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Philosophy of the Arts


Symbols and Symbols

In class, we discussed Gadamer’s view that a work of art is also symbolic: it is not finished until its meaning has come about. This meaning though, he argued, is in the work itself. It is also “once only”: it belongs to the one work one is confronted with. This also explains Gadamer’s view that all experiences of one work are absolutely contemporaneous: they are all experiences of the self same meaning.
Another type of symbols is the symbols that rely for their meaning on arrangements between people. For instance, in mediaeval paintings one would find sometimes a skull lying in the corner. This was meant as a memento mori (“remember death and the dead”). Everybody would understand. In fact, one might produce a iconographic “vocabulary” explaining of each of these symbols exactly how they ought to be interpreted, which meaning they should have. Then they are pictorial elements that according to some psychological theory, most notably Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis must be associated with certain stages, drives or desires in subconsciousness. These however, should be taken as symptoms of something deep and hidden, and their exact nature and meaning are necessarily subject to speculation as we have no clear way to identify them. As alleged symptoms they are not symbols in the narrow sense.
Gadamer explicitly does not mean these latter two types of symbols, which are conventional and respectively, symptomatic (even though they may of course play some role in some work). The kind of symbolic nature art has is based in the play played by the artist with the material.

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