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Art as Fictional Truth and Make-Believe
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-01-09 09:24:20
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“In order to understand paintings, plays, films, and novels, we must look first at dolls, hobbyhorses, toy trucks, and teddy bears. The activities in which representational works of art are embedded and which give them their point are best seen as continuous with children’s games of make-believe. Indeed, I advocate regarding these activities as games of make-believe themselves, and I shall argue that representational works function as props in such games, as dolls and teddy bears serve as props and children’s games…Representations, I have said, are things possessing the social function of serving as props in games of make-believe, although they also prompt imaginings and are sometimes objects of them as well. A prop is something which, by virtue of conditional principles of generation, mandates imaginings. Propositions whose imagining are mandated are fictional, and the fact that a given proposition is fictional is a fictional truth. Fictional worlds are associated with collections of fictional truths; what is fictional is fictional in a given world—the world of a game of make-believe, for example, or that of a representational work of art.”

                                                                       --Kendall Walton (Mimesis as Make-Believe)

Kendall Walton (b. 1939), who is the Charles L. Stevenson Collegiate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, in his magnum opus titled Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990) puts forth a very interesting theory of art which is basically a thorough exploration of a mechanism that in his view is basic to the majority of works of art: that of make-believe or pretending. The core of this theory is basically that art involves the same cognitive processes that structure children’s games, that is to say, pretending that one thing is really something else.

I suppose that, as children, we have all played games involving pretending: pioneer and Indians with make-believe guns, or a party with make-believe cakes made of mud. They were integral part of our childhood. They reveal Vico’s insight that to understand mankind’s history and development one has to watch closely the development of the individual human being. There is no doubt that imagination is prevalent in children before the onset of reason around the age of seven; that in fact children make sense of reality through fairy tales, parables and myths which are related to them. They are essential for structuring their reality.

Walton’s claim is that all representational art involves similar pretense. Colored shapes on a canvas or words arranged in certain grammatical and syntactical order on a page, involve us in complex games of make-believe which we call “art.” To be sure, despite his being an analytic philosopher, Walton has no interest in a definition of art and specifying which objects fall under such a concept. His concern rather, as articulated in the above mentioned book, is to explore make-believe and pretending.

The question naturally arises: Is Walton saying that art is nothing but a child’s game? Isn’t this reductionism at its best? Walton would answer with a resounding no. He would explain that he is far from reducing art to the simple games we all played as children; rather he is saying that some of the same basic cognitive processes are involved both in children’s games and in works of art. He intends that claim to give us a helpful handle on how works of art function.

A key notion in this theory is that of a prop. It is the basic element in all games of pretense. Children take real things in the world and make them function as props for their imaginative games of pretense. For example, a stick functions as a Native American’s arrow, or perhaps a cowboy’s rifle, a stone functions as a lump of sugar. One needs a stick in one’s hand to shoot at somebody whose body also becomes an imaginary Native American or cowboy. According to Walton, what those props do is to structure the imaginary world that a game creates. Thus, “John is a cowboy” describes what is going on in John’s imagination and his playmates, wherein a young boy fictionally becomes an adult skilled at tendering bovine creatures.

This leads to another crucial question: how does this view help us to understand works of art? Let us take the picture of the Mona Lisa, the original one by Da Vinci, not the myriad computer enhanced and altered versions one can find nowadays. If we look at this picture not as a representation of a smiling lady, then all there is in on the canvas are arrangements of colored pigments. That is how a cat sees the Mona Lisa, if indeed it sees colors. In any case, should we decide to focus on one patch of color, for example, the fleshy tones in the bottom center of the canvas, we will be drawn into a game of make-believe when we pretend that such a patch is a hand. This is true for all the other parts of the painting which represent elements of a human being. According to Walton, we are merely taking part in a game of make-believe in which we pretend that we are seeing an actual human being and not just colored paint on a canvas.

Undoubtedly we know all along that we are pretending. Nobody is completely fooled. While we say to ourselves “What an enigmatic smile that lady has,” we remain aware that we are entertaining the thought only fictionally, for in reality there is no real woman there. It is all pretense, not reality. Which brings us back to Aristotle’s concept of “catharsis” in drama, what we experience via the play which we pretend to be taking place in reality but would never tolerate in the real world. It has been dubbed a sort of suspension of disbelief. That of course does not take in consideration aberrations and monstrosities such as the emperor Nero who experienced a “catharsis” of sort in seeing actors really murdered on stage. It remains doubtful that Nero, who considered himself a great poet, ever read or understood Aristotle’s poetics. The emperor was intellectually ethically and artistically naked but nobody had the courage to tell him, for he was a bully. Be that as it may, using the idea of games and make-believe as a key to understanding art is indeed innovative and surprising. At first this idea is puzzling, but upon further reflection it does seem to provide a key to understanding how works of art function and why we seem to enjoy them so much.

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rene davila2009-01-09 15:44:43
Very interesting article.
In my opinion, a work of art is an imagined representation of a reality produced by the artist. What the artist is doing is recording an event wich happened in reality, like in the case of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The woman was not a fictional character, it was a .real woman posing in order to be recorded in a portrait. Nowdays we use a camera in order to get a portrait done.
I think that what the artist produces is a representation of his imagination, and leaves it up to the viewer to decipher what the message intended was.In my opinion, it is up to the imagination of the viewer to conclude what the message is.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-09 17:22:10
Interesting take Mr. Davila. I hope that my students which I will meet in a few days for the course on aesthetics at Barry University will also be that receptive and willing to engage in a free-wheeling but respectful discussion on this fascinating subject. Your take on the Mona Lisa is in fact quite plausible if one intereprets it in the light of psychoanalysis. Perhaps you know that Freud is another author who used the Mona Lisa to explain his particular view on theories of art. Stay tuned, there are a few more presentations and one of them is on Freud. We can then discuss further Freud's interepretation of the Mona Lisa which I take with a grain of salt as I take most of Freud's proposal (I prefer Jung by far) but others like very much. In any case, thanks for the insightful feedback.

Alexander Mikhaylov2009-01-10 00:54:01
To Dr. Paparella: In fact, I prefer Jung just as well.

Emanuel Paparella2009-01-10 16:03:11
At first they look alike, but soon enough one realizes that Freud was the humanist who wanted to pretend that he was a respectable scientist, but Jung, more wisely, was the scientist who never lost his humanity.

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