“I believe that all people are afraid of the same thing: being alone. When we are born, it is already in our genes that command us: Never be alone. So we scream, and Mommy comes. Later we surround ourselves with family, with friends, in order to maintain this feeling of security. The definition of art for me is that you are capable of conveying the feeling that you are not alone. So, when you look at a work of art, you’re part of an imagined community because you know that someone else has already looked at that work of art and maybe felt the same thing as you did.”*
This quote by film director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense (1999); The Village (2004)) has something striking about it. Not because it is absolutely right or wrong, but because it raises the question of the relationship between art and the individual or community. Is it really the case that a work of art viewer is part of an “imagined community” – just because he knows that other people have also seen this work of art? Apart from the fact that, according to this definition, a tree could also be art (many have looked at and admired it before), it is also conceivable the other way round: The viewer doesn’t want his surroundings and other people to know the works of art he is enjoying. For where would the peculiarity remain? Where is the uniqueness of the Mona Lisa, when thousands of people take a look at her every day?
Aristotle meets Kant
First, it is interesting to see that Shyamalan’s statement also contains a philosophical view of the world. He postulates that mankind does not want to be alone and does not grow up alone, but in the circle of the family. This thought can already be found in Aristotle’s work: the individual is not merely oriented towards naked survival, but towards a community. For the philosopher, the whole is placed before the individual. This view is also called holism. The second part of the statement is partly reminiscent of Kant’s aesthetics: beauty is subjective in the sense of a feeling one has when looking at a work of art (here the senses are important), but also generally in the sense of the assumption that someone feels exactly as we do (here reason is important). Thus beauty is a subjective generality. Shyamalan’s statement therefore – despite all philosophical caution – seems like a synthesis between Aristotle and Kant. Aristotant or even Kantoteles? Such word creations do not help us, of course. The philosophical foundations have been set. But what about the correctness of this statement?
The I and the Art
Let’s just take a film by M. Night Shyamalan, for example The Village (2004). Who watches this movie and thinks, great, I’m part of an imagined community? It would also be possible to imagine the opposite: I watch the film alone so that I can confidently interact with the artwork. This makes the film a special, personal experience. When the secret of the village is revealed in the film, the viewer doesn’t think: “Oh, and so many have been initiated into the secret before me. I feel part of this community.” No, he thinks, “How did Shyamalan manage to hide the truth so long? Damn it!”
Another problem that arises: Should I watch films together with other people in the cinema or should I rather watch them alone at home on the sofa? There are people who go to the cinema for social reasons, and there are people who watch the film for the sake of the film alone. The real art lover, or in this case film lover, watches the work for the sake of the work and not to interact with people at the same time. In such moments the viewer is completely devoted to what he sees. All alone! It can also happen that he relates the scenes of the film to the real world, but it seems highly unlikely that he thinks of other people who have also seen this film and felt the same. People who do this have a solid reason to watch a film with other people – then they can immediately observe whether their neighbor is crying or laughing. But what if not? If you laugh and your friend doesn’t? What if other people don’t like your taste in art? Is that acceptable? What if the film Inception (2010) by Christopher Nolan is for you the embodiment of the insult to cinema-goers, but your environment loves this film and even praises it as a “complex-intelligent structure”? Then who is wrong – you or your environment? Can you accept your environment, which in your opinion is willing to be insulted as a sovereign spectator? Or is art like politics – you just shouldn’t start discussing it? Or does the acceptance of these facts belong to the existence of civilized people? But where then is the art heart blood of mankind? When I watch a film with other people, a disenchantment immediately follows: Should I show my emotions? What does the other person think? Will he laugh at me when I cry? Can I even follow my film consumption habit within this framework? What if the others didn’t like the film? Will I be able to live with it?
Schopenhauer’s concept of art
Art is there to forget oneself or to project oneself onto the art object, to then see it suffer, but to remain intact oneself. Art enables a moment of rest, of leaving the chaotic course of the world – as Arthur Schopenhauer has already described in detail: “By way of all these considerations, I hope to have explicated the nature of the subjective condition of aesthetic satisfaction and the extent of its participation in the latter, namely, the liberation of cognition from the service of will, forgetting oneself as an individual, and raising consciousness to the pure, will-less, timeless subject of cognition independent of all relations“. One is no longer regarded, but one is regarding. The viewer becomes a “clear eye of the world” (German klares Weltauge). For the pessimist among philosophers, this sounds as follows: “Art, on the contrary, is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world’s course, and has it isolated before it. And this particular thing, which in that stream was a small perishing part, becomes to art the representative of the whole, an equivalent of the endless multitude in space and time“. That’s why if you watch a film you have to watch it alone, because art is there to pause reality, pain – and this includes also real people!
Four possibilities against loneliness
Shyamalan’s quote “The definition of art is for me that you are capable of conveying the feeling that you are not alone” is certainly correct. But its reason is not. It’s not the imagined community of which you become a part that transports the “feeling” of not being alone, but the artwork itself. It is the story that is told, it is the protagonists who act, it is the world that is created that conveys this feeling. Art is first fought out with itself, then it can be talked about – or not.
According to the author of this article, there are four different ways in which art creates a sense of community and connectedness.
First of all, I am actually a part of the people who “see” the artwork at the moment I “see” it. This would be the case, for example, in a cinema or a concert hall. But this is the weakest way.
The second, already stronger possibility: I become part of a community of values with all the people who also liked the work of art. Be it a fan group or a foundation.
Thirdly, the merging effect with the work of art must also be mentioned. Here I get in touch with the protagonists of the artwork, become a part of it and lose myself in its message, action or atmosphere. Loneliness is forgotten, art has eaten it up.
But the last and most important way to create a sense of solidarity is still the intellectual exchange that takes place between me and the creator of the artwork. Do I see him as a “friend” who sees the world the same way I do, or as an interlocutor of a special kind? The French author Michel Houellebecq described this effect very accurately in his novel Submission (2015) with regard to literature: “[This] gives you access to a spirit from beyond the grave – a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know. […] In the same way, to love a book is, above all else, to love its author: we want to meet him again, we want to spend our days with him.” This highest way of interacting with the work of art and its creator, however, has one condition: The viewer must be alone, otherwise an unrestricted, improvised, thorough, special dialogue is not possible. And here is the real paradox: I have to be alone for art to eat my loneliness!
*Shyamalan quoted after this German interview. Original quote: Ich glaube, dass alle Menschen vor demselben Angst haben: allein zu sein. Wenn wir geboren werden, steckt es schon in unseren Genen, die uns befehlen: Sei niemals allein. Also schreien wir, und die Mama kommt. Später umgeben wir uns mit der Familie, mit Freunden, um dieses Gefühl der Sicherheit aufrechtzuerhalten. Die Definition von Kunst ist für mich, dass man dazu fähig ist, das Gefühl zu transportieren, dass man nicht allein ist. Wenn man also ein Kunstwerk betrachtet, dann ist man Teil einer imaginierten Gemeinschaft, weil man weiß, dass schon jemand anderes dieses Kunstwerk betrachtet hat und vielleicht dasselbe gefühlt hat wie man selbst.