Belief and its willing suspension

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

[Somewhat freely adapted from a contribution of mine of February 24, 2001 on a listserv that was called the PhotoArt forum. Among the illustrious participants was my friend, Jack Fulton, whom I was introduced to on this forum, and who, purely irrelevantly and coincidentally, had the unknowing ignominious distinction of informing me of the dire events the following late summer. On a trip to San Francisco, in part to meet Jack in the flesh, he called our hotel room at the Sir Francis Drake in Union Square, at about 8am PST, to ask if I had the television on. The precise date was September 11. I refer to previous comments of Jack’s on the listserv below. He was not the only illustrious participant, as you shall see.]

The talk was of the preparedness of the participant, the observer, or viewer of an act, or its product, of art—it was specifically photographic art and cinematic art about which the matter arose, but the comments could apply more universally I think.

The original conception of such preparedness, “suspension of disbelief,” is from S.T. Coleridge of course, and importantly, is qualified by the term “willing.” Which is to say, the easiest interpretation one may put on this is that Samuel Taylor meant that the suspension of disbelief, occasioned by viewing an image clearly not reality as ordinary humans and philosophers—those who have not shed their skin as ordinary humans, as they are wont to do when they are being Philosophers—understand reality to be, is a voluntary act, passively so, if not one of active engagement of the state and disposition of one’s mind. In the simplest sense, perhaps the one most charitably applied to that laughable euphemism of the Bush Wars on Iraq and Afghanistan: “the coalition of the willing,” is that at least the suspender of disbelief is not doing so grudgingly.

This, of course, presents a problem, whether speaking of belief or its absence. In that having belief is hardly an act of will, even the will to be passively and perhaps generously submissive to any such act, and as Coleridge was speaking of drama (and hence, pace the prevailing sentiments of our colleague Damian Peter Sutton1, closer perhaps to the apprehension of cinema than of photography per se), the problem is manifold.

Drama is of course not reality, as cinema and photographs are not. (We all do know that, don’t we? Photographs—or to use Damian’s careful gloss, images—are not reality. Not, at least, Berkeley’s booming buzzing reality). What are we then suspending when trying to grapple with the “facts” of images captured in plastic form as the artifacts of some technological process and presumably intended (even if by indirection, not to mention the possibility of unconscious intent) to elicit the need on the part of the viewer to grapple in the first place?

To cope with the quidditas, the “whatness,” of an image—whether in its content (whatever the hell that is) or in its taxonomical elements which might be categorized as aesthetic (composition, palette, tonalities, textures, etc. ad nauseam)—we must perforce use some other piece of the human cerebral function than belief, though problematically (as I said) emotional engagement would somehow require some condition of mind/spirit, that is, if not belief itself, closely akin to it.

This is all heavily philosophical, if not religious, and thereby a little scary. This latter quality may explain in part, once we filter out the blue-nosed reactions of the self-righteous and sanctimonious when confronted with art that is, on the face of it, sacrilegious, why art is so problematic when it pretends to be more than merely decorative or picturesque (in which case of course it is not art at all, but merely dressing).

I suppose if one follows this thought far enough, it leads to the inevitable and ominously self-satisfying conclusion that art had better be disturbing (disturbing to the human spirit–in the sense of rousing one from complacency–at the very least) if it wants to have any claim to being art. This leads to the incomprehension of practitioners who believe that merely to be disturbing (through provocation or interruption) is to produce art. Hence a lot of disturbing, if grotesquely picturesque decorative, work that is condemned as [fill in your favorite sanctimonious adjective] art, when it hardly deserves the unqualified designation at all.

I would suggest to Jack Fulton2, that the movie “Reindeer Games,” from an inattentive viewing by me of the trailer and from your capsule review, in fact better serves one’s understanding of the Coleridgean premise than the other film, “The Bear,” which merely sounds silly, and hence an easy challenge to the task of willfully engaging the imagination. Nothing is harder than an act of the imagination forcing an equally arduous (if not a greater) act of imagination on the part of the viewer in order to give the act (the work of “art”) any credence whatsoever. This, by the way, for me eliminates the question of triviality or any measure of unimportance, as a criterion for determining the significance of a work of art as art. Art doesn’t admit of highness or lowness in terms of subject (whatever the hell that is) or treatment.

1. Dr. Damian Sutton, who presently is Reader in Photography at Middlesex University in the UK.

2. Jack is, and was, at the time, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography at San Francisco Art Institute. He had written, back in 2001:

I rented two films last night to view over the weekend in
our rainy weekend. One is ‘The Bear’ and the other is “Reindeer Games’. The
latter was so dumbly constructed and acted one needed to suspend one’s mind
to sit through it and we didn’t. The Bear, on the other hand, was hard to
believe because the primary actors were real bears.
So, reality, schmeality, no matter what, photography from the still, movie
and digital cameras are all appearances such as a reflection in a pond or
mirror. It/they is/are faithful to what we perceive w/our visual sense as to
be “real” and I don’t think there are ifs ands or buts about it.
The ‘manipulation’ comes in from how the ‘taker’ interpreted this spectacle.

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1 thought on “
Belief and its willing suspension

  1. I’ve said, a lot less articulately, and stolen from I’ve forgotten where, that to be art, it must leave you changed in some way from before you experienced it (necessary, not sufficient, characteristic, of course). Mikki and I had a lot of discussions about plays we saw – she appreciating the craft, me appreciating it but feeling there wasn’t just a continuum of bad artgood art, until we agreed on this benchmark…

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