Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Art and Aesthetics

Tone Roald. The Subject of Aesthetics: A Psychology of Art and Experience. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Paper. 174 pages. $57US. ISBN: 978-9004308718.

Alva Noë. Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. NY: Hill and Wang, 2015. Hardcover. 287 pages. $28US. ISBN: 978-0809089178.

These two books examine the question of artistic behavior and especially the nature of our human experience of art. Drawing from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Tone Roald proposes that knowledge of and understanding in art culture is part of a historical tradition separate from truth claims made in the natural sciences. Alva Noë takes a similar stance, arguing that while evolutionary studies and neuroscience are part of the conversation about art culture, personal experience and context weigh more in appreciating and understanding the nature of art. While Roald is interested in the psychological dimensions of a persistent art experience, Noë is clear that any aesthetic experience cannot be limited to brain activity. When we talk about artwork, as far as both authors are concerned, we need to accommodate the wider realm of the thinking viewer’s engagement with art as it occurs in a world of other people. However, whereas Roald treats the aesthetic experience on a personal level, Noë finds the experience of art engaging a range of personal and cultural ideas.

Relying on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Roald asserts that empirical descriptions of art experience are more valuable than classifications or abstractions from philosophers. Indeed, a large part of her book reports on and discusses interviews Roald conducted with a number of people and their encounters with paintings and sculpture over the course of time. In 1986 Arthur Danto famously said that we have reached the end of art since it does not make anything happen. If that were so, why would we still create and participate in art? Roald steers away from a philosophical exercise of abstracting art and instead offers a project where art gives meaning in life.

Well versed in the history of aesthetics and the philosophy of art (from Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten to Martin Seel), Roald looks at the psychology of one’s encounter with art and tries to find what the aesthetic signifies. The title of her book is deliberately misleading – the subject of aesthetics is not necessarily in the artwork, certainly not in some philosophical idea, but is the viewer herself. Indeed, moving away from the “transcendental ego” of Edmund Husserl, Roald following Merleau-Ponty will emphasize “phenomenological descriptions of the personal in encounters with art, and not social, economic, or historical explanations” (22). This approach pretty much goes against Immanuel Kant and his transcendental, metaphysical aesthetics, his notion of disinterested, cognitive contemplation. Over the rational philosopher who does not allow for ambiguity, a phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty puts the perceiving subject of artwork in the world, since the sediments of experience in one’s body are crucial in any meeting with art.

While at times dense, the early chapters in Roald’s book offer a comprehensive history of aesthetics, phenomenology of art, and psychological aesthetics. Here, Roald is capable of interpreting and explaining some complex ideas from John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, Semir Zeki, Kurt Koffka, Sigmund Freud, Georg W.F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger (as well as those previously mentioned). Roald suggests that on the subject of aesthetics, philosophy is inadequate in comparison with psychology. This attitude does not exactly coincide with Alva Noë’s. For Roald, in line with Gadamer, the arts and humanities are not precisely scientifically legitimate but as an alternative investigate human questions in cultural contexts. This thinking is what led Roald to conduct twenty-five interviews to gather and explain data on different people’s art experiences in chapter four, “Stories of Art.”

These fascinating stories of how works of art can penetrate someone’s life are central to Roald’s book, since she seeks to “give form and meaning to aesthetic experience” (99), and especially how one’s experience with art can develop over an extended period of time – in sharp contrast to Kant who finds the aesthetic experience in one’s first encounter. Roald develops this chapter from the thinking of Hans Robert Jauss. First, there is an initial aesthetic reading; second there in a retrospective interpretation; third, there is a historical reading. Rather than the work of art as being the constant, “it is the most significant experience that is investigated...” (100), especially the moment when there is subject-object ambiguity. I found this chapter compelling, easy to read, and helpful in my own understanding about art and aesthetics.

In the end, Roald talks about art as what she terms intrapellation: “The participants...incorporate the work of art into their subjectivity, wherein the aesthetic experience becomes a background tone or color...” (131). Of course much of this might depend on the person, and the person’s proclivities to view certain art; that which resonates with an individual might be something she was drawn to (even unconsciously) in the first place. In this way, intrapellation or cognitive perception of the subject is “a projection of feelings and imaginings onto the work of art...” – while art is outside one’s body it somehow supports and yet challenges what’s inside one’s psyche.
Alva Noë’s wide-ranging analysis of engagement with art is not distant from Tone Roald’s. He too (at time drawing from Dewey or Merleau-Ponty) emphasizes the individual in the world. The aesthetic experience is not brain activity per se; rather, the aesthetic experience depends upon the whole person’s biography, social history, intelligence, and environment. But over Roald, Noë perceptively makes a connection between art and philosophy – how both are a means for us to question who we are and what we do. That is why art is, as Noë proclaims, a strange tool, for it forces us to ask how we are organized and then pushes us to consider how to reorganize our literal and figurative vision. The implication is that the manner in which we see impacts on our ability to function in the world. Noë can rightfully say that art is like philosophy since the two practices bring shape and organization to what is not in clear view.

What is refreshing about this book is how Noë brings art back to the humanities and away from its current preoccupation with scientists, notably neuroscientists. While an fMRI can indeed measure hot areas in the brain, there is no telling what the outcome will be. Like Roald, Noë suggests that art is or can be an extension of one’s mind – awareness and behavior cannot be fully accounted for by a machine. Not to be reductive, but art can function like an implement to help achieve what we might be thinking. In some respects thought is not just in our heads but also in objects. Or, more precisely, art displaces what we assume we know and therefore makes us reconceive people, places, and events. While his focus is on the visual, Noë also ably covers writing (with a perceptive reading of a poem by Walt Whitman) and music. Writing, too, is a tool: it is not merely to register items and happenings but a means for us to contemplate, to pose questions, and to engage with problems.

In chatty and colloquial prose that tends to wander, the book at times wavers from its focus. For instance, Noë is dubious of any evolutionary explanation of art and very critical of neuroscientific explanations of the aesthetic experience. While he makes a nod to biology and anthropology and acknowledges the naturalness of art, he says we are predominantly cultural. The question, though, is where in his discussion does he address the evolutionary biology of culture? He admits that culture is not simply dropped upon us. Surely – we evolved culture. If one is going to bring up evolutionary or neuro-biological areas (Roald does not), one should treat them rather fully. For example, I do not see any timeline or chronology here, much less any discussion of prehistoric artifacts. So one can dismiss evolutionary perspectives, but what precisely is being dismissed? While there is passing mention of cave art (earlier in the book), I see nothing specific about the dating differences between Lascaux and Chauvet (work by Genevieve von Petzinger), and there is no mention of rock art. Needless to say, there is no talk of the many authors who have worked in these areas – Steven Mithen, Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks, April Nowell, to name only a few who have actually discovered and discuss prehistoric artifacts related to the evolution of art.

Evolutionary approaches must deal not just with the past, but with prehistory – going all the way back – and must make mention of studies in comparative primatology and Hunter-Gatherer societies. I don’t see that here. At this point in our history some aspects of art behavior are purely cultural – what to make as “art” and where to include (view) it. But underlying any cultural capacities are fitness-enhancing mechanisms for the individual to survive in a group. These are aspects of what Ellen Dissanayake recently calls artification, e.g., objects as part of social rituals. In any case, Dissanayake’s adaptive notions of artification as well as her earlier view of making special are much less prevalent today since, in our societies for many hundreds of years, survival as our prehistoric ancestors grappled with it is not as difficult. There is some discussion of Dissanayake, who gets treated badly in my opinion (and where Noë relies only on her earlier idea of making special). No one theory of evolutionary adaptations will make full account of art behavior, and even Darwin knew that. The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who banks everything on sexual selection is also considered (where is Denis Dutton in Noë’s discussion?), and he has been criticized for leaving out chronology and reference to artifacts. Indeed, a more thorough response to Miller has been offered by Kathryn Coe’s The Ancestress Hypothesis, not referenced.

I find it telling that Noë pretty much relies on Stephen Davies (a philosopher) who does not ascribe to art as truly adaptive and who is reluctant to buy into aesthetic sensibilities as continuous in human beings and other species (and therefore light on sexual selection). However, he does argue with Davies who talks about perceptual seeing in animals; Noë says that there is too wide a gulf between mere perception and aesthetic seeing. But there is no charting here as to how we arrived at aesthetic seeing: it had to evolve from something somewhere, as even Darwin knew. The neural leap hypothesis has been questioned, so that’s not the answer. Aesthetic seeing could not have been inborn in humanity – that’s creationist. Noë says: “it is highly unlikely that aesthetic seeing would confer enhanced fitness on those capable of exercising it” (55). A cultural anthropologist might disagree, citing the social benefits and prestige one could gain in a group.

This account does not consider the prehistory of what we now call art. As in his chapter on writing, Noë might be focusing too much on what is high art and not on the prehistoric material culture that gave rise to what we not call art. I’d not even raise this point were it not for a chapter that has the word evolution in it and a book that has as part of its subtitle human nature. Noë says art (on the same page he references paintings) is “revelation, transformation, reorganization...” (64). Few would argue with this assertion, but from an evolutionary standpoint – variation, competition, and inheritance – it took a long time in human history to arrive at paintings.

Noë spends lots of time on Western art of the past five hundred years or so. Where is the discussion of ochre (used at least 300,000 years ago) and body painting, bead making and sharing (even among Neanderthals), or even stone tools (which get scant treatment) from over one million years ago? Although we are, in the words of Terrence Deacon, a symbolic species, artistic traits didn’t just suddenly appear. One could say that art behaviors are a byproduct of cognition (as Davies and others, like Pinker, suggest). Okay, but does that then mean that all aspects of, say, intelligence are byproducts? We did not just evolve one capacity called Intelligence but many traits we lump under intelligence, including reason, comprehension, understanding, and judgment. This is where evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have been instructive. It’s not fitness that survives: adaptive traits and characteristics that contribute to survival and reproduction, no matter how small but which get passed on, survive. At any rate, I am happy to see that Noë does consider and discuss the work of Richard Prum and how the taste for color and sound can evolve with the evolution of the colors and sounds themselves.

Nevertheless, don’t misread what I say. Chapter five on art and evolution is useful in that it helps evolutionists think harder about adaptive claims in relation to the arts. I think there’s room at the table for all of these disciplines (from philosophy to neuroscience) to contribute to our understanding of the arts and humanities. While Noë is correct, now, to say that art is not just about arousing feelings, that might not have been true early on when it was not yet art and it might have been a signal (affection), then a sign (family), then a symbol (group). Prum is not the only biologist to discuss gene/culture co-evolution in this regard. As one instance, I see no mention of the work by the team of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.

Noë’s book is immensely valuable, has had a tremendous impact on me, and has actually brought me back to some of my philosophical roots. I just think that if you are going to raise an objection, you should cover it more thoroughly. Noë does, however, cover neuroscience and art more completely, though here too he is a bit hard on pioneers in the area, like Semir Zeki. While one might disagree with his quibbles about art and evolution (with such thin coverage), it’s hard to disagree with what he concludes about art and neuroscience. For example, what Noë says about context is vital: we need art history to understand art; the arts have meaning and significance only in a cultural perspective. Importantly, Noë admits that culture can change the genome and that culture might have organized parts of the brain (60). Culture and biology are connected. Of course there is a whole theory about the evolution of culture, especially in its so-called particulate elements, but I see no mention of that, either (authors such as social psychologist Roy Baumeister, evolutionary psychologist Alex Mesoudi, and biologist Mark Pagel).

So where does this leave us. Noë is not a reductive materialist. Like David Chalmers he believes that science will not and cannot answer everything. Science has its limits (though most scientists I know might agree with this evaluation). Art cannot be reduced to natural sensibilities, since what we label as aesthetic sense covers a wide spectrum. As Noë says: “Art investigates the aesthetic” (71), which in turn makes art philosophical. At this point, Noë begins a launch against neuroscientific approaches to understanding art, and this part of the discussion helps illuminate much of what has come before. Visual perception (even consciousness) is not, according to Noë, reducible to brain activity. Nonetheless, even cognitive mechanisms are most likely adaptive, and I don’t see any recognition of that here. At any rate, Noë is on point to assert that an aesthetic experience occurs not just in our brain but outside of it – in a social environment. You can see why I now include Tone Roald and Alva Noë together – there is some curious overlap. As Noë so nicely puts it, recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that we are not minds trapped in bodies, art offers the “opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of encountering the world...” (80).

Many neuroscientists, according to Noë, claim that the brain in us is what thinks. (An obvious exception would include Francisco Varela.) But the value of Noë’s book is in reminding us that while the brain indeed performs work, it is the whole person, her history and circumstances, who thinks and feels in relation to artworks. Art does not simply exist to elicit a response; art arouses in us complex thought processes and the ability for us to put our consciousness in the artwork and outside of it. Importantly, though, Noë remarks that our visual perception of the world and art involves the effort of our intelligence in a historically cultural context. Rather than treating the perception of art as a bodily function, we need to consider an aesthetic experience as a means to study the people, places, and events of the world. Perhaps summing up Noë’s thinking is John Dewey, who says “Artists don’t make things. They make experiences” (205).

The value in these books by Tone Roald and Alva Noë is great. While it might sound cliché, I found Roald’s book interesting and Noë’s book challenging. Roald proposes a new method of evaluating art experience by employing the reception theory of Jauss; Noë unnerves us to reconsider how art is a resource for new ways of thinking about and organizing our lives. Even if you know quite a bit about art behavior and aesthetics, these authors will ask for a reconsideration of the priority of your ideas. That is, both authors emphasize less the work of art and emphasize more the outcome of viewing art, the broader parameters of the art experience. The subject of the aesthetic experience (or of art itself) is not narrowly defined by historical subjects; the aesthetic experience is akin to the practice of philosophy and its method of trying to know, of questioning knowledge itself.


 - Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. Editor ASEBL and author of Art and Adaptation.

Copyright©2016 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved

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