The French love and value of philosophy is evident. From the ideas that led to the French Revolution to the everyday discussions about life. Philosophy it seems, in France anyway, is everywhere.
And so keeping up the fine tradition of thought Cafe Philo at the Institut francais meets every Saturday morning for anyone interested in philosophy discussion in an informal setting. There is usually a decent turn out even given the early Saturday morning start. Different ages, nationalities and open minded crowd loosely chaired by host Christian. After a couple of hours of lively and interesting debate there is chance to move over to the Institute’s nice bistro for lunch, coffee or a glass of wine and carry on the discussion.
Repression is good. It gives us civilisation. If we acted on our impulses, like young brats, animals and a few politicians, social life would consist of bursts of anger, physical violence, sexual assaults, sobbing reconciliations, cowboy friendships and puppy love.
Think gang life. It is when individuals take control of their urges that they develop empathy and universal concepts. Can we not have both, though – abstract thinking and the pleasures of the senses; emotions and philosophy? We can, indeed. It’s called art.
The emergence of humanity as a species was marked with the production of highly stylised forms, satisfying to the mind, whilst also charged with emotional content. We are familiar with these 35,000-year old female figurines, obviously not depicting any actual woman, but celebrating them universally in a symbolic representation of fertility.
Image Klearchos Kapoutsis via Flickr
It is the difference between your colleagues’ family pictures and splendid images of people we don’t know, we will never meet, but who tell us a story that is also ours (the difference between an anecdote at café philo that doesn’t lift off from personal recollections, and tales, which may, or may not, be true, but resonate with all of us).
Art extends to the universal. We know others share our aesthetic pleasures, we want to talk and tweet, and poke friends, and drag them to the places where they can share the experience.
The Romantic revolution has changed the artists’ relationship with their public. Art is no longer works commissioned by patrons for the embellishment of a church, a house, or the glorification of an individual; it is what the artist decides to produce.
“Nobody tells me what to do” – with the consequence that what artists do is for nobody. Certainly not for anyone’s enjoyment, or glorification (or in this case, only that of the artist).
Image Tinou Bao via Flickr
In an individualistic society, gallery art is an exercise in recognition of one’s social status. The public is not seeking the pleasure of contemplating the exhibited pieces, they are not designed for viewing pleasure; it is making the statement that it has acquired the education, the taste and the openness of mind to appreciate what’s trendy, shocking, but chic. A quality worth mentioning at parties.
The buyers of such works sign on the same elitist statement, with cash thrown in for additional prestige. Art, like medals, has no longer a value in itself, but has become a medium through which we establish an identity among a certain peer group.
I am caustic here, and unfair. A few artists continue offering great works. We mostly find them in the forms of art that require commissions: films and architecture, which limit the creator’s narcissism. The next generations will find more to say about the sociology of our art market than about the art itself. (Christian Michel, who chairs Cafe Philo Philosophy Group)