zaterdag 17 november 2012

Kant avant la lettre

Only when someone knows what is happening inside – that is to say: what is going on within himself – he appears to be able to convey that to others. Only then he can use that for communication.

This thought occurs to me after my visit to the exhibition The Road to Van Eyck in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. The reason for this thought is the way in which Jan van Eyck in his paintings works with light and light reflection and through illusionary effects comes closer to reality than his predecessors did.

“As one of the first he succeeded in evoking tangible reality in a convincing way” the accompanying text tells us. And he succeeded, paradoxically, precisely because he abandons the tangible real stuff.

Take for example the way he renders gold. Until Jan van Eyck real gold was used for its rendering. What more do you want, you might say, to be able to convincingly display gold. Well, that real gold appears to be much less convincing than the light dots, patches, and smudges of paint that the artist puts on the canvas, for example to show gold brocade.

Apparently Van Eyck observed in himself what was going on within him. His brain made gold out of dots and patches and smudges in a way that he found more persuasive than leaf-gold. His brain judged the unreal to be more real than the real. So Van Eyck chose for the effect that his brain produced instead of for real gold.

The thought that arises is: this is Immanuel Kant, but four hundred years avant la lettre. Indeed, Kant thought the real world to be unknowable, so to be less relevant than the world we construct using the categories of our minds. That constructed world according to Kant is our reality.

The parallel between Van Eyck and Kant shows more than just the fact that we construct a great deal of our reality ourselves. The way in which the painter, primarily in himself, must have observed what the paint did to him indicates a form of introspection that in the West brought us revolutionary cultural and philosophical changes.

The most private subject appears to be a find-spot for insights that, once they are brought out, turn out to hold for more people. Once Jan realized what was happening to him he was able to evoke the same effect in other people. This is the kind of generalization I like: that’s universality that appears from what happens, not universality which a priori is postulated by abstract reason.

This remains the eternal truth of the focus on the subject, the human individual. Only if someone knows how things come to him he appears to be able to communicate them to others. And only then a beginning of shared experience is possible, starting from a rather solitary position.

Also see Dismantling