Art and Answerability

Reading what is claimed to be Mikhail Bakhtin’s earliest essay (1919) of the same title, a term of some resonance struck me. That is, answerability. Is that the ability to answer back or the ability to strike up a conversation with something that can? An interesting concept. In this essay Bakhtin refers to what he terms a ‘mechanical’ whole; a combination of parts which never quite dissolves its internal demarcations. Where the whole is sadly lacking in contrast to the sum of its parts. The individual components remain estranged and distinct from one another, though they co-exist simultaneously.

Bakhtin goes on to discuss culture, and divides it into three spheres; science, art and life. These spheres find unity only in the individual who lives them but, as he says, their unity in the subject tends too often towards that of the ‘mechanical’ kind, especially when one tries to live two or all of them, at once. So to live art and life, for them to gain true unity within the subject, is a tricky operation. Too frequently one is sacrificed to the detriment of the other with the result that they become distanced from one another within the subject. He or she cannot make art in life, and cannot experience true life by means of art. There is a gap between the two, and this gap is magnified, made explicit, in the subject.

What Bakhtin proposes is a dialogical approach, one which makes the ‘humble prose of living’ the equal of the once estranged and lofty domain of art. One can only attain true unity, surpassing mechanical traits, through a dialogue whereby one answers to art what one has learned from life, and answer to life what one knows from art. If life is the ‘humble prose of living’ however, what would art be, and can it even answer? If life is articulate in its simplicity, is not art then reticent in its impossibility? How can a dialogue exist between the two? I suppose one route would be to answer that such discrepancies exist in everyone, such gaps in coherence the basis for most. To allow these strange bedfellows a conversation, no matter how incoherent, would only be to remain true to this fundamental incoherence. However if we see ourselves to be already coherent, unified, then art and life will remain simultaneously distinct and frigid. Bakhtin says it best;

Inspiration that ignores life and is itself ignored by life is not inspiration but a state of possession. (1919)


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