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Portraits of the Modern Soul (1)

By Susie Kim

“For a couple of krone one can have oneself photographed from every angle. The apparatus is a mechanical Know-Thyself.”

“You mean to say, the Mistake-Thyself,” said Kafka, with a faint smile.

I protested: “What do you mean? The camera cannot lie!”

“Who told you that?” Kafka leaned his head toward his shoulder. “Photography concentrates one’s eye on the superficial. For that reason it obscures the hidden life which glimmers through the outlines of things like a play of light and shade. One can’t catch that even with the sharpest lens. One has to grope for it by feeling.”

-Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka

Part 1: Sight

Art tells us: “Look.” Often the imperative is metaphorical—“notice”—as in the case musical and written forms of art. In the visual arts (broadly inclusive not just of painting but also sculpture, dance, photography, film, and, to an extent, visual poetry), this invitation to behold is more literal. The visual arts’ direct access to our sense of sight gives them a power over us that the metaphorical forms of mimesis do not. The effect of a magnificent canvas is immediate, though it may take some time to understand and rationalize such effects. But to discern what to ‘look’ for in other forms of art requires more contemplation, less immediacy, in part since these other art forms must be ‘seen’ through time. A painting or a sculpture can be seen in its entirely in a single moment. Even a film or a dance piece, when stripped of its narrative arc, can be appreciated as stills.


Scene from The Bolshoi Ballet’s 2008 production of Petrushka, Ballet in one act. Though this still is itself no longer a dance piece, aspects of the work as a whole can still be felt as a single visual moment.


On the other hand a piece of music or a novel, though they may have the ability to move us powerfully without deliberate thought on our part, can only do so when it exists in time. We can isolate musical or linguistic phrases, but even in these small parts they require time to be heard or read.

Humanity has always intuited the special power of beholding with eyes. We can explain the supreme status of sight with modern biology: a third of our brains is dedicated to processing the visual signals we receive from our eyes, more than to process any other sense signals. In order to channel the power of the visual, classical composers used a technique called “word painting” for vocal pieces so that the accompanying music would reflect the lyrics. For example, a description of mountains and valleys would be accompanied with the rising and falling of the melody. Writers are often told to “show not tell.” The old testament of the Bible confers a special status to those who could see their god, and Islam prohibits visual representations of prophets and of allah so that no one can worship an image instead of their god. The first form of communication that modern man achieved was through cave paintings. We rely on our eyes in our every day lives to tell us mundane but useful truths: what the weather is, which pantry the cereal is in, which direction to go so that we don’t walk into a brick wall (hopefully).

However, for as long as we’ve intuited the power of sight, so have we been skeptical of the identity of what looks true and what is true. In the Republic, Plato uses the allegory of the cave to argue that what we see are mere shadows on the wall of the caves in which we are imprisoned, and that to ‘see’ the truth we must turn away from the image. “The region revealed through sight [is] the prison home.” It is perhaps ironic that to illustrate this division Plato chose to use an image, but it in fact shows us the inevitable power of the visual even for those who attempt to overthrow it. The mistrust extends through to modern philosophy. Descartes declared that “sense perceptions are sense deceptions.” A few hundred years later, Kant wrestles with the same divide between image and truth and arrives at the conclusion that there is a significant distinction between an appearance and the thing-in-itself (Ding an such). There is a myriad of adages in many different languages that warn us against being blindly (!) trusting of what we see. Some commonly heard English proverbs that bring attention to the divide between appearance and actuality include: “all that glitters is not gold,” “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and “barking dogs seldom bite.”

Yet even after a rich history of casting doubt on our trust in the visual, we cannot help but take visual cues to be truth cues—unless we deliberately pause and question that identification.

Part of the difficulty in separating what looks true and what is true is the disagreement on what it even means for something to be true. The debate runs as deep as some thinkers suggesting that there is no such thing as an absolute truth without relation to the observers of that “truth,” with others suggesting that even were such an absolute truth to exist it could not be accessed by mere mortals. Modern scientists are quite comfortable with assigning the label of truth to those facts that have been observed through repeated experimentation. Mathematicians tend to take a much more austere standard to truth, and often want to take for true only those facts proven through logical deduction from a set of a priori axioms. Philosophers though seem stuck in an uncomfortable and vast middle ground.


One of Charles Barsotti’s many New Yorker cartoons that wrestle with the difficulty of truth.

In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates argues against the claim that “truth and falsity are dependent upon individual impressions.” Though Aristotle abandons Plato’s metaphysics of Ideal Forms, they are in agreement that truth exists, and that it constitutes an identification between thought and reality. They are opposed by relativists, including some interpretations of Nietzsche, who ever-quotably wrote that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Since individual perceptions must differ, so must there exist individual ‘truths’ that are distinct from any possibility of an absolute truth. To complicate matters, many accounts of truth assume a fixed, objective state of reality that thought can conform to, though thinkers as far back as Heraclitus have claimed that “Nothing is in itself just one thing. Everything is in a process of coming to be.” This worry about the flux state of objectivity gives rise to modern constructivist theories of truth: that truth is mere convention. The deeper we dig into the border between truth and untruth, the dirtier the terrain becomes.

Many modern visual arts attempt to exploit this uneasy divide. Picasso and the cubist movement provide a vivid example. Cubist paintings are often of objects we encounter every day: faces of people, furniture, pets, instruments. They are wild departures from classical realism and represent these objects with strange colours and distorted shapes. The objects are not painted as we see them and these representations ask us to examine what we see. Yet, Picasso insisted that he painted what he found and saw. “When I paint, my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for. … We [cubists] have kept our eyes open to our surroundings, and also our brains.” Picasso seems to show us through his cubist paintings that when we look closely enough, things are not as they initially seem.


Picasso, Woman in Blue Hat, 1901


Even when we don’t have an intellectually satisfactory account of what constitutes truth, of course we all know faces don’t in reality look the way Picasso painted them in his cubist period. We can know this with comfortable certainty because the cubist paintings are drastically different from what we are used to. Our visual impressions of the general configuration of human faces are indeed truth impressions, whatever that may mean—and more often than not, our sense of sight can and must be trusted. But engrained in our habits of that equation, swept away as we are by the immediate effects cast by images, it remains unclear how we can, how we must, react in the instances that the identification is not warranted. Even to start, it is unclear how we can even know when the appearance and the reality is distinct when the difference between the two is slight, though not insignificant.


Simon Blackburn. Truth: A Guide.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.

Pablo Picasso, Statement to Marius de Zayas

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

Plato, The Republic

Plato, Theaetetus

Marcus du Satoy, The Music of the Primes


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This entry was posted on January 27, 2015 by in Art, S.Y. Kim, Thought and tagged , , , .
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