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Ralsina.Me — Roberto Alsina's website

Levels of Existence

This sign (the one on the left) is on the Ed­u­ca­tion Coun­cil of the place where I live.

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Click to en­large.

There is, re­al­ly, no such thing as art. There are on­ly artist­s.

—Gom­brich

When I first read it I was shocked by the sheer stu­pid­i­ty of the thing, but hey, let's think it over a bit. I sup­pose that say­ing some­one is an artist, mean­ing a per­son that cre­ates art, and at the same time claim that art, as such, does not ex­ist, sound­ed like a good idea at the time. It's the kind of coun­ter-in­tu­itive slo­gan that makes peo­ple say "o­h, deep, dude" be­tween bong hit­s.

It's deeply stupid lit­er­al­ly, in that it would, of course, make artists peo­ple who cre­ate some­thing that does­n't ex­ist, which puts them at the lev­el of as­pir­ing uni­corn wran­glers and the­ol­o­gists in the fu­til­i­ty of their cho­sen pro­fes­sion. But in a way, it is true. Be­cause "art" is not a thing, it has no ma­te­ri­al ex­is­tence, al­though it has many ex­am­ples.

So, pieces of art ex­ist, but art as a whole does­n't. Art would be the pla­ton­ic idea from which sculp­tures, paint­ings and nov­els are but a re­flec­tion. Which is a met­ric ton of bull­shit but is at least some­what de­fen­si­ble. And of course whether some­thing is art or not is com­plete­ly sub­jec­tive, so art is like a club where ob­jects en­ter or not based on opin­ion, and that club ex­ists on­ly in each per­son­'s head.

But in any case, that does­n't make it not ex­ist­ing, just be­cause some­thing on­ly ex­ists in your head that does­n't mean it does­n't ex­ist. It means it ex­ists in your head, no mat­ter how sil­ly that sound­s. So, art does ex­ist, in the same way that imag­i­na­tion ex­ist­s, or mem­o­ries ex­ist, or thought ex­ist­s. Which again goes to show Gom­brich was just craft­ing a sil­ly slo­gan.

So, we have es­tab­lished that ex­is­tence is not ex­act­ly a black and white thing, be­cause there is at least ma­te­ri­al ex­is­tence, and things that don't ex­ist ma­te­ri­al­ly? Wrong, be­cause your brain pro­cess­es are ma­te­ri­al too. Thought, imag­i­na­tion, and art, all ex­ist ma­te­ri­al­ly, in your brain. We just don't have the in­stru­ments to mea­sure them, or re­port on them, ex­cept via that un­re­li­able thing called peo­ple who just will not shut up about all those things they per­ceive in their brain­s. So, art ex­ist­s, ma­te­ri­al­ly.

I know that may sound slight­ly strange, but what does­n't ex­ist? Do the drag­ons of Pern ex­ist? Yes, they ex­ist, you can buy "The Drag­ons of Pern" in Ama­zon. And yes, spe­cif­ic drag­ons ex­ist as well, be­cause if they did not, how could we know they are car­niv­o­rous, oviparous and war­m-blood­ed? Sure, they don't ex­ist ma­te­ri­al­ly in the form of drag­on­s, but I know that be­cause I re­mem­ber them. How could I re­mem­ber some­thing that does­n't ex­ist? I re­mem­ber them be­cause I read about them. I have a mem­o­ry of their de­scrip­tion. There is a de­scrip­tion o Per­nese drag­ons as writ­ten by Anne Mc­Caf­frey, and that's not as good as ac­tu­al, touch­able, warm drag­on­s, but it's the next best thing.

If I men­tion pink ele­phants, I am bring­ing them in­to ex­is­tence, not as ele­phants, but as a de­scrip­tion of an ele­phan­t, pink. It's an at­ten­u­at­ed ex­is­tence, but is the same one Japan has for me, who have nev­er been there and must make do with no­to­ri­ous­ly un­re­li­able tes­ti­mo­ny about their ex­ot­ic tem­ples, bizarre habits and enor­mous fire-breath­ing atom­ic lizard­s.

Ob­vi­ous­ly this is not what peo­ple mean, in dai­ly us­age, when they say ex­is­tence, since it would in­clude things peo­ple are hap­py to say do not ex­ist, like Per­nese drag­on­s, pink ele­phants and Go­ji­ra. So, in a twist­ed way, maybe Gom­brich is right. Ex­cept of course that ex­is­tence is not a demo­crat­ic de­ci­sion. So maybe just peo­ple are wrong to say Go­ji­ra does­n't ex­ist.

Or maybe ex­is­tence is not a use­ful prop­er­ty for things. Maybe what we should use is re­al­i­ty. Be­cause while Go­ji­ra ex­ist­s, he is not re­al, in the sense that his ma­te­ri­al form is not that of a huge Tokio-s­tomp­ing man in a rub­ber suit. Even though there used to be a guy, dressed on a rub­ber suit, stomp­ing on a "Tokio", but I di­gress.

So, art is not re­al, may­be? Well, no, be­cause noone is claim­ing art has a phys­i­cal na­ture dis­tinct from that rep­re­sen­ta­tion it has in our head­s. Noone claims art is yel­low, small­er than a teapot, and cov­ered in pur­ple hair. Art is an ab­stract con­cep­t. And ab­stract con­cepts ex­ist.

So Gom­brich was full of shit.

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