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Transposition and Defining or Criticizing Art

August 13, 2010
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600px-Art-portrait-collage_2As students studying theology and art we frequently try to analyze not just particular works, but also to come to a more precise understanding of the concepts with which we work. It can be annoyingly difficult to define what either art or theology are, however, which is either amusing or frustrating, depending on how you look at it. This difficulty brings to mind the famous essay “Transposition” by C. S. Lewis, which was one of the inspirations for the name of this blog.

In the essay, Lewis points out various phenomena that, when analyzed, are accompanied by the same physical sensations as other phenomena that we experience as different. It appears that the body has a limited “vocabulary” of physical reactions, so events that are very different on the mental level in terms of emotion and so forth can be represented in the body by the same reactions. Lewis calls this transposition–the representation of something more complex in the less complex terms available to us. He goes on to make various applications of this principle, some of which do not concern me here. But he argues that transposition likely “occurs whenever the higher reproduces itself in the lower [emphasis mine].”

I think this correct, and helpful for understanding both the usefulness and weaknesses of defining and criticizing art. When confronted with paintings, poems, furniture, music, and all the other physical and mental arrangements and objects that can be called art, it is impossible to reduce them down to a simple definition. Attempts to do so are trying to take this multi-faceted thing and encapsulate it in words, when there is more to it than words or ideas. In the same way, when someone critiques a particular work of art, the critique can never get at all that the art is doing, which is why even two very accurate and perceptive critics will never say exactly the same thing about an artwork’s meaning and significance. In transposition, something is always lost.

Still, the attempt to define terms and critically analyze works of art is very worthwhile, especially when understood as a transposition. Because art is hinting at something beyond our ordinary experience, beyond technically or scientifically explainable utility, we must transpose its forms into simpler language. There is no other way to begin to comprehend it. Finding words that reveal something of what is really going on allow someone to return to the art with a map that can make intelligible the sometimes-confusing forms within the art. What must be avoided by both artists and critics is the attempt to make a piece of art equivalent to statements about it. Lewis discusses the error of noting that an emotion or experience is accompanied by physical sensations, and drawing the conclusion that the emotion or experience is nothing but those sensations. I think some artists, in accompanying their art with statements informing the viewer what they are doing, are making a similar error. Critics, on the other hand, are more likely to err if they fail to consider the implications of art beyond materialism, and so fail to see art’s true depth. What do you think? Are these situations failures to properly understand both the necessity and limitations of transposition?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Travis permalink
    August 13, 2010 9:13 am

    Nice post Ben. Always happy to find Lewis’s ideas interacted with, especially in a blog by this name.

    • Ben permalink
      August 13, 2010 10:07 am

      Thanks for the kind words.

  2. August 14, 2010 4:39 am

    Yes. Thanks. ‘The Weight of Glory” has been hiding unread by myself in the C.S. Lewis section of our home for years. Now it will be read. (Just as soon as I finish Stephen King’s Under the Dome…)

  3. Anna permalink
    August 16, 2010 10:12 am

    I have a place in my heart for Lewis and it’s great to see you explore this essay with such relevance to this blog! I’m thinking more and more that it was a good choice for a name!

    “I think some artists, in accompanying their art with statements informing the viewer what they are doing, are making a similar error.”

    Ben, this statement concerns me somewhat. While I concede that you are referring to “is the attempt to make a piece of art equivalent to statements about it” we must be careful not to ignore the artist’s desire to share the context of their work and assume that we (as critics) know better than they. We have a take on it, yes, but know better? not necessarily. This line of thinking can very quickly descend into “the author is dead” type thinking and end up very quickly in new criticism. Hence, why I’m hesitant. Can you explain to me a little more why you think “some artists” are erring in their statement? What does not “erring” in this way look like?

    “Critics, on the other hand, are more likely to err if they fail to consider the implications of art beyond materialism, and so fail to see art’s true depth.”

    I think here you do hit upon the failure to properly understand both the necessity and limitations of transposition. I think the limitation of transposition in the context of artist and critic is a matter of different mediums (and maybe genre): doing something is not the same as explaining how it is done, or writing about it. In this sense, maybe only art criticism which takes the form of a piece of art in the same genre is going to be speaking within the same parameters. In effect critics and artists will always be speaking of apples and oranges. This doesn’t make the critic unnecessary, it just means that their task is bigger than pure explanation or transposition – it is about truth and beauty and exploring the many different meaning and never claiming that their statements about a piece equate to the piece or are a full exposition of it.

    • Ben permalink
      August 16, 2010 8:48 pm

      I probably could have phrased the statement about artists a little better. I would not claim that critics know better than artists, since any good artist will have a plan in mind as he makes his work and it will be carried out to at least some extent; the more successfully it is carried out, the better the resulting work is likely to be. A bad artist might not, and so wouldn’t know what he was doing so well as the critic, but the result probably wouldn’t be worth the critic’s time. (Incidental historical note: New Criticism eventually led to the death of the author, not the other way around. Early New Criticism considered the author–its newness was in putting literature in a separate world from other uses of language. Wimsatt’s and others’ attempts to purify the theory led to eliminating the author, and then combined with other trends to produce deconstruction, something the New Critics were not happy about, even though it could be considered just New Criticism taken to its end point.)
      What I was trying to get at is the problem that sometimes occurs when an artist produces a work that can only be understood “properly” by reading what he has written about it. If a work of art is good at all, it can communicate something to those who encounter it without requiring a ready-made interpretation. Of course, hearing from the artist can enrich our understanding, and there are also meanings present that the artist may not have realized.

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