Transposition and Defining or Criticizing Art
As 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