PARTIAL KNOWLEDGE

 

One is always amazed by the vast number of works of art currently existing in the world, particularly in the Western part of it. What man alive, no matter how well-educated or cultured he may happen to consider himself, has viewed every great painting or listened to every serious musical composition or read every book of literary value? The chances of one's stumbling upon a man who has a complete knowledge of works of art in any one field are, to say the least, extremely remote. And yet there are men who dedicate the greater part of their lives to the study of a given art form, men who can talk about painting or music or literature with the assurance of people who never waste an opportunity to expand their knowledge and who know - or imagine they do - as much about it as anyone. But when all's said and done, how much do they really know? Who among them could, with equal assurance, say: "I have nothing further to learn about my subject; everything is known to me"? Is it not more probable that even the most highly-informed specialists would have to admit, if they were honest with themselves, that their knowledge of art or music or whatever was partial, and that, in contrast to all the material corresponding to their subject currently available in the world, its partiality represented only a tiny fraction of what would be the case, were one ever to arrive at a complete or total knowledge of the subject in question. What artist or art critic, for example, could inform one as to exactly how many paintings and/or drawings of quality are to be found in, say, Western Europe or North America in general? And, similarly, what composer or music critic could inform one as to the exact number of serious compositions which have come down to us from approximately the seventeenth century to the present day?

Clearly, there is a limit to the total number of works of art available. But is it a limit with which anyone is truly familiar? One may indeed have to wait a long time before one meets or hears of anyone who professes to such a familiarity! Perhaps it would be necessary for even the most intelligent and studious of cultured men to live two or three times the average life-span, in order to have seen or heard or read everything of value in the arts. And perhaps even then it wouldn't be possible. One might find oneself with a fairly thorough knowledge of everything West European or North American, but with a comparatively scant knowledge of everything African or Asian or Middle Eastern or East European or South American or Australasian. The total number of valuable works of art available in any one field, be it visual or aural or otherwise, would, I suspect, suffice to make even the most cultured people amazed at the extent of their ignorance where many such works are concerned. The only alternative to a fairly thorough knowledge of the works of one's own culture-complex, or civilization, would seem to be a general smattering of the works of all culture-complexes, both past and present.

Being cultured, like being well-educated, is always a question of degree, of knowing either more or less than someone else but never knowing everything. The most cultured people are probably ignorant of more things appertaining to their particular subject than their impressive knowledge would suggest. What they have learnt may, by average standards, be phenomenal and yet still be relatively insignificant in terms of the totality of what is potentially there to be learnt. For all we know, their knowledge of the works of a given art-form might amount to no more than 10% of the hypothetical totality of relevant knowledge. It might even be less. And yet, human nature being what it is, we needn't expect them to be in any degree ashamed of or humiliated by this relatively humbling state-of-affairs. Fortunately, where matters of learning are concerned, our pride in what we know far outweighs any shame we may feel for what we don't know, simply because we usually aren't in the least aware of the probable extent of our ignorance! And this, of course, also means that we generally aren't aware of our exact relationship to other cultured people - whether, for instance, they are more cultured or less cultured than we like to imagine, or whether their culture, their knowledge of art or music or literature or sculpture, is superior or inferior to our own. In this respect, as in so many others, we are isolated in our individual worlds, obliged to construct hypotheses relating to our cultural positions, as it were, in the overall hierarchy of cultural knowledge. Now sometimes we mistake these hypotheses for literal facts, and thereupon wrongly assume that we are more cultured than an objective appraisal of the situation would in fact indicate.

Thus it may happen that a man with knowledge, shall we say, of six hundred paintings will convince himself, on the strength of this fact, that he is highly cultured. Another man may have knowledge of two thousand, a third of six thousand, a fourth of ten thousand, and so on. In all probability, they will all regard themselves as highly cultured, and take a certain pride in their knowledge. But can we reasonably suppose, other things being equal, that the man with six hundred paintings to his credit stands on an equal footing, in terms of art appreciation, with the others, or that all the others stand on an equal footing with one another and are thus equally cultured?

No, it would seem unlikely - if the criterion of numbers is to be taken seriously - that we can. For their dissimilar knowledge must mean that one is more cultured than another, and that the man with a knowledge of ten thousand paintings has a greater right to consider himself highly cultured, in this respect, than the one whose knowledge embraces a mere six hundred! And yet, there is still no reason for us not to suppose that the latter will consider himself highly cultured on the strength of what he does know or, alternatively, that the former - the man with ten thousand paintings to his credit - may not be as highly cultured as he appears to be when contrasted to someone with, say, a knowledge of thirty thousand paintings. Indeed, one begins to sense how contingent and provisional an opinion of oneself in terms of the degree of one's culture could be in relation to other people. If a man with a knowledge of thirty thousand paintings is more cultured than one whose knowledge embraces ten thousand, what is to prevent us from supposing that even he might not be as highly cultured as he imagines, that, compared to someone with fifty thousand paintings to his credit, he may only be moderately cultured?

Yet what exactly do we mean by 'knowledge of paintings'? Is it a question of having viewed a painting and memorized who it is by and what it is called? Is it, rather, a question of having memorized the general theme and technical outlines of a painting? Or is it a question of having analysed a painting in some depth, so that one is familiar with whatever symbolism it may contain, or with the techniques employed in its execution, or with its colour scheme? Obviously, one could ask other such questions relating to this problem 'knowledge of paintings' and, in answering them or having them answered by others, find that one man's definition of the concept was very different from another's - indeed, that what one man meant by it was insignificant compared with what another meant, and so on. At the risk of further complicating matters, one might even find that, in consequence of a profounder interpretation of 'knowledge', the man with a mere six hundred paintings to his aesthetic credit was more cultured than a majority of those who had viewed or studied a greater number, but not viewed or studied them as thoroughly. Who knows, but the world is full of such complexities, and we are simply being superficially presumptuous when we strive to impose our simplicity upon it.

This is essentially what, in a rather roundabout way, I am driving at in this essay: namely, the uncertainty of so much of our knowledge about ourselves in relation to other people, and the degree of self-deception to which subjectivity in our opinions about ourselves can accordingly lead us. And in terms of how cultured or well-educated we are, there is indeed room for a great deal of self-deception! What to one man may seem like refinement may appear unspeakably crude to another. What we took to be a vast reservoir of cultural information in one man may be little more than a drop in the ocean, so to speak, of a truly comprehensive cultural knowledge. We simplify out of habit and necessity, and we are so accustomed to doing so ... that we often overlook the fact that the complexities are still there, no less real than before. But self-doubts still lurk behind the mask of complacency, and it is to our credit that we occasionally remove the mask and air them to the extent that we can, enabling ourselves to extend the boundaries of knowledge and explore a few of those complexities to which custom had hitherto blinded us. Thus it is that we may come to view our cultural opinion of ourselves with less certainty and more sceptical detachment than would otherwise have been the case, had we not bothered to question ourselves but allowed our presumption to take root in a false security.

Returning to the subject of art and to the varying extents of our knowledge about it, we are obliged to confess that what we took to be a high level of cultural awareness may not be as high as we imagined, if only because there are so many paintings, drawings, etchings, engravings, etc., which we have still to view. And in the totality of the existing works of art, it could well transpire that even the most well-informed of us is some way short of having viewed everything, both within and without their own culture-complex.

But what applies to art in particular also applies, in large measure, to the arts in general - to music, literature, and sculpture, where the overwhelming mass of available material makes virtual dilettantes of us all, including the most cultured and specialized of us, whose immense knowledge, if it were computable, would shame any layman intelligent enough to appreciate the virtues of scholarship into respectful silence. Here, too, in music and literature no less than painting, there are doubtless many misunderstandings and misconceptions concerning the extent of one's knowledge or the degree of one's culture. Some people are much more cultured than others, and yet this doesn't prevent a number of those who are less cultured from assuming that they are highly cultured. And neither, of course, does it prevent some of those who, in relation to the latter, are highly cultured from assuming that they have little more to learn. In each case, human vanity works the same way, so that a majority of people with any degree of culture are generally going to think better of themselves than facts, if known, might otherwise convince them. Again, of all the works of literature or serious music currently available in the world, one needn't be particularly surprised if it could be shown that even the most knowledgeable of people knew no more than about 10%, and, in all but a few cases, this tiny fraction would take the form of a provincial or national thoroughness, as it were, rather than a universal smattering.

But I do not intend this comment to be taken for an indictment, still less as an example of cynicism from some smart-aleck who thereby hopes to make himself out to be cleverer or better-informed than he really is. The author of this humble essay makes no claims to cultural omniscience himself (unlike certain learned Frenchmen) and would hesitate to consider himself highly cultured, particularly vis--vis the arts of painting and sculpture, for which, in any case, he has a rather limited interest. What culture he has acquired may indeed be somewhat in excess of that meted-out to the average man, but it is altogether doubtful whether, in relation to his relative youth, it would entitle him to consider himself among the most highly cultured of persons. As yet, he still has some way to go, a number of decades ahead, during which time he will probably continue to peruse books, listen to music, and scrutinize various paintings, drawings, objects d'art, etc., with his customary perseverance and, no less importantly, critical reserve.

No, much as facts may compel this writer to recognize his own limitations, they in no way invalidate his contention concerning the overwhelming amount of serious art in the world and our relative ignorance of it - an ignorance of which no-one, including the most highly cultured, need feel ashamed. Whether, in accordance with Nietzsche's prophecy of the Superman, we shall ever arrive at an age abounding in super-aesthetes, who will make today's leading 'culture vultures' seem comparatively philistine, remains to be seen. Though we can be pretty certain that if we do, it will not be for some time to come! In the meantime, a majority of intelligent, culturally-disposed people will doubtless continue to bruise their brains over the arts, without appreciably advancing their capacity to absorb and appreciate whatever the world has to offer them by way of cultural nourishment.

I have written at some length on our ignorance of the totality of great art available in the world, and of the efforts various people make, according to their individual capacities, to extend their knowledge of art as far as possible. At present, even the most cultured of us are confined to a tiny fraction of the world's cultural resources. Now if this is staggering enough, how much more staggering is it to think in terms of hypothetical cultural resources on other planets throughout the Universe and to contrast, in imagination, the totality of art on Earth with the possible totality of art elsewhere! If the mind boggles when confronted by the vast amount of man-made art currently in existence, whether in painting, literature, music, or anything else, how much more must it do so once we take into account the possibility of advanced life elsewhere in the Universe, and the unbelievable quantity of cultural wealth the Universe could hypothetically contain!

Imagine for a moment the possibility - and it is possible - of millions upon millions of other habitable planets, many of them far bigger than the Earth, upon which the arts have flourished, in one form or another, for thousands if not millions of years and, no less astoundingly, make the totality of Earth art (if I may be permitted such a precociously comprehensive term) seem but a tiny drop in the vast ocean of all art currently existing anywhere in the Universe! A fantastic hypothesis, to say the least, but not one that any man alive could seriously refute! For the hypothesis of man being the only art-producing life-form in the entire Universe would seem far more fantastic to me than any hypothesis concerning the possible existence of alien works of art. Our rapidly-expanding knowledge of the immensity of the Universe makes it increasingly difficult, not to say unreasonable, for us to consider ourselves to be the only advanced or, at any rate, intelligent life-form in existence, and now that we have arrived at a more open attitude concerning our relation to it, there seems to be sufficient reason for us to entertain the notion that other intelligent, evolving beings may also have produced - and still be producing - works of art which match, if not surpass, anything created here on Earth. With such speculation, it soon becomes apparent that the cultural wealth of the Universe could be so great, so unbelievably vast, that not even the most advanced super-aesthete would have as much as an inkling of its total extent. Floundering in the accumulated wealth of Earth cultures, he would have to rest content with a vague intimation of the possible magnitude of creative endeavour throughout the Universe, and leave it to his descendants to acquire, step by step, a slightly more comprehensive knowledge of all the arts.

However, in returning to the present, one might conclude that the objective of acquiring a really comprehensive knowledge of the totality of cultural achievements here on Earth still remains to be achieved, and will probably not be achieved for some time yet - if, indeed, it ever is. Lacking time and method, we shall have to content ourselves, in the meantime, with a partial knowledge of our cultural heritage - a knowledge which even the most highly cultured of us must inevitably regard in relation to that greater ignorance which makes the acquirement of culture such a fascinating and, at the same time, continuous lesson!