Wednesday marks the opening day of a new exhibit at the Whitney Humanities Center titled “Conversing with Things: Drawings, Paintings and Pastels” — a collection of pieces by Philosophy Professor Karsten Harries ’58 GRD ’62. Harries sat down with the News to talk about the relationship between art and philosophy as well as his experiences growing up in Germany and being a student at Yale.
Q. Tell me about your experience growing up in war-torn Germany and your first exposure to art and philosophy.
A. My early childhood was in Berlin mostly. Toward the end of the war, things got rather unpleasant. … My father brought us to a little town in northern Bavaria. I came to America because my father was a physicist. We first ended up in Keyport, New Jersey. I visited Yale and I liked it. I liked the architecture. With a few interruptions, I have been at Yale ever since.
Q. What kind of art will be featured in the show?
A. Most of the things you see there are pastels. Now I mostly do art when we have a place in an island off Puerto Rico, Vieques — these were all done on Vieques. There are a few drawings, charcoal drawings. There are all together 59 pictures. There are a few oil paintings; some of these date from the 1970s. The idea did not come from me; it came from somebody in the Whitney Center. They asked me whether I wanted to show these pictures. I have been making, over the years, calendars of my images … and maybe one of them saw my calendars.
Q. What kind of questions are we looking at in the field of philosophy of art?
A. Of course, we can begin with the question of why does art matter. Why do we care about art? What does art have to contribute to our well-being? It’s opened something like a window to some other dimension in a world where money is too important and a lot of our values are tied to those concerns. The very uselessness of art is important … we don’t need it in the way we need food, the way we need medicine or something like that. It pulls you out of the everyday and the concerns of the everyday. You distance yourself from the concerns. And that lets you look at things with more open eyes. [The exhibition] is called “Conversing with Things.” There’s something wonderful about things just being things, and art makes you attentive to that dimension. I’m interested in simple things, whether it’s an apple or garbage. There’s something very wonderful about garbage, about an eggshell that’s cracked, [or] the empty grapefruit half. I’m interested in the magic of things. When I sketch, I look very intently at what is before me. I don’t try to give a very literal representation.
Q. Do you see a difference between art and philosophy?
A. In my own personal life, I don’t see, really, a difference. It’s almost an extension. You think about the world and how you are in the world. When you’re a philosopher, you work so much with abstractions. You feel a longing for something more concrete. I think [art] is a nice complement to the abstractness of philosophy. Philosophy itself demands that you step outside of philosophy and start relating to things and persons in a much more concrete way. When I do the art, I don’t do philosophy. When I do philosophy right here in New Haven, I don’t do the art. It’s a complement, and yet it doesn’t seem like leaving and becoming a different person. You need both. There’s a certain one-sidedness to philosophy that calls for another kind of activity.
Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring philosophy students and artists?
A. My advice to philosophy students would be to only go into philosophy if you really love philosophy. If you look for having a pleasant life, you probably would be better off doing something else. If you go into philosophy, do it for the sake of philosophy. With art, it’s very similar in a different way. Again, most artists have a tough time.
Q. What do you think has changed most at Yale since the time you were a student here?
A.There clearly has been a move toward the social and natural sciences. Yale did that very self-consciously. They thought they had to invest more in [the sciences]. Yale was more of a humanities college when I went to Yale than it is now. [The philosophy department] has changed a lot. When I was there, philosophy was very strong. The graduate program was much larger; you had much more of a community. And more undergraduates took it.