IF I TELL YOU THAT THE OPENING SEQUENCE of Tarkovksy’s Andrei Rublev upended my understanding of what a film could be, could do, what I mean is that it transfigured how I inhabit the world.
The film’s prologue is at once confounding and mesmerizing. In a setting that feels vaguely medieval, a makeshift hot-air balloon composed of rags and cloaks is being filled with steam. Invaders in canoes are coursing across a glassy lake. There is an unexplained urgency in the air. We realize that someone is trying to escape. And just before the pursuers reach him, he achieves liftoff, ascending above a landscape that is barren but beautiful. The lakes carve up the screen like dark mirrors. A herd of wild horses bolts across the terrain. Are they also escaping? Aloft with the fugitive, we are transported, suspended; transcending our earthbound perspective, we are granted a glimpse of the world from above. But then the balloon crashes to the ground. A lone horse rolls over on its back, legs unnervingly akimbo.
I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on here in any linear, narrative sense, but I know that kind of knowledge isn’t the only sort that matters. In fact, I would say that’s precisely what Tarkovsky taught me. His filmic attention, the visual incarnation of longing and aspiration, the sense of transport—if I could only give myself over to the moving images on the screen—all of this transformed for me what I thought counted as comprehension. After experiencing this movie, I knew something—about the world, about myself, even about God—that I didn’t know before, even if my ability to articulate that knowledge is fleeting, halting, as is evident enough here.
Tarkovsky is unapologetic about his aspirations in this respect: art, he emphasizes, is a rival to science in its endeavor to advance human understanding. In his fascinating book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, he draws the parallel: “Art, like science, is a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it.” Tarkovsky even dares to argue that the goal of art is explanation: “To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.” The wavering here is a signal that what counts as explanation for the artist is quite different from the sort of explanation offered by scientists. If Andrei Rublev is any indication, the artist’s “explanation” is to confront us with mystery in a way that we can absorb—what Tarkovsky will call the “felt truth” of illumination. Thus, what counts as “discovery” for art is unlike the scientific endeavor to gradually shrink the territory of what confounds us.
To science, mystery is a gauntlet thrown down; every puzzle is meant to be solved. For the artist, discovery—an advance in understanding—occurs when we confront the elusive mystery of the world as mysterious. “An artistic discovery occurs each time as a new and unique image of the world, a hieroglyphic of absolute truth. It appears as a revelation.” Andrei Rublev was a revelation for me because it showed me the depth of the world that could only be understood in a mode we might call reverence. There is a kind of understanding that dawns in letting go; there is a sort of knowledge that arrives when we stop trying to comprehend.
In a much-discussed 1959 book called The Two Cultures, C.P. Snow tried to explain the “mutual incomprehension” of the sciences and humanities. Occupying the same universities, discussed in the same magazines, these two ways of considering the world, in Snow’s experience, were two different cultures, like alien worlds. His argument brings to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quip: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” The lion’s articulated noises would come from such a different lifeworld that we would hear only the wah-wah-wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher. In Snow’s telling, when scientists speak, literature professors hear little more than clicks and beeps; similarly, the humanist’s claims sound to the scientist like quaint anecdotes, unverifiable opining. It’s not surprising, then, that the inability of scientists and artists to understand one another turned into apathy and distance.
But a lot has changed since then. While for a time scientists and artists were content to inhabit different worlds, of late, D.T. Max observes, “scientists are making border raids.” Fifty years after Snow’s book, evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson proposed “biopoetics” as a way to “rationalize” the arts and humanities. “Biopoetics wants to know why literature is necessary,” Max comments. “They’d like to wire a reader with Madame Bovary on a gurney to see what parts of his brain light up when Emma Bovary has sex with Rodolphe and which when she commits suicide.” At the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, neuroscientists and psychologists investigate “who aesthetically appreciates what, for which reasons and under which situational and historical circumstances.” This meeting of science and art does not feel like a conversation or a dialogue. Perhaps the old border between science and art is eroding, but this feels less like a diplomatic summit aimed at mutual understanding and more like a hostile invasion. Here comes science to tell us why we like haiku or minor chords make us cry. Here come the neuroscientists to explain why your brain responds to Proust or why prenatal Beethoven stimulates fetal sucking. The world never feels any richer after these explanations.
From the other side of the border, artists and novelists and poets still make claims that encroach on knowledge, which science has long claimed as its turf. The arts rightly resist the incursion of science’s particular brand of explanation when it comes to aesthetic understanding. We can’t settle this border dispute by granting science sovereign control of “knowledge” and letting art govern the territory of “feeling,” for example. It won’t do to let science govern the province of Truth and let the arts have Beauty. Tarkovsky is right: art is (also) a way to know the truth, and truth of the most elusive and transcendent sort. For Tarkovsky, all art carries the possibility of functioning as an icon: “Through the image is sustained an awareness of the infinite: the eternal within the finite, the spiritual within matter, the limitless given form.”
This is precisely why art is always about more than what we perceive with our senses, even if art is ineluctably material, embodied, incarnate. Artists are inviting us to think, to contemplate, to reflect. Unless we are trafficking in mere amusement (what Graham Greene called “entertainments”), the best art is an intellectual adventure even as it refuses to be didactic. What is conceptual art if not a visceral catalyst for rethinking ourselves and the world?
The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel offers (surprisingly enough) a gem of insight about art in this respect. In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel counters the Romanticism of the age by emphasizing that art is not just the product of inspiration or instinct. Every artist—whether poet or painter, composer or novelist—is “a thinking consciousness,” Hegel emphasizes, which means that creativity is a feat of both imagination and intellect. In fact, Hegel would say that every artwork is spiritual in the sense that it is imbued with the artist’s conception. Another way of saying this is that every artwork carries a “mindedness” about it such that it is an encounter with thought.
But what distinguishes the poem from the theorem is that, for the artwork, the material and concrete are essential. For Hegel, every artwork is an instance of a kind of incarnation, a conjoining of what he calls “the sensuous” and “the spiritual”: “The work of art, as a sensuous object, is not merely for sensuous apprehension; its standing is of such a kind that, though sensuous, it is essentially at the same time for spiritual apprehension.” To encounter the paintings of Emmanuel Osahor (in this issue) is a sensuous experience of color and form, but it is also an encounter with the mind of the painter. The form of the painting is as much a creation of his mind as of his hands. The painting is holistic and invites a holistic response.
Thus Hegel sees art as a unique sort of bridge or sinew that pulls together mind and body. The echo of Incarnation here is not an accident: “The work of art stands in the middle,” Hegel says, “between immediate sensuousness and ideal thought.” It is never just “conceptual,” but art is never less than conceptual. At the same time, art isn’t simply matter, but it can’t be art without the material. Hence this unique “betweenness” of the work of art: “The spirit appears in art as made sensuous,” Hegel concludes. Imbued with such “mindedness,” artworks “have the power to call forth from all the depths of consciousness a sound and an echo in the spirit.” So, art has as much at stake in knowledge and understanding as science.
There is a new school of thought that is trying to stage a different sort of encounter between science and art, one to which Tarkovsky might be sympathetic. Its cumbersome moniker, “aesthetic cognitivism,” belies the more elegant intuition behind it, which is simply the claim that artworks have cognitive functions and that this is an integral part of their artistic value. Artworks activate knowledge—or, more capaciously, understanding—and such aesthetic understanding advances human self-understanding. In other words: we know more because of art, and we are better off because of it. We know more about self-consciousness and memory thanks to Proust; we understand something of the horrors of slavery and racism we couldn’t have known without the novels of Colson Whitehead; Marilynne Robinson’s Jack represents an advance in our understanding of the psychology of human motivation.
As such, aesthetic cognitivism looks like a recognition of Tarkovsky’s point: art, like science, is a path of discovery. Art unveils, reveals, and thus reconfigures what we thought we knew. Artworks can transform our intellectual landscape and reorient the questions we ask, even in the sciences. While neuroscientists might be providing empirical confirmation of Proustian insights, in fact Proust’s novel set them looking in the first place. By granting artworks cognitive significance, aesthetic cognitivism represents an advance in thinking about these border relations between art and science, artworks and understanding.
But this school of thought too easily falls back into empiricism. Art is a way of knowing the world, they say, because the neuroscientists have proved it. But that is letting empirical science govern the territory called “knowledge.” I’m with Tarkovksy’s fugitive, evading capture. I’m with Andrei Rublev, wandering artist, painting another world within our own. I crave less explanation and more of the epiphanic insight that comes from being transported by art—a knowledge that doesn’t require ratification in a lab. Which is just to say, I side with Tarkovsky’s more radical intuition. “Science is empirical,” he says, “whereas the conception of images is governed by the dynamics of revelation. It’s a question of sudden flashes of illumination.” To recognize flashes of illumination as knowledge, and as a sort of knowledge that eludes empirical measurement, is Tarkovsky’s novel idea. Art has it reasons, of which Reason knows nothing.
Research for this essay was supported by a grant from the Art Seeking Understanding initiative of the Templeton Religion Trust.