Art as communication, transaction, and philosophy.
In a stimulating and wide-ranging investigation of the meaning of art, Noë (Philosophy/Univ. of California; Varieties of Presence, 2012, etc.) acknowledges the complexity of his questions: “What is Art? Why does it matter to us? What does it tell us about ourselves?” The author likens art to philosophy: both are practices that ask us to examine how we organize ourselves and open up the possibility for reorganization. Art, he writes, “investigates or exposes by destabilizing.” Like John Dewey, whose Art as Experience (1934) he repeatedly evokes, Noë believes that the “aesthetic attitude is thoughtful and inquiring…natural and universal.” The author is skeptical of both evolutionary and neuroscientific perspectives that posit biological or materialist theories about art, both of which he sees as reductionist. Evolutionary theories, Noë argues, “tend to be empty. They don’t tell us why we make art or why art is valuable for us. They don’t bring the art in art into focus.” As a researcher and member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the University of California, he feels “skeptical of the prospects for an empirical neuroscience of art,” since responses to art are never merely emotional but rather “more like judgments…shaped by our knowledge and background and experience and the larger culture and shared attitudes.” Noë sees technology as the precondition of art. Humans “are designers by nature” for whom technology extends into language and picture making. Writing enables communication but also shapes thought. Pictures, too, “are moves or gestures in a familiar communication game,” but Noë distinguishes between functional design and art, which provokes because it is strange and subversive. Every work of art—including music, dance, and the visual arts—“propositions you to see it, to comprehend it…to reorganize, and also to catch yourself in the act.”
A searching and learned response to vexing, long-debated questions.