An Educator’s Commentary on Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: “The Truth of the Work of Art,” by Prof. James M. Magrini

ImageJ. Briggs and F.D. Peat (1999) describe a link between Chaos Theory and the creative act of making and remaking our world and Being in terms analogous to those encountered in the German philosophical tradition, e.g., Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the philosophy of primordial truth and the work of art in Heidegger. Against the traditional notion of truth that comes by means of “technique, discipline, or logic,” Briggs and Peat write of a unique form of truth that manifests in moments of creative activity as “something lived in the moment and expressive of an individual’s connection to the whole” (p. 21).

This notion of truth is more primordial than any of our formal notions of truth (e.g., propositional truth) and is connected with a type of knowledge, or better, understanding that represents a “deeper authenticity and ‘truth’ about our individual experience of being in the world” (p. 20). Importantly, as related to Heidegger’s philosophy, this notion of truth, which is revelatory and ecstatic in nature, holds the potential to (1) disrupt the mechanized patterns of our rote day-to-day existence, an existence that conditions us in an inauthentic manner, and (2) awaken in us a creative “vortex,” or center, in which the processes of bifurcation and amplification open the potential for a new principle of self-organization and self-reorganization. As the authors stress, releasing ourselves to the “chaos” attunes us anew and colors our “vision” in a way that allows us to understand and discourse about our existence in a renewed manner.

We tend to resist notions of truth that cannot be immediately quantified. We want and expect our knowledge to be productive, to be instrumentally efficacious. This is also true of our schools. According to Sloaka (2009), education demands its truths neatly tied off, transferrable and highly reliable, and able to produce results. Contemporary education, as he argues, tenaciously clings to a form of knowledge that is calculable in nature, and Sloaka terms this pernicious hybrid of knowledge forms “math-and-science” (p. 36).

We understand the productive democratic citizen our schools are attempting to fabricate and churn-out only when we are able to bring to light the system of values that serves as the foundation upon which the educational edifice is constructed. In this current technological age, which Greene (1989) calls “the context of technicism,” it appears our pedagogical goals are focused on essential principles of utility, and if Greene is correct, this is because the current conservative trends “often treat education as a means to the end of achieving economic competitiveness and military supremacy in the world” (p. 214). Education, according to Sloaka, tends to privilege calculative knowledge above all other knowledge forms, and this is an exceedingly narrow epistemological position, which creates the existence of an educational system that is produced by negative “feedback loops that go ’round and ’round to keep us essentially in the same familiar place” (Briggs and Peat, 1999, p. 20). We are locked into a singular form of technological world-disclosure that precludes other forms of truth, and as a consequence, our aesthetic, ontological development suffers.

Heidegger’s notion of truth as aletheia (un-forgetfulness or un-concealment) is strikingly similar to the notion of truth that happens in moments of creative activities as described by Briggs and Peat. For the Greeks, truth as aletheia was a foundational, primordial instance of disclosure that made possible in the first instance any and all formal notions of truth (e.g., the correspondence model of truth – truth as the agreement between subject and object). It is the moment when things show themselves in their original modes of self-showing. According to Heidegger (1979), “Aletheia takes things out of concealment and lets them be seen in their unconcealment” (p. 113). For Heidegger, disclosedness represents the primordial origin and essence of truth, and he connects this understanding of aletheia to great works of art. Aletheia influences and transforms all those who participate in the art work as “preservers,” and to an important degree, as co-creators in the process of truth’s creative happening in the aesthetic experience.

Importantly, Heidegger describes the aesthetic experience in terms of a churning and ever-renewed vortex of energy, most specifically in terms of the strife between what he terms “world” and “Earth.” This vortex of energy, of counter-striving activity, breaks open the lighting clearing (Lichtung) of Being. For as Heidegger states: “Truth essentially occurs only as the strife between clearing concealing (revelation and mystery) in the opposition of world and earth” (p. 187).  In more accessible terms, what Heidegger is saying is that the work of art functions and gathers its power to “mean” and “inspire” through the ever-continued questioning of our world in its relation to forces that are always beyond our comprehension.

Art puts our world in touch with the Earth, as the primordial source of all mystery, as the dark and sublime Mother we encounter in the poetry of Hölderlin. We might imagine our encounter with art in terms of what Briggs and Peat have said about the creative experience representing “sensations of ‘knowing, but not knowing,’ inadequacy, uncertainty, awkwardness, awe, joy, horror, being out of control, and appreciating the non-linear, metamorphizing features of reality and their own thought processes – the many facets of chaos theory” (p. 24). As much as our human world demands unconcealment, the Earth, the primordial seat of concealedness, remains ever recalcitrant to our epistemological advances, she always refuses full disclosure, always folds back into recession.

What are the possible the implications of such seemingly nebulous metaphysical speculation for our practical activities within the curriculum? It is possible to suggest that a place to begin such thinking is by considering the importance of the arts and humanities in the classroom. When engaging the arts and humanities, we are thrust directly into a realm in which non-linear systems of interdependent dynamics rule, e.g., we find such dynamics at work in  the paintings of Van Gogh or Cezanne, in the literature of Joyce and Faulkner. It is necessary for our students to experience worlds beyond the “vocational” and essential, the “technological” worlds that have be constructed according to much of today’s educational philosophies. According to Sloaka, as opposed to a curriculum driven by economic or technological concerns, our goal should be to create a curriculum that is rich to overflow with the arts and humanities.

For an educational model that embraces the fine arts, literature, poetry, and music, at once embraces a multiplicity of ways of knowing and being in the world. Even though the humanities do not produce the immediate, first order results that our scientific disciplines manage, they hold the important potential to inspire in us “the reasoned search for truth” (p. 37). They stress “inquiry” over rote “investigation,” they embrace an ontological vision of the world rather than clinging to purely ontic (scientific-mathematical) modes of truth-disclosure; the arts and humanities hold the potential to awaken in us a philosophical attitude toward life’s most difficult problems. Since art and the humanities makes a renewed vision of the world possible, we should invite students to regularly participate in sustained and repeated experiences with art, a force that is “capable of altering not only what we believe but how we see” (p. 38).

When participating in the “work-being” (or vortex of truth) of the work of art there is an ecstatic experience that occurs in which the student “stands out” from the everyday ways of perceiving the world, a change in fundamental attunement occurs. It is possible to imagine this phenomenon in terms of being afforded, as a gift, a new vision of the world wherein the individual gleans her communion to the whole of Being along with her ownmost potential to exist in an authentic manner. In the work of art possibilities manifest as legitimate possibilities for existing.

There is the potential for change through the appropriation of the truth of the work of art; a new destiny is born in art’s revelation. Heidegger writes poetically about the world always being thrust back down upon the Earth for its grounding in the vortex of struggle (Riss) between these two forces at the center of all works of art. Here we might imagine the Earth as both the primordial locus of concealment and the terra firma upon which humanity builds its dwellings, providing the fertile soil from out of which the “creative germ” springs, affording the means by which the creative germ is nurtured to its creative blossoming. The aesthetic experience inspires points of bifurcation when the flux and flow of our Being changes its direction in unexpected and inexplicable ways. According to Briggs and Peat, artists who embrace Chaos Theory demonstrate a marked change in their attitudes toward mistakes and along with it a new understanding of the important roles that chance, fortune, and tuche play in their lives Thoughts, emotions, and feelings that were otherwise impossible to conceive and experience in our everyday ways of perceiving the world become new and legitimate realities for remaking our world and Being, for actualizing a new vision, which our participation in and creation of works of art makes possible.

Whereas Briggs and Peat focus in great part on the creative processes of bringing works of art into existence, there’s much to be said about the creativity that occurs when we enter into the work-being of the artwork as preserver and participant in the aesthetic experience. Heidegger comments on the importance of the participant’s experience of the truth-happening in the work of art in the following terms:

Art, as the setting-into-work of truth is Dichtung. Not only the creation of the work is poetic, but equally poetic, through its own way, is the preserving of the work, for a work is in actual effect as a work only when we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work, so as to bring our own essence itself to take a stand in the truth of being (p. 199).

The truth or knowledge of which Heidegger writes can be recast in terms of the process of the self-organizing of the student’s Being in communion with the work of art, and within the vortex of the aesthetic experience, the potential exists for the student to be carried along in new and previously unthought directions. Just as in all creative activities, this calls for a “letting go of consensual structures,” a releasing of one’s Being to the processes of truth, bifurcation, and amplification in self-organization (Briggs and Peat, 1999, p. 22). Interestingly, Heidegger also states that preservers of the work of art resolutely enter its vortex. However, it is not through active willing or autonomous choice on the part of the individual, armed with a foreknowledge of the potential changes that will occur through the experience. Rather, the resolute entry into the aesthetic experience “is the existing human beings entry into the unconcealment of Being” (p. 192).

Through our participation (and preservation), we are at once co-creators in the process of art’s truth, which becomes to a great extent our truth, both in terms of the work and the communion it inspires with our world, earth, and other beings. In such moments we glean our interrelatedness to all things, for “preserving does not reduce people to their private experience, but brings them into affiliation with the truth happening in the work” (p. 193).  Ultimately, art offers the potential for us to break open new worlds in communion with others (the authentic Mitseinandersein of which Heidegger philosophized), to found and ground a new historical time and destiny.
Works Cited

Briggs J. & Peat, F. D. (1999) Seven life lessons of chaos. New York: Harper-Collins.

Greene, M. (1989) Art worlds in schools. In I. Hodder (Ed.), The symbolic order. London: Farmer Press.

Heidegger, M. (1993) The origin of the work of art. In David F. Krell (Ed.) Basic Writings. San Francisco: Harper-Collins.

Sloaka, M. (2009, September). Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school. Harper’s Magazine. 34-42.

James Magrini teaches Western philosophy and ethics at College of Dupage in Illinois and publishes on philosophy, art, and education in such journals and periodicals as Philosophy Today, Philosophical Writings, Education, Philosophy, and Theory, and American Atheist.

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