Ram Neta, Philosopher, on James Turrell’s Danae (1983)
GB Tell me why you find this beautiful.
RN First of all, it feels like magic. I remember walking into the room and seeing what looked like nothing more than a simple, homogeneous rectangle of purple light on the wall. I wondered how the light was being projected, and why the hue was so striking. I started walking towards the rectangle – but once I got maybe half a metre away from it, it became clear to me that it wasn’t at all what I thought it was: in fact, it was a rectangular opening in the wall, through which another room was visible. That felt like magic because it was hard for me to imagine that I could have been subject to such an illusion at a distance of a metre. Even when I was right up close to it there was still some kind of ambiguity that I didn’t manage to resolve until I put my hand into the rectangle.
The magic was part of what made it seem beautiful to me and another part was the simplicity of it. In general, we tend to think of artworks as having parts but this had no parts to speak of.
And then there were other features as well. There’s the specificity of it to the location. It’s not like a painting and sculpture that can be bought and sold and so transferred to a house or an office, that people can just put wherever they choose.
And then there’s one more thing. Just before walking into this room, I’d been having a conversation with the artist friend who was showing me around the museum; we were talking about the superficial and the deep in art and how painting and sculpture often consist in a surface that suggests something deeper than itself. She thought of this work as a kind of joke on me because the work is quite literally deep but it suggests something more superficial than itself. So there were a lot of things I found striking about the piece, and I guess the beauty consists in all of those.
GB It’s a specific to a place but perhaps also to a time. It wouldn’t have the same effect if you looked at it every day.
RN That’s right. One thing we say about great works of art is that they stand the test of time. But in what sense would a site-specific installation like this stand the test of time? Part of the magic of it has to do with the surprise. I fell like there’s not a clear sense in which this work could stand the test of time but to me that seems to show that the whole idea of a great artwork standing the test of time is parochial.
GB Turrell says he creates this works for an idealized viewer. Do you think beauty is something he’s aiming for? What response do you think he expects?
RN I think he’s aiming for beauty. Sometimes you might write a letter or an email to particular person and in writing to them you only have that particular person in mind as your audience. Sometimes you can write something that’s intended for consumption by anyone who happens to read it and there you have to form a kind of idealised image of your reader. It’s going to be someone who reads in the language in which you’re writing, someone whose background knowledge and expectations overlap to some more or less predictable extent with yours, someone whose sensibilities aren’t completely alien. It seems to me that the same has to be true for anyone who produces work for public consumption. They have some kind of idealized audience member in mind and the aim of the work is to reward the attentions of that audience member. I think when Turrell talks about the viewer that he has in mind, it’s not discrepant with the aim of beauty. The aim of beauty has to be an aim with respect to a certain kind of beholder, and it’s a lucky accident if that aim happens to be achievable to other viewers as well.
GB Do you think Turrell’s idealized viewer knows a bit about philosophy? Do you think he wants them to engage with the piece intellectually? He refers to Plato’s cave when he talks about these pieces.
RN Yes. I think the idealized viewer, whether or not she knows about philosophy, has some appreciation for the ideas that Plato is expressing, whether or not she’s actually encountered the metaphor before. The interesting thing about Plato’s metaphor of the cave is that many people who are interested in philosophy, when they first read the metaphor, have a sense of déja vu. They have a feeling that they’re reading something that has occurred to them before. In fact, if I had to say what is a good test of whether or not someone has the talent to succeed in a certain kind of philosophy, I would suggest that when they’re teenagers, give them Plato’s republic and when they get to the section on the cave, ask them if it strikes them as familiar, if they feel as if they’re recollecting something that they may have thought of before. If they say yes, that indicates that they have a kind of feeling for philosophy; at least for the kind of philosophical tradition that arises out of Plato.
GB I asked another philosopher about the philosophy behind a work of art and he said he believes that if you want to make a philosophical point you should do it in words. Would you agree with that?
I can’t say that I agree with that. I don’t know why you would need to do it in words. Admittedly, most philosophers do use words as their medium, but why? Philosophical points have been made using words to serve as jokes, using words to serve in the form of songs. There’s a painting by John Baldessari in Moma. Although it’s a painting, it consists of a blank canvas on which are painted a series of words.
What’s funny about it is, here’s a painting which according to its own words, cannot be rendered into words. I think Baldessari is making a philosophical point in that painting and he’s making it using words but it seems to me that a perfectly analogous philosophical point could be made without words. Think of some of John Cage’s musical pieces, passages of which include turning a radio from one station to another and allowing whatever is on those stations to play into the piece. There might or might not be words in such a piece, but it seems to be clear that Cage is trying to make a philosophical point about the role of accident in musical performance. Whether or not there are words in the performance could itself be an accident. So I have to say that I disagree with the claim that philosophical points can only be made using words. Maybe words allow the point with a kind of precision that couldn’t be achieved otherwise but why does the point need to be made with that particular kind of precision? The American philosopher Willard Quine makes an important point when he says “the Humean predicament is the human predicament”, but the point is not precise.
GB You like the fact that Turrell’s piece is non commercial. What do you think it says about why we have this instinct to create art?
RN Well, why do children have the impulse to make art? It’s an interesting psychological question. Also interesting is the point that the impulse is atrophied in so many people and the people in which it doesn’t atrophy tend to make art for money. So I wonder to what extent that affects the content of what they’re making.
More generally, I wonder why the ways in which we busy adults try to enjoy ourselves are so often much less productive than the ways in which our children tend to enjoy themselves. I see the kids at my children’s school and they’ll run around and play tag — but when they sit down, unless told to do otherwise, they’ll start building something with Legos or start putting together a puzzle or get a piece of paper and start drawing on it. It comes quite naturally to them to create things. Maybe it’s just that when we reach a certain age such creativity becomes less interesting to us and we need to make the ambition a bit more sophisticated, that we need to do it for more sophisticated reasons – the pleasures of productive work cease to be sustaining in the same way as they are for children. I don’t know if that’s it or if financial exigency squeezes creativity out of us. We start worrying about surviving so we start pruning our efforts so that they are more clearly focused on achieving that goal.
GB You mentioned that when you first saw this piece, you were introduced to it by your partner at the time. Does that give its beauty a sentimental aspect for you?
RN In a way, although it’s not necessarily romantic. There have been a few cases where I’ve encountered something meaningful on my own without being introduced to it by someone else but often thinking about the piece, I’ll remember who I talked about it with later. It will trigger in me a memory of a person with whom I shared it either visually or conversationally.
GB So do you think that it’s impossible to avoid associative thought when you see something beautiful, meaning that there’s no such thing as disinterested pleasure?
RN I think there could still be such a thing as disinterested pleasure but pleasures often lead to other pleasures. The pleasure of eating for instance, while it might be a sensory pleasure, it’s a pleasure we often think about symbolically and so gain additional pleasures from the sensory pleasure. While there could be a disinterested pleasure in the appreciation of beauty, that disinterested pleasure often gives rise to other, interested, pleasures. I think that as with eating, when sensory pleasures give rise to other pleasures, so too when looking at art, disinterested pleasure can give rise to other pleasure.
GB I’ve interviewed a few people who work on neuroaesthetics and the neuroscience seems to show that when you have an aesthetic experience your mind is flooded with associations and memories, which would suggest that there is no disinterested pleasure.
RN I wonder if that isn’t too hasty an inference. Whenever we think about a particular word, our mind might be flooded with all kinds of associations and memories but it doesn’t follow that the word in question has an incredibly complicated associative meaning. The word might have a particular meaning but even though it has that meaning, when people hear it they might naturally be brought to mind of all sorts of other things aside from what the word means. I wonder if there couldn’t be disinterested pleasure in art, but that such disinterested pleasure gives rise to lots of other associations and meanings.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
RN A thing has beauty to the extent that it rewards attention in a way that’s completely independent of the aims of the attender. Let me elaborate. There are lots of things that have beauty and that reward attention in a specific way that depends on the aims of the attender; but on my view, those are distinct facts. Let’s say that I’m an art critic and I make a living from writing astutely and informatively about works of art. So now my attention to those works might be rewarded financially. But the fact that the work has beauty consists not in the fact that my attention to it is rewarded financially. The fact that the work has beauty consists in the fact that my attention to it is rewarded in some other way. There are lots of works that have beauty because they reward our attention in multiple ways but my point is that they have beauty and reward our attention in this particular way. The fact that I have something to gain from looking at Turrell’s piece has nothing to do with any of my aims – of enjoying my friendships or being a good parent or doing well at my work and so forth. If I were to enumerate my aims, my appreciation of Turrell’s piece doesn’t further any of them. I think that’s true of other things I find beautiful, like the Canyonlands in Utah or in a different way, like the Las Vegas strip. That’s the answer that seems to generalize across the different cases I can think of and include Bach;s Cello Suites as well as Pink Floyd’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.
GB The first thing you mentioned about the Turrell piece was the magic.
RN Yes, in that respect it produces wonder. The wonder isn’t diminished by the fact that I know how it’s done. Let me give you an example that might help to provide an analogy. There’s a trick that David Blaine does on the comedian Dave Chappelle. He holds out his hands and asks Dave to think of a small animal of about the size that could fit into the palm of his hand. Chappelle thinks for a moment and finally says, “a frog.” Blaine pauses for a moment and lifts up his head, then he brings up from his stomach, through his mouth, two live frogs and deposits them into Chappelle’s hands. Everyone is completely freaked out by this. I know how it’s done, partly because I’ve seen a TED talk by David Blaine where he explains part of it. So the mechanics of this trick are all explicable but nevertheless, when you see it, it’s absolutely shocking. Still, it still seems wondrous even when you know how he does it. That’s the kind of wonder that the James Turrell piece produces in me. Your wonder moves you to use words like “how did that happen?” to ask a kind of question that’s different from the one to which you just got an answer, but we don’t quite know what question that is. What question is it that you want to ask when you are struck with wonder at the way the world is?
GB A lot of people find beauty in mystery. It seems that you’re the opposite.
RN There’s still a certain kind of mystery but it’s not a mechanical mystery. It’s another mystery – one that we don’t know how to articulate in the form of a question.