.

[1] Although, of course, not in every instance.
[2]And indeed, “the subject” probably does not even exist as a fixed entity to begin with.
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